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Springsteen's "Magic" Realism

By Armond White

The notion of the Great American Novel died the moment Hollywood was invented and though the idea was briefly resurrected in the mid-20th century, it died again with the birth of rock and roll. Bruce Springsteen has always gone for the grand gesture and his 9/11 album The Rising was an honorable attempt at a kind of novelistic national vision — a high cultural concept translated to a pop medium. Though The Rising was an admirable attempt at art that heals, it amounted (most of all) to another act in Springsteen’s ambitious pop life. Magic perfects the Great American Novel concept into an Album-of-the-Moment urgency.

Each song on Magic feels like a compacted version of The Rising; the tunes assess circumstances and characters that Springsteen has observed in the malaise that followed 9/11 and those concerns have been sharpened by focus on the Iraq War. Great thing about Magic is that it isn’t an anti-war screed. Springsteen conveys a sense of the war (always looking at it from the sidelines) by evoking everyday attitudes of people who live with consciousness of the war. But it doesn’t fumble the Iraq War like a political football; it evinces the war as part of social habit, within the context of private lives and the difficulty of loving and holding on to faith. The term “magic” suitably stands in for both those phenomena; it may especially be Springsteen’s attempt at slipping the questions recently raised by conservative fundamentalism. Yet, strangely — movingly — Magic contains a verifiable sense of Catholic resolve. Religion remains a crucial part of the American experience though it may not be popular among secular Leftists; it helps define America’s sense of itself and of its history. Besides providing powerful metaphors for struggle, passion, obligation, desire, fear, religion helps to contextualize and understand those things. The song “Devil’s Arcade” becomes both a war metaphor and an allusion to the perplexing aspects of loving; the fearsome, unpredictable nature of intimacy.

This sensitivity makes Magic the most compelling album Springsteen has made in years. It harkens to the disillusionment of Tunnel of Love as well as his ambivalent romanticism and hard luck — the constant, moving themes of The River, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born to Run. In Magic, Springsteen perfects and simpifies his way of expressing these concerns; he matches the most extraordinary pop expressions of contemporary mood and richly accounts for Iraq War malaise and everyday 21st Century tragedy. A line in “Devil’s Arcade” becomes trenchant allusion for weariness that enacts the ennui of both war and peace-time: “You sleep and you dream of your buddies Charlie and Jim/And wake with a thick desert dust on your skin.” Here, Springsteen surpasses the fashionable sadness of the pop group Arcade Fire (Springsteen clones) and evokes the profound moodiness of Morrissey’s English miserablist songs, particularly Morrissey’s great “Everyday Is Like Sunday” (1988) with its refrain “Trudging back over pebbles and sand/ And a strange dust lands on your hands/and on your face.”

Springsteen references Morrissey — the most significant pop mood-setter of the past 20 years — just as Morrissey’s song borrows mood and imagery from British poet John Betjeman’s “Slough” (“Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough” led to Morrissey’s “This is the coastal town/That they forgot to bomb/Come, come nuclear bomb.”) Morrissey’s depressed wish for Armageddon parallels the nihilism that Springsteen finds in the contemporary American condition — caused by war but also by Morrisseyean facts of modern, dissatisfied life. Springsteen’s “thick desert dust” sounds specific but it resonates profoundly, as does Morrissey’s “strange dust,” with suggestions of aridity, ruin and the grave. (Note: Morrissey is NOT a nihilist; sadness opens the door of his deep compassionate insight.)

Morrissey’s impact is felt most remarkably in Magic on Springsteen’s “The Girls in the Their Summer Clothes,” his masterly recapitulation of Born to Run-era drama, with vernacular and place descriptions that recall “Jungleland.” But “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” — my favorite track on the album — has an extraordinary wistfulness not heard in any pop record since “Everyday Is Like Sunday.” The same secular sadness that Morrissey alludes to as a day without mass or communal congregation is present in Springsteen’s vision of a community coping with existential gloom and regret. As the song’s characters make their way through a working-class landscape, the artist sympathizes with their anomie and his awareness confers a grace upon their activities (daily habits and secular rituals). Where Morrissey internalized this mood, and left grace up to the plangent surge of the music and his own plaintive singing, Springsteen goes after a populist, almost convivial tone. While Morrissey dares to beckon Armageddon as a social and spiritual critique, Springsteen creates a longing for forgiveness.

Each stanza in the song is sung at a measured pace, making lyrical the daily American occurrences that Springsteen observes. The details are writerly (“Kid’s rubber ball smacks against…bicycle spokes spin round”) but most importantly, they’re lifted from common experience and chosen to signify innocuous life phases, if not innocence itself. These verses prove Springsteen is the kind of common-man’s romantic whose sense of the present insists upon the kind of time-sensitive compassion that’s wrapped up with a sense of nostalgia. It’s in the song’s place names: Blessing Street, Magic Street. And character names: waitress Sheniqua pouring coffee for “my poor Bill.” (Was Springsteen conscious of evoking the great torch song “Bill” from the 1920s Kern-Hammerstein musical Showboat? — perhaps the greatest example of showbiz Americana. Interestingly, it was sung by the musical’s biracial tragedienne, Julie, while Springsteen’s waitress represents the first black female character in his songbook cosmology. The name Bill has contemporary white connotations which adds to the poignancy of the café scene, making it a peaceable moment of social integration.) Here, the descending key change of his vocals — simultaneous with the band’s crescendo — identifies personal anxiety and spiritual yearning (“Things get a little tight, but I know they’re gonna turn my way”). Breathtakingly, the private and political are presented in musical counterpoint.

Springsteen doesn’t sing about a perfect society on Magic. He’s learned since 9/11 that an ideal society is something you work toward (Utopia); it’s also an idea that must be rectified in relation to the reality one knows. That’s also a crucial contemporary theme, recently expressed by both Morrissey and Spielberg. These artists’ viewpoints come together strikingly in an image from “Your Own Worst Enemy.” It’s a great warning song — warning against the blame reflex that’s become so common since the 2004 election. Springsteen reminds us of our own fallibility; that our propensity to dream can isolate us as well as keep us from recognizing our best course of behavior. Thus, consumerist habit comes under scrutiny in the line “There’s a face you know/Stand back from the shop window.”

That image immediately reminded me of the remarkable moment in Spielberg’s Munich where Avner is taunted by his French informant that the killing cycle isn’t over yet. Homebody and chef Avner has been staring in a shop window at a sparkling new kitchen design when he’s given this dreadful challenge and the reflection of his new killer’s face is superimposed over objects of his former homelife identity He struggles with the realization of the peace he’ll never have and Spielberg shows us one of the costs of political warfare by the implicit idea of Avner selling his soul for “peace.”

Morrissey also faces the music in last year’s complex “On the Streets I Ran” — an extraordinary song looking back at the hell of growing up in a violent, aggressive neighborhood and trying to rise above that history. He begins “Ooooo/ A working-class face glares back at me from the glass and lurches/ Ohhh.” Springsteen never sings about this kind of revulsion, at least not from Morrissey’s pained perspective. Springsteen’s more forgiving, but he’s also conscious of social antagonism that (in Morrissey’s plaint) grounds down individuals who must go it alone. Morrissey’s rejoinder, “Dear God, when will I be where I should be?” is a question Springsteen asks implicitly. It’s also the idea behind “Your Own Worst Enemy’s” closing lyric “The flag you flew so high/ It drifted into the sky” — an image of American promise tied up with patriotism and a sense of class and neighborhood that we all feel whatever our various experiences and temperaments. There are private, isolated dreams that slip away from the real world we inhabit. (This is true for you and me and George Bush, too, which makes the Rolling Stone magazine review of Magic infuriating in the way it reduced the album to an attack on Bush. Did that reviewer really listen to “Your Own Worst Enemy”?!!)

Neighborhood, home-town experience is vividly evoked throughout Magic, similar to the manifestations of place and home in Spielberg’s earlier movies. But it is nowhere better expressed than in “Long Walk Home” where the Morrisseyean wistfulness is once again evoked:

Here everybody has a neighbor
Everybody has a friend
Everybody has a reason to begin again

It’s as desirous as the image of girls in their summer dresses, as nostalgic as the communal images in the old Fun with Dick and Jane readers used to indoctrinate the Boomer generation. But Springsteen’s intention is to hone that longing into canny political awakening. The song’s already-classic lyric, quoted by so many reviewers is, I fear, misunderstood unless it is heard with Morrissey’s ironic skepticism.

My father said
Son, you’re lucky in this town
It’s a beautiful place to be born
It just wraps its arms around you
Nobody crowds you
Nobody goes it alone
You know that flag flying over the courthouse
It means certain things are set in stone
Who we are and what we’ll do and what we won’t

To me this song rhapsodizes about the need to return to old values and beliefs — the long (impossible) walk back to innocence. It’s almost shocking that so many reviewers willfully misread it (Ronald Reagan “Born in the U.S.A.”-style), as a Kiwanis Club booster song. Rather, it’s from the point of view of a disillusioned veteran who doesn’t see America or American ideology the same way anymore. His father’s advice is heartbreakingly wrong — or at least disproved. That the things we were formerly told were facts — the ideology we were hopefully encouraged to believe — no longer hold true makes the song devastating.

That psychic alienation is apparent in the vet’s tour of his town square and his peek inside a barbershop: “I look in their faces, they’re all rank strangers to me.” I’m reminded of Morrissey’s anxious mirror phase through the term “rank strangers” which is an American contrast to the British term “rank outsiders” (c.f. The Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice”), a term defining class hierarchy. But Springsteen’s vet feels alien the way only a sincere citizen can — not alienated from a particular social group, but from a class of people who remain unconscious — still illusioned, ignorant or indifferent. And yet, Springsteen’s vet (citizen of the culture that doesn’t believe in class division) still hopes…unsure if he’ll ever get back to a place of comfort and trust. But he’s walking toward it and the song (a daydreaming narrative rather than a nightmare) is the story of that sojourn. “Long Walk Home” is my second favorite Magic track because it dares a powerful, realistic truth with great feeling. Like Morrissey, Springsteen has no truck with pacifying bromides. And though the song goes from wish to fear, doing so through irony is an emotionally generous strategy. Against the truth of social fragmentation and broken promises, Springsteen posits the idea of community and loving parental advice that we had better believe in — or else rot.

The basis for all this in Magic is Springsteen’s regard for humanity — the sense of respect, value, love that is found in the way individuals treat each other. The amazing open-heartedness of the songs’ many characterizations comes down to Springsteen digging the depth and weight of their beings — their souls. These characters are from the same world as Born to Run, but worn ragged by 9/11, the Iraq War and by life as mankind has always endured it. Young Springsteen’s beautiful pop-records-based mythology has given way to something more mature, just as these world-weary people (veterans, waitresses, bikers, tired parents, doubt-filled spouses and frustrated lovers) reach for something deeper than romanticism. The only way he can account for their struggles is through religious analogy — the best source we in the West have for measuring qualities of soul. It’s heard in the references to tradition, crosses-to-bear and to the goodness embodied in a human being as cited in the erotic/religious “I’ll Work for Your Love.”

Way past “Prove It All Night’s” testament to masculine stamina, “I’ll Work for Your Love” is a pledge of devotion, but a pledge that is also a temptation and a struggle — that’s life, ain’t it? That’s love, too. Springsteen’s infatuation with the wonder of loving is the point of the album’s title track — especially after the profound rattling of love, faith and patriotism that has occurred since 9/11 and the Iraq War. Springsteen faces the same fundamental questions as the post-WWII American novelists. His sexual and social response is essential to the rich feeling of a song like “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” which was inspired by depression-era writer Irwin Shaw’s career-defining short story “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” where an entwined dilemma of marital fidelity and urban stress concentrates attention on lost faith. Springsteen transubstantiates religious faith into personal/carnal wonder and, going further, into social trust. The chorus “This is what we’ll be” sometimes sounds like a prophecy (“This is what will be”). It succeeds either way as a great song lyric has to. Both a promise and a faith, it is this artist’s soulful version of not just the Great American Novel but what lies at the essence of the U.S. Constitution.

From February, 2008