12/07/2003

Snowed Out Without a Gun

In honor of yesterday's trip through a blizzard to the Jersey shore, where the scheduled Springsteen Christmas show was snowed out...and in honor of my being swamped by assignments, applications, and work...and in honor of the season, I present you with this, a festively packaged excerpt from an aborted draft of an essay on the Boss and the Man upstairs, which I've been commissioned to write for the inaugural issue of The New Pantagruel:

"...Disregarding, for the present, the tinny drums and backup singers that mar side A of The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle, the things that have tended to make some people uncomfortable with Bruce Springsteen are precisely those that have made people uncomfortable with Jesus Christ: the bombast, the mythos, the relentless fixation with the poor and downtrodden, the guilelessness, the wanderlust, the insistence that audience participation be more than sitting on your ass for a few hours every once in awhile, be an act of faith. The casual way devotees refer to each by their first name: Bruce. Jesus. If there is a point where the critical contiguity of the two breaks down, it is this: no one seems to be confused about where Springsteen stands on such hot-button issues as killing, gay rights, discrimination, cultural pluralism, domestic automobiles, and sex . Unlike the Bible, the Boss has never, to my knowledge, been accused of propagating mixed messages.

In an age where expressions of faith and devotion shade into acts of willful ignorance and violence so frequently that irony has become the de facto badge of neutrality, it proves easier, in some circles, to openly address spiritual matters through the medium of popular culture than it does to try to discuss Christ, or, for that matter, Moses, Mohammed, or Mithra. That I more frequently use Tunnel of Love than the Lamentations of Jeremiah to explicate my own faith to friends is perhaps this evidence of my own religious wishy-washiness. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m often unwilling to put in the hard work nowadays required to explain, say, that it’s possible to be a Christian pacifist, or an ecumenical Christian, or a Christian socialist. Far easier to point to “Living Proof,” or “The Rising,” and to say, as the Quakers do, “That friend speaks my mind.” Nonetheless, as anyone who has witnessed a recent E Street Band concert can attest, the experience of tens of thousands of people reaching into the air and singing “With these hands, I pray for your love, Lord” is as powerful as anything you’re likely to encounter in church.

Which begs the question: what is it that has allowed Springsteen’s overt statements of belief to endure, and to unite audiences, at a time when almost every other unironic gesture towards the spiritual, from the President’s fervid invocations on down to the town nativity scene, sows discord? A cynic might answer that Springsteenian faith demands little enough to be palatable to all, and that its theology is sufficiently vague to alienate none. There may be some truth there, although I will argue that Bruce’s records have always constituted a kind of Christian rock. Moreover, I am unwilling to accept that the state of grace that prevails at a Springsteen show is simply an illusion. Digging deeper into the meat of the question, I find, first, that the Springsteen catalogue possesses a similar appeal to that of the Bible’s “words in red,” only minus two millennia of exegesis and institution. That is, Springsteen’s life work presents, among other things, the story of an ordinary guy with a powerful sense of mission, who endures some trials, gains a following, and comes, in the course of time, to a few simple but deeply beliefs. And, secondly, that Springsteen’s fumbling toward faith gains traction when he turns from the Dylan-influenced poetry of his early work and the dramatic monologues of Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska, and Born in the U.S.A. to the confessional voice that has distinguished his best work since then. This voice, unlike, say, the sententious rhetoric offered by our president, allows Springsteen to offer us gestures of faith while convincingly sharing his own fears, doubts, depressions, and sins. His audience can listen and say, 'Hey, that guy’s like me. I’ve felt that. I’ve been there. And when he sings about God, I know what he’s talking about.'"

12/01/2003

On a Crosstown Bus at Rush Hour

Time unveils each new pair of lights cut by black trees
to be not what we’ve awaited,
the transport to our neighborhoods, but rather the conveyance
of others, like us, stooped and eye-weary, prone as we are to error.

Of course, there are those differences
that give rise to envy: for example, they
are in motion and we’re still as telephone poles,
hung with books and hoods and baggage.

But even with a stereo and lumbar support
and air, a windshield and a wheel
and a captain’s seat or even on a moving bus, say,
the one that continues not to arrive,
there is no escaping this: accidents will happen
and you are not yet home.