Dear Bruce: Can We Talk?
We've known each other a long time: I know you as an artist who moves me; you know me as just another face in that crucial contingent -- the audience. In fact, this relationship has lasted almost 20 years.Although I'd heard you via vinyl, the first place we really met was right here in Syracuse. It was during the 1978 tour for Darkness on the Edge of Town, and you were playing the War Memorial. It was fall, just like now. At that point, I was mostly curious. I'd read a few passionate articles about you, and I liked the Darkness album a lot. Since I liked the part in "Prove It All Night" about the "long white bow," I wore one to the show that night. But I didn't know exactly what to expect. That's what I told my buddy Mike when we met him for drinks ahead of time, and he laughed at me: "Yeah, you're a Springsteen virgin now. Let me know what you think later."What I thought was that life would never be the same. I felt like I'd stopped breathing for a few minutes, then started again. Rock'n'roll had certainly overwhelmed me before: Little Richard, Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, Jimi, Janis, the Dead. All but Little Richard and the King I'd even had the luck to hear live. And so many individual songs ("Locomotion!" "Good Vibrations!" "Eight Miles High!") ringing out of the radio and into my heart. What they all had in common was that they were in the past. But suddenly, the feeling I'd figured I'd never feel again was back. You were so fine, on fire -- you were so funny! It was like I hadn't missed the oxygen until you blew the doors off the War Memorial and let the fresh air in. Everywhere you played, people felt that way.That's why I understand what Jon Landau meant in 1974 when he wrote that you were rock'n'roll future. Nevertheless, I've always disagreed with him. Instead, I think that you're the culmination of rock'n'roll, all that it could ever have hoped to be without being recycled or reinterpreted. The great music that's come after you has been different, taking rock'n'roll into consideration, but drawing from different wells. What's really great or original about whoever's hot now is not integrated with the roots of rock'n'roll in the same way your work is. It's an age thing as much as anything else, and that's why rock'n'roll is sanctioned now, by a national museum in Cleveland. But so what? Time passes and rock lives, but eventually something unexpected and wonderful will make the earth move in a new way.Since that first concert, I've taken every possible opportunity to be in your audience again. I stood in the mud for a show in Saratoga, got stranded in a snowstorm after one in Rochester, crammed into the sweaty Aud in Buffalo for another. In January 1985, for the Born in the U.S.A. tour, I was pregnant and, two nights in a row, under the puffy ceiling of the Carrier Dome, the thunder of the E Street Band's drums shook the baby in my belly. In 1992, at age 7, that same baby walked back into the Dome with us under his own power, to hear the thunder for himself.Those were the big shows. Now, this year, you're still at it, but working on a smaller canvas. It must be both a challenge and a thrill for you to be on this stripped-down tour; theaters instead of stadiums, smaller audiences, a far simpler setup. It's closer to some of the places you started in, bars and clubs where the one-to-one connection you strive to establish with your listeners doesn't need assistance from a huge video screen. It's certainly closer to the solo performance in record producer John Hammond's office that made him sign you to Columbia back in 1974. B>ut I'm curious now about the material, specifically the songs on your latest album, The Ghost of Tom Joad. I guess what I want to know is what they mean to you, especially since you've often said that what you write comes from inside you and out of whatever place you're in at the time.The music you've made with the E Street Band and others is full of emotion, transmitted as much by the band arrangements and accompaniment -- the sound of the songs -- as it is by your personal expression. Critic Greil Marcus wrote about being almost unable to listen to the songs of Born to Run without weeping. But the other side of that catharsis in your music is an almost seismic charge: The very way you perform epitomizes the effect your own work has on yourself.On Ghost, however, the emotion is barely apparent, cast in continuous tones of gloom. It's contained and cerebral, where so much that you've done has been expansive and visceral. It's "She said, 'Ain't nobody can give nobody what they really need anyway,'" over spare backup, vs. "Wrap your legs 'round these velvet rims and strap your hands cross my engines" while a wall of instruments is going whoa-whoa-WHOOSH! So many of the people in the Ghost stories are losers, deeply lost; they've got relatives among the people you've told us about before, but it's harder than ever in some of the stories to tell why we should care. Maybe the lesson here is the one taught by Joe Roberts, the "Highway Patrolman" on Nebraska. He knew all along that his brother Franky was worthless, but he also knew that, by the same token, "Man turns his back on his family/ Well he just ain't no good."Is that your message about these people, and what you're asking us? Like them or not, they're in the human family, in the American family, for sure. Do we care? Can we? And, if so, what are we going to do about it? Can things get better for more people at once?A lot of your earlier characters also faced hard times and despair but, even dragged down by bitterness, many of them seemed to do so with vision and some sense of what had made their own lives worth living, even if it wasn't much more than the memory of a few great moments or a sense of humor. Even most of the people in Nebraska, in the midst of no reason, find -- in your words -- a reason to believe. Is Ghost saying they were deluded in that? Maybe each man and woman has to answer that alone, and more than once.The thing is, the new Ghost people don't even seem to take on the question, let alone find an answer. While I'm sure rank upon rank of people in the world live their lives that way, and while I get the feeling you sympathize with them, I'm not convinced you know all these characters. As a result, I'm not sure that, from the songs, I can, either. Perhaps it's an illusion, a home-turf conceit, but I feel that as your songs move East, they seem stronger. True, you could point to Rosalita and her dad as Southwestern predecessors, but I never doubted that you knew them. I feel less sure about Miguel and Louis Rosales doing the Sinaloa dirty work on Ghost.The related question about these new songs is where they come from. Newspapers stories, for one, according to the liner notes. Movies, too, are obviously a big resource. I've heard you say the title of "Thunder Road" came from the 1958 Robert Mitchum film, and I've been wondering if "Straight Time" on the Ghost album was inspired by Dustin Hoffman's 1978 film of the same name. It's certainly about the same subject: a guy who gets out of prison and tries to go straight in the face of constant nudges back in the other direction. You've also talked frequently about the work of John Ford, who directed 1940's The Grapes of Wrath, and it's to his film, not Steinbeck's novel, that you give the credit for "Tom Joad." (Thank you for acknowledging Grapes screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, whose name turns up on so many great old films).You squeeze a Nineties vintage out of The Grapes of Wrath, re-examining the meaning and value of Tom Joad's hopeful intent as he headed out from the home fold. When he left, it was battered but still standing. Your song questions how solid that stance is in the present day. Still, your invocation of Grapes strikes an enduring chord in our culture. According to Alan Brinkley, writing in a fascinating 1995 book called Past Imperfect, History According to the Movies, Steinbeck's Dust Bowl saga "in all its versions has become an unusually vivid historical document: a portrait of a portion of American society in the Great Depression and of a political sensibility that continues to resonate (if only faintly at times) in the contemporary world." Your song, if I'm reading it right, is an attempt to raise the volume on that resonance.Remember when Reagan used your name in 1984 when he was campaigning in South Jersey? It made me so mad I tacked a huge American flag up in my office the next day and attached big letters to it, saying, "Vote!" My office mate laughed: "Is that what it takes to make you get political? Reagan co-opting Springsteen?"I know it made you mad, too, plus it kind of permanently activated your understanding of the platform you possess. In the context of the down-and-out portraits on Ghost, my husband and I were talking about the groups you've worked for and causes you've supported, and your obvious intent to take some responsibility for what needs doing. "Pretty quick, you realize you can't give a dollar to every poor sap in America," he said, Even if you could, what good would it do? Chances are, with judicious use of your prestige and position, you can do much more.Maybe the difference is just that, as you've said, Nebraska (and much of your other work) was about you, specifically, more about how your childhood felt than it was about politics or isms. Ghost feels more like something you've learned, however much it resonates for you, and hence more removed. You've said it speaks to possibilities you fear, disastrous reverses that never feel that far away in spite of your success -- "there, but for fortune..." And you've talked a lot about the book Journey to Nowhere, which is also credited in the Ghost notes, and how frightening you found it. You've talked about nowhere before, and maybe that's a key to your quest.For every man and woman, nowhere -- the void -- is just a step away, just a shot away, the thin line between love and hate, the borderline...the metaphors are many. But in your work, you've ranged from the brightest lights with all amps turned up to 10 and megawatt grins on every face to very quiet, very bleak, very lonely explorations. You've set off the biggest fireworks, then walked along the edge of the pit and stared into blackness. A safe road to the firm footing in between may be the hardest of all to find.When my friend Carol scored a few of the coveted tickets to your Nov. 13 Landmark Theatre show, she called up excitedly. "I got tickets!" she gasped. Then she wondered, "Do you think he'll play 'Born to Run' or anything like that?" I told her I thought you very well might not. But then she said, "It doesn't matter. I'll take whatever he wants to give me." Spoken like the devoted fan she is, she's obviously taken to heart one of your most important lessons: "Show a little faith."Time and again, over all these years, you've proved the truth in that. Out here in the audience, the people who love your work won't forget. Sing us the hits or sing us something new. Share your music and show us your thoughts. We trust you. We're listening.