Blood Brothers

Every once in a while I take a chance and write about music. I don’t do this too often since it’s a very personal thing, and as open as I may be on this blog, I’m not as accessible as I seem. We all need a place to retreat in this world, and Bruce Springsteen’s music is one of those places for me. Late last year, just after it was published, Springsteen’s Born to Run—his philosophical and revealing memoir—sold briskly for several weeks. Since it made its way into my stocking I’d been intending to read it since then. And putting it off. There’s something disillusioning about finding out your heroes are only human. The best among mine are heroes precisely for that reason. Gods need not apply. Overcoming my fear, I dove in.

Two things stood out in this autobiographical account: religious imagery looms large, and depression mingles liberally with it. I recall reading an early review where the writer expressed surprise that the Boss suffers from depression. I responded (perhaps out loud), “have you ever listened to his songs?” I became a Bruce fan because he sang about working class people. Bruce and I share that background. He knows that your roots never let you go. Indeed, roots are what keep you grounded. Many of my academic colleagues, I learned, were simply carrying on the family business—and a privileged business it is. Those of us who had to overcome poverty to get in the door were never really welcome in the ivory tower. You can’t help where you’re born, but you can sure be punished for it. Bruce understands that.

I’ve never been to one of his concerts. I don’t even like to listen to his music when someone else is in the room. There’s something deeply personal about communing with someone you feel understands you. Of course I’ve never met Bruce Springsteen. I probably never will. He won’t know the kind of influence he’s had on my life and I feel that I’m risking an awful saying so here on this blog. There aren’t too many heroes in my life. I’m not inclined to idolize people. In this memoir, however, Bruce won’t let himself become an idol. He’s not perfect and he takes pains to make sure that you know that. We were, nevertheless, raised in situations not dissimilar from each other. Unlike Bruce, I have no musical gifts. No, I’ll never likely meet him—and if I did I wouldn’t want it to be with other people around. Some things are just too personal that way.

States Right

Can you name your state insect? State bird? State dinosaur? The concept of united states, perhaps more obvious in Europe where languages differ, is a complex one. In the United States of America we’ve got our culture wars that generally divide along predictable state lines, but each state has a mix of progressives and conservatives, and caricatures may be funny but are hardly accurate. In this jambalaya of divergent ingredients, each state develops its own image in keeping with a couple centuries (for some) of tradition. We even have quarters that show our distinctive features on the reverse side! As one of those whose profession (whatever that is) has moved me across state borders periodically, I know that choice of domicile often depends on what it might offer by way of employment. Although one of my parents was born in New Jersey, I moved here not out of family loyalty but out of desperation to find work. Nearly every day I cross a state border to get to a job, but it feels pretty much the same to me.

Although I’ve lived in these states for nearly half a century (some of my years were spent abroad) I didn’t know that states had a choice of books. I don’t know if every state has a book. It saddened me to hear that New Jersey rejected “Born to Run” as state song since it was about trying to get out, but I don’t know if we have a state book. The Godfather, perhaps? Moby Dick? When NBC announced that Tennessee had its proposal to name the Bible as its state book shot down, I was a bit shocked. What is a state book? Tennessee, which (as a caricature) still takes pride in the Bryan side of the Scopes Monkey Trial, often leads the way, like Davy Crockett, against the untrusted, heathen other. The undiscovered country of modern thought. The Bible can be a comfortable book in that way.

The Bible justifies our prejudices. Written mostly by white men who believed they were specially chosen by God, well, is it any wonder that it bestows a sense of entitlement? Radical in its time, the Bible now stands for status quo ante, ante meaning before women and non-whites won the right to be considered equal. It is a kind of Paleolithic justice. A caveman ethic. What better way to demonstrate that your state, like Indiana, is a special haven of the Almighty? Only here can the truth be found. If you’re looking anywhere this side of 1611 you’ll miss it. We don’t need to know what came before. Protestants, now partnering with conservative Catholics when it fits the political agenda, have always recognized book over state. We the people and all that. I really do wonder, can you name your state dinosaur?

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Springing up Moses

“Springsteen’s work and person invite analysis in terms of the biblical themes of exodus and promised land,” so wrote Kate McCarthy in “Deliver Me from Nowhere: Bruce Springsteen and the Myth of the American Promised Land” (conveniently in a Routledge title, God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture, second edition, 2011). Having just finished Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet (not Routledge), I am attuned to the exodus theme at the moment. Feeling an unaccountable, personal connection to the other Bruce (Springsteen), I have felt the sense of exile in his songs since I was a teenager. I had no idea who Springsteen was when “Born to Run” made it to the charts. Living in a nowhere town at the time (population less than 1000), I felt the burning need for a personal exodus that eventually landed me in the largest city in the country. But still the sense of exile remains.

Lest readers be too confused, it might be politic to point out that the biblical concept of exodus likely had its origins in the Exile. Without rehearsing too much history, the Babylonian Empire, under Nebuchadrezzar, conquered Jerusalem in either 587 or 586 BCE, leading to the deportation of a significant number of Judahites who would become, over a generation, the “Jews.” These people were exiles, forced to live under the watchful eye of a political overlord with whom they shared only the most basic of heritages. Their religions had grown apart over the centuries, and as the Jews began to think back on their homeland, the exodus came to mind. Archaeological evidence for an exodus of biblical proportions (literally) does not exist. Why, then, the story of the exodus? Did not the desire to return home involve crossing the desert, with a divinely appointed leader? One who carried the law (Torah) with him? When Ezra led returnees home in the fifth/fourth century, he had the Torah in hand. Like Moses, he led the people out of bondage under the Persian plan. Exile and exodus are twin children of oppressive regimes.

So, how do ancient desert wanderers come into the orbit of a very damp New Jersey, and in particular, it’s arguably most famous resident? Alienation is home. Very few teenagers don’t understand this. As we attempt to integrate them into adult life, something vital, essential, is left behind. Consider all the long-haired artists of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s who still perform, now shorn to conservative acceptability and sometimes churning out very conventional songs. The fire has gone out. It is difficult to escape exile when you carry it with you. That’s something I think Bruce understands. His look may have changed, but his message has not. America has always been a haven for exiles. Simply because an exile moves into a new setting, however, does not mean that the promised land has been reached. As McCarthy seems to be saying, and as I have often felt, the promised land disappoints. The seeking is what must persist. America may have its Moeses, but it will find, from atop Nebo, that the path is where your feet already are.

Look carefully at your prophets!