Even though I'm not an American, no longer young, hate cars, and can recognize why so many people find Springsteen bombastic or histrionic (but not why they find him macho or jingoistic or dumb - that kind of ignorant judgement has plagued Springsteen for a huge part of his career, and is made by smart people who are actually a lot dumber than he has ever been), 'Thunder Road' somehow manages to speak for me.Nick Hornby
It was quite a thrill yesterday to momentarily contribute to the output of Radio 4 rather than merely listening enthusiastically. On last week's Saturday Live, Tracy Chevalier (author of Girl with a Pearl Earring) chose Bruce Springsteen's 'The River' (taken from his 1980 album of the same name) as one of her 'Inheritance Tracks'. This week, the following e-mail was read out:
Far from disspelling American stereotypes, Miss Chevalier's tracks and musings served as a reinforcing catalyst. Bruce Springsteen in 'The River' sums up all that is bad about the USA: redneck racism and insular allegiance to a flag, not a free-world ideal, and a nation which shirks its responsibilities. The American Dream is merely an American delusion.
(Now it is just possible that the writer is saying that Springsteen is depicting and diagnosing 'redneck racism', rather than simply propagating it, but this was a ten-second but in a magazine-style programme, so dominant impressions are what we have to consider.) I could not let this go unchallenged. I went to the programme homepage, and fired off a comment. Imagine my delight when about twenty minutes later, my e-mail was read out, pretty much verbatim:
I have no idea why on Earth you chose to read out such an ill-informed dismissal of Bruce Springsteen. He might perhaps be accused of a brand of macho sentimentalism or unuseful nostalgia but the charge of racism leaves me baffled and rather angry.
But for someone with as much of an investment in Bruce Springsteen and his music as I have, these few words only mark the start of a conversation I would invite.
The original comment that the editors chose to broadcast is close to being a rant - especially as it claims to find all of the negative attributes it outlines contained in 'The River'. In that song, a man tells the story of his life: he gets his girlfriend pregnant, marries her, works construction, struggles later to find work, measures the distance that has grown between him and his wife, and remembers going down to the river with her. It's a highly condensed life-story, and the details that Springsteen uses to bring his sketch to life are objects ('a union card and a wedding coat') and emotions ('I just act like I don't remember/Mary acts like she don't care'). Macroeconomics play their part in the narrator's woes, but he simply states 'Lately there ain't been much work/On account of the economy', and leaves it at that (Simon Frith has noted that Springsteen's focus in his songs on 'individuals' fate[s]' make his brand of populism ambiguous). Whence 'redneck racism' or 'insular allegiance to the flag'?
In my reply I tried to acknowledge arguments that have been levelled against Springsteen and which I can see the reasoning behind, even if they are still arguments that I would still ultimately aim to counter. Saturday Live's stand-in presenter (the Reverend Richard Coles) got closer to aesthetic and cultural issues that I think are genuinely at stake when, after the original comment, he asked his guest, 'When you hear the Boss, Jodi [Picoult], do tears spring to your eyes and do you want to hoist the stars and stripes in front of your clapboard house with your apple trees nodding around?'
Immediately after firing off the e-mail I began to think I had conceded too much (see the Nick Hornby quote at the start). But that need not trouble us if, as I suggested above, we treat the above comments as simply the opening rhetorical moves in a much more extended discussion.
Unfortunately it has taken me longer than I though to write even this much. It's almost midnight, the last song on Nebraska has just started ('Reason to Believe'), and I need to go to sleep, so I shall have to end with a promise to continue this at a later date, in the I-hope-not-too-distant future.
I know you're lonely
For words that I ain't spoken
But tonight we'll be free
All the promises'll be broken
There were ghosts in the eyes
Of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road
In the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets
They scream your name at night in the street
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet
And in the lonely cool before dawn
You hear their engines roaring on
But when you get to the porch they're gone
On the wind, so Mary climb in
It's a town full of losers
And I'm pulling out of here to win