The E Street Nation on the Land of Hope and Dreams

Bouncing off the Sirius satellite last Friday, guesting on Dave Marsh’s “Live from the E Street Nation” talk/music/call-in show, my host posed the question that had been dominating the show for ten or 15 minutes: What does Bruce Springsteen mean to you?

What do you say to that one? I had seen it coming, had even tried to prepare an answer that included some intellectual processing-slash-non-fawning while also honoring the intense emotional connection already described by my host and fellow guests, along with the listeners who had already called in.

I came up empty. Stammered something silly about Springsteen’s commitment to his art, his belief in community and etc. etc. What I really meant to say had more to do with his ready acknowledgment of his own gray areas, the co-existence of sin and righteousness, the striving for justice in a world that is perpetually, sometimes overwhelmingly unjust. And despite his anger and frustration (also thoroughly and movingly described), his appreciation for/belief in humanity in general: This train carries saints and sinners/this train carries losers and winners, and etc.

Then Dave took some more calls. A guy from near NYC i.d.-ed himself as being in advertising and spoke enthusiastically about how Springsteen is one of the great American brands – trustworthy, on-message, and widely perceived as honest. Dave winced and disowned the guy, relatively gently, but still with a pointed refutation of such dehumanizing/commodification-like thinking. And he was right! But so was the caller, because if you do step back and view Springsteen as if he were a line of products (which he sort of is!) he is a remarkably consistent and effective brand. After nearly 40 years even his failures (more than a few) seem as genuine and real as his greatest achievements. Win, lose or implode, he invests himself into his work and lets it fly. You and I may cringe at the “Dancin’ in the Dark” video (shudder) but how many of those are there, really?

We found some common ground with the advertising guy, then Dave took a call from a Jeff of Texas, who talked about his childhood in some conservative evangelical church with a stern belief system (no love for gay folks, gen’l contempt for minorities, outcasts and etc) he’d shaken off in favor of love, social justice and a Bruce-centric philosophy. On one level I was thinking: Oh man, can you really build a whole life and worldview based on Springsteen songs? But Jeff was choking up during all of this, and sounded like such a warm-hearted, genuine and socially-conscious person that I felt like a real toad for even flirting with critical reasoning.

Particularly when Dave weighed in with his own increasingly emotional take on the conversation, describing his reaction to his first hearing of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” the new song that served as a climax to the ’99-’00 E Street reunion tour. No one had expected a new tune in those early shows, and even insiders (e.g. Dave) were taken aback when they finally heard it. Not just because it was new, but because it was obviously a top-rank addition to the canon – another warm-hearted, starry-eyed anthem to finding the light in the darkest of moments:  A song about death not as an end, but as the start of a higher, spiritually unified existence.

Grab your ticket and your suitcase/Thunder’s rolling down this track/Well, you don’t know where you’re going now/But you know you won’t be back…

Now Dave was choking back tears at the memory. Which might seem a bit much, credulity wise, until you realize you’re not just looking at a serious fan and Springsteen insider, but also a father. A father who lost one of his daughters to cancer just a few years before the start of that ’99 tour.

The rest of that story belongs to Dave and his family, I wouldn’t presume to describe anything more (instead, check out Dave’s own heartbreaking description of his loss in his title essay in “The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad“. But I will say that my own paternal heart swells every time I hear the minor-to-major chord progression, a journey built on  ringing electric guitars, mandolin, organ and vocals that weave into the chorus that describes the passengers welcome on the train beyond the horizon: losers and winners; saints and sinners; whores and gamblers; lost souls. All headed for a world where dreams will not be thwarted, where faith will be rewarded.

Hear the steel wheels singing/bells of freedom ringing!

Is this a glamorous, or even vainglorious, a portrait of judgment day? I can see how you might think that. But this is a song that makes me feel far more than I think. It doesn’t matter to me, for instance, that the song’s an adaptation of some other gospel tune. Or that it might strike some listeners as a vision that annoints without question or even the slightest hint of harder questions and moral judgments. But in this moment, on the threshold of mortality, I don’t think that matters for anyone.

It’s a song about wishes. About the darkness you must navigate in this world, all in the name of the light you imagine waiting somewhere down the path. About the hope every parent has for his or her child, it’s the journey you want to take with them when the moment comes. (I will provide for you/And I’ll stand by your side/You’ll need a good companion for this part of the ride…)

Or maybe that’s not how you hear it. Maybe to you it’s just a catchy rock ‘n’ roll song with a driving beat, some raw-voiced singing and some kick-ass hard rock mandolin courtesy of Little Steven. Yes, that’s it exactly. But right here, between us saints and sinners, losers and winners, whores and gamblers and lost souls, that’s enough. More than enough.

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