Springsteen: Sex, Theology and Charlatans
In the opening track, One Minute You’re Here Bruce reveals part of the stated reasoning behind the new album Letter To You – the black train of his own mortality that has been gathering pace toward him. Just like that Cadillac (long and dark) (shiny and black), the looming vehicles call out his finitude, that someday an invitation will come to climb in back one last time.
He hears that long whistle whine.
And he knows it whines for him.
This reality check railway ticket to his own funeral prompts things in him as any reflection on death does to each of us. As he mentions in the accompanying movie – he was always glimpsing the cold fact of death in those trips his parents made him take to family funerals. Staring briefly at the remaining chassis of the souls on their way to the Cadillac Ranch.
The death of the final Castilles’ member, George Theiss, from Bruce’s first band in the late 60s, may be the prompting idea for some of the songs but the Boss reflects long and wide on things that our demise invokes in any human.
How wide? The second, title track Letter To You answers with his musing on what he’s been trying to do all these years of writing and communicating. All his attempts to say something true, something he can actually sign his name to as he pulls at the bothersome thread of his own mind, of the human condition through the characters and ideas that unravel in the music.
In Burnin’ Train we are back in the world of Candy’s Room, an incessant hi-hat from Max Weinberg and squealing guitar solo call down that angelic succubus. The blood that rushed in those veins all those years ago has returned fire from the sky and set the black train on fire.
It’s a Shamanic vision – birthed in the Ayahuascan American continent and its archetypal ley lines. As he lies down on the bed of thorns and brings her sacrifices on the holy land of her body he is the dark supplicant. Sex and death have forever danced in our imagery and studies have teased out the effects of one on the other. Candy’s worshipper is out in the plains now, running from time’s relentless hunt, charging towards this fierce lady, driving deep into the light of his burning mate’s eyes, in and through to something on the other side. A willing passenger on the burnin’ train that will blast through time and space in the primal seeds of the race’s immortality or the mystic release into a promised land.
The promised land might be a metaphorical place but the holy land is always a her.
If the religio-sensuality is front and centre in Burnin’ Train, its still there in Janey needs a Shooter. Janey’s suitors are insufficient for her body and mind. Doctors with icy, probing fingers, inadequate priests in chilled marble pulpits – both old and cold and not as bold as our protagonist. The voice is as self assured as any of the confident males in Springsteen’s songs – holding their hands out with promises to be all his woman would need. The phallic gun-toting masculinity sounds dangerous, troublesome even. But this is the working man as protector. Frontier defender, holding the saint-waif of Janey in his wiry, hard, do-what-needs-to-be-done arms.
The album art and movie visuals show this Bruce – the wiry, strong man. He still looks like he could walk out of the streets of any post industrial city in the western world. I’ve seen men like him in the gospel halls of Belfast or playing pool in the working men’s clubs. Danger dressed well, potency contained. Their skin dried in the heat of their labour as their muscles have turned to iron. Men you want on your side. Its a masculinity with edge, with steel protruding jaw, shepherding the band with firm laughter, that no one wants to disobey.
The demigod-like feminine angels of the last two songs switched places for the burning ache of Janey’s protector, men who believe they are tough enough and can provide more than all the Romeos, cops, churchmen could ever.
There are charlatans in love so good lovin’ is always a Man’s Job.
With Last Man Standing we are full square in the nostalgic reflection of being the last living member of the Castilles. As Bruce paints images from his memories of the band members and their time together he wants to be somewhere safe. The Rock of Ages is evoked to place him in spirit within the music itself – somewhere high, hard and loud and somewhere within the belly of the crowd at one of the shows, in the space where the music is as real as it can be. If Bruce comes back as a ghost he wants to haunt an honest-to-goodness rock show in the music halls of his youth.
The Power of Prayer in name sounds like the opening of an evangelical tract but, as the title of this review suggests and his comments on prayer and afterlife in the movie suggest, Bruce’s understanding is more esoteric. This is back in the religio-sensual. Where love and hope collide.
The bodies are still tanned and wet, the character is lying with a girl down by some body of water, like he’s done so many times before… THAT, he announces is the power of prayer.
At the closing time in his bar she’s there, the life and joy after the day’s work, the meaning and reward in good love. Romance in music and memories with someone he loves. Even the evocations of old songs and memories of the honest evenings become the power of prayer.
And as we walk out of this bar we are greeted with a full-blown hymn to music…House of a Thousand Guitars.
In a place of gloom, where a criminal clown has stolen the throne we are still in a Jungleland, from the churches right through to the jails. But for those that can hear the neighbourhood axe-man’s sound, the truth, it is said, can ring out again back in those small town bars. That thing that exists in the moments in the crowd, in beer and brotherhood, shots and sisterhood, where we pick up those who slip and fall the metaphor extends into human camaraderie writ large – something that persists when the barlight fades and we shut out the lights.
That in music and venues, places, spaces, offline and online moments – the things that are experienced and experienced with each other… this is the house of a thousand guitars. A place of healing, catharsis, a place to open doors and cry ‘come inside’ to the music. Where musical siblings rise together searching for the spark.
This is a hymn.
To the majesty.
To the mystery,
To the ministry.
Of Rock and Roll!
Not all worshippers find a suitable god though. Not all prayers are addressed correctly or get answered for sometimes no good seems to come. The flip side of those who are invited to worship in the house of a thousand guitars is the temptation to worship minor saviours. Minor saviours that rise from the streets of any sort: criminal clowns, churchmen charlatans, robber baron thieves. All are a Rainmaker, liars all, who cannot fix the complicated needs of a nation, who have no real idea or care how the sky opens up the parched land. They might as well fire pathetic buckshots into a low hanging cloud for all the good they will do for the people. The Rainmakers don’t care.
For the first time ‘Yahweh’ is named in Springsteen’s canon. But this Lord, called by worshippers with raised hands appears as an impotent dark shroud that crawls across the dark skies. This is an anti-christ, a pretender. The entourage of believers are needy, parched, desperate, avoiding responsibility and willing to pay for anyone who will take the blame. The people keep looking for an advocate, and will accept any willing priest.
So what If I Was The Priest? In this sprawling 1970s lyric, Springsteen knows there’s an awful lot of work to be done. There just seems to be ‘too many outlaws trying to work the same line’. As the band kicks in on this repeating line, western characters light up the night sky as Max and Gary provide the solidest of support and Danny Federici gently takes possession of Charlie’s willing organist soul.
And our themes combine as the outlaws and bad boys are frustrating even Jesus and his deputies. In the bars the virgin(?) Mary sells liquor as the Holy Spirit runs a Burlesque show. Mary provides Mass on Sunday while her body gets sold on Monday.
Here there is trouble, and sex, and religion, and charlatans.
As for praying, he’s got scabs on his knees from kneeling too long. But he knows now he has to take a stand, to walk like a man, take responsibility – for what his woman needs, for what his small town needs. He’s being called up. So off his knees he gets.
And he lifts his eyes up to the hills, and sees a light on a mountain – transcendent hope urging him to the good… and yet still there’s a girl always there, wanting to be his… and the Americana religious Jesus has some guns ready for him if he wants to take up the fight.
But this self assured fighter isn’t going to just go with anyone. Sorry, Jesus, he’s got some business of his own on another frontier town called Cheyenne.
The E-Streeters sing out in a glorious ending …. voices enjoying one another, musicians everyone exiting this Frontier-land bar-brawl sing-a-long ready to fight for lights on mountains, or to go get that girl or to defend the outposts of precarious civilisation.
Like any Springsteen experience – it never ends quickly – Ghosts blasts open and we are back into the shooters, drummers, gunslinging’, axe wielding, spur wearing’ haunting characters and shades in Bruce’s mind.
The great cloud of rock and roll witnesses act as prompts to make the absolute most of this life.
You are Alive!!! is the persistent insistence. The dead are not Lethian shadow figures but beer swillin’ big bad Bobbys, big men that can never die, still felt in the blood shivers, the Brucebumps*. When Ghosts settles down and Bruce finds the keys to the universe’s clock – he fixes it by calling time.
And the guitar sings true and the pilgrims from E-Street worship in simple tongues that need no interpretation. We are instantly there, in the crowd alongside him and standing arm in arm with one another.
Song for Orphans (the final of the three written prior to 1973’s Asbury Park) is one of the most Dylanesque. With lyrics nearly 50 years old Springsteen reminds us of his American poet status. Beat poets with blue collars. We are back being called up for active duty. When the axis needs a stronger arm… when the Jesus calls you up… can you feel the muscles play in your arms – to take up their load?
Reading the lyrics as you listen to this song, you can sense so many other Springsteen songs in and through this one. This is a seed song, never recorded but still producing ideas 50 years on.
Every few lines is another microcosmic cinematic moment.
Take this personification of the night:
‘The night, she’s long and lanky
And she speaks in a mother tongue
She lullabies her refugees
with an amplifier’s hum’
And as the lullaby for orphans hums in the rock and roll amps it is time to close and say goodbye.
Perhaps it is true that latter years bring a mysticism and a religiousness to us all. In the final I’ll See You in My Dreams, the sensuality gives way to sentimental. Now he expresses his hope that when he pulls outta here in the great final sleep, maybe death will not be the end, maybe there is a reunion, at least in his dreams he still wins.
He evokes and returns to those who’ve gone before, real and unreal. One of the movie’s high points is when the E-Street Band stand in a holy circle and raise cups to their fallen members.
“To the Big Man” (Clarence Clemons), they raise their libations.
“To Danny Federici”.
And in every Springsteen song we see again how his particulars become our own particulars. We feel the need to remember our own.
We remember them and feel our own blood shiver, we feel the Brucebumps* as we remember ours who rest.
These are the dreams he helps bring us. The honoured dead, the sweet souls departed, the melody memories that take us into good places in our individual and collective hearts. Things that urge us to live, not to wallow, to take joy in our alive-ness, in our brothers and sisters, in our arts and music.
To live fiercely, sensually, mystically, fleeing charlatans and steeling our muscles for the work ahead.
*The word ‘Brucebumps’ is courtesy of the wonderful Hungry Heart Fans… a group of Springsteen fans who are regular listeners to the Hungry Heart Twitch channel. Search Facebook if you are interested!