Bruce Springsteen’s Irish Wake
“They think they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half… but the fools, the fools, the fools! — they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”
Nearly 10 years ago, writing about Bruce Springsteen’s 9/11 album for a Dublin newspaper, I half-joked that despite the title of The Rising, there was “no mention of Pearse and Connolly”, leaders of the Rising of Easter 1916 here in Ireland. Now America’s 62-year-old bard of the working class has released a record that is not only steeped in Irish sounds, but that espouses insurrectionary politics underpinned ultimately by a sense that individual deaths can inspire, and be transcended by, collective liberation.
There’s still no mention of Pearse and Connolly on WreckingBall, but short of composing a rebel song based on Pearse’s 1915 oration at O’Donovan Rossa’s grave (quoted above), “the Boss” could hardly have made a more profound connection.
Which is not to say he has suddenly emerged as an Irish nationalist. Despite the “Irish” accent he wheels out on “Death to My Hometown” and on the bonus track “American Land”, Springsteen’s rebellion, like everything else he has done, is fundamentally American. However, the message, like Springsteen’s fan base, is capable of crossing continental boundaries, and when he tours Europe this summer his songs of rage at bankers and fat-cats will be sung with as much gusto as in New Jersey.
Springsteen’s politics here could be based on Warren Buffett’s famous quip: “There’s class warfare all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Springsteen, a member of Buffett’s class, chooses to rally the resistance forces, to air their grievances, to honour their martyrs, to point the way to their ultimate victory — which might just be metaphysical.
Sure, Springsteen has made clear to those who raise an eyebrow at the side he’s chosen in the class war that he knows the difference between his art and his life. Asked recently if he considered his protest role to be a “burden”, he replied with a laugh: “I’m terribly burdened at night when I’m sleeping in my big house. It’s killing me.” He added: “The rock life is brutal, don’t let anyone tell you different.”
Still, we don’t dismiss Charles Dickens’ accounts of Victorian injustice because the writer made a great living from them. The real question is why other artists who enjoy the privileges and burdens of “the rock life” haven’t seen fit to address the crisis that has overtaken Western economies and societies over the last five years. They must have noticed it.
The only major stars with the confidence and ambition to make an album as ballsy as Wrecking Ball are rappers such as Kanye West and Jay-Z. Springsteen’s opening line on the new album, “I’ve been knocking on the door that holds the throne”, presumably refers to his frustrating, frustrated relationship with President Obama, but also evokes the rappers’ recent joint album, Watch the Throne.
As the title suggests, those rappers are not immune to questions of power, and parts of that album, like the brilliant Kanye album that preceded it, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, are openly and interestingly political. However, they are far more likely to rap — boastfully, critically, self-consciously — about the trappings of power than about the workings of power. And they are inflected with a politics that sees elevating greater numbers of African-Americans to “the top” as more relevant and achievable than trying to smash the socio-economic hierarchy.
West and Jay-Z also face, up-close, an obstacle that Springsteen can at least partly ignore: the taboo in much African-American public life against appearing to attack Obama.
Then there is that whole generation of hip young white artists who seem to suffer from some hormone deficiency that limits their capacity for full-throated rock ‘n’ roll rebellion. Fleet Foxes, for example, last year gave us an interesting musical reflection on the relationship between the individual and the collective:
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me
But the beautiful song that contains those words, and the album too, fail to sketch that machinery, and descend into mostly fruitless questioning that fully justifies the title “Helplessness Blues”. (Though we’ll withhold final judgment given the song’s promise, “I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see.”) In name alone, could there be a starker contrast than between Helplessness Blues and Wrecking Ball?
PJ Harvey, to her credit, seems to have a bit more fight in her voice. But her much-honoured album Let England Shake, which excited critics with its seeming Political Relevance, mostly seems to be angry about World World One.
Some of Springsteen’s fellow old guard have lashed out politically in recent years. Neil Young — who wrote the lovely seemingly non-political titletrack of Emmylou Harris’s 1995 alt-country album that was also called Wrecking Ball — has stepped back from the agitprop of 2006’s Bush-hating Living With War but still seems to care in his own manic way about what happens to the world.
One of the most sly and acerbic of political songwriters, Randy Newman, was in Dublin last week to remind us that you don’t need a wrecking ball to attack racism, imperialism and other forms of injustice. Newman’s own Bush-era album, Harps and Angels, contained a few political broadsides, along with the immortal lines, “The rich are getting richer/ I should know.”
Bush, as Counterpunchers know all too well, was a rather easier target than Obama. Newman shows no signs of trying to address more recent circumstances. Newman told a interviewer in February: “The last album was all about death. Where do I go from there?”
As it happens, Wrecking Ball is all about death too. But for the earnest Springsteen, “where I go from there” is toward a revolutionary resurrection
Songs of the dead are not new for the Boss. You could put together a more-than-decent “Ghost of Bruce Springsteen” collection of songs that invoke images of death (“For You”, “Thunder Road”, “Born to Run”, “Factory”, “Point Blank”, “Johnny 99” and many others) and songs that are explicitly about death (“Cadillac Ranch”, “Wreck on the Highway”, “The Rising”, “Matamoros Banks”, “Gypsy Biker”, “The Last Carnival”). The anti-heroes of “Jungleland” may “wind up wounded, and not even dead”, but the narrator of the new album’s “Easy Money” knows the truth that runs through Springsteen’s work and explodes here: every one of us has “got me a date on the far shore”.
The fact that Bruce seems to have death on his mind is not surprising. E Street Band organist Danny Federici died in 2008, and saxophonist Clarence Clemons last year. Those deaths came after Springsteen had tempted fate in a 2007 interview by pointing proudly to his band’s 100 per cent survival rate.
When it came out as a single in January I wondered at first why “We Take Care of Our Own” goes for minor-key irony in its chorus rather than the anger that it seems to promise in its opening bars. Then I thought of that old interview, and its “we take care of each other” message about his band, and started to hear the grief mixed in with the politics. In the song’s video, as Bruce sings “Wherever this flag’s flown/ We take care of our own”, we see “this flag” not as the US stars and stripes, but rather Springsteen’s own upraised hand and bowed head. The message, it seems, is about E Street as much as America, and it’s a bit questioning, maybe a bit guilty, and far from jingoistic.
If, for whatever reason, that opening track doesn’t go for the political jugular, this album delivers plenty of anger elsewhere. The original “My Hometown”, which closed 1984’s Born in the USA, was a quiet elegy for a dead place. In 2012’s revision, Springsteen brings “Death” to the song title but rebel-life to its sentiment. “Get yourself a song to sing,” the Irish-voiced narrator of “Death to My Hometown” tells his “sonny boy”, but the “clack-clack” sound-effect of a shotgun in the mix suggests he’ll do more than sing to “send the robber barons straight to hell”. It’s not the only threat of violence on the album, but it’s among the most direct. It’s no wonder that in a mostly favourable CD review, “Death to My Hometown” was singled out for disapproval by the Irish Times, proud local sponsor here in Ireland of EU-ECB-IMF-certified class warfare from above. (The usually perceptive Irish Times reviewer, Joe Breen, couldn’t even bring himself to mention that Springsteen’s call to arms sounds Irish, at least in a DexyMidnightRunners sort of way.)
In “Death…” the narrator’s address to his son and the shotgun reference both refer to “My Hometown”, on an album that is otherwise refreshingly underivative of Old Bruce, though it tips its hat musically to plenty of other people, notably The Band, Curtis Mayfield, Johnny Cash, the Pogues and Arcade Fire. “Death to My Hometown” samples, to stirring martial effect, an Alan Lomax 1959 recording of the Alabama Sacred Heart singers. There’s even a bit of rap, though thankfully Bruce doesn’t do it himself. Together with new producer Ron Aniello he has produced his most interesting-sounding yet coherent record in 30 years, and among his best ever.
The excellent analysis of the album by Peter Stone Brown here on CounterPunch in February perfectly captures the record’s flow and power, which along with its superior sound quality (mostly with non E Street musicians) take it beyond even his very good 21st-century works, The Rising, Devils & Dust and Magic, even while (apart from “This Depression”) it avoids the emotional depths they plumbed. This is in many ways the album that answers, in political and spiritual terms, the question posed by the oldie he made hisown on the Seeger Sessions tour in 2006: “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?”
Wrecking Ball veers away from traditional Springsteeniana in the unspecific songwriting. Unlike his previous folk-flavored records — Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust all teemed with characters and tales — there are no real stories here. There is no Mary on this album; indeed there are only four names in total: Jesus; Jack (in “Jack of All Trades”, not the Dublin rambler of the Irish folk song but an Everyworkingman, a Mexican immigrant if the mariachi horns that fuel this slow-burner along with Tom Morello’s guitar are anything to go by); plus gun-makers Smith and Wesson. This is an album of anthems rather than ballads, with all the subtlety of a “Smith & Wesson 38” or the titular wrecking ball. (The song “Wrecking Ball”, by the way, has been around for three years; “Land of Hope and Dreams” for 10 years longer; some fans complained at first about getting old songs, but these two deadly death-defiers — “Bring on your wrecking ball!” — both find their perfect place on this album.) Even the lust-song “You’ve Got It” is head-clearingly direct, though it is not immune to being interpreted in terms of the narrator’s desire for, say, political passion and connection, not (just) sex.
The song that comes closest to specificity and subtlety is the stunning final one, “We Are Alive”; typically for this album, the “we are alive” chorus is notionally sung by dead people, political martyrs, including a striking worker from the 1870s, schoolgirls killed in a racist firebombing in the 1960s, an immigrant who didn’t make it across the desert. This is where Joe Hill meets Padraig Pearse, not to evoke pathos but to inspire resistance, as the spirits rise “To carry the fire and light the spark/ To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart”.
It’s perhaps a far cry from the 2008 embrace of Obama. Like Ghost of Tom Joad, released in the midst of Clinton-love among most US liberals, Wrecking Ball marks the artist out as something very much other than a Democratic party hack. “Rocky Ground”, a beautiful song featuring one of the many fascinating rhythms on this record along with the aforementioned rap, uses scriptural language to address a shepherd. But unlike the traditional “rise up shepherd” Christmas carol that urges the shepherd to leave his flock and follow the star to Bethlehem, Springsteen (ever-more theologically minded over the last decade) urges his shepherd to ‘rise up” and take better care of those sheep. Several people have plausibly read this as addressed to Obama, especially when — in a rare allusion to the anti-war politics that dominated Magic — Springsteen sings: “The blood on our hands will come back on us twice.”
Springsteen says he still supports the president but that he’ll stay away from the electoral arena this time. It hasn’t stopped the White House from issuing a video that excerpts “We Take Care of Our Own”; Springsteen’s response was to sing it on TV recently with a pointedly added word, “that”, to remove any ambiguity about whether he might be paying a compliment to Obama rather than offering a critique: “Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea/ THAT wherever this flag is flown…/ We take care of our own.”
But this record is not really about election-year point-scoring. It is much more than that. Perhaps Springsteen’s deadly wrecking ball, so passionately invited in the title track, is also, as in Neil Young’s punning song, a dance-party in the land of hope and dreams, where the lost and downhearted can meet and, finding each other, also find redemption. Meet me at the wrecking ball: God knows we could do with a party like that.