The Fifth Element #23 Page 2
Although "Rosalita" is a great, energetic song and an important part of Springsteen's body of work, I wanted my kids to see the "Thunder Road" performance video, as that was the song that first convinced me that Springsteen was entirely out of the ordinary as a lyricist. I dutifully went out and bought Springsteen's two-DVD The Complete Video Anthology: 1978-2000 (Columbia Music Video C2D 49010), and I am glad I did. Highly recommended (footnote 3).
However, if you are totally new to Springsteen or know only his more recent work, in my opinion the best place to start is with his first three records: Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.; The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle; and Born to Run (which includes "Thunder Road"). You can probably pick up the CDs used for not much, and the vinyl for not much at all. The vinyl sounds richer than the digital transfers.
In "Thunder Road," after first imploring Mary, the girl on the porch, to "Show a little faith, there's magic in the night," Springsteen's character tells her:
You can hide 'neath your covers
And study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers
Throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a savior to rise from these streets
Well now I'm no hero
All the redemption I can offer, girl
Is beneath this dirty hood
This is remarkably dense and multilayered writing for a rock song. "Oooh, baby, baby" it is not. In a few lines, at least to my ears, Springsteen alludes to Saints Thérèse of Liseux, John of the Cross, Teresa of Ávila, and Francis of Assisi, while confronting the eternally vexing problem of the relationship (or disconnect) between human intimacy and divine transcendence.
Perhaps the writing is a bit overwrought. But then again, some people do experience moments when whether or not the person whom they desire can make a reciprocal gesture to bridge the space between them seems more than a matter of mere life and death; it is a matter of eternal destiny.
It should not then be too much of a shock to discover that another song on the Springsteen video anthology is entitled "Leap of Faith." Quick, name another rock song that owes its title to Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) (footnote 4).
Kierkegaard's notion of a "leap of faith" was more than the idea that the transcendent was not accessible to human reason—that you could not get from here to the ultimate "there" by taking one logical step at a time. There were at least two other important components. First, the state from which one was leaping was the state of anxiety that comes from the limitless possibilities inherent in human freedom. Second, leaving behind the anxiety can be accomplished only by leaping: one has at least temporarily to lose contact with one's groundings, and leave one's previous state completely behind. Faith invites, but itself requires an act of faith to accept the invitation.
For these and many other reasons, Kierkegaard is often regarded as the originator of modern psychology. Some even credit him as the forerunner of all modern thought—not only philosophical existentialism, but modern physics as well. In his magisterial book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes puts forward a compelling case that Kierkegaard's thought had a decisive impact on Niels Bohr's contributions to the development of quantum physics.
Am I supposing that Bruce Springsteen sits around his farmhouse and pages through nearly impenetrable theological speculation by a neurotic 19th-century Dane? Don't be absurd. I am not. But Kierkegaard did focus his attention, as few thinkers yet had, on the philosophical implications of the gritty particularity of daily modern life (what Kierkegaard called "everydayness"). Kierkegaard was the first to put his finger on the pervasiveness of anxiety and dread in modern life. And Bruce Springsteen did say this: "When I started in music, I thought, 'My job is pretty simple. I search for the human things in myself, and I turn them into notes and words, and then in some fashion, I help people hold on to their own humanity." The characters in Springsteen's songs are aware of their failings, yet they continue to seek redemption, despite the fact that at times their quest seems doomed to fail. At least they take a stand.
Bruce Springsteen's America
I wish I could give a more enthusiastic recommendation of Robert Coles' book Bruce Springsteen's America: The People Listening, a Poet Singing, which is the source of the Walker Percy anecdote. The bulk of the book in fact is not by Coles at all, but consists of transcribed stream-of-consciousness narratives by people from various walks of life, in which they reflect on the impact of Springsteen's songs on their emotional lives.
Coles is a psychiatrist associated with Harvard Medical School and a well-regarded thinker on social issues, but his only contributions are the Foreword and the Afterword. These are good enough, but the first-person narratives are of varying degrees of insightfulness, and some of them are just plain tough sledding. The book is worth a flip-though—or taking out of the library—and there are some gems in it, but you needn't buy it unless you must have everything that pertains to Springsteen.
On the subject of America, however, I was quite impressed by remarks reportedly made by Springsteen last summer at a stadium concert at New Jersey's Meadowlands, responding to concerns fans had raised about his song "Land of Hope and Dreams":
"People come to my shows with many different kinds of political beliefs; I like that, we welcome all. There have been a lot of questions raised recently about the forthrightness of our government. This playing with the truth has been a part of both the Republican and Democratic administrations in the past and it is always wrong, never more so than when real lives are at stake. The question of whether we were misled into the war in Iraq isn't a liberal or conservative or Republican or Democratic question, it's an American one. Protecting the democracy that we ask our sons and daughters to die for is our responsibility and our trust. Demanding accountability from our leaders is our job as citizens. It's the American way. So may [it be that] the truth will out."
Has anyone else said anything on the subject with as much common sense, as little rancor, and more room for common ground? Not as far as I know.
We are in a crisis over the legitimacy of our institutions, and the integrity of those who lead them. Take your pick—anything from the 2000 election, the reasons for invading Iraq, Enron/Worldcom/NYSE, the child-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, even the Super Bowl halftime show. People feel that they have been let down.
It was only in mulling over this crisis in our society that the reasons finally came to me why, 30 years after he started his career, Bruce Springsteen is more important, and to more people, than ever. He has kept his integrity. He does not misbehave in public. He has not sold out and become a corporate shill. He still puzzles over the large questions of life the way most of us still do, in humility and hope. He still writes songs that connect with people in a uniquely powerful way, because he still thinks that his job is to help people to hold on to their humanity.
And so, to Mr. Springsteen and his band: Thanks for the words, thanks for the music, and thanks for the love. We know it will not let us down.
Footnote 3: Trivia buffs take note: The adorable, wide-eyed young woman Bruce pulls onto the stage from the front row in the "Dancing in the Dark" video is Courteney Cox, in her acting debut.—John Marks
Footnote 4: Hunter S. Thompson's memoir Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, of course, owes its title to Kierkegaard's work Fear and Trembling. But you already knew that.—John Marks