This week marks the release of Bruce Springsteen’s latest CD – “Devils and Dust.” The CD marks the completion of a trilogy of acoustic albums dating back over 20 years to the landmark album from 1982 “Nebraska” (one of my desert island discs) and the 1995 “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” “Devils and Dust” roams around the southwest border lands of the US and seems haunted by the liminal space of betwixt and between languages – songs weaving together Spanish and English in the same manner that a Cormac McCarthy novel does.
What makes Springsteen such an interesting figure in American popular music is his ability to draw on the Everyman experience and make it an anthem for the masses – a rock and roll version of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.
When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bono gave the induction speech and put it this way regarding Springsteen’s appeal:
“He didn’t buy the mythology that screwed so many people. Instead he created an alternate mythology, one where ordinary lives became extraordinary and heroic. Bruce Springsteen, feels familiar to us. But it’s not an easy familiarity, is it? Even his band seems to stand taller when he walks in the room. It’s complex. He’s America’s writer, and critic. It’s like in ‘Badlands‘, he’s Martin Sheen and Terrence Mallick. To be so accessible and so private… But then again, he is an Irish-Italian, with a Jewish-sounding name. What more do you want?”
Central to this ‘alternate mythology’ for Springsteen was the desire to escape and that we are all, to use the title of his breakthrough album, “Born to Run.” In an interview with Creem magazine back in 1978, Springsteen discussed how rock and roll provided that sense of escape:
“Rock and roll came to my house where there seemed to be no way out. It seemed like a dead-end street, nothing I liked to do, nothing I wanted to do, except roll over and go to sleep or something. And it came into my house – snuck in, ya know, and opened up a whole world of possibilities. Rock and roll. The Beatles opened doors. Ideally, if any stuff I do could ever so that for somebody, that’s the best Rock and roll motivates. It’s the big, gigantic motivator; at least it was for me.”
In this way, music became religion – a means of absolution and release – for Bruce Springsteen in the way that it has for many Americans who feel that the church says nothing and a 3 minute pop song understands and speaks to the core of their deepest needs.
Springsteen grew up a Catholic (he went to St. Rose of Lima Grammar school located at the corner of South Street and Lincoln Street in New Jersey) – and has said in a recent VH1 Storytellers in regard to his song “Jesus was an only son” – ‘once you have been introduced to Golgotha, you are haunted by it forever.’ Organized religion is a subject of distain for Springsteen. Given his reflections on parochial schooling, this can be understood. In one interview he reflects on his time at St Rose of Lima in this way: “In the third grade a nun stuffed me into a garbage can she kept under her desk because she told me that’s where I belonged…I hated school. I had the big hate. I remember one time, I was in eighth grade and I wised off and they sent me down to the first class and made me sit in these little desks, you know, little chairs. And the sister, she said, ‘Show this young man what we do to people who smile in this classroom’ – I was probably laughing at being sent down there. And this kid, this six-year-old who has no doubt been taught to do this, he comes over to me – him standing up and me sitting in this little desk are about eye-to-eye – and he slams me in the face. I can still feel the sting. I was in shock.”
Yet even with this distain for organized religion, Bruce Springsteen continues to expand on the god-haunted longing of the Everyman into his ‘alternate mythology’ for America.
This is particularly true in the song “Jesus was an only son” from “Devils and Dust”:
Jesus was an only son
As he walked up Calvary Hill
His mother Mary walking beside him
In the path where his blood spilled
Jesus was an only son
In the hills of Nazareth
As he lay reading the Psalms of David
At his mother’s feet
A mother prays, “Sleep tight, my child, sleep well
For I’ll be at your side
That no shadow, no darkness, no tolling bell,
Shall pierce your dreams this night.”
In the garden at Gethsemane
He prayed for the life he’d never live,
He beseeched his Heavenly Father to remove
The cup of death from his lips
Now there’s a loss that can never be replaced,
A destination that can never be reached,
A light you’ll never find in another’s face,
A sea whose distance cannot be breached
Well Jesus kissed his mother’s hands
Whispered, “Mother, still your tears,
For remember the soul of the universe
Willed a world and it appeared.”
Even though we are ‘born to run’… there is still something of that ‘loss that can never be replaced, a destination that can never be reached’ that seeks for the face of God throughout Bruce Springsteen’s music. It is good to see the search and authentic questioning continue onward…
For a primer of “Jesus was an only son” – you can hear part of the track here.