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Springsteen soft-pedals his anger on Tom Joad

by Charles Taylor

Bruce Springsteen says "fuck" for the first time on record on The Ghost of Tom Joad (Columbia), and he says it as if he wished the next words out of his mouth were "Pardon my French." Throughout Tom Joad, he sings in such a hushed voice that, though the backing is mostly acoustic, words and even whole phrases are swallowed up. (It's ironic that the nasal whisper he uses on some tunes marks the first time he can truly be called the new Dylan.) I can't imagine anyone's understanding what he's saying here without using headphones or following the lyric sheet. And that's the problem. Tom Joad hangs its head dutifully and asks forgiveness, when it should look us dead in the eye and snarl.

Why is Springsteen muting what he has to say? Perhaps because the characters he's singing for have all been beaten down by circumstance, bad luck, hard times. "Well you get so sick of fightin'/You lose your fear of the end," sings the man deserted by his lover in the plaintive, affecting "Dry Lightning," the best song here. But that's not how it was on Nebraska (1982), the album Tom Joad is clearly intended to continue. Springsteen sang Nebraska in a hard, flat, declarative voice that neither asked forgiveness nor forgave. On the opening, title cut, he sang as Charley Starkweather before his execution. If you wondered what a '50s mass murderer had to do with an '80s State of the Union report, the rest of the album answered that question by laying out an America where those in power acted as if "America" didn't exist as either concept or reality. When the powerful act as if their actions had no consequences, then a bad-news JD who kills for fun is merely taking their ethos to its logical conclusion, and telling the truth when he explains his killing spree by saying, "I guess there's just a meanness in this world."

On Tom Joad's "Highway 29," a shoestore clerk who stages a bloody bank robbery with the woman he falls for explains their actions by saying, "I told myself it was all something in her/But . . . I knew it was something in me." The feeling of Tom Joad is a deeply penitent one. The characters here have stopped trying to connect their circumstances to anything other than their own hard luck, and by depriving his characters of the anger that drove Nebraska, Springsteen has done the same.

Much of what he does on Tom Joad makes sense. The focus is often on immigrants, who, Springsteen knows, have become our new scapegoats. The title's reference to the hero of The Grapes of Wrath draws a parallel between the Depression and today. The Mexican brothers of "Sinaloa Cowboys" who cross the border and work as migrant fruit pickers might be right out of Steinbeck, if Springsteen didn't collapse five decades in the course of a few lines and have the brothers wind up cooking methamphetamine. (Details like the teenage Mexican hustlers of "Balboa Park," who sell themselves and smuggle coke, make explicit the meaner world this album takes place in.)

But the sound of Tom Joad isn't mean enough now that the Reaganite politics Springsteen assailed on Nebraska have come back minus the mask of Reagan's doddering benevolence. A Springsteen album on the casualties of the Republican junta should have a hard, direct sound that would make Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, if they were to come across it on the radio, think the man singing would kill them if they looked at him sideways. My guess is, Springsteen can't get further than a moody depressiveness because that would mean calling into question the sense of community that has always been an article of faith for him, the thing that, when he performs live, can make every person in an arena feel he or she has a stake in what he's acting out for us.

I think, though, that Springsteen has yet to confront what bedeviled Kurt Cobain: the realization that a good portion of your audience aligns itself with things that your music despises. You could sense that in the way some of Springsteen's audience turned the negation of "Born in the U.S.A." into an affirmation. Or the way that, on his last tour, some fans spoke contemptuously of the gang of young-turk musicians who backed him and pushed him toward a hard, metallic sound. For Tom Joad to cut, Springsteen would have had to acknowledge that a majority of Americans have had a hand in bringing about a political climate where what he holds sacred, the idea of America as a community where everyone's actions affect everyone else, doesn't really exist. He can see through the lies of Reagan's National Renewal and the GOP's Contract with America. But he can't see through the lies of Tom Joad, Steinbeck's phantom witness to the abuses of power. And by embracing that "We the people" sentimentality, he's steered clear of the questions of complicity that might shake up the premises and promises of his music - perhaps unalterably.


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