Prove it All Right (revised, 10/30)

So I’m reading the daily Springsteen news on the Backstreets site yesterday, and lo, there’s a notice about Garry W. Tallent’s birthday, which comes with a link to this tribute to Garry, by this fella Mitch Berg, who was so chuffed to be linked to on Backstreets, he tossed in this link to a previous piece on the merits of “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” And they’re both well-written, and deeply-felt, and both (especially the Tallent one) make elegant points about Springsteen’s work, particularly when it comes to the instrumental side (see the Tallent post) and the plight of small-town life on a culturally-hip kid growing up in the middle of not much (“Darkness” piece).

Weird thing though: As Springsteen fans go, Berg is to Minnesota what Chris Christie is to New Jersey: Which is to say, he’s a conservative Republican who either doesn’t understand or refuses to even hear the unreconstructed liberalism that runs through virtually Springsteen song he loves.

Confused? Me too. I’ve spent the last day or two trying to imagine a musician with all of Bruce’s chops, and all of his lyrical facilty, but a completely diametrical political perspective. Bizarro Bruce, let’s call him, is a fierce conservative. His “Nebraska” is a stern call for capital punishment. His “Badlands” celebrates capitalism and shakes its finger at free-loading welfare moms. (“It ain’t no sin to be glad that you’re rich!”) Bizarro’s “Glory Days'” is pretty much the same. “Dancin In the Dark,” etc. etc. Parties are pretty much, you know, bipartisan.

Spend half your life just coverin’ up, and follow the jump. . .

But would you, reader, music fan and person of what I’m guessing are deep beliefs, really throw yourself heart and soul for Bizarro’s arch presentation of your political world? For god’s sake, he wrote the whole “Magic” album as a brutal take-down of Barack Obama! The flag on his courthouse (See “Long Walk Home”) stands for waterboarding, domestic wire-tapping and everything real world Springsteen detested, in chapter, verse, song and song intro, at every stop on the “Magic” tour.

You may dig Bizarro Bruce’s riffs. No reason not to. But does Bizarro “Seeds” (the guy in the limo calls the cops on the impoverished family, we celebrate his position on property rights) really make your heart beat?

I didn’t think so.

So Mitch. As much as I respect your right to have whatever political views you wish (even if they include that ‘Don’t Blame Me, I Voted For Palin’ button-like graphic), and as much as I have come to admire your writing and insight into music, I’m confused.

Politics mean a lot to you. You have strong feelings about what America stands for and how we should proceed to get from here to there. Terrific. But don’t you realize that Springsteen opposes virtually everything you stand for? Even if we don’t include the fiercely anti-establishment verse of “Badlands,” (which I’d argue we should), even if we pretend that the anti-war “Lost in the Flood” was merely a boyhood stumble, there’s so much to muse on. Like for instance “Born in the USA,” with its dead man’s towns and psycho war, and meangingess death and the part at the end where the veteran — brutalized and then ignored by his own country — is left to mutter, “Oh God, no,” as he contemplates his future? Or all of “Nebraska,” with its amoral society, and the chilling disconnection that leads to hopelessness and murder. And how about his cover of “This Land is Your Land” (this was meant as an angry song!) and the Seeger Sessioneers’ take on “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live” (rewritten to ridicule Pres. GWB’s non-response to the flooding of New Orleans).

Which brings us to virtually every song on “Magic”? “Last to Die,” anyone? “Livin’ in the Future”? “Your Own Worst Enemy”? And how about the stirring “Long Walk Home”? Think about that flag on the courthouse: “That means certain things are set in stone/Who we are, what we’ll do, and what we won’t.” If you weren’t listening to any of the many, many interviews Springsteen gave around that album, what he meant by “what we won’t,” is virtually everything he thought was wrong with the Bush administration. Which is to say: virtually everything,

And there’s more. When Reagan got elected (and I have to think Mitch is crazy for Reagan, isn’t he the conservative’s John F. Kennedy?) the still-barely-publicly-political Springsteen kicked off his next show by calling it “pretty terrifying.” Once he decided to be a truly political figure he campaigned hard for John Kerry and Barack Obama! We could do this all night.

What sticks out to me as the transcendent theme in Springsteen’s work is his commitment to community – summed up so beautifully in “Long Walk Home,” just before the courthouse when his father tells him, “Son, we’re lucky in this town/it’s a beautiful place to be born/It just wraps its arms around ya/Nobody crowds ya, nobody goes it alone.” It’s that last line that makes all the difference: Nobody goes it alone. When you’re sick, it’s not the free market that decides what treatment you deserve, it’s the humanity of your neighbors, and their recognition of the value of your humanity. Remember when Chris Christie declared how he parted ways with Springsteen when it came to, “Nobody wins unless everybody wins”? An amazing position to take, given that the phrase — and the belief it encapsulates — is the philosophical headwaters of Springsteen’s entire career. And yet there it is.

Mitch, I’m glad you like Springsteen. He’s a terrific musician. He’s a great storyteller and a stirring voice for old-fashioned liberalism. How you can sit still for that last part, given everything else you seem to believe, puzzles me. Nearly as much as your subtle-but-yet-unignorable assertion that “Prove it All Night” is a kind of Ayn Rand-like lecture to ne’er-do-wells and losers who didn’t have the courage to “want it, take it and pay the price.” I suppose you could read it like that. It’s relaively easy. But only if you ignore 90 percent of his other songs. And that takes way more than all night.

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