Working class hero looks back in anger


With the sad specter of two presidential candidates vying for the title of “Defender of the Working Class” in addition to the recent destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy upon parts of New Jersey, it seemed appropriate to focus this month’s column on a musician who I have decidedly mixed feelings about— that earnest champion of the Average Joe, Bruce Springsteen.

The Springsteen of the early-mid-’70s was a starry-eyed seeker, obsessed with Dylanesque wordplay and stories of doomed teenagers seeking escape from their dead end lives along the Jersey Shore.

By the end of that decade, however, Springsteen’s vision had hardened considerably, due in part to a court battle with his former manager that kept him out of the studio for two years but also influenced by the country’s stagnant economy and rising unemployment rate.

It was this Springsteen that I was first introduced to, as a pre-teen riding my bike around my family’s neighborhood with a transistor radio strapped to the handlebars, listening to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 count down every Friday night.

The first Springsteen song I remember hearing is “Prove It All Night,” the lone hit off his 1978 album “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” the punk-influenced burst of bile and frustration that, for me at least, stands as the high point of the man’s career.

Far from championing the dignity and worth of the Everyday American, on “Darkness” Springsteen portrays their world as a kind of slow motion hell tolerable to only the most soul deadened and creatively depleted. The words and music emanate a palpable disgust for the unadventurous majority who merely accept the lives they inherit from their similarly disenfranchised elders, while Springsteen’s delivery betrays an almost genetic abhorrence of the stifling working class life.

On “Adam Raised A Cain” Springsteen recounts his tumultuous relationship with his father, a factory worker who turned his work-related rage against his family.

“Daddy worked his whole life, for nothing but the pain,

Now he walks these empty rooms, looking for something to blame.”

His father is also the central figure in “Factory,” a depiction of the hollowed out life of a wage slave.

“Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain

I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain

Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life

The working, the working, just the working life.”

In the world Springsteen imagines in these songs, the very act of dreaming for a better life can be every bit as destructive as the soul-numbing grind of factory work.

“Blow away the dreams that tear you apart

Blow away the dreams that break your heart”

(Promised Land)

You simply don’t hear voices like this on the radio anymore. Throughout “Darkness,”Springsteen howls, moans, and damn near speaks in tongues as he bends vowels and sputters incoherently into the void. This is also the one and only album where the full range of his guitar talent is allowed free reign, as he injects vicious, abbreviated solos that pop up like funhouse ghouls or an East Coast reincarnation of Hendrix at his angriest and most concise.

My favorite moment on the album comes during that first song I heard riding the night air on my battered Huffy, “Prove It All Night.” There comes a moment, three quarters of the way through the song, when the music drops out from under him and, in a eerie whispered aside, Springsteen offers words of encouragement to a would-be paramour struggling to break free of her conformist family and friends.

“Baby, tie your hair back in a long white bow,

Meet me in the fields out behind the dynamo,

You hear the voices telling you not to go,

They made their choices and they’ll never know,

What it means to steal, to cheat, to lie,

What it’s like to live and die.”

In one verse, Springsteen sums up the overriding theme of the entire album—To break free of the past you have to be willing to risk everything, up to and including your very life.

That realization was one Springsteen had earned through experience, as a young man who saw no future beyond the one his father had lived out, who decided early on that he wasn’t cut out for that life and did everything in his power to escape it.

Which made it all the more disappointing when, as I moved into my teenage years, Springsteen seemed to lose much of his previous eloquence, both musically and lyrically, replacing a personal, deeply felt anger with banner-ready platitudes and music that paled in comparison to his best ’70s and early ’80s work. Maybe it happened when he hired a personal trainer and began dating young Hollywood starlets, shortly after the mega success of his “Born In The USA” album; maybe middle age just didn’t suit the man’s art.

All of which does nothing to dim the power of those early sides, which, during the final weeks of the never-ending presidential election cycle, I listened to over and over again. That particular trial is, mercifully, behind us; but the ones Springsteen imagines in the songs of Darkness on the Edge of Town,” ones that are just as real today as they were in 1978, well, those seem to be a permanent part of our landscape now.



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