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To Case the Promised land

Troubador of the Highway

by DAVE MARSH

I prepared for the opening of Springsteen: Troubador of the Highway, a photo exhibit at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Museum, by making a Bruce mix for a teenager. My way in turned out to be Arthur Baker’s hip-hop remix of “Born in the U.S.A.” and the first disc (you expected less?) ends with “War,” with the ultra-contemporary introduction, “blind faith in anything can get you killed.”

Still, I wasn’t prepared for Troubador of the Highway hitting me like my personal madeline. (Fortunately, the book’s already written.) Joel Bernstein’s 1979 shot of Bruce on the Asbury Park boardwalk made me lose a breath and look around for my kids, who spent a good bit of their childhood summers there.

About half the photographs in the show were taken by Bruce’s sister, Pamela. Bruce appears in very few of them. Instead, Pam offers a travelogue based on The Ghost of Tom Joad, a series of images evoking the California where prosperity is barely a rumor and incessant sunshine just makes labor more arduous. A shot of a farmworker trudging through a lettuce field lays out the whole relationship between industrial agriculture and migrant labor. The landscapes are beautiful but relentlessly bleak. The gas stations look like relics of another culture, and the only symbols of hope are beat-up, distorted church signs–grubby neon and ineptly asymmetrical crosses. Against one wall, a TV set endlessly plays the “Ghost of Tom Joad” video made by director Arnold Levine from Pam’s pictures. All that’s missing is that sign from the Tunnel of Love tour: This is a Dark Ride. A point reemphasized by Springsteen’s anything-but-bleak presence in the other half of the show, especially the shots Frank Stefanko took in Freehold 25 years ago and Edie Baskin’s image of Bruce as James Dean in front of a sports car in the dark.

The vision of this compact little show belongs partly to each of the Springsteens and partly to curator Colleen Sheehy. Sheehy risks her reputation by doing such a popular exhibit, I suppose, but her conviction about what constitutes art, what inspires it, and where it may lead us makes that risk worthwhile.

Sheehy’s my kind of Springsteen fan. At the other end of the scale, Danny Alexander describes a St. Louis concert where he was “surrounded by middle-aged business men–in khakis and ballcaps and filled to the brim with beer (in other words, the most obnoxious and rude species on the planet).” There’s a contradiction there that Springsteen-and everyone who likes him, or thinks that they do-needs to resolve. Whether The Rising might mark a real resurrection, rather than a one-shot return to glory days, depends on it.

In the lecture I gave as part of Troubador’s opening, I talked about Springsteen as an American life with not two acts but a full three, the last just beginning to unfold. The first involved trying to answer the question “I wanna know if love is real.” The second, affirming that it is, shows a man trying to figure out what difference that makes, exactly. I’m not positive about the third-my hunch is that it’s topic is finding out how to realize “the land of hope and dreams.”

By ending his 9 11 album in the shabby streets of an abandoned American dream town, amongst the rubble that Al Queada had no part in creating, Springsteen takes a quiet stand. In calling on his audience to “rise up,” he addresses not so much those abandoned lives on the Asbury streetcorners as his own khaki’d multitude pouring suds into the voids created by their complacency. Speaking out against the coming war during each show makes his intention clearer. Can he head that way and still command the attention of a big audience?

Can anyone? If I knew I’d tell you.

(Troubadour of the Highway will travel to Detroit, Newark and Seattle next year.)

DeskScan (what’s playing in my office)

1. Nothing to Fear, A Rough Mix by Steinski (bootleg)-Now available at various websites including sandboxau Jiggers! The cops!

2. The Rising, Bruce Springsteen (Sony)

3. Jerusalem, Steve Earle (E Squared)

4. Scarface (Def Jam South)-Restores my faith in hip-hop as urban autobiography.

5. The Queen in Waiting, Aretha Franklin (Columbia Legacy)-Waiting, hell. She was a great singer already and more of this rocks than you’ve been told. Besides, I like her Dinah Washington act.

6. Leadbelly Live! 15 June 1949 University of Texas (Fabulous UK)-Possibly the last solo show of his life but he sounds even more vibrant than in the studio, carousing through 16 songs, beginning and ending with “Goodnight Irene.”

7. Pachuco Boogie featuring Don Tosti (Arhoolie)-For those who doubt that rock’n’roll was born bilingual.

8. When Lightnin’ Struck the Pine, Cedell Davis (Fast Horse Recordings)

9. Home, Dixie Chicks (Columbia)-Natalie Maines as the real Patty Griffin? Bluegrass with more joy than droning? Father-daughter collaboration as a means to #1 albums? Yep, yep and yep. And hallelujah too.

10. Down in the Alley, Alvin Youngblood Hart (Memphis International)-Miles from Hart’s usual mixture of blues, soul and funk, this Delta blues set sounds less pure than distilled, by which I mean it kicks like a mule outside its stall.

11. “The Talking Sounds Just Like Joe McCarthy Blues,” Chris Buhalis (demo)-Woody’d be proud. Best line: Ashcroft’s response to “Give me liberty or give me death”–“Don’t tempt me.” P.O. Box 2896 Ann Arbor MI 48106 or chrisbuhalis.com. A patriotic $5 1

2. Easy, Kelly Willis (Rykodisc)-If I think this is the weakest batch of songs she ever had, how come I can’t stop listening to it? That voice. (And the fact that my daughter wouldn’t let me, if I wanted to.)

13. Hey Y’All, Elizabeth Cook (WB)-What’s an actual country singer doing on a major label? “God’s Got a Plan”?

14. The Deep End Vol. 2, Gov’t Mule (ATO)-The only jam band I love-because Warren Haynes understands that the music isn’t just rooted in the blues but a species of it. His singing on “Hammer and Nails” suggests Paul Rodgers in his heyday.

15. Sleepless, Peter Wolf (Artemis)

16. My Name’s Not Rodriguez, Luis Rodriguez & Seven Rabbit (Dos Manos)

17. Fattening Frogs for Snakes, John Sinclair & His Blues Scholars (Okra-Tone/Rooster Blues)

18. The Dark, Guy Clark (Sugar Hill)-Saturated with mortality, these are his most confident vocals since Dublin Blues. Highlights: “Homeless,” a portrait of a discarded woman that’s chilling in every sense, and “Queenie’s Song,” a protest against the bastard who shot his dog on New Year’s Day in Santa Fe.

19. Distance Between, The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash–The singing’s more like Waylon than Pop. Maybe that’s just because they mostly play rock’n’roll.

20. I Don’t Do This, Sidney Joe Qualls (Expansion, UK)-First (and last) of the New Al Greens. ’70s tracks produced by the great Carl Davis, but it’s mostly Al you’ll be thinking of.

DAVE MARSH coedits Rock and Rap Confidential. Marsh is the author of The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles.

He can be reached at: marsh6@optonline.net