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Little truths

Springsteen plays a picture of the broken American dream

by Ted Drozdowski

Surrounded as we are by the buzz of alterna-rock, it's sometimes easy to forget that under the knotty thud of power chords, the incense clouds of feedback, and the spill of angst-ridden singers' guts, there are songs. Bands like Oasis and Weezer make it easier to remember, since their pop confections hang on obvious hooks. Same with more ambitious emotionalists like Courtney Love and Trent Reznor. But in the '90s, much of the power of words has been replaced by the power of power; raw sound, whether it's the sneering electro-bleat of high-tech wiseasses like the Chemical Brothers or the crack-fueled neutron bombing of Ministry, has replaced lyrics as the carrier of meaning and message in much current music.

So along comes Bruce Springsteen -- purveyor of '80s bombast, celebrator of the underachiever and the underdog, blue jeans-wearing working-class yob with a damned romantic streak bigger than the Jersey shore, rich rock star from LA -- to play two nights at the Orpheum last weekend that reminded the more jaundiced and cynical who came to gawk (yeah, count me in) what good songwriting is about: humanity.

It helped that he was alone, just Bruce and his acoustic guitars. Old hits like "Born in the USA" and "Darkness on the Edge of Town" were peeled back, actually reworked as blues arrangements complete with utterly lame slide playing. But the musicianship, otherwise solidly capable, wasn't the point. Springsteen's points were the point. And without the widespread keyboards, Max Weinberg's big drum beat, and all those layers of guitar, "Born in the USA" 's message of disillusionment came through, and the jingoistic anthem the song's original arrangement forced it to become slipped away like a black-sheep cousin who's overstayed his welcome.

It's true that even when he's singing in the first person Springsteen never seems to give away much of himself -- save, perhaps, for what's in his lighter love songs. Unlike a songwriter such as Bill Morrissey, who doesn't seem to spare himself anything when a song calls for it, Springsteen never tells us exactly what's on his mind as he reflects what he's taken in from observing the world. We never get to look into Bruce's personal heart of darkness. But he does have a knack for poking America's soft white underbelly, a knack that traces its lineage straight from Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Phil Ochs.

No surprise his new CD's called The Ghost of Tom Joad (Columbia). With his American populist orientation, Springsteen would naturally relate to John Steinbeck's strong-willed Dust Bowl-era hero. And hearing him start last Saturday night's Orpheum date with big strummed chords and a blast of harmonica was to momentarily be transported to an imaginary night in '63 when Dylan was getting his feet wet on Bleecker Street, plowing through the catalogues of Guthrie and Pete Seeger and trying new songs like "Blowin' in the Wind" on the emerging folk audience. Most of what Springsteen played seemed like direct descendants of Dylan's "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" -- stories of how the downtrodden stay down, despite their efforts to struggle up. About how there's always another mountain, another danger, another threat to freedom from want. And that freedom is really what most of Springsteen's people -- hell, most people -- hunger for, bottom line.

Perhaps the best of Springsteen's new songs played at the Orpheum was "Galveston Bay." Based on racial conflicts in the Gulf of Mexico fishing industry during the mid-'80s, it's the story of two men, their tales told in parallel. One is an ex-GI who fought in Vietnam and returned home to marry, start a family, and become a shrimp fisherman. The other is a South Vietnamese man who fought the same war, then fled to America looking for opportunity after the fall of Saigon. As a culture, we're notorious for scapegoating, so when diminished shrimp harvests occur, it's the Vietnamese fisherman who gets blamed, and the Ku Klux Klan are called in. From there, the story gets real-life complicated; there's death, revenge, fear, and eventually a kind of quiet reconciliation, a silent tolerance more than acceptance. And yet it somehow feels dangerously impermanent.

Maybe it's just me, but it seems like our world's feeling that way now -- after 15 years of diminished economic expectations, diminished educational opportunities, and lying by the government elite about what the hell's good and right for the rest of us. Especially the underprivileged. So far, the biggest beef I've heard from critics and fans is that Springsteen's new CD doesn't have the uplift, the romantic possibilities and potential triumphs the '80s work that made him famous always seemed to yield. Well, if I felt that way about Springsteen's Tom Joad, maybe someone could nudge me into re-listening to that '80s work, where I might find that the punch line of many of those great songs isn't triumph, but acceptance. Now acceptance isn't horrible; it's good to feel good about one's own life. But it sure ain't triumph. And if I had a beef with the darkness of Tom Joad, maybe I'd ask myself whether I'm such a pop escapist at heart that I was just hoping for a little pick-me-up from Bruce -- or whether, after all the bombardment, I've finally bought into Newt Gingrich and crew's Big Lies.


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