Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Bruce Springsteen: Rock & Redemption by Dr Gary Burnett

Who is he & why does it matter?

I’ve seen Bruce play on a few occasions since then, most recently a couple of months ago. On 12 July this year I went down to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play the RDS in Dublin. It was a fine evening and I got myself a prime spot leaning against a barrier about 30 yards from the stage. I’d got there early about 5pm so there was a bit of a wait before Bruce appeared, to rapturous applause at the appointed time of 8 o’clock. And to my absolute delight, there, in the middle of Dublin on the 12th of July – what did he kick off the concert with – a song from his 1984 Born in the USA album entitled – “No Surrender”. I turned excitedly to point out the significance of this to my new found friends on either side of me, one, a Dubliner, the other a guy from Limerick, but they looked at me as if I was mad! Never mind, I liked it!

As we made our way out of the RDS after 11 o’clock, after Bruce had given us over 3 hours of his magic, I overheard a couple talking in front of me. One said to the other “that was like a religious experience, wasn’t it?”

He was right, of course – it was like a religious experience. We all felt it – the power of the music, the sense of community, the recogition in the songs of the desperateness of the human condition, the sense of darkness, the failure – and yet the aspiration, the hope for something better, for redemption, and, yes, the joy and celebration. A bit like church, then, on its better days!

Increasingly, I think, Springsteen is deliberately aiming his performances as something more than just music performances with the realization that what he does, both as a song-writer and a performer has the power to touch people quite deeply and inspire them. Springsteen commentator Jimmy Guterman says “Springsteen may not believe he can heal his audience through his art, but it’s clear he thinks his job is to make people feel more human, feel more alive, feel more understood”. Eric Alterman, another Springsteen commentator reports of having been at a concert – the “music filled every crevice of that small hall with rock’n roll so powerful and majestic, it grabbed your soul out of your body and scrubbed it clean before putting it back in”

At times during the concerts these days, Bruce becomes a gospel preacher, exhorting and whipping up the emotion of his audience. This has been going on for quite a few years now - in the highly acclaimed Reunion Tour of 1999, when he and the E Street Band came together again after an 11 year hiatus, Entertainment Weekly said the tour was “as much travelling tent revival as reunion tour”. Z Magazine said “as we come to the end of the 20th C, it’s increasingly difficult to believe in the power of rock & roll to change lives. But with the current Bruce Springsteen tour, the tradition rediscovers a glorious, life-affirming eloquence”.
And in case you’re wondering, there’s seems to be no send-up or irony intended when Springsteen goes into preacher mode – it seems like he feels he’s tapping into a rich vein of American heritage, which is entirely appropriate to utilize in his very different context. Preacher Springsteen.

Now, for for those of you who are not a big Bruce fans, or are unfamiliar with him, let me give you a brief introduction, before talking about the spiritual elements in Springsteen’s body of work.

Introduction to Bruce Springsteen

Born in 1949, in New Jersey, Springsteen was raised a Roman Catholic. His early life was marked by struggles at school with both fellow pupils and the nuns, and at home by a difficult relationship with his father. By the time he was 16, he was leading bands and recording songs and by the time he was 21, a music critic was saying, “"I have never been so overwhelmed by totally unknown talent”. In 1972 Springsteen signed a record deal with Columbia with the help of John Hammond, who had signed Bob Dylan to the same label a decade earlier, and in 1973 released his first 2 albums to critical acclaim but not much commercial success. It was around this time that music critic and producer Jon Landau said famously, "I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time."

With the release of Born to Run in 1975, Springsteen finally found success. With its panoramic imagery, thundering production, and desperate optimism, many people would rank this among the best rock and roll albums of all time and it is possibly Springsteen's finest work. It established him as a major rock artist and later that year, Springsteen appeared on the covers of both Time and Newsweek. He had arrived in the public concsiousness and within 9 years, after he released his Born in the USA album, one of the best selling ablums of all time, Springsteen had become a house-hold name and one of the most highly visible figures in popular culture.

25 years later, after some 30 albums, Springsteen seems as popular and relevant as ever. To be sure, the 1990s were a period when he admits himself “some people would say I didn’t do my best work”. But after he re-formed the E Street Band in 1999 and embarked on a triumphant tour, he returned to major success with a series of critically acclaimed and popular albums in the last 7 years.

This last decade has seen Springsteen become more and more active politically, supporting Amnesty International and the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Barak Obama. During the Obama campaign he appealed for "truth, transparency and integrity in government”...he said “our freedoms have been damaged and curtailed by eight years of a thoughtless, reckless and morally-adrift administration.”

This year has seen Springsteen play to over 2 million people already. The concert I attended in Dublin in July is typical where I saw people of all ages from children to senior citizens enjoying the fun. There’s a wide appeal in Springsteen’s music and performances, which have the power to draw in people of all ages and background.

The first 11 comments are the continuation of this great article.


Andrew Kenny said...

What’s it all about then – what is the secret to the enduring success and appeal of Bruce Springsteen?

Jeffrey Symynkywicz puts it this way: he says we feel that “Springsteen is there for us – when we feel as though he is addressing us personally in his songs...his music helps us to make sense of the sometimes tangled, often disparate threads of our lives. This” he says, “is at its foundation, a religious undertaking, a ministry of healing”

Somehow Springsteen’s songs seem to reflect the full scope of our human predicament, when so much of contemporary music deals in trivialities. In his song Thunder Road, he says – “you and I know what this world can do” – there’s a realism in the songs about the harshness of life, the injustices that are part of the world, the compromises we all make, the conflicts we all face, the brokenness of our lives and relationships – but, but, somehow in the midst of all this, he manages to strike a note of defiant hopefulness, of faith. Despair is not the last word. The lyrics and the driving optimism of the music have the power to lift us beyond ourselves.

That’s what the songs and the performances communicate; that’s why there’s power in the music, that’s why we’re drawn to Bruce Springsteen.

Andrew Kenny said...

The Spirituality of Springsteen’s music

So let’s think a little more closely about the spirituality of Springsteen’s music. His songs have always been rich with biblical imagery – sometimes in his early works this simply showed his disaffection with the Christianity he grew up with; latterly it’s been much more respectful and sophisticated - and there are a number of prominent enduring themes in his work which resonate very strongly with Christian faith and which reflect a deep spirituality. I’d like us to think about three of these this evening. But before I do that let’s hear a little of one of Springsteen’s more overtly spiritual songs, Jesus was an only Son from his 2005 album, Devils and Dust, which Christianity Today said was “haunting and beautiful, chock full of songs of hope, love, and redemption as well as tales of sin, brokenness, and confession”.

The song poignantly captures the bond between Mother and Child:
“As he walked up Calvary Hill / His mother walking beside him / In the path where his blood spilled / Jesus was an only son / In the hills of Nazareth / As he lay reading the Psalms of David / At his mother's feet …
Well, Jesus kissed his mother's hands / Whispered, "Mother, still your tears" / For remember the soul of the universe / Willed a world and it appeared.”

One writer after hearing the song said that he understood for the first time Catholic devotion to Mary. It’s a very powerful song that brings us face to face with Christ’s humanity and an aspect of the suffering that went on that day at Golgotha so long ago.

The three spiritual themes I’d like us to think a little bit about are Redemption & Hope, Community and Social Justice.

Redemption & Hope

The first theme for us to think about is that of Redemption & Hope. Throughout his career, Springsteen has brought us graphic songs which tell us stories of people facing difficulty, hardship – sometimes losers, sometimes victims, more often than not ordinary people like you and me, just trying the make it. He doesn’t stint on the bleak details and sometimes that’s all we’re left with in a song – the bleakness and the harshness that life has dealt someone. But for the most part, he gives us more than that and there’s an optimism, a hope of redemption that shines through.

Andrew Kenny said...

Badlands is a song from the late 70s about battling the forces of alienation and fragmentation, where Springsteen said he was inspired by the "everyday kind of heroism" of ordinary people struggling to eke out a living. He sings of “trouble in the heartland...I'm caught in a cross fire...”; he talks about “Workin' in the fields till you get your back burned”. But somehow there remains hope – Springsteen goes on to invoke the three theological virtues of the New Testament:

“I believe in the love that you gave me, I believe in the faith that could save me
I believe in the hope and I pray that some day
It may raise me above these”

Springsteen talks about the “relentless belief on all four corners” of the album this song came from. Rob Kirkpatrick in his Springsteen book said that this relentless belief in even the darkest times was the substance of what Springsteen would explore for the rest of his career.

In his classic and defiant anthem from 1975, Born to Run Springsteen tells us, “The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive; Everybody's out on the run tonight, but there's no place left to hide”. Despite that, there are possibilities “...Someday girl I don't know when we're gonna get to that place, Where we really want to go and we'll walk in the sun”. And beautifully, this vision of a better future is a possibility for everyone – not just for beautiful people like us, righteous people like us, winners like us – it’s for tramps like us. As Jesus said, he didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentence.

In another song from the same early era - Promised Land – Springsteen echoes how most of us have felt at one time or another:

“I've done my best to live the right way, I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold, Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode”

“There's a dark cloud rising from the desert floor, I packed my bags and I'm heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down, That ain't got the faith to stand its ground”

The trick here is to make us face our dark moments, not to deny them, but not to give in to them either. There may be a dark cloud rising, but Springsteen makes us lift up our heads

“...Mister I ain't a boy, no I'm a man
And I believe in a promised land”.

Andrew Kenny said...

Moving forward to more recent material, The Rising album of 2002 was Springsteen’s heartfelt response and reflection on the sad events of 9/11. The songs take us through the depths of darkness, a “lonesome day”, “into the fire”, into the depth of human loss - but manage to emerge, somehow, defiantly hopeful. There are no easy answers here – but somehow there’s faith and there’s hope, and there’s love as the song “Into the Fire” says; somehow there’s even the possibility of celebration, as in “Mary’s Place”. (meet me at Mary’s place – we’re goin’ to have a party: surely more than a nod here to his Catholic backgound?). How do you live brokenhearted, Springsteen asks in Mary’s Place – how do we get this thing started, he sings? Good questions – how do we overcome the tragedy of our times, how indeed do we live in the midst of brokeness. And the song seems to answer back that it’s not by retreating into our pain, but by joining in community with others that we can begin to celebrate once again. “My heart’s dark, but it’s rising”, says the singer.

The final song of the album is the Rising, written from the point of view of a New York City firefighter on 9/11.

Can't see nothin' in front of me
Can't see nothin' coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can't feel nothing but this chain that binds me
Lost track of how far I've gone
How far I've gone, how high I've climbed
On my back's a sixty pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile line

Come on up for the rising
Com on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Although the song was first written with the tradegy of 9/11 in mind, later in 2005, in the VH1 Storytellers video, where Springsteen explained some of the songs he has written – he talks about this song more generally - he says it’s about the darkness that we all experience from time to time. But then, says Springsteen - “The song moves into gospel, into transformation” We hear the line – “Bells ringing filled the air” - Springsteen says these are bells of transformation. After that there’s a refrain taken up with li-li-lis. Springsteen says “What do the lilis say? - Sing with me; stand along side me, we will stand together in this” – Springsteen commentator Jeffrey Symynkywicz calls them “abbreviated alleluias, a song of life in the midst of death”; the song goes on to talk about about being in the “garden of a thousand sighs” (from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night) – “everybody’s been there”, says Springsteen.

Andrew Kenny said...

But even there, in such a place, he says “we are surrounded by sacred things”. The song goes on to say “May I feel your arms around me” – this is what we need, explains Springsteen. “Come on up, lay your hands in mine” – “that’s transformation”, he says again. Somehow the song speaks powerfully of transendence and resurrection in the face of death & despair. At the end of the song there’s a “burning wind” come to fill the singer, a sort of Pentecost, which comes to transform the pain. Those of us who are Christians can hear the very Christian resonances in the song – the courage and the faith that shines out through the pages of our New Testament – the faith in the face of opposition and suffering that God is in control, that there’s a reality beyond the despair and ultimately there is the hope of resurrection. “Come on up for the rising!”

A few years later, in 2006, Springsteen surprised his fanbase by launching a new band to do a tour based entirely on American folk music. Entitled the Seeger Sessions Band after American folk pioneer Pete Seeger, the group recorded and performed mostly traditional folk and gospel songs. The band consisted of about 18 musicians, including a brass section, fiddlers, banjo and guitar players, accordians, penny whistle and piano. And the music – well if the idea of folk music turns you off – this stuff is simply the most joyous, toe-tapping infectious sort of music you could ever imagine.

Andrew Kenny said...

Springsteen said of the music they made: “It was a carnival ride, the sound of surprise and the pure joy of playing. Street corner music, parlor music, tavern music, wilderness music, circus music, church music, gutter music, it was all there waiting in those songs."

Clearly the music is a complete departure for Springsteen – a departure from his E Street Band music certainly, but probably not in the direction and spirit of his music. Both previous two albums, the Rising and Devils and Dust took the religious imagery of his earlier work to new levels and, along with the Seeger Sessions, there seems to have been a reawakened spirituality in Springsteen’s work. Overtly spiritual songs included O Mary don’t you weep, a Negro spiritual which celebrates God’s victory in the Exodus; This little light of mine, Keep your eyes on the prize, Jacob’s ladder; When the saints go marching in. All songs, again, of defiant hope

And, finally in thinking about songs of Redemption & Hope, we could mention the title track from his 2009 album, Working on a Dream

“I'm working on a dream
Though sometimes it feels so far away
I'm working on a dream
And how it will be mine someday...

Sunrise come I climb the ladder
The new day breaks and I'm working on a dream
I'm working on a dream”

Once again Springsteen taps into the sense of hope and aspiration that is inside us all – that search for significance that we all have. The sense of clinging to life, the hope for a better day that is part of being truely human and comes from God himself. In Springsteen’s songs he surely taps into the richness of the biblical narrative of human fall & failure, the graphic depiction through the Bible’s stories and literature of sin, both individual and structural, and the scriptural hope for God to come and put it all to rights, to change and transform the world.

Andrew Kenny said...

Time and time again, and increasingly recently, he shows us that that faith and love are the key to a better future and he urges us not to abandon our hope and our humanity in the midst of the darkness that is around us. In many ways, this is a prophetic voice, and it is precisely because it echoes the biblical story of fall and redemption that the music seems so inspirational and it touches people in a way that they recognise as religious. Springsteen’s music really is gospel music in a very real sense.

As Christians of course, we know what is the basis for our hopes – the grace and lovingkindness of God, the resurrection of Christ and his promise for a renewed world. On his Reunion Tour of 1999, Springsteen would shout almost every night “I can’t promise you eternal life, but I can promise you life right now!”. Reminiscent of the theology we find in John’s gospel & elsewhere in the NT. In John 10:10 Jesus says, “I am come that they may have life and life in all its fulness”. In the NT, eternal life starts right here and now, and the basis of real hope for both the present and the future is the life of Jesus Christ which he freely offers us.

But the idea of having hope in the midst of darkness is a deeply Christian, deeply biblical and deeply human idea and somehow the lyrics and music of Bruce Springsteen manage to take us there and remind us powerfully that redemption and hope remain as glorious possibilities.


Closely related to the ideas of hope and redemption in Springsteen’s work is the sense of community, our next theme, which we’ll consider briefly. Springsteen’s songs are rarely anxious personal introspections. They are often sprawling epic narratives populated by a great variety of characters who interact for good or ill. But central is the idea that our human connectedness, our community, is central to combating the forces of chaos and darkness.

That’s an idea that pretty close to the way in which community is presented in the bible. God gave Adam a companion because it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone. That’s the way God has made us, actually, to live and share and help one another – to be in relationship together. And throughout the biblical record, God works with people – calling Israel to be the vehicle through whom he would work out his purposes to redeem the world; calling a new people comprised of Jews and Gentiles into the community of Christ-followers. And in the end, in Revelation 20 we get this glorious picture of the new Jerusalem coming to reside on earth, where it says “the dwelling place of God is with humanity. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God”. However much we experience salvation as individuals, the biblical vision is for this community of the redeemed to experience God’s promises together.

A lot of Springsteen’s music seems to capture this sense of the importance of community – in many of his songs it’s through ties of blood and love, and shared humanity that his characters find a way forward, a way through hardship, a way to face the future and a way to hope.

Andrew Kenny said...

One song in particular that seems to catch all this particularly well is Land of Hope & Dreams, which was sung repeartedly on the Rising Tour of 2002. Jimmy Guterman, in his book Runaway American Dream, says this is one of Springsteen’s “most redemptive and optimistic” songs and in his opinion “ranks among the greatest of all Springsteen compositions, a not-too-neat summation of the lyrical and musical themes he’s explored for most of his career”.

Driven by Max Weinberg’s compulsive and dramatic drumming, the song is really a gospel train song – “leave behind your sorrows, let this day be the last; tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all his darkness past”. Performed live, Springsteen goes firmly into gospel preacher mode, calling on the crowd to raise their hands. Get on board the gospel train, the song seems to say – but this is no individualistic ticket to heaven ride. Springsteen sings “I will provide for you, And I'll stand by your side; You'll need a good companion for this part of the ride”. The road to future hope & redemption, then, is not a solo journey – it’s for all of us to take together. And those who take it together are indeed a motley crew – in biblical terms it’s the Jews and Gentiles together, the male and female, the slave and free of Paul’s world; it’s the prostitutes and tax collectors and maimed and social outcasts that Jesus welcomed –

Andrew Kenny said...

This train, says Springsteen - Carries losers and winners
This Train - Carries whores and gamblers
This Train - Carries lost souls, the broken hearted, thieves and fools and kings

If you get on board this train - Dreams will not be thwarted; Faith will be rewarded. All aboard, says Springsteen.

This song is a very powerful evocation of the need for a shared humanity, a sense of community in the midst of a fractured, increasingly individualistic world. And it seems to me that here Springsteen has tapped right into a rich vein of biblical thinking – no wonder the song sounds inspirational: Play Land of Hope & Dreams (Barcelona DVD)

Social Justice

The final theme to mention is that of social justice.

Over the years, Springsteen has been involved in a number of high profile causes. He was involved in the 1985 in “We are the world” recording on behalf of the Ethiopian famine; he joined the Amnesty International Human Rights Tour at the end of the 80s; he’s been working with World Hunger Year for the past 25 years and did another major fundraiser a couple of weeks ago; he’s lent a hand to a group called No Nukes; he’s been recognised by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; he’s been reputed to have given away millions to various charities; in his current US tour each night he asks fans to "remember your neighbours," and food-bank reps traverse the crowds in search of donations; in 2003, along with the E Street Band, he participated in a series of concerts to benefit the anti-war group MoveOn.org and became increasingly outspoken about his opposition to the war in Iraq and his antipathy towards the Bush administration. One thing that amazed me at the time of the Bush-Blair action in Iraq was the lack of protest from the world of rock and roll – you can understand it, sadly, from the church, but rock & roll surely, was supposed rage and protest – at least to ask a few awkward questions, raise a hand. But in the early days of the Iraq war, there were disappointingly few voices raised. Bruce Springsteen was one of those voices, however.

Andrew Kenny said...

During the Rising Tour of 2002-2003, he regularly made what he called a public service announcement during the encores in which he talked about the American people being misled over the war in Iraq and appealing for accountibility from their leaders.

He wrote a piece for the New York Times in 2004 saying “Why is it that the wealthiest nation in the world finds it so hard to keep its promise and faith with its weakest citizens? How do we conduct ourselves during difficult times without killing the things we hold dear?” He went on to actively support Kerry’s failed bid for the presidency in 2004 and then Obama’s successful campaign last year.

His 2008 album Magic was pointedly political in tone – the opener, Radio Nowhere, Springsteen said, was about an end-of-the-world scenario, an apocalyse” - he sings “is there anybody alive out there?” – into the void and the darkness. Is anybody alive or have we all become deadened spirits, just accepting the status quo?; and the song “Last to Die” alludes to John Kerry’s question to congress in April 1971 “how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake”, drawing the inevitable comparison between Vietnam and Iraq. For Springsteen, the last 8 years had been nightime in America and groping through that darkness – finding a way back home – is the theme of the album. He wanted, he said, “to chart the distance between American ideals and American reality”.

Andrew Kenny said...

You can imagine that this sort of stance has not made him popular with some people. But he clearly felt strongly enough about these issues to use his concerts and popularity as a platform for protest and to give a voice to those with no voice. His songs, really, have been doing that consistently over the years anyway – solidarity with the downtroden had characterised many of the songs on the Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska albums from 1978 and 1982; while 1995’s Ghost of Tom Joad told the stories of men & women whom society’s callousness and selfishness had made invisible & unheard, people Springsteen describes as “strugglin to be free”.

One particular song got him into quite a bit of controversy. Springsteen began playing a song called American Skin (41 Shots) in 2001. It was based on the fate of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 22 yr old Guinean immigrant who was shot 41 times by NY City policmen who mistook his wallet for a gun. You can get killed, sings Springsteen, just for living in your American skin. The song provoked the local police association who called for a boycott of Springsteen. One senior policeman called Springsteen “a dirtbag and a fag”. A New York Times piece accused him of being a “limousine liberal”

One commentator said recently, with this theme of social justice in mind “It is no great leap of faith to count Springsteen as a liberation theologian”. Or maybe a prophet – prophets crop up sometimes in the most unlikely places. And if he is, then maybe, maybe, we need to have ears to hear; maybe we as a church need to get a bit more of the prophetic spirit. Prophets in the bible were uncomfortable people to be around – they dressed funny, they did outrageous things, they criticised the people in power, they cried out for justice, for those that had no voice – and the biblical prophet par excellence, Jesus, associated himself with people on the margins, to the chagrin of the influential and well-off of his day. May we’re too comfortable to be around, maybe we’re too silent about the outrages going on around us, maybe we look too clean cut to the people that really need us.

Springsteen’s songs speak to us of losers and immigrants and people out of work; people in trouble and people caught in circumstances they can’t control, people with no power. He gives them a voice. There’s a challenge here to the way things are and to the powerful and influential. And as such the gauntlet is thrown down to us – we who believe in the biblical story of the God who chose to work through a group of slaves he freed; who told us through his prophets that what he really wanted from his people was justice and not religion; who came to us in the person of Jesus, talking about hungering and thirsting after justice, seeking the lost, calling the sinners; and who promises to rebuild our lives and our relationships and eventually our world through the resurrected Messiah – to us comes the challenge of becoming a prophetic voice to our society, making our voice heard for those who have no voice and seeking justice where there is inequality and oppression.


Redemption, community, social justice – these are three broad themes in Springsteen’s work that resonate loudly with the biblical faith we hold dear. In fact, they are probably three of the most central Christian themes. Springsteen’s body of work heralds these loud and clear for us, and often in the most inspiring way. The great thing about Bruce Springsteen, is that the darkness on the edge of town never becomes oppressive – there’s always the hope for a better day, there’s always the possibility of a celebration – so what better way to go out on tonight that by playing a song you’ll all know from Dublin 2007


Jeremy said...

A real tour de force! Thanks for sharing it, Andrew.

Gavin said...

Excellent Stuff & here's a link to another article entitled The Gospel according to Bruce