The Cabernet Grapes of Wrath Tour '95
The Boss' working-stiff act is unconvincing
By ADAM BLOCK
Twenty years ago Jon Landau penned the deathless phrase, "I have seen rock
'n' roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." In return,
Springsteen made the critic his manager. Now, after two dud CDs and with
his creative career in limbo, Springsteen has tried to reinvent himself as
"folk music past." His new acoustic LP, "Looking for The Ghost of Tom
Joad," is all muffled ballads about folks paralyzed in quiet desperation:
the ex-con who can't bring himself to steal; the illegal Mexicano watching
his friend blow up in the meth lab they're tending; the border guard who
can't do his job without aiding an illegal piece of skirt.
My guess is that after he won an Oscar for "Streets of Philadelphia," Bruce figured, "If I earn all those plaudits for impersonating a noble homo afflicted with AIDS, why not churn out an LP portraying a roster of desperate souls paralyzed on the margins of contemporary society?" And the live show, at least, has scored reverential write-ups.
God knows it's easier to listen earnestly to one of Springsteen's dark
ballads than to actually talk to a homeless person and engage him as a
human being. But if people start believing that the former is brave and
sufficient penance for failing to do the latter, then what Bruce has
proffered becomes practically pernicious. It's reminiscent of all those
folks who wept after seeing "Schindler's List" and then sat idly by, or
flipped the channel, as reports of ethnic cleansing, mass rape and the
systematic slaughter of unarmed people poured in from Bosnia.
I don't want to be too cynical, but this is all just a little too
vicariously empathetic. I thought the title cut of Springsteen's CD was an
admission that Steinbeck's hero, who embodies the common cause found among
outcasts, is MIA in our contemporary "Depression." But in concert
Springsteen talked about being recently moved anew by the movie "The Grapes of Wrath" and recited Joad's speech about "there only being one big soul that we're all a part of" as a current truth rather than an ironic
counterpoint to the distances between his songs' subjects and his well-heeled audiences on his current short series of $40-a-head acoustic recitals.
Those distances are pretty surreal. Bruce opened his recent show in
Berkeley, California saying, "Silence played an important role when I wrote these songs so I'd appreciate it if you could keep quiet. Down in LA, their cell phones made me have to get heavy with some super models." I figured that was a crack indicating some awareness of the income bracket he was attracting, but it was probably just the truth. And when Springsteen introduced one song by saying that many folks are just a few paychecks away from homelessness, and that he'd found himself imagining not being able to care for his wife or help his kids -- I'm sorry, but I couldn't quite suspend that much disbelief, not while gazing at a guy who figured in the Forbes 500.
Finally, I don't know how important Springsteen thinks it is that the
people he's evincing such profound sympathy for be reached or touched by
these tunes where he impersonates their misery. I don't know if he hopes
the songs will reach much beyond folks (like me) who pay their PBS pledges
with airline mileage credit cards. But I couldn't help but think that Woody and Dylan made some effort to run with the folks about whom they wrote - and to craft music in a vernacular they shared. Springsteen is more concerned with invoking his subject's plausible cultural and historical antecedents than their current tastes, needs, or concerns. (Hell, the folks he's singing about are probably listening to gangsta rap, Metallica, and Garth Brooks.) His Carveresque tales of desperation amongst the marginalized seem contrived from an uncomfortable distance, and I doubt that many of the songs' subjects dropped four Alexander Hamiltons for a chance to catch him in Berkeley.
In Preston Sturges' film "Sullivan's Travels," Joel McCrea plays a
successful Hollywood director of screwball comedies who feels compelled by
the Depression to make a serious Capra-esque film about social justice.
Setting off disguised as a bum, he ends up jailed in a dismal Southern
prison. At a rare screening for the prisoners, McCrea discovers that the
anarchic humor of a cartoon provides the cons with glorious brief respite
from their grim lives. McCrea learns first-hand that a dose of laughter and delight can offer the oppressed something they need far more than any earnest indictment of social ills.
Of course Sturges managed to have it both ways: crafting a gloriously
improbable comedy with an astute social conscience. The point, though, is
that a "rock" LP by the Boss stands a much better chance of appealing to
the misfits chronicled on "Looking for the Ghost of Tom Joad," and offering them some visceral inspiration, than the mock-daguerrotypes on his current release. If seeing "The Grapes of Wrath" helped shape Springsteen's current LP, Landau ought to send him to "Sullivan's Travels" before he undertakes another.