Forty-three years after his debut album, Bruce Springsteen has more than earned his bona fides as a songwriter for the working man—many of his most iconic songs are populated by blue collar people trying to break out of their desperate situations. They—and "they" are mostly men, presumably white though it is often ambiguous—find temporary escapes in cars, booze, and women, though that last one can feel like a trap all on its own.
"The River," Springsteen's fifth release and the double album he and the E Street Band will be playing in full at Royal Farms Arena next Wednesday night, best shows the duality of enjoying life's simple pleasures and an inescapable feeling that the forces in the world are working against you. Though it's up to debate if this is Springsteen's best album, it's no doubt his most all-encompassing, which is by design. In interviews tied to the release last year of an expanded "River" box set, the songwriter has said that he wanted to combine the live experience of his group's New Jersey bar band music with darker lyrical themes he was only beginning to explore.
An endless amount of words have been written about Springsteen's ability to relate these themes of economic struggle to his audience in a big-tent way, but what about, say, people in places like East and West Baltimore?
Springsteen's audience is overwhelmingly white. And with tickets for his Baltimore show ranging from $68-$153, they've presumably become a bit more middle class. But there are still many entries in The Boss' songbook about characters on the margins, and as in real life, some of these people—regular folks trying to eek it out in post-industrial America—turn to a life of crime, because it's one of their only options.
Yet many well-to-do suburbanites in the counties surrounding Baltimore—many of them Springsteen fans, no doubt—simply write these people off as "thugs" and figure that's the end of it. Nothing is ever that simple or neat, of course, and there are several Springsteen character studies that dig into the very human motivations that drive people to break the law. Some of the crimes he writes about, particularly murder, are still, societally, horrifying, but through these songs we are given scenarios that make them a bit more understandable. Perhaps they can even engender empathy.
Ticket-holders will show up to the arena on April 20 to have fun and drink a few arena-priced beers while singing along to rocking party jams like 'Sherry Darling' and 'Cadillac Ranch.' Those same listeners might look a little deeper and think a little differently about some of the songwriter's catalogue, and how these stories can relate to people they've written off.
First, though, it's worth considering the factors that got us here, namely the loss of solid, well-paying manufacturing work, a theme Springsteen touches on again and again.
'Youngstown,' off the folk-y 1995 album "The Ghost of Tom Joad," lays out the history of the Ohio city of the same name that could stand in for any number of factory towns in the Midwest, where smokestacks once reached "like the arms of god/ Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay."
In one scene, the narrator's father visits the same plants that helped power the country's victory during World War II. "Now the yards just scrap and rubble / He said, 'Them big boys did what Hitler couldn't do.'"
"Them big boys" almost certainly being the owners and managers who either closed shop or pulled up their roots and took production overseas. The narrator addresses them directly: "Now sir you tell me the world's changed/ Once I made you rich enough/ Rich enough to forget my name."
Or let's consider the narrator in one of Springsteen's most iconic songs, 'Born In the U.S.A.,' which somehow still gets mistaken as a patriotic anthem all these years later. He is a Vietnam veteran returning to his "dead man's town" in search of work. After being turned down at the local refinery and Veteran's Administration office, he feels totally stuck: "Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go."
What's someone to do?
In both 'Meeting Across the River,' a piano ballad off Springsteen's 1975 breakthrough album "Born to Run," and 'Atlantic City,' a stand-out on 1982's haunting "Nebraska," the answer is organized crime.
The protagonist in the former is so hard up for cash that he's pawned his radio, pissing off his girlfriend, Cherry. But he's asking his buddy Eddie for a ride through the tunnel, most likely from New Jersey to New York, to meet with a crime boss—"this guy, he's the real thing"—for a nice payoff. What Cherry doesn't understand is "[t]hat two grand's practically sitting here in my pocket." But there's a sense these guys are both fuck-ups, and the main character says this is their "last chance" to make something happen for themselves. What's clear: this gig is a big opportunity to get out from under being broke.
On the latter, the character takes what little money he's been able to save from his job and moves with his girlfriend to Atlantic City, where the "sand's turnin' to gold" thanks to recently built local casinos. Once there, he struggles to find an upstanding job and path to righteousness, so he gets fed up. "Well I'm tired of comin' out on the losin' end/ So honey last night I met this guy and I'm gonna do a little favor for him."
'Johnny 99,' also on "Nebraska," draws a similar connection between joblessness and breaking the law. Johnny loses his job at the auto factory in Mahwah, New Jersey, can't find a new one, gets drunk, and shoots a night clerk in an attempted robbery. After sentencing Johnny to jail for 99 years, the judge asks if Johnny has a statement. His response: "Now judge, judge I had debts no honest man could pay/ The bank was holdin' my mortgage and they was takin' my house away/ Now I ain't sayin' that makes me an innocent man/ But it was more 'n all this that put that gun in my hand." That's a pretty insightful self-diagnosis. The implication that there were other forces at work here could easily extend to most everyone who runs afoul of the law.
'Sinaloa Cowboys,' also on "Tom Joad," looks specifically at the most thriving underground trade in Baltimore: drug dealing. The song follows two Mexican brothers, Miguel and Louis, who cross into California looking for agricultural work, only to end up at a deserted chicken ranch cooking methamphetamine, because they're faced with this prospect: "You could spend a year in the orchards/ Or make half as much in one 10-hour shift."
For Baltimore corner boys, there is no orchard. But even if there were, is it hard to understand how someone with nothing would choose the drug game over a migrant worker's wages and living conditions?
More recently, Springsteen has pivoted from fiction and allegory to bring in straightforward commentary on real-world events into his lyrics. He's told his audience that black lives matter before that phrase became a rallying cry in the current movement for social change. "Wrecking Ball," his Great Recession album, opens with a chiding of the U.S. government for its response to Hurricane Katrina, invoking the Superdome and shotgun shacks and imploring that "Wherever this flag's flown/ We take care of our own."
Taking on the voice of those in impacted communities, he asks: "Where're the eyes, the eyes with the will to see?/ Where're the hearts that run over with mercy?/ Where's the love that has not forsaken me?/ Where's the work that'll set my hands, my soul free?/ Where's the spirit that'll reign over me?/ Where's the promise from sea to shining sea?"
Chicago, a city plagued by violence the last couple years, including 2012, when this song was released, is referenced as well, implying that there's a lot more at stake here than recovering from a natural disaster.
But the epoch of the current movement is police brutality, and Springsteen distills this in 'American Skin (41 Shots),' a song about Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old New York man who in 1999 was gunned down by four plainclothes police officers when he reached for his wallet.
In the song, Springsteen describes a mother giving her son The Talk about interacting with cops and their itchy trigger fingers. "She says 'on these streets, Charles/ You've got to understand the rules/ If an officer stops you/ Promise you'll always be polite/ that you'll never ever run away/ Promise Mama you'll keep your hands in sight."
Freddie Gray ran a year ago, and it led to the events that cost him his life. Because, as Springsteen notes, "It ain't no secret/ No secret my friend/ You can get killed just for living/ In your American skin."
But what most fail to understand is that all of us are "baptized in these waters/ and in each other's blood."