Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 28, 2007
Groping our way through that darkness—while at the same time reminiscing of the lighter times that preceded it—pondering what might have been and what might come next in our collective story—is the overriding theme of Bruce Springsteen’s newest album, Magic. Magic’s recurrent image is finding our way back home—as individuals and (especially, perhaps) as a nation. If The Rising was Springsteen’s response to the terror and tragedy of September 11, then Magic contains his ruminations on the years that have come since. It is certainly an understatement to say that he doesn’t like what he sees.
In “Radio Nowhere”, the first song the album, Springsteen bemoans the kind of mass culture/ mass thought against which George Orwell fulminated in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” “If thought corrupts language, then language can also corrupt thought,” Orwell wrote, and as it is for language, so, too, for other aspects of our culture. Mass culture can have an anesthetizing effect on the mind of a civilization.
Mass commercial culture—free of spontaneity, and real diversity, and its own “rhythm”—is, for Springsteen, both the cause and the symbol of our present malaise. He’s trying to find his way home, he sings in the very first line of the album. He spins the radio dial to find that song to guide him home—but all he hears, he says, is “a drone/ bouncing off a satellite”: It is as though the very air, the atmosphere itself, has become militarized, answering the call of some central authority—rather than the spontaneous calling of its own rhythm.
“Is there anybody alive out there?” Springsteen asks over and over, almost desperately, singing into the void and darkness. “Is there anybody alive out there?” Or have we all become deadened spirits: “Just another lost number in a file”?
He continues to make his way through the darkness, “searchin’ for a world with some soul”—wanting to hear again the rhythm of life. He yearns for the diversity and abundance that make life worth living:
“I want a thousand guitars
I want pounding drums
I want a million different voices singing in tongues”
As always (or at least almost always) in Springsteen, despair seldom gets the last word. His vision abides; his search continues. Springsteen says he’s looking for a “mystery train”: an allusion both to Elvis Presley’s “Train I ride, sixteen coaches long” promising personal contentment and romantic love—and to that blessed train of unity and acceptance and national transformation of which Springsteen has sung often and repeatedly in the recent past, the train leading us to that “land of hope and dreams”.
As do many of us, Springsteen believes that our train has fallen off the track, and that getting back home requires fixing the situation. At the center of our great national derailment he sees the war in Iraq, and the culture of deceit and manipulation that has spawned it. The war is never far from the surface of almost all of the songs here.
“Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?” he asks in one song, directly echoing the words of John Kerry, as a Vietnam veteran testifying before Congress in 1971. “Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break?” Springsteen sings. “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?” It’s an angry song, full of references to so-called wise men really being fools, and fiddling while the city burns, and tyrants and kings being strung up at the city gates.
But Springsteen is not a mere polemicist, and his greatest talent, always, lies in his ability to tell a story in his songs; to amplify his opposition to the war in Iraq by presenting in moving human detail the real tragedy this war has wrought.
In “Gypsy Biker”, he tells of one soldier’s homecoming (in a casket). The initial tone is angry: “The speculators made their money on the blood you shed… The profiteers on Jane Street sold your shoes and clothes…” But no one will speak the awful truth of a war fought for oil, and of those who make lots of money from the deaths of their fellow countrymen. Soon, the anger gives way to resignation, emotional numbness, and the self-destruction of despair.
This dead soldier’s family and friends take the cherished motorcycle of this “Gypsy Biker” out of the garage and polish off the chrome. They then drive it to the outskirts of town, into the foothills, and in a grand gesture like a Viking’s funeral, they set it afire—a blazing testament to the one they’ve lost; a mighty conflagration of anger and of love.
But when the “high desert wind” dies down, and the fire merely smolders, and the world lurches on, then all that will remain is the void—the empty space where this lost soldier once stood and lived and loved. In the emptiness, those left behind will continue to founder, locked in a prison of self-destruction. The casualties of war are not merely those killed on the battlefield.
Nor as the only casualties on the battlefield those who are killed. In “Devil’s Arcade” Springsteen sings of another soldier come home—this one not in a casket, but on a stretcher. In addition to the almost 4000 American troops killed in Iraq, there have been an estimated 30,000 wounded—some of whom have been maimed, physically and emotionally, for life. This has been one of the great “unspoken” tragedies of this terrible war. “Devil’s Arcade” is Springsteen’s attempt to give voice to some of these victims.
Perhaps the soldier here is the same tense and frightened young man we met in Springsteen’s earlier song about the war, “Devils and Dust”. Now lying wounded, he dreams about earlier, happier days of romance and camaraderie. But then, “Somebody made a bet, and somebody paid.” Someone other than those who decided to go to war-- this particular soldier for one, and with him thousands of others “expendable” men and women, were the ones sent to do the dirty deeds of those in power. The war came, and with it the great tragic transformation of this solder’s life, and thousands of others.
Now for him, there is no more lovemaking, no more “evenings of perfume and gin”, no more campside poker games, no more heroism—there is just the blue-walled hospital ward, “a sea with no name,” where this young, maimed warrior now lies adrift with the other victims of Iraq’s “devil’s arcade”.
But even here, in this saddest of places, there is hope; there is the glimmer of “something like faith”: The voice of his beloved whispers “I’m here” in the soldier’s ear, and dares him to dream about “tomorrow”. She dares him to recall that normal life—that house on the quiet street; breakfast cooking in the kitchen; the glorious moment of feeling alive, with the new morning’s sun warming his cheek—and dares him to hope for something like resurrection, for a new rising; she dares him to ride each moment, each heartbeat, toward a future which still waits, in spite of everything—a future where love’s rhythm can put out at last the “bitter fires of the devil’s arcade”.
“How did we as a nation fall so far, so fast?” Springsteen seems to be asking. There is plenty of blame to go around certainly—most of it hurled at those currently in power. But in a democracy, none of us are blameless. “Your own worst enemy has come to town,” Springsteen sings in another song, and, as is oftentimes the case, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
In another song, he sings: “You’ll be coming down now, baby, you’ll be coming down,” and it’s as though he’s chronicling the inevitable fall of a society rich in things but poor in soul.
In “Livin’ in the Future”, there’s nothing beckoning but the blue, cloudless skies of denial. Things are falling apart, and ill winds are blowing, but the singer doesn’t want to hear about it. He just wants to go on, acting as though everything is just fine. In spite of a whole catalogue of problems and catastrophes, he sings:
“Don’t worry darlin’
Now baby don’t you fret,
We’re livin’ in the future,
and none of this has happened yet.”
But the illusion of a future based upon falsehood is nevertheless a lie. As much as the singer might want to kid himself into oblivion with the senseless “na na na na”’s at the end of the song, sooner or later, the center will not hold and things will fall apart.
In “Magic”, the album’s title track, and perhaps the most frightening song on the whole record, Springsteen further explores these Orwellian times in which we live. “The song ‘Magic’,” he told an interviewer fromRolling Stone, “is about living in a time when anything that is true can be made to seem like a lie, and anything that is a lie can be made to seem true.” Or as one of President Bush’s advisors told a reporter from theNew York Times: “We make our own reality. You guys report it. [But] we make it.”
“Trust none of what you hear,” “Magic” reminds us, “and less of what you’ll see.” Then, hauntingly, it proclaims: “This is what will be. This is what will be.”
Sounding like a carnival huckster (or an American politician), Springsteen introduces us to his whole bag of manipulative tricks.
I got a coin in my palm
I can make it disappear
I got a card up my sleeve
Name it and I'll pull it out your ear
I got a rabbit in my hat
If you wanna come and see
This is what will be…
But then, things turn more sinister, and the swindler soon turns his “magic” against his listeners:
I got a shiny saw blade…
All I need's a volunteer
I'll cut you in half
While you're smilin' ear to ear—
Until finally our very freedom has disappeared: “Driftin' like a ghost amongst the trees”. An awful future beckons:
Now there's a fire down below
But it's coming up here
So leave everything you know
Carry only what you fear
On the road the sun is sinkin' low
There's bodies hangin' in the trees
This is what will be…
The dark of night has descended on America. How do we awaken from this haunted sleep? Of course, the vision abideth. Only a nation which has principles can lament falling from them. Springsteen told 60 Minutes recently that his purpose is to “chart the distance between American ideals and American reality.” In the frankly romantic, lushly nostalgic “Girls in Their Summer Clothes”, Springsteen reintroduces us to ourselves as a country. He sings of an idyllic summer, a moment when everything seems right:
Well the streetlights shine
Down on Blessing Avenue
Lovers they walk by
Holding hands two by two…
A kid's rubber ball smacks
Off the gutter 'neath the lamp light
Big bank clock chimes
Off go the sleepy front porch lights…
There’s an air of hope, of optimism, a “can do” attitude of a people who know who they are. The lights at Frankie’s Diner shine, “An old friend on the edge of town.” (Not darkness on the edge of town this time, but light.) Coffee cups get endlessly refilled and abundance and prosperity are everywhere.
But no dreams last forever, much less dreams as idealized and romantic as these. Simply dreaming—of what has been or of what we hope will be—won’t make it happen. After all, “The girls in their summer clothes/ in the cool of the evening light” are also the ones who have passed the singer by.
I remain convinced that Springsteen is a man of deep faith, whose spiritual and religious values seldom lie very far beneath the surface of his work. But his is a markedly non-traditional faith; and it is also a deeply embodied, incarnational faith. Springsteen would agree that “By their fruits you shall know them,” and if our professions of faith are to have real worth, there needs to be no small measure of heart and head and hand—and real work—behind them. Real love requires real work.
In “I’ll Work For Your Love”, perhaps the album’s lightest song, he seems impatient, almost irritated by various trappings of faith—Stations of the Cross, crowns of thorns, books of Revelation, rosaries, temples of bones, pieces of the cross, seven drops of blood—they are all here. But all these symbols of faith rise and fall—are redeemed or discarded-- only in so far as the real man and real woman in this song choose to act upon them and make them real. There is never a free lunch in Springsteen’s songs, and perhaps no such thing as a free gift of grace, either. Others may want something “for free”, the man sings to the woman, Theresa, here, but “I’ll work for your love,” he tells her. I’ll do what I need to do to make our faith—and hope—and love come alive.
Getting back to where we need to be will not be easy. “It’s gonna be a long walk home,” the album’s final song reminds us. “Last night I stood at your doorstep, trying to figure out what went wrong,” it begins. Perhaps we might picture Springsteen here at the base of the Statue of Liberty—at our great national doorstep—trying to begin again the journey toward America as it should be. Things look bleak—but the world goes on: there is the same “deep green of summer”; the stars above still shine; in the distance his hometown beckons to us—with its memories, and perhaps even with its hopes.
Certainly, as the singer looks around his hometown again, much has been taken:
The veteran's hall high upon the hill
Stood silent and alone
The diner was shuttered and boarded
With a sign that just said "gone"
Even here, in his hometown, no one knows him and he knows no one. They are all like “rank strangers” to one another.
But even if this is the way things are, it doesn’t mean it is the way things have to be. “This is what will be,” Springsteen sang on “Magic” (the song), as he portrays his frightening vision of the world that is to come. But remember Scrooge in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Future, the most frightening ghost of all, finally finishes up with him: “Assure me,” Scrooge implores the spirit of what will be, “that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life?”
“Long Walk Home” gives us hope that we may wipe away the writing on the stone, and redeem our national honor and purpose. “Here everybody has a neighbor/ Everybody has a friend,” he sings—and, with that defiant hope that has characterized so much of his work-- “Everybody has a reason to begin again.”
When his father tells him: "Son, we're lucky in this town, It's a beautiful place to be born.”—the old man probably isn’t speaking about physical beauty. He’s not speaking about any well-manicured gated communities or prosperous, isolated, high achiever ghettos. He’s speaking about common, everyday places like Freehold (where Springsteen was born), or like Woonsocket, or Pawtucket, or Lowell, or Brockton. Or Stoughton. Or any of the thousands upon thousands of cities and towns and villages, large and small, all across this country that common everyday Americans call “home”.
These are the places that wrap their arms around us, and won’t let us go, and remind us what it means, truly, to be an American. It means standing up for freedom. And taking care of one another. And making sure that everyone has a fair shake and an equal chance. That people play by the rules, and tell the truth, and pay a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, and do their darndest, and never give up. It’s about admitting when we’ve been wrong, and attempting to make up for it. It’s about casting the circle of love and freedom just as wide as possible, and finding a place for everyone at the table. And it’s about knowing—really knowing—that it’s never too late to begin again. It’s never to late to turn around and come back home.
“You know that flag flying over the courthouse,” the father continues,
“Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't.”
Yes, it is going to be a long walk home for this land of ours. But may we be lights to one another along the way. And may the light of truth guide us, and the warmth of love inspire us, and the love of God surround us, everywhere we may go.