Revolution #114, December 30, 2007
“This is what will be…”
Thoughts on Springsteen’s MAGIC
I was driving with a few friends and we were pretty much done bullshitting and singing and I, viejo that I am, was starting to doze off when one of my friends asked if we wanted to hear the new Springsteen. I’d listened to “Long Walk Home” on YouTube. I sort of had the take of “big news, Springsteen wants America to live up to ‘its promise,’ pictures at 11," but hey, why not give it another try?
And I was hooked from the desperate raging “is there anybody alive out there” chant-groove of the first song. As I listened to the rest of the album, it wasn’t so much the strong and varied melodies and the good poetry alone that grabbed me, it was the way a deep sense of betrayal and, yeah, rage played against them. (Reading up on this later, I found that this was Springsteen’s explicit intention.) I had really liked Ghost of Tom Joad, but I hadn’t heard something with quite this kind of edge from Springsteen since Darkness On the Edge Of Town or some of the songs on The River—two records made nearly 30 years ago. “The smashing in the guts” from Darkness was back but the anger and sorrow on Magic is in many ways deeper, or maybe more pointed, and in any case way more political.
Anyway, Magic is a work of art of today. Song after song uses this tension to open up the veins of America and look at some of the poisons coursing through them, now. I’m not going to break them down—just listen to the album, straight through. Then listen again, with the lyric sheet. There are a lot of dimensions here, but a main theme focuses on how the criminal years of Bush play out in the hearts of the silent millions. Romantic relationships intertwine with the horror of these times in some of these songs in ways that seem to me both allegorical but also literal—speaking to (among other things) the way what people do, and don’t do, politically leeches into and corrupts their most intimate selves, when simple kisses on election day leave “the taste of blood on [your] tongue.” Listen to “Last To Die,” in which a drifting relationship and the wars waged by the U.S. in the Middle East intertwine with each other:
We don’t measure the blood we’ve drawn anymore
We just stack the bodies outside the door
Then, deep into the album—and both playing off of and playing against the E Street Band’s rock that’s gone before—you get the ominous savage quiet of the title song “Magic” itself. Narrated by a huckster character who goes pretty far back and deeply into the American psyche but seems as current as the last presidential press conference, the song takes you to the crossroads where, as Bob Avakian once put it, “epistemology meets morality”—where “willing volunteers” allow themselves to be tricked and narcotized into believing—to quote another song on the album—that “none of this has happened yet.” This song is very powerful. It reaches into many depths and resonates in many dimensions with, as a friend pointed out to me, its very last lines echoing back in image and theme to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”:
On the road the sun is sinkin’ low
There’s bodies hangin’ in the trees
This is what will be, this is what will be.
This time around when I got to “Long Walk Home”—second to the last cut on the album—there seemed to be more to it. The anguish felt a little more “earned,” and the long walk seemed less about consoling yourself with some kind of “pendulum swing long view” and more about beginning to come to grips with just how far things had gone into something so openly and unapologetically vicious and ugly, and maybe even questioning—or beginning to question—to whether that “home” even existed anymore.
Here’s a paradox: Springsteen’s deep belief in what he calls the “American idea” may be part of what makes him angrier than people who may have a little more radical critique of the society. I was talking with a young friend who’s been pumping her guts out in World Can’t Wait, and we both strongly felt that the album says something about some of the deep reservoir of potential support for this movement.
Springsteen and the millions he sings for and to are part of the people who need to be and could be and should be wearing orange, going out in the streets, taking meaningful action around all the bad shit going down; people who need to be challenged to not just “stand back and let it all be” (to quote the Springsteen of “Jungleland”). No, we haven’t yet figured out how to unlock the gates and let the reservoir pour out and wash over this bloody land, but damn it this CD is one more thing showing the basis to do that and reminding us very clearly not to aim for anything less.
But on the other hand, this: Magic contains some powerful songs evoking the loss experienced by American veterans of the Iraq war. But, beyond the “bodies stacked outside the door,” there are no Iraqi or Afghani characters who appear on this album. We listen to and hear about shattered and dead American soldiers and their wounded lovers and friends, and this is very moving. But where are the voices and portraits of the prisoners of Abu Ghraib, of the victims—or survivors—of Haditha or Falluja or Guantánamo? Yeah, I know, Springsteen writes what he knows. But he cold-called survivors of 9/11 on the phone as part of writing The Rising and Bruce Springsteen has the means to learn about, and make art for millions about, the biggest victims of America. This album is brave—but it really could have been, and needed to be, much braver.
This kind of limitation “comes with the territory” of the highly idealized—and, at this point, brutally ridiculous—“American idea” that keeps Bruce Springsteen and so many others locked in its grip. This hope against all evidence in the so-called promise of America inevitably leads to a narrowness that all too often cannot get beyond the horizon of thinking that American lives are more important and American suffering more meaningful than the lives of those outside America and the suffering visited upon them by America. It leads to refusing to challenge others to imagine themselves in anything but “an American skin.” There won’t be an unleashing of that reservoir against the criminal “new norms” of the Bush regime on nearly the scale that is necessary—and there surely won’t be any more fundamental change—without seriously challenging the deep beliefs and whole mindset that both impel a Springsteen to make an album like Magic and that keep him, and those who sway to its grooves, locked in the deadly mental straitjacket of “getting our country back to what it was.”
The “American idea”? I can’t help but think of a question posed in “The River”: “is a dream a lie if it don’t come true…or is it something worse?” The really profound alienation on some of the songs on Magic—and listen again to “Long Walk Home” and hear how the narrator can’t even recognize the people he grew up with, how he mourns the loss of the idea that “there’s some things we won’t do,” and how he even seems to question whether that “home” even still exists (“the diner was shuttered and boarded/with a sign that just said ‘gone’”)—that alienation can either slide into the world-weary, cynical retreat of the despairing (and ultimately self-satisfied)…or it can begin working its way toward an opposition and understanding that is much, much deeper, and founded on looking at the full reality of this society. That question from “The River” has hung suspended for Springsteen and his audience for almost 30 years now, but it can’t stay that way forever. And a lot depends on how millions come to answer it.
Listen to Magic. Then reach out to and challenge those to whom and for whom it speaks.
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