Breaking Blue, Breaking Red: Springsteen, Obama, and the Christie Paradox
“No one is beyond the reach of Bruce!”
—Governor Chris Christie
The day after the second debate I’m at the library to return the DVD of Season 3 of Breaking Bad when I spot Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball on display among the CDs. While I don’t lie in wait for the new Springsteen the way I do for the new Dylan, the Boss’s recent decision to endorse President Obama makes me curious to hear what he has to say in his latest album. It turns out that the people in Bruce’s songs, “trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong,” have some recession-driven issues in common with Breaking Bad’s Walt White, the cash-strapped, cancer-stricken high school science teacher who moonlights at a car wash and finds a way to provide for his family and cover over-the-top medical expenses by cooking to-die-for crystal blue methamphetamine.
In spite of his recent appearances in Ohio and Iowa on behalf of Obama, Springsteen’s appeal cuts across party lines and what better or bigger embodiment of the fact than Governor Chris Christie, who has been to 129-plus of the Boss’s concerts. As Jeffrey Goldberg puts it in the July Atlantic, containing Christie at a Springsteen event is “an exercise in volcano management” for his communications director. After dancing around “in front of many thousands of people without giving a damn what they think” and shouting the words to “Badlands” along with Springsteen (“Poor man wanna be rich/Rich man wanna be king”), Christie is fed a “trick question” from Goldberg. Asked if Mitt Romney “could relate to this,” Christie “screams over the noise of the crowd,” twice: “No one is beyond the reach of Bruce!”
The Big Chill
Rolling Stone gave “We Take Care Of Our Own,” the lead track on Wrecking Ball, four stars when it was released as a single January 19. Driving down Witherspoon with the song playing at top volume on Moby, my four-wheeled CRV stereo unit, I’m thinking it’s way better than four stars. For Springsteen, I have my own rating system, call it the Chill Chart. Five degrees of chill means an instantaneous tingle on the back of the neck, radiating out to the extremities, accompanied in this case by a surge in acceleration from the mobile stereo, which longs to hit the highway, even though the song says “The road of good intentions/has gone dry as a bone.” Moby doesn’t care. A road is a road to this 12-year-old totally apolitical Honda. Moby doesn’t need to know who the “We” is or whether it’s actually truly taking care of its own or if it’s a good or an evil “We” or a conflicted, hopelessly compromised, and ultimately inadequate “We.”
But Bruce is singing his heart out, and in the now and forever of the moment the message is “We Can Do It” because everything in the music is UP and straight ahead. It’s got the blast-off-for-the-territory excitement of “Born to Run” — it’s that exhilarating.
If a song hits five on the Chill Chart at the outset, what do you do when it rises to an even higher level, as the great Springsteen anthems do? When Bruce asks “where’s the promise from sea to shining sea,” and answers, loud and clear, “wherever this flag is flown,” the music is driving, pounding, soaring as it redeems and redefines words long since drained of their original force. The stirring poetry of “sea to shining sea” is fresh again when Springsteen sings it, and the flag isn’t the tiny item politicians dutifully pin to their lapels; it’s another breed of flag, the real thing. This flag is the one you want to believe in, as the music tells you to in spite of the words. It’s the tattered flag of the American Dream, the same flag waved by Emerson and Whitman and Ginsberg and now Obama.
Think back to Charlotte, N.C., September 6, the president’s going strong, steaming down the finish line to the closing crescendo of his acceptance speech, the convention faithful roaring. “We don’t turn back!” the preacher’s telling the congregation. “We leave no one behind! We pull each other up!” On the verge of actually singing Springsteen’s line, Obama God Blesses the nation, the balloons soar, and the music explodes from the DNC amps, Springsteen coming on like thunder, saying it for him, “We Take Care Of Our Own!” Was it mere happenstance that the rhetoric of the speech segued so neatly into the rhetoric of the song? And did the president sneak a listen to Springsteen during his prep time for the second debate, channeling the words and the music and the energy in the hours before the CNN clock struck nine on October 16?
According to the Huffington Post, Springsteen’s anthem got a huge post-convention bounce online, jumping 400-plus percent with 2000 downloads. If Springsteen had not yet officially endorsed Obama, he’d at least provided him with a rousing fight song.
But the big bounce, the inspirational jumpstart, came the Saturday before the second debate when, as if to put to rest the fight song’s complaint, “There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home,” the Obama campaign announced that the Boss was on board and here he comes, galloping into view with bugles blowing as Obama comes out swinging for the third debate.
“If I Had Me a Gun”
As inspirational as it is musically (it’s produced by Ron Aniello), Wrecking Ball is not something the Democrats would want to fold into the campaign of a candidate determined to avoid being tagged with the “angry black man” label. Most of the album’s strongest songs pulse with passion and outrage, despair and desperation leading to criminal acts, theft, murder, and mayhem. Even the opening anthem, with its devious, at best ambiguous “We,” has no hope in it but the music: “good hearts turned to stone …. From the shotgun shack to the Super Dome.” When good intentions and good hearts are no more, you get the next song, “Easy Money.” Sung with savage gusto, it picks up and acts on the kinetic force of the “shotgun shack” line: “And all them fat cats they just think it’s funny,” so the singer’s “going on the town now looking for easy money” and he’s packing “a Smith & Wesson .38.” And inside him, he’s “got a hellfire burning.” Yet he sings like his belly is full, his energy is high, his spirit bold and unbowed.
“Shackled and Drawn” carries the narrative further, as if the character who went to town with a gun got himself caught and is serving time: “Gambling man rolls the dice,/working man pays the bill/It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill,” where “the party’s going strong” while “Down here below we’re shackled and drawn.” Once again Springsteen balances the vehemence of the singing and the lyrics with music that makes you want to run around waving your arms when you should be shooting your way out of prison. No need when the Irish-jig-infectious melodic riff has already set you free.
The next five-star hit on the Chill Chart is “Jack Of All Trades.” Your first thought is that this is one man’s voice from the jobless multitude victimized by the recession. This guy’s out of work, his wife needs consoling (“Honey we’ll be all right”), so he’ll mow your lawn, clean your drains, mend your roof, fix your engine until it’s running good. So far it’s tough but tender, spare but musically grandiose, even at times symphonic, with soulful trumpets and Tom Morello’s equally soulful guitar coda at the end. But then, like the songs before it, “Jack Of All Trades” takes a dark turn as “the banker man grows fat/working man grows thin/It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again.” And “If I had me a gun/I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight.”
Springsteen sings “Death to My Home Town” like a no-nonsense Irish sergeant -major briskly commanding his troops while a marching band backs this call-to-arms revision of Bruce’s signature lament, “My Home Town.” Where the town in the early song had “fights between the black and white,” shotgun blasts and vacant stores, in the later one the devastation is total: “They destroyed our families, factories/and they took our homes/They left our bodies on the plains/The vultures picked our bones.” So there’s nothing for it but to march into battle against the monied enemy with a rousing chorus: “Sing it hard and sing it well/Send the robber barons straight to hell.”
In the Springsteen repertoire since 1999, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” is the most purely inspirational song on the album, with the late Clarence Clemons powering “this train” of “saints and sinners.” While a special feature of the Wrecking Ball liner notes is Springsteen’s elegiac appreciation of the Big Man “and the force of nature that was his sound,” the finest tribute is the closing song, “We Are Alive,” where Bruce sings, “Sleep well my friend/It’s only our bodies that betray us in the end,” “the dead come to life/well above the stars” and “Our spirits rise/to carry the fire and light the spark/To stand shoulder to shoulder and/heart to heart” (the liner notes contain a for-the-ages photo of Springsteen and Clemons doing just that). Here the performance, the music, and the lyrics enter a realm of art beyond rankings, politics, and events of the moment. When the dust of the 2012 campaign has cleared, whatever happens, this song and this album will be played and played and played, doing for listeners what Bruce says music did for him, providing “a community, filled with people … who I didn’t know but who I knew were out there.”
The quote is from an in-depth conversation with Will Percy that ran in the spring 1998 issue of Double Take magazine and can be found in Racing In the Street: The Bruce Springsteen Reader (Penguin 2004). A decade later the election to New Jersey’s highest office of one of the Springsteen community’s most devoted members has forced the Boss to confront what his power hath wrought, given Goldberg’s claim that “the people whose lives Springsteen explores in his songs” were among the 63 percent “of white voters with only high school diplomas” who went for Christie in 2009.
Soon after checking out the library copy of Wrecking Ball, which lacks the liner notes, I went to the Record Exchange and bought the deluxe edition that also includes two exceptional bonus tracks, “Swallowed Up (in the Belly of the Whale)” and “American Land.”