June 07, 2008

A Saint in the City

Sometimes I think there’s a case to be made that Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” was the best song ever written though maybe that's just nostalgia talking. Other times I think it’s Frizzell & West’s “You're The Reason God Made Oklahoma”.

Springsteen was a gift from my sister, passed down from her girlfriend Susan. Usually older siblings pass down their musical tastes but mine were passed up – at the time I hadn’t heard of Springsteen from Fallsteen and I was surprised how open I was to a rocker who was pretty far from John Denver.

There was some latent spirituality in Springsteen’s music, a recognition that magic underlay the ordinary. Maybe there was a “savior beneath that dirty hood” after all, even in New Jersey of all places. It was a music of hope, even if it be of a secular variety.

What was funny is that in 1985 I thought everything and everybody were stationary objects. Change was merely a rumor that happened when you did bad things, like Elvis, who ate too much and so there was the sharp demarcation between his Hound Dog years and his Las Vegas years. Later, sadly, there were drugs and death at a relatively young age. Springsteen idolized Elvis and climbed over the gates of Graceland to try to see his hero. The lesson he learned was: “I will not allow this to happen to me.” He would take care of himself; he ran six to ten miles a day, as if he could indefinitely hold back the clock with them. As if what happened to Elvis, that is death, would not happen to him some day.

But in ‘85 I thought Springsteen's career would not change, the E-Street band would always be with us, not realizing that that’s not the way life works because to mature is to change. The natural terminus of the romantic impulse – and Springsteen is/was nothing but the romantic (“Man, there's an opera out on the Turnpike / There's a ballet being fought out in the alley”) is marriage. Chesterton wrote that the only thing romantic is the permanent. “We got one last chance to make it real,” sang Bruce and nothing is more real than marriage or less real than an infatuation.

So he married an actress (ironically, they who specialize in artifice) and the marriage didn’t work out and afterwards was the youthful exuberance and maybe even innocence of “Jungleland” or “Thunder Road” ever really repeated? Could “Candy’s World” have been written by the 40-year old Bruce?

Watching a video from Passaic, NJ, circa 1978, he seems devoid of artifice. He sings a couple verses almost sotto voce, as if singing to himself, or for himself, the opposite of a utilitarian effort. The lack of self-consciousness reminds me of the early Tom Jones’ videos. Is it that the era of the ‘70s was less self-conscious, before everything and everyone was recorded and everything for sale, or that simply youth can seem less self-conscious simply due to innocence? I think youth today are attracted to the ‘60s era primarily for the perceived authenticity of the era but now I wonder how much was simply innocence, an innocence kids today seek to regain.

Even if Bruce didn’t re-capture the magic of a “Thunder Road”, which I certainly can’t say, our worth is not tied to our production and to every time there is a season. You don’t need it to be repeated if it’s not scarce, and it’s not scarce if there’s an afterlife. Could the wholesome desire to not follow Elvis’s path be fed at least in part by a distrust of a happy afterlife?

Bruce is a saint in the small ‘s’ sense of completely rejecting any mediocrity. (“She knows that I’ll give, all that I have to give.”) The disdain he feels for poets (and we’re all poets) who don’t write is palpable:
Between flesh and what's fantasy and the poets down here
Don't write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be
And in the quick of the night they reach for their moment
And try to make an honest stand but they wind up wounded, not even dead
If there’s a tension between how the young have passion and passion is required to resist mediocrity it sometimes seems mirrored in the spiritual life. St. Therese of Liseux, St. Bernadette, Jesus Himself and countless others prove a kind of truth to the line that “only the good die young” although we see counter examples all the time including John Paul II's heroic life.

Springsteen comes by his political liberalism honestly, having been a rebel almost out of the womb, but liberalism is likely the natural next step after marriage in the search for meaning. Salvation-seeking often goes from the individual to the collective to...God, who is often the hope of last resort. We often seek salvation from the inside out, from ourselves, then in another person, then in leaders of groups of people, before looking "outside the system". For non-believers, if the only salvation is earthly then the only salvation is political, which translates to liberal politics since it would make no sense to seek salvation in conserving what is past. After all, the past has already proved itself incapable of salvation, so why return to it?

But to borrow a Springsteen song title, to try to create heaven on earth without God is harder than being a saint in the city. And to borrow from a saint in Heaven: "Oh Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life."

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