February 2017

Arts & Letters

Who’s the boss now?

By Anwen Crawford

Bruce Springsteen performing in New York City, 2014. © Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images for (RED)

Bruce Springsteen is the consummate live performer

When Bruce Springsteen arrived in Australia late in January for a month-long tour, his third such in four years, Donald Trump had just become president of the United States. Both men are used to performing in front of large and adoring crowds, and both are adept at letting their audiences feel the pleasure of becoming, if only for a moment, someone special. “When I’m out in the street / I walk the way I wanna walk,” sings Springsteen on ‘Out in the Street’, a song from his 1980 double album The River. When Springsteen plays this song live, as he did during his last Australian tour, everyone in the audience sings these lines, and the sensation is akin to being lifted suddenly clear of the ground. Here we are, with a view on the whole mess, and a chance at last to call the tune. “When I’m out in the street / I talk the way I wanna talk.”

And isn’t the desire – and more, the licence – to speak freely, without reference to anyone else’s needs, a key part of Trump’s appeal? And hasn’t Springsteen been warning us, since at least The River, of the economic and psychic collapse of America’s industrial working class, a class whose sense of silent abandonment was transformed into the raucous and bitter resentment that powered Trump’s presidential campaign like a malignant fuel? Springsteen is a millionaire rock star and Trump is a billionaire businessman turned demagogue, but their status is a vehicle through which their respective audiences (and who knows, but maybe these audiences overlap) can enact revenge against the powerful. “Poor man wanna be rich / Rich man wanna be king,” sings Springsteen on ‘Badlands’, one of the defining songs of his career, “And a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything.”

Springsteen delivers these lines as a statement of fact, a fact reinforced by the mass of instruments – guitar, piano, organ, bass, drums – building like a wave, or like a wall, behind his voice. The influence of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” on Springsteen’s songwriting and production style has long been noted, including by Springsteen himself, but he turns the force of Spector’s teenage symphonies towards a deadlier purpose. What’s at stake here isn’t only the girl; winning the girl is just a step on the way towards supremacy. The conservatism of Springsteen’s music – the classic chord sequences, the in-built reverence for pop history – enhances, by contrast, the recklessness of his lyrics, and in bringing these elements together his songs suggest that an overly familiar form might still contain within it an untapped supply of energy. His live shows are a gamble on this premise: play it well enough, play it loud enough, and the world could turn upside down. When Springsteen plays live a curious noise can be heard throughout the venue, a low, sustained note: Bruuuuuuuuce. But it sounds just like booing, as if the people have finally had enough of being spoken for. Who’s the boss now?

Last time Springsteen and his E Street Band played in Sydney, three years ago this month, he had, after half a dozen songs, an announcement to make. It was time for the musicians onstage to play his album Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) in its entirety. There are certain expectations that a fan brings to a Springsteen show, and, though he has played the full album in concert before, this wasn’t among them. One could sense, more than hear, the collective intake of breath. We stood on the precipice of something. The album’s opening song is ‘Badlands’, and before anyone could stop to think for too long about what was going to happen next, the band plunged into it.

In his recently published autobiography, Born To Run, Springsteen describes Darkness as his “samurai record, stripped to the frame and ready to rumble”. It is a set of songs that dwell upon an isolation that is partly economic and partly existential. At the furthest edge of these circumstances lies the prospect of becoming an outlaw, a narrative logic that Springsteen would carry to its end on Nebraska (1982), where his characters are (mostly) murderers.

The rage that punctuates Darkness had its origin in Springsteen’s own New Jersey childhood (“I never saw a man leave a house in a jacket and tie unless it was Sunday or he was in trouble”), but the album is also a response to the punk movement that was brewing on both sides of the Atlantic at the time. The punks mightn’t have cared for Springsteen – he wore blue jeans, for God’s sake – but he was intrigued by them, recognising “a distant kinship” between their anger and his own. Both were reacting to the widespread economic crisis of the late 1970s, a crisis that was undoing any material gains made by the working class since the end of World War Two.

But Springsteen also grasped a couple of things that many punk bands didn’t. The first, as he recalls in his book, was a sense that “there was a great difference between unfettered personal license and real freedom”. He had escaped his own upbringing, but the structural inequalities that shaped it remained in place. The second was his realisation, born in part out of his engagement with the traditions of folk and country music, that an angry song didn’t always have to be a noisy song. What might happen if instead of giving anger full vent you clamped down more tightly upon it?

The answer was ‘Racing in the Street’, the song that splits Darkness in half. And Springsteen’s performance of this song in Sydney lingers in the mind.

Throughout most of it, his guitar hung limply around his neck: the rock hero divested of his primary armour. ‘Racing in the Street’ is a piano-based ballad, but the word “ballad” can imply mawkishness, and ‘Racing in the Street’ isn’t mawkish. It is terribly sad, and, for a song that is set among and inside of cars, terribly still. The music doesn’t really go anywhere. The characters in the song don’t go anywhere. They just edge closer to despair.

The narrator of ‘Racing in the Street’ races cars only for money. And the devastating though unspoken realisation at the heart of the song is that money is all there is left, the sole measure of human endeavour. The song’s arrangement is bare, the vocal melody repetitive; the one opportunity for departure comes after all the words have been sung, when an organ refrain takes over – here, the studio version begins to fade out, while onstage, that night, Springsteen and his band circled around it for minutes on end, as if they might yet find a way to escape the song’s emotional force field, which of course they couldn’t. “Tonight, tonight the highway’s bright / Out of our way, mister, you best keep.” It is an impotent warning, a fury swallowed down.

Behind ‘Racing in the Street’ stands Martha and the Vandellas’ 1964 Motown hit ‘Dancing in the Street’, a song that was, in its time, both a party favourite and a harbinger of the civil unrest about to hit American cities. Springsteen has spent his career in dialogue with African-American popular music, a dialogue personified by his brotherly relationship with the E Street Band’s late saxophonist, Clarence Clemons. Their fraternity was genuine, and it was also the symbol of a possible reconciliation between white and black America. But, writes Springsteen in Born To Run, “we lived in the real world”, where nothing, “not all the love in God’s heaven, obliterates race”. This isn’t fatalism, but a recognition that pop music trades in signs, and that signs alone cannot change the world, though Springsteen and his band play as if this wasn’t true. This, apart from anything else, gives his music its pathos.

Springsteen can build a wall in his songs and then, through a change in pace and pressure, knock it down again. Circumstances close in on his characters, circumstances that the music yearns to be free of, even when it can’t be. Trump intends to build a wall, a real one, that will partition real people from one another. Venomous and permanent division between the powerful and the powerless is his raison d’être. And that is the difference between them.

At the very end of that Sydney show, after more than three hours of performing, Springsteen returned to the stage and sat down behind a pump organ. The song he chose to play was ‘Dream Baby Dream’, which is included on his most recent studio album, High Hopes (2014). This is a cover version of a song first recorded by the New York punk duo Suicide in 1979, and out of Suicide’s nervous agitation Springsteen pulls something fervently beautiful. It’s not a betrayal of the song’s original terms, but an enlargement of them.

There’s a film clip that accompanies Springsteen’s studio recording of this song: slow-motion footage of his live concerts, and particularly of his audiences. Faces are picked out from the crowd, and the expressions on these faces (young and old faces, male and female, black and white) range from prayerful to goofy to overjoyed. It is a democratic vision, because it implies that democracy is not merely the accumulation of numbers but is instead created by the complete presence of each citizen’s individual being.

I don’t know, entirely, why this song has the power to dissolve me, but it does. As with so much in Springsteen’s catalogue it walks a fine line between affecting and hackneyed, and I resist the trace of manipulation, though I don’t think in the end that it’s manipulative. Springsteen, being only a musician, cannot bring his vision of democracy into being, but that isn’t the point. The point is that for the length of a song one can believe it.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

From the front page

Image of Abdul Karim Hekmat. Photograph © Sam Biddle

Australia needs to hear asylum seekers’ stories, in our own words

Our presence has preoccupied the nation, but our stories have been excluded from the national narrative

Image of Australian Bicentenary protest, Sydney, NSW, 1988

The stunted country

There can be no republic without constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians

Image of former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian in September. Image © Dan Himbrechts / AAP Images

Gladys for Warringah?

In attempting to take down an independent MP, Morrison is helping pro-integrity candidates across the country

Image of Oscar Isaac as William Tell in The Card Counter. Photograph © Focus Features

Debt burden: Paul Schrader’s ‘The Card Counter’

The acclaimed writer-director indulges his experimental streak in a thriller that inverts the popular conception of the gambling man

In This Issue

Image of Julie Bishop

The character business

What does the deluge of political biography and memoir say about politicians and readers?

The science question and feminism

STEM is the future, and women need to be part of it

Image of Helen Tufts and Helena Born

Climax isn’t the point

Emily Witt’s ‘Future Sex’ and Sheila Rowbotham’s ‘Rebel Crossings’ approach the concept of free love from different perspectives

Illustration

Relying on Trump

Australia needs to rethink its approach to regional security


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Gerald Murnane

Final sentence: Gerald Murnane’s ‘Last Letter to a Reader’

The essay anthology that will be the final book from one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic authors

Image of The Kid Laroi

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy

Still from ‘No Time To Die’

The Bond market: ‘Dune’ and ‘No Time To Die’

Blockbuster season begins with a middling 007 and a must-see sci-fi epic

Abbotsford I

New poetry, after lockdowns


More in Music

Bing Crosby and David Bowie on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, circa 1977.

Oh, carols!

The music of Christmas, from the manger to the chimney

Image of The Kid Laroi

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy

Image of Dry Cleaning

More than a feeling: ‘New Long Leg’

The deadpan spoken-word vocals of British post-punk band Dry Cleaning are the mesmeric expression of online consciousness

Image of Pharaoh Sanders and Sam Shepherd

Always tomorrow: ‘Promises’

Legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders joins electronic musician Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra for a compositionally minimalist album


Online exclusives

Image of Abdul Karim Hekmat. Photograph © Sam Biddle

Australia needs to hear asylum seekers’ stories, in our own words

Our presence has preoccupied the nation, but our stories have been excluded from the national narrative

Image of Oscar Isaac as William Tell in The Card Counter. Photograph © Focus Features

Debt burden: Paul Schrader’s ‘The Card Counter’

The acclaimed writer-director indulges his experimental streak in a thriller that inverts the popular conception of the gambling man

Image of The Beatles and Yoko Ono during the ‘Let It Be’ sessions. Image © Apple Records / Disney+

‘Get Back’ is ‘slow TV’ for Beatles nuts

Despite plenty of magical moments, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour epic is the work of a fanatic, and will likely only be watched in full by other fanatics

Image of John Wilson in How To with John Wilson. Image courtesy of HBO / Binge

Candid camera: ‘How To with John Wilson’

Both delightfully droll and genuinely moving, John Wilson’s idiosyncratic documentary series is this month’s streaming standout