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"Black Cowboys" and Other Frontier Stories
Bruce Springsteen’s "Devils and Dust"
by HARRY BROWNE

Dublin, Ireland

Up until last year, Bruce Springsteen had been quietly taking sound political stands for most of three decades, including No Nukes in 1979, through support for striking workers and benefits for food banks, the Christic Institute, you name it. He had shunned all opportunities for corporate selling-out. He had released two deep, dark, mostly acoustic albums probing poverty, alienation and injustice in America; the second, The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) was a pointed pinprick to the bubbly pseudo-liberalism of the mid-Clinton era.

Then in 2004, like many’s another decent left-liberal, he jumped on the asinine Anybody But Bush bandwagon, endorsing and campaigning for John Kerry. Reading much of the ill-informed commentary, most of it admiring, you’d think he had nailed his colours to the mast for the first time — when in fact what he had done was wash them out. (His anti-war stance was more forthright than Kerry’s — faint praise indeed — but he followed most Dems’ lead in forgetting to mention that any actual Iraqis were dying in Iraq.) Yes, some conservative fans who had been trying to ignore the left politics in his life and work since the Seventies expressed annoyance, even betrayal, at his partisanship; but for many of us on the left it was more distressing to see Springsteen, whose 9/11-inspired The Rising (2002) was astonishingly nuanced as well as frankly commercial, turn himself into a huckster for a mainstream pol.

Okay, now that overheated election campaign is done and dusted. Devils & Dust doesn’t go there. In fact, anyone awaiting this album to hear Springsteen’s State of the Union address, hoping either to bury or praise it, will be disappointed: it’s arguably less overtly political than either The Rising or Tom Joad, and Springsteen freely admits that most of its songs, predominantly slow and acoustic, were written in the Nineties as he toured solo, in Guthrie-without-the-fun mode, showcasing the Joad material. They’re broadly similar to the range of his work from that decade, especially Tom Joad, bits of Lucky Town and the last disc of the outtake box-set, Tracks: a mix of gritty story-songs and rockers evoking domestic mostly-contentment. (The grittiest story-song strays far enough from the contentment to merit a Parental Advisory sticker: in ‘Reno’ a prostitute addresses the narrator, “Two hundred dollars straight in,/ Two-fifty up the ass, she smiled and said”. The narrator, a heartbroken Mexican immigrant, appears to opt for nothing more daring than fellatio and woman-on-top. Phew.)

The title track, written at the time of the Iraq invasion, narrated by a US soldier and ironically invoking “God on our side”, is the one big nod to topicality, A sad and lovely song, similar to ‘Blood Brothers’ (1995) both in its music and in its male-bonding, its main ‘political’ significance is the chorus’s reference to the ‘fear’ meme beloved of liberal commentators like Michael Moore: “Fear’s a powerful thing/ That’ll turn your heart black you can trust/ It’ll take your God filled soul/ Fill it with devils and dust”.

The song ultimately seems more concerned with Christian metaphysics than politics, and given its myriad references to Bob Dylan (the narrator’s buddy is called Bob, and there’s “wind blowing” as well as the aforementioned God-on-our-side), it’s bemusing to recall how Dylan was critically lashed for his Christian turn in the late Seventies. Springsteen, who way back then was using religious language and imagery in largely subversive ways (‘Adam Raised a Cain’, or the earthy, earthly seduction of ‘Thunder Road’: “All the redemption I can offer, girl/Is beneath this dirty hood”), is now a full-blown faith-based rocker, and is scarcely mocked for it. The Rising at least incorporated hints of liberation theology, with its final exhortation, in ‘My City of Ruins’: “Come on, rise up!” Devils & Dust offers few such obvious consolations to the secular left, though the religion is hardly of the born-again variety: in the title track Springsteen sings “tonight faith just ain’t enough/ When I look inside my heart/ There is just devils and dust”. (On The Rising, ‘Paradise’, sung partly from the perspective of a suicide bomber, ended with the simile “as empty as paradise”).

Then there’s ‘Jesus Was An Only Son’, shot through with as much Marian devotion and love for Christ’s final suffering as that Mel Gibson movie. (Mother-love and loss also run through ‘Silver Palomino’ and ‘Black Cowboys’.) However, Springsteen’s song manages to reminds us what was missed by both The Passion of the Christ and the critics who saw Passion-passion as some kinky right-wing obsession: that reverence for the Redeemer’s blood is probably most common among people who have known deep suffering themselves — notably in the tradition of African-American Christianity.

And here’s where the cultural politics of this album start to sneak up on you. Springsteen is using, and making claims upon, such a tradition. This shouldn’t seem strange: all the great thinking white rock & rollers eventually go looking for their blues and gospel roots. (Mr Zimmerman of Minnesota famously wore whiteface make-up on stage in what was surely a twisted comment on his music’s racial origins and his own minstrelry.) Springsteen has a better claim than most, with black musicians in his band dating back 30-odd years, to its roots in multi-racial Asbury Park; when he dropped the E-Streeters in the early Nineties his new touring band was mostly black. He has sung specifically and pointedly about racial politics on ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ (though an Irish friend of mine quibbles that it was presumptuous of Bruce to assign American skin to the West African Amadou Diallo).

And yet Springsteen has often seemed somehow the whitest of white musicians. Before The Rising, only his weakest album, Human Touch (1992), looked for a consistently soulful sound. Certainly his US audiences are conspicuously low on pigmentation: his great saxophonist Clarence Clemons often seems to be the only African-American present even among 50,000 people at a stadium gig. Springsteen and Clemons make the most of the latter’s dramatic black presence, playing on stereotypes and engaging in sexy/funny onstage homoerotic flirtation, but the ultimate political significance of tens of thousands of upper-middle-class white folks shouting “Big Man!” is certainly up for grabs, at best.

While Springsteen had sung about African-Americans and immigrants on Tom Joad and ‘American Skin’, The Rising was his boldest effort to incorporate their musical styles, most obvious in the gospel choruses. On Devils & Dust he does something rather different again: with the music itself more low-key, he adopts their voices. The characters narrating a few of these songs are surely Latino and black, and the idiom is often that of country blues. The other day a Dublin radio station played Willie Nelson and Ray Charles singing ‘Seven Spanish Angels’, and that, it seemed to me, is something like what Springsteen is trying to do here in one voice. It’s most obvious, because most enhanced by a skipping beat, in the spacious world of ‘All I’m Thinkin’ About’, where his country-ish tenor moves an octave higher and he seeks freedom, like the Grateful Dead only better, in a Southern rural and urban landscape filled with black and brown:

“Black car shinin’ on a Sunday morn
Mama go to church now, Mama go to church now
Saturday night daddy’s shirt is torn
Daddy’s goin’ downtown, daddy’s goin’ downtown
Ain’t no one understand this sweet thing we do
All I’m thinkin’ about is you, baby…”

A couple of songs capture the theme most explicitly. ‘Black Cowboys’ is the story of a kid from the south Bronx whose mother tries to keep him clean and enhance his self-esteem with poignant reading material: “there was a channel showed a western movie everyday Lynette brought him home books on the black cowboys of the Oklahoma range and the Seminole scouts that fought the tribes of the Great Plains”. Eventually it is she rather than he who succumbs to “the Mott Haven streets”, so the kid steals $500 from her drug-dealer boyfriend and gets the train to Oklahoma, in vague hope of resurrection. The allusion to the little-known African-American heritage of the Wild West, and the character’s lithe slip across the appointed frontier of his life, are markers in Springsteen’s own attempt to cross borders.

The US-Mexican border — a “scar”, Springsteen has called it in his concerts — was central to Tom Joad, and it’s back here in several songs. The last of them, ‘Matamoras Banks’, is partly a love song that simply enjoys the rise and fall of a beautiful word: “Meet me on the Matamoras/ Meet me on the Matamoras/ Meet me on the Matamoras banks”. There’s even a momentary lyrical pleasure in the notion that, on the American continent, a place called Matamoras lies across a river from a place called Brownsville. But what lies between Matamoras and Brownsville is a deadly frontier, a stretch of the Rio Grande where hundreds of would-be immigrants have drowned:

“For two days the river keeps you down
Then you rise to the light without a sound
Pass the playgrounds and the empty switching yards
The turtles eat the skin from your eyes, so they lay open to the stars

“Your clothes give way to the current and river stone
’Til every trace of who you ever were is gone
And the things of the earth they make their claim
That the things of heaven may do the same”

Beautiful and affecting as all this is, of course there must be some question about Bruce Springsteen, the liberal rock star, a very rich white man for most of his adult life, a product of suburban (albeit working-class suburban) New Jersey, adopting these stories, these roots, as though they were his own. If you didn’t have them already, the DVD side of this “DualDisc” release — or at least as much of it as I got to see in my “preview” of the album — brings the questions forward in stark relief. Film-maker Danny Clinch, without apparent irony or parody, presents Springsteen singing and talking about his songs with a rootsy, artily artless visual aesthetic that would make Johnny Cash or Robert Johnson blush. The title card has even been “weathered” to look like it’s on a scratchy old film print, and Springsteen appears in an empty, half-painted house, dimly lit, the image suddenly saturated as a piece of jewellery or the capo being attached to the neck of a guitar catches a slanting sun beam.

Bruce Springsteen, the ordinary guy who sings songs about ordinary guys, has been recast, and gold-plated, as an original piece of rare, vintage Americana. Some people just won’t buy it: the charge of phoniness has hung around him for most of his career, with critic Robert Palmer famously writing in 1978, paraphrasing the Beatlemania ad, that his work was “not rock ’n’ roll, but an incredible simulation”. (Palmer recanted in 1980 in praise of The River.) The charge of over-preciousness about himself and his work has stuck still more surely.

As a Jersey boy myself, I can’t help feeling that our state’s own mestizo accent and aesthetic should have been good enough for him. But in fairness, Springsteen has earned his claim on the cowboy gear and country blues, and on his own place in the tradition. After all, ask many of the “authentic” roots musicians to name the important works of the late 20th-century, and Nebraska (1982) is likely to turn up on the list.

More importantly, perhaps, is that for all his allusions and derivations, he stands up as a songwriter of originality, brilliance and craft, with a long body of work that, for those who know it well, carries wonderful connections, characters, themes and echoes across the decades. Here, for example, ‘All the Way Home’ recapitulates 1987’s ‘Tougher than the Rest’, and ‘Long Time Comin’’ offers both a long-awaited happy ending to 1973’s ‘Rosalita’, and an optimistic prayer, addressed to the narrator’s children, to answer 1978’s ‘Adam Raised a Cain’, which lamented that “you’re born into this life payin’/ For the sins of somebody else’s past”:

“Well if I had one wish in this god forsaken world kids
It’d be that your mistakes ’ould be your own
That your sins ’ould be your own”

Amen to that, Brother Bruce, amen.

Devils & Dust is released on April 26th.

HARRY BROWNE lectures in the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology and writes for Village magazine. He can be contacted at harrybrowne@eircom.net.