The best of Bruce Springsteen’s work has always focused on, as he describes it, “judging the distance between American reality and the American dream.” When you listen to a Springsteen record or participate in one of his marathon concerts, you come for the fun, energy, and simple brilliance of “Born to Run” and “Glory Days,” but you stay for the pensive moments. They’re no less energetic or moving, but they’re the songs that have sustained a career that’s stood for something far greater than just music for nearly 50 years.
During the events of the past week, many have turned to music for its most noble service: to express the deep, complicated emotions within us and find some release from that disturbing American reality. We turn to Bob Dylan and Curtis Mayfield, Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z, Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy, Kendrick Lamar and Woody Guthrie. These are the chroniclers of our American society who have helped us navigate its troubling roads for nearly a century.
As we learned this morning during Springsteen’s fifth, and most poignant, DJ set on SiriusXM, he’s been tuning into all of the above, using them to help make his own sense of the world.
Of course, Springsteen needn’t look further than his own catalog for music that is built for troubling times and hard truths. While our desperate nation yearns to turn its lonely eyes to literally anyone right now, we turn ours to these essential, timeless Bruce Springsteen songs that feel as though they were written for this exact moment.
It’s almost fitting that #BlackOutTuesday fell on the same day as the anniversary of the release of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” an album that has never ceased to lose its strength, power, or importance over its 42 year history. The very first line, “Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland,” feels about as current as it gets, as cities all over the country reel in response to the death of George Floyd.
Springsteen has often referenced a quote by Jackson Browne, himself no stranger to writing important music measuring the broken promises of the American Dream, who says that “a good song stays written.” Springsteen has also spoken about how songs can evolve and shift their meaning over time. “Badlands,” and the entire “Darkness” album, is a perfect example.
The narrator is angry from the beginning of the song, declaring that he doesn’t “give a damn about just the in betweens,” as he fights for “the heart…the soul…control right now.” This declaration ends with an emphatic: “you better listen to me!” This is a person who is tired of working everyday and coming home with nothing to show for it, similar to the protagonists we’ll meet in “Racing in the Street” and “Factory.” They’re fed up, and they demand attention.
To drive the point home a little further, the narrator expands on this thought, exclaiming that “you spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come,” punctuated with another rallying cry: “don’t waste your time waiting!” Like the protagonist in “The Promised Land,” he’s lived his life the right way, every day, waiting for justice and a bigger piece of the pie, something that just isn’t going to come. And he’s gonna “keep pushin’ till it’s understood.”
These are the same emotions and battle cries we’re hearing all across the nation right now, people who have been knocked down, pushed around, and told to wait their turn. They’re done waiting. And we’d better listen to them.
Later in the song, Springsteen further separates this song, and album, from its predecessors. “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be King,” he screams. “And the King ain’t satisfied till he rules everything.” Gone are the carefree days of Asbury Park in “Spirit in the Night,” “Sandy,” and “Rosalita.” The characters on the highway in “Born to Run,” who were stuck “on the streets of a runaway American Dream,” have grown up to learn they need not apply for that dream: it’s not theirs. They may believe that love, faith, and hope can save them, but they’re no longer sure it’s enough; now, they’ve got to fight.
After a fierce one-two punch of Bruce’s ferocious guitar solo and Clarence Clemons’ powerful saxophone, the song enters a brief, quieter moment. In concert, this moment is almost spiritual, 50,000 voices singing along to the same wordless refrain as if to say: we’re all in this together.
Out of the church and into punk-fueled rock, as Bruce slowly builds a final rallying cry that bursts into the explosive final verse, reminding us that “it ain’t no sin to be glad [we’re] alive.” “I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me,” he shouts. “I wanna spit in the face of these Badlands!”
The mission statement of these characters has now been fully laid out, as Springsteen sends them off to battle. They still want to live a good life, and still will, but that needs to be put on hold for the next nine songs and 38 minutes: there’s work to be done.
American Skin (41 Shots)
On February 4th, 1999, 23-year-old Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times and killed by four New York police officers. Diallo, standing near his home after returning from a late night meal, allegedly matched the description of a serial rapist. The officer, part of the now defunct Street Crimes Unit, engaged Diallo. The young man, a recent immigrant to the United States, thought it best to retrieve his wallet and show his identification. He never had the chance.
On February 25th, 2000, the Albany, New York court offered a verdict that African-Americans no doubt felt inevitable: not guilty.
Just a few months later, Bruce Springsteen would debut a new song, “American Skin (41 Shots),” in Atlanta, Georgia. It was extremely moving, himself and several band members barely able to keep their emotions in check. The reaction to the song was overwhelmingly positive.
That would change when he got to New York, in June, for ten straight shows at Madison Square Garden. NYPD called for boycotts of Springsteen’s shows. Rudy Guiliani proudly criticized Springsteen and the band while defending the acquitted officers. The head of New York State’s Fraternal Order of the Police called Bruce a “dirtbag” and a “floating fag,” while the head of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association called him an “outrage.”
Springsteen would go on to perform the song every single night, pairing it with “The Promised Land,” brilliantly illustrating that gap between American reality and American Dream. He would perform it many more times over the next 20 years, typically calling it into service when it was needed most: April 2012 in response to the shooting of Travyon Martin; in July 2013 after George Zimmerman was found not guilty; and, sadly, this morning.
After opening his broadcast with the song, Springsteen emotionally lamented: “Eight minutes. That song is almost eight minutes long. And that’s how long it took George Floyd to die. That’s a long time. That’s how long he begged for help, and said he couldn’t breathe. The arrested officer’s response was nothing but silence. Then he had no pulse. And still it went on.”
The song takes its time to make you uncomfortable with this reality, repeating the words “41 shots” long enough for you to wonder if he’s going to repeat them that many times. He could have. But, Springsteen, a master of his craft and of working in concert with an audience, moves forward.
We’re at the scene of the crime, with one of the police officers who is “kneeling over [Diallo’s] body in the vestibule, praying for his life.” With the officers’ shots still ringing in our heads, Springsteen offers a moment of compassion: no one wants to take the life of another human being. The officer is mortified, and while he prays for this man’s life, he’s also praying for his own: Dear God, what did I do?
But, the truth is too overpowering; Springsteen doesn’t allow this moment to last too long. The reality? “You can get killed just for living in your American Skin.”
The next verse takes us to the home of a young African American boy and his mother, as he gets ready for school in the morning. His mother, all too aware of what it means to be black in America, prepares her son with the morning recitation: understand the rules; always be polite; never run away; keep your hands in sight. These are words that no child should have to hear just to make it safely to school.
The previous night’s murder hangs over the proceedings, as Springsteen sings “is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet? This is your life.” It’s true, you can get killed just for being black in America.
The lament turns to ferocity, as Tom Morello’s swirling guitar (on the 2014 album version) cuts through the night, feeling like a callback to the protesting guitar solo of “Badlands.” Out of this emotion, Springsteen asks us to consider once again: “Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it in your heart? Is it in your eyes?” He’s asking the question that we’re hearing so many of the protestors of the past week ask: Hey, White America. What do you see when you look at yourself? What do you see when you think of America? What are you going to do about it?
Before the anger takes us over, in comes the gospel, something Springsteen does as brilliantly as anyone. He reminds us that “we’re baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood.” Skin is skin. Blood is blood. American is American. One should never have to be afraid to walk home and never make it up the stairs. One should never have to apologize just for living.
The song repeats “you can get killed just for living” and “41 shots” like a funeral dirge, reminding us once again of the reality of the day. Rising us up into the heavens is Clarence Clemons, who rightfully should have the final words on this topic. The mournful soul of his saxophone falling like tears.
The Ghost of Tom Joad
Reminded once again of the Jackson Browne quote about good songs staying written, we turn to “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” This song has taken nearly a half dozen forms over the years, from an eerie, spooky acoustic arrangement in 1996, a true folk arrangement with Pete Seeger in the 2000s, to an angry protest song with Tom Morello over the past decade. In all versions, it speaks truth to power.
Springsteen sets his story against the backdrop of the 1940 film adaption of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” It is an incredible example of the power of Bruce’s storytelling, showing why, in 1997, the New York Times would dub him: “Steinbeck in Leather.”
From the very first verse, we feel like we are walking right along the railroad tracks with these characters, headed towards hot soup while patrol choppers try to hunt us down. “Shelter line stretching around the corner,” Springsteen tells us. “Welcome to the New World Order.”
What is that New World Order? It’s families sleeping in their cars, with “no home, no job, no peace, no rest.” This is the most desolate reality of the American Dream, one that Bruce would explore over the course of this album and in songs like “Factory,” “My City of Ruins,” “Last to Die,” and “Death to My Hometown.” What happens to the people in society who are deemed expendable and left behind? Who speaks for them?
It’s not the preacher, who we meet underneath the overpass smoking a cigarette, “waiting for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last” in a cardboard box.
This song isn’t going to be paired with “The Promised Land,” there’s no hope to be found in this story. In fact, the characters here have “a one way ticket to the promised land,” but we know they’re never going to make it. Some of them are slowly dying, while others have completely given up hope.
By the final verse, someone finally stands up: Tom Joad.
“Wherever there’s a cop beating a guy,” he proclaims. “Where there’s a fight against the blood and hatred in the air…wherever somebody’s fighting for a place to stand…wherever somebody’s struggling to be free, look in their eyes, Ma, you’ll see me.”
The characters in this story may no longer believe in an American Dream, but they’re no longer willing to accept their American reality. There might not be hope around the corner, but there’s no point in waiting for it here.
Land of Hope and Dreams
“Land of Hope and Dreams” almost feels like it was set during the same period as “Tom Joad,” with its metaphor of a train rolling “through fields where sunlight streams.” It is one of Bruce’s most hopeful songs; if the previous three songs are the bitter truth and crushing reality of the American Dream, then “Land of Hope and Dreams” is its promise.
Springsteen’s songs are often novels in four minutes, taking us through the story arc of a protagonist with deep emotion and unmatched detail. This song, however, feels almost as if it is Bruce announcing his own mission statement: for himself as an artist; his music; and his band. This makes sense, as the song was first debuted in 1999 during Springsteen’s reunion tour with the E Street Band, marking the beginning of an unprecedented late-career run that is now in its third decade.
At the beginning of his song, Springsteen tells us that he’ll be standing by our side because we’ll “need a good companion for this part of the ride.” Who better to help us navigate the troubling waters of police brutality, September 11th, the war in Iraq, the illegalities of the Bush administration, the Recession, and the Trump presidency?
“Leave behind your sorrows,” he urges us. “Let this day be the last. Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine, and all this darkness past.” He knows that this may not be true, but it’s necessary to have hope and faith. As he has said many times over the past twenty years, “the country that we carry in our hearts is waiting.” Join him, he seems to be saying, as we work together to build it.
As we prepare to board the train (America), we learn that there is no first-class or third-class; all are welcome here. Saints. Sinners. Losers. Winners. Whores. Gamblers. Lost Souls. Later in the song, we pick up the brokenhearted; thieves; souls departed; fools; and kings.
On this train, “dreams will not be thwarted” and “faith will be rewarded.” In concert, Bruce makes sure to punctuate these lines with a symbolic hand to the sky: this is the America we believe in, and hopefully can still work together to make a reality.
At the end of the song, Bruce starts to sing lines from Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions’ “People Get Ready.” There’s a train coming, he and the entire band sing, and “you don’t need no ticket, you just get on board.” Once again, the gospel, and Clarence Clemons’ impossibly soulful and hopeful saxophone swells across the sky like the smoke pouring out of that locomotive.
We’re all aboard, all of us, moving forward together.
The true promise of America.
Long Walk Home
Now that he has us aboard this train to the promised land, however, Springsteen gives us the bad news: it might take a little longer to get there than we first thought. It’s going to be a “Long Walk Home.”
Springsteen takes us back to Main Street America, perhaps the same town where we first witnessed civil unrest and the effects of a rigged system in “My Hometown.” Sals’ Grocery? The Barbershop? The Diner? They’re all boarded up. Gone. America has failed them. We’ve failed them.
Once again, like the protagonists we’ve traveled with for more than forty years, our narrator lets us know that while this may be reality, we don’t have to stand idly by. The call to action isn’t quite as fierce as “Badlands” or “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” How could it be? Instead, like he does in “My City of Ruins,” Springsteen urges us to rise up.
“Everybody has a neighbor, everybody has a friend,” he reminds us. “Everybody has a reason to begin again.” This is what we are currently going through as a country, why the response this past week has been so passionate. We all know someone like the characters in these songs. We all witnessed the atrocities in “American Skin” in our own backyards. We’re baptized in these waters, and in each other’s blood.
With this, Springsteen invites us to consider our country’s flag, flying high above the courthouse downtown. “It means certain things are set in stone,” he says.” Who we are. What we’ll do. What we won’t.”
What does that flag mean for American right now? Has the American reality become so grim that the American Dream is further out of reach than ever before?
One thing’s for sure: as long as Americans are still out there struggling to be free, we can turn our eyes to the music of Bruce Springsteen. Even though it may be a long walk home, at least we’ll have a good companion for the ride.