Monday, November 05, 2007

Boring in the USA

So Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played the Palace last night, and Susan Whitall at the Detroit News said it went something like this:

The set list was heavy on songs from his new album, "Magic," including the title song, which Springsteen said "isn't really about magic, it's about tricks ... lies spun into truth, and truth into lies."

He introduced "Living in the Future" with a rant about illegal wiretapping, "no habeas corpus" and other practices he termed an "assault on the Constitution, and therefore an assault on us as Americans."

"The E Street Band is here to do something about it. We'll sing about it," Springsteen roared.
Springsteen brings special 'Magic' to near-full Palace”).

So now is Bruce Springsteen be the last rock star to write songs for a mistake?

Oh so bravely, (if raising one’s voice in protest before fawning interviewers and adoring fans who would cheer--literally--anything that came out of your mouth, can be considered brave), Springsteen is devoting his shaman power to spreading the message of the Democratic Party.

My history as a Springsteen fan is quickly summarized: I used to like him, now I don’t. I stopped when he endorsed John Kerry. As a general rule, I have no problem with Hollywood types or musicians who sound off with alternate politics to mine from time to time--I can watch Matt Damon or Alec Baldwin, even Susan Sarandon. I just draw the line at listening to them speak when they aren't acting or onstage.

But with Springsteen, somehow you have to take it all as a package. Maybe it's the stories he likes to tell between songs, or the idea that the audience has to go along with him. So, considering that he's only a damned pop star, and he was endorsing John Kerry, the least working class man ever born, I figured I can do without him. Nor do I say he’s unpatriotic, just that his patriotism is badly misinformed.

People have always been idiots about Springsteen. It’s always idiotic to confer immortality on mortals, even very talented mortals. The early cult worship of Springsteen is probably the single largest factor giving rise to that bane of our culture--the rock critic--and the rock critic's wicked, wicked stepchild: the rock musician interview.

Example: Springsteen on 60 Minutes (following Scott Pelley's motorcycle-boot licking lead-in, "Springsteen told us his concerts are part circus, dance party, political rally, and big tent revival." :

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: "You're the shaman, you know? You're the storyteller. You're the magician. The idea is whatever the ticket price, we're supposed to be there to deliver something that can't be paid for. That's our job."

PELLEY: "You have got to be, wild guess, worth somewhere north of 100 million dollars. Why are you still touring? You don't have to do this."

[NOTE: DU’s CBS source has been unable to confirm that Pelley’s follow-up question to “you don’t have to do this,” was going to be, “Why not just ascend back to heaven where you came from?” before a producer yanked it off the Teleprompter].

SPRINGSTEEN: "What else would I do? You got any clues? Got any suggestions? I mean, am I going to garden? Why would you stop. I mean, you know, you play the music and grown men cry. And women dance. And, you know, that's why you do it."

PELLEY: "It's good to be a rock star."

SPRINGSTEEN: "I would say that yes it is, you know, but the star thing I can live with. The music I can't live without. And that's how it lays out for me, you know. And I'm as -- I got as big an ego and enjoy the attention. My son has a word, he calls it 'Attention Whore.' But you have to be one of those or else why would you be up in front of thousands of people, you know, shaking your butt. But at the same time, when it comes down to it, it's the way it makes you feel. I do it because of the way it makes me feel, and the way that I can make you feel when I do it. And I like making you feel a certain way when I do it. It thrills me, it excites me, it gives me meaning, it gives me purpose, you know." (“On CBS, Pelley Hails Springsteen as Left Wing's Jukebox Hero”).

Rock critics call this kind of thing “honest,” I call it “revealing.” (I also call it the kind of garbled blather that makes me shun rock interviews at all costs.) Not that’s it’s hard to figure out that a rock star, or most any other entertainer, gets off on the excitement of playing off an audience. I just don’t believe it’s the best foundation for either political hectoring or moral guidance to the nation.

But Pelley and other fans think Springsteen is the voice of God, or, as the deity is known through the other two High Priests of the secular music culture:

PELLEY: "Springsteen sees himself following a long American tradition that reaches back through Vietnam and on to the Great Depression, from Dylan to Guthrie."

SPRINGSTEEN: "There's a part of the singer going way back in American history that is of course the canary in the coal mine. When it gets dark, you're supposed to be singing. It's dark right now. The American idea is a beautiful idea, it needs to be preserved, served, protected, and sung out. Sung out."

This is an unusually inapt comment from one as undoubtedly bright as Springsteen. Canaries in coal mines aren't there to sing in the darkness, (it's always dark in coal mines), but to keel over dead to warn of the presence of poisonous gas. Anyway, Dylan would never sit still for this kind of T-Ball game with the press.

Back in 1984, when Springsteen made his first bad album, “Born in the USA,” a friend of mine, a devoted Bruce fan, said she thought the album cover was his way of telling his fans what he thought of them, i.e., to put his ass in their faces.

(Or is he just peeing on the flag? But that would be unpatriotic, and I'm not going there.)

I can believe he just might disrepsect his fans that way. It seems obvious to me that the level of adulation a guy like Springsteen got for so long had to lead to contempt for his worshippers. Where's the thrill when half an effort gets the same response? This is Bruce's way of rolling his eyes.

I remember the last time we saw Bruce, maybe 10-15 years ago, and how he spent about twenty minutes in the middle of a song getting the arena crowd to cheer alternately on cue--half the crowd when he turned his face to the left--half when he turned it to the right. Then they cheered that he could make them do it.

It didn't mean he was a genius. It wasn't even Dylanesque. It was like a trick I do making my dog kick his leg by scratching his butt, only multiplied 20,000 times. He was bored, and had a right to be, doing the same liturgy night after night for the same adoration.

Springsteen the courageous subversive is something like that guy teaching the crowd to alternate cheers. You just have to keep that in mind when you hear the anti-war Bruce, and the “political passion” Bruce, and the “it’s a dark time in America” Bruce. Bear in mind that his own son--who surely has more theological insight into the Boss than Dave Marsh ever did--thinks his dad's an “Attention Whore.”

Back when I liked Springsteen, it was for his unmistakeable talents as a musician, a first-class guitarist, and songwriter --especially a songwriter. And no doubt about it, he does work hard onstage. I suppose the only people in show business who ever worked harder than Springsteen were the rock critics who had to write all those unctuous reviews of him while remaining devoutly on their knees before framed icons of Darkness on the Edge of Town.

I came to him late, after I’d learned not to make heroes out of pop stars. I don't know if he was still working class in 1980, but I sure was. And is it a working class job playing a guitar in front of stadium crowds?

For me his lyrical genius showed in the clarity with which he could capture human situations in brief, wonderful stanzas like:

Poor man wanna be rich
Rich man wanna be king
And a king ain’t satisfied till he owns everything


I met her in a Kingstown bar
We fell in love I knew it had to end
We took what we had and we ripped it apart
Now here I am down in Kingstown again,


I met her on the strip three years ago
In a Camaro with this dude from L.A.
I blew that Camaro off my back and drove that little girl away.

His songs hit home because he knew how to get hold of something true and show it to you--a scene, an emotion, a mood.

Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge
Drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain
The Rat pulls into town rolls up his pants
Together they take a stab at romance and disappear down Flamingo Lane

I don't think he was trying to teach lessons then. Springsteen is a storyteller, and the worst stories teach lessons, while the best ones make their way into your head as if they happened to you, and you can draw lessons from them as you go along. If you have to tell me what it means, you're in trouble already. Take Springsteen's song, "Born in the USA," which has been criticized for having an antiwar flavor, but it still has one of my favorite lines, because it's a true one, whether it offends you or not:

Had a brother at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there he's all gone

You don't have to be anti-Vietnam war to recognize the truth of that, or of the story it tells. It really can mean different things to different people, although usually that's an excuse for artistic bullshit: 'The Vietnam War, how stupid;' or, 'We let the VC win when we had them beat, and threw away our victory for nothing, how stupid.'

But there's no way to do that with partisan klunkers like "voter suppression." Toss something like that up and it's either the truth or it isn't the truth, and when it isn't the truth as bad as Bruce's new talking points aren't the truth, there's just nowhere left to go. Now it's not whether he's a good rocker or bad poet, but whether he's right or worng. And Bruce doing John Kerry is just nakedly, glaringly wrong.

Anyway, I hadn't been a devoted fan for a long time. I haven't listened to Springsteen on purpose since "Born in the USA." (I think what did it for me was the video for "Dancing in the Dark").

Nor am I a licensed rock critic. I don't even know how to spell either "ballsy" or "Dylanesque."

So I won't venture an opinion if Springsteen, for the last twenty-some years, still has the musical edge and the stuff he had to start with. But I do know that where there was unmistakeable intelligence behind his early writing, this new protest routine he's trying out now shows he doesn't have much of anything at all.

Watch the
video of him on the Today show in September introducing one of his antiwar songs to a crowd already convinced nothing he ever says could be stupid:

"This is a song called 'Living In The Future,' but it's really about what's happening now, right now. It's kind of about how the things that we love about America: the cheeseburgers, french fries, the Yankees batting in Boston, the Bill of Rights, v-twin motorcycles, Tim Russert's haircut, trans fats and Jersey shore...We love all those things in the way that the womenfolk love on Matt Lauer. That's right. But over the past six years we've had to add to the American picture: rendition, illegal wiretapping, voter suppression, no habeas corpus, the neglect of our great city New Orleans and the people, an attack on the Constitution and the loss of our best young men and women in a tragic war. And this is a song about things that shouldn't happen here, happening here. And so right now we plan to do something about it, we plan to sing about it. I know it's early but it's late so come and join us." (“
The Boss Bashes Bush on Today”).

Spare us. Cheeseburgers? French fries? Puh-leeeze! Chuck Berry already covered this spirit-of-America thing better 45 years ago in "Living in the USA," and he did it without the Elmer Gantry insincerity. Working class heroes just don’t talk this way. A guy doing a bad impersonation of Frank Burns talks this way. A guy who takes audience approval for granted talks this way.

This kind of thing is nothing more nor less than Bruce shaking his butt, at us: because of the way it makes him feel, because he’s the magician, the shaman, because of the way he can make you feel when he does it, because it makes grown men cry and women dance. This is not Abe Lincoln shutting down Stephen A. Douglas in debate. This is not Martin Luther King in Washington.

What this is, is an Attention Whore, playing with politics.

I suppose something like this had to happen when one of America’s best lyricists makes a devil's bargain to turn John Kerry’s weak, centerless politics into music. In the end, he's either going to raise leftist rhetoric to a new level of truth or beauty--(a first if it ever happened)--or he's going to start sounding like a hack himself.

Well, so far this rhetoric is still stuck to the ground where it's always been. Here's Springsteen quoting John Kerry in "Last to Die":

Who'll be the last to die for a mistake
The last to die for a mistake
Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break
Who'll be the last to die for a mistake

This isn’t a lyric. It’s a UC Berkeley chant. And as a protest song it doesn't hold a candle to "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"

I'm sure Springsteen can still write some very affecting songs about the sadness of losing loved ones in war, the same way he used to write about the sadness of losing loved ones in wrecks on the highway. What does he think? That those of us who support the war against Islamic extremism don't know it's sad when soldiers die? (Yes, you're right. They do all think that, don't they?)

But for God's sake, does he really think he's going to be able to turn "no habeas corpus" into poetry, especially when what he's preaching about isn't even true?

I can’t find anything to show that our working class hero has ever gone to Iraq or Afghanistan to shake his butt at the troops, or to “sing out” John Kerry’s broken-down message at them about how they're all there dying for a mistake. My guess is, if he did go there, they would cheer him for the sake of the old songs, and they would forgive him. I've always thought they were much better men than I am. Maybe they’d try to show him around; maybe he’d even learn something. Maybe Blackwater would save his life. He could write an update to "Prove It All Night."

But that hasn’t happened yet.

If it does, then I’ll see.

1 comment:

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