Article by Doug Morris
Those who’ve seen Bruce Springsteen live lately, and listened to his steady stream of releases since 2002 know that he remains more vital and engaged than ever. At 65 – 9/23/14 – retirement is off the agenda.
Springsteen’s marathon performances are part vaudeville, revival meeting, dance party, sing-along, spectacle-of-the-spirit, heart-check, rock and roll roller-coaster ride, soul-revue, and sweat-fest. They are catalytic and cathartic, reflective and rebellious, somber and sonic, exhilarating and expansive, enervating and energizing, subversive and sublime, rooted in the earth and stretching toward the heavens.
In dipping into historical musical traditions, folk, soul, rhythm and blues, Irish, rock, gospel, chain gangs, etc., Springsteen always reminds listeners that he is, and we are a link in a long and ongoing historical chain. In expanding the boundaries of his own music, he reminds us that while we are made by history we are also capable of making history. It is an indispensable lesson rooted in a long-held radical insight that we are capable of transforming our conditions and thereby transforming ourselves.
From Born to Run to High Hopes, the “albums” are in many ways a running commentary on the troubled state of the world and the condition of the human heart, hands, mind and spirit in the crises-ridden world. Springsteen, more courageously as time passes, is willing to denounce the systemic injustices, iniquities, and indignities in the world, the wars, the exploitation, the corruption, the abuses, the oppression, the tyranny, the eco-destruction, etc., while always announcing the possibilities for a humanized and humanizing alternative grounded in faith, hope, strength, solidarity and love.
For more than 40 years, following in the tradition of other great transformative troubadours such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Springsteen has performed the role of responsible public musician/intellectual driven by a profound urge to make sense of a complex and ever-changing world. In doing so, over the years he has increasingly reflected a more radical vision reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht.
Like Brecht, Springsteen works to provide not only a mirror on the world (a reflective component), and window into the world (an insightful component), but also hammers for building a better world (a transformative component). The combination of knowledge, understanding, and action is rooted in a desire to fuel the ongoing work to realize the promise/dream of a more free, fair, just, and democratic society.
The escalating assaults on working people, the concentration of wealth, privilege and power, wars of aggression, police-state violence and surveillance, corrupt political and economic systems, etc., have stirred Springsteen’s passions and led to a fierce, righteous and well-founded anger of late. His latest releases drip with blood and pain while laced with love, hope, and faith in the human capacity for solidarity and change. He understands that when we lessen our outrage in the face of dehumanization we diminish our love for the dehumanized and we thus diminish ourselves.
Hope, he suggests, is rooted in holding onto and nurturing our humanity in the face of powerful forces driven to degrade us. Real hope is revealed through the power of love we carry with us always. Real hope must be informed, involved and grounded in comprehending that self-realization and self-determination are rooted in a profound dependence on others. It is reciprocal love, i.e. social love that creates the possibility to become more fully human.
Springsteen grasps that continuing in the long-haul collective struggle to address and overcome the momentous challenges we face, while simultaneously working for different and better alternatives (always a strenuous task), requires experiences of collective joy and happiness.
While the joy and happiness is rarely distanced in a Springsteen performance from the harrowing nature of badland dominant systems that bring death to hometowns across the country and world, there is also a sense that Springsteen apprehends the sometime importance of appreciating and experiencing the music as a joy in itself.
That experience of “music as a joy in itself” is a precursor to what it might feel like to live in a decent society. Happy Birthday Bruce!
Doug Morris, Ph.D. lives in Mechancisburg and teaches at West Chester University. As guitarist and singer he will host a “Springsteen Birthday Celebration” at the Cornerstone on Saturday, September 20th at 7:30 p.m.