Monday, May 25, 2015

Inspiration from The Boss

I felt a post on Springsteen on Memorial Day was fitting. Don't see the connection? Stay with me.

The other night, I stumbled across an old documentary on Bruce Springsteen. It was near the beginning, and quickly caught my attention. Here was a guy who skipped his own high school graduation, who they talked about being socially awkward.

And we all know how successful Springsteen has been.

I mean, can we even agree on his best song? For me?

Rolling Stone ranks it #28 of Bruce's top 100 hits.  I never seem to be very mainstream.

Brian might say...

#3 on that Rolling Stone list.

It wasn't just the music that caught my attention in this special. It was the substance. With two teenagers, one of whom has already been in the, "I hate school" state for what seems like forever, and the other has been feeling stressed and unhappy at school and socially lately.

They actually said they'd consider switching schools. And believe me, that's a sign that things are bad.

I rewound the program and started recording it, thinking that perhaps the kids would find some encouragement in knowing that someone who's gone on to be as successful as Springsteen wasn't always Mr. Popular.

Instead, the program took my respect for him to a whole new level, got me thinking about Memorial Day, and actually reassured me creatively.

Memorial Day, because in the wake of 9/11, Bruce Springsteen picked up the phone and called widows in New Jersey, and listened to people. He internalized all of that loss and the impact of that horrific day, and produced a remarkable album, that's been my favorite Springsteen for years.

Oddly enough, as a teenager, I'd fallen into the trap of perceiving him as jingoistic, and a little too "ra ra America" for my tastes. Perhaps that's something Americans can't fully understand, but the American psyche and patriotism is something I've explored in my marriage, and my day to day experience, and is something for another post, another day.

It takes really reading the lyrics to appreciate the message.

Born down in a dead man's town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that's been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up
Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Got in a little hometown jam so they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man
Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says "son if it was up to me"
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said "son don't you understand now"
Had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there he's all gone
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now
Down in the shadow of penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I'm ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go

It isn't the jingoistic anthem some believed it to be. It's a work that runs much deeper, that explores a failing of a society towards its own citizens. It's hard to see it as validation of the American dream; if anything, it seems rather hopeless upon examination of the lyrics. Although Springsteen did not fight in Vietnam because he failed his medical, he's carried some sense of understanding of the price of war on those who have, and it's been reflected in his music.

What's curious is that the same album produced songs like Dancing in the Dark, and one of my other personal favorites, Glory Days - another song that's nostalgic, yes, but hardly idealistic and optimistic.

I think one of the things that really struck me about Springsteen when I was watching the documentary was how diverse his music is. I should know - I do not own Born in the USA (though I should) but I do own Devils and Dust, and The Ghost of Tom Joad.

And my personal favorites?

In light of recent events, how could anyone talk about the problems in Baltimore and Ferguson without thinking of this Springsteen classic?

When I listen to Springsteen, there is a sense of nostalgia. Not because the music has aged. Rather, it's got a timelessness to it that makes it as relevant today as it was when it was recorded and released. The nostalgia is for the delight of walking to town and going to the furniture store, which had a selection of records (yes, records!) at the back, and coming home with that new prize. It was for the incredible sense of discovery of the B sides, the songs you weren't hearing on the radio, that curiously almost always seemed to resonate with me even more than the singles.

It reminded me of how much I appreciate an artist who has depth and range, who doesn't produce different versions of the same album over and over again. Springsteen may not have been hanging out with the cool kids in high school, but by digging deep within himself and baring his soul through his music, and not being afraid to write and sing about issues that were important to him and his convictions, he's been able to connect with a far greater audience worldwide.

I found the show inspiring, and reassuring.

You see, for quite some time now, the only projects I've been dabbling with have fallen well outside of my main genre focus, and I've struggled with that. I'd never want crime fiction fans to feel I have anything other than the deepest respect for them, but I also want the freedom to explore new themes and to do that through other genres where appropriate.

When I watched the special on Springsteen, I remembered that a career is made of much more than top 10 hits, and it all has value. People are more than one interest, more than one style, more than one show or type of music they like. We're a collection of pieces that somehow mesh together. I can love Bloodlines and love Orphan Black and The 100, and there's nothing contradictory in saying that, because people are complex.

Oddly enough, Victor Gischler posted something on Facebook that resonated with me, and ties in to my thoughts for this post:

One of those days where I look at my body of work and wonder what the hell am I doing career wise? Don't get my wrong, not a pity thing or self doubt thing. Nothing like that. But I'm all over the damn place. Crime, satire post apocalypse, pulp sci-fi, relatively straight forward fantasy. It's like I'm daring readers to keep up with me which is probably not the best business model.

Somehow, through all of this, I realized I didn't have to try to 'fit in' or feel restricted by genre. I can push the boundaries. Heaven help me, I don't mean transcend the genre, because I don't feel crime fiction is second to anything. I just mean move outside what's typically expected and incorporate elements from anything appropriate.

After all, if we feel trapped inside expectations, don't we run the risk of being stagnate?

I think the only crime is producing something predictable.

And perhaps this feels like a series of disjointed random thoughts, but in my mind before I sat down at the computer, my tribute to The Boss was grander, and it all connected for me.

Tonight our bed is cold
I'm lost in the darkness of our love
God have mercy on the man
Who doubts what he's sure of

1 comment:

Scott D. Parker said...

Okay, you hit the nail on the head not only with Springsteen but with writing.

I'm a huge Springsteen fan, but came late to the party. Hated BITUSA when it came out. Somewhere around Tunnel of Love, however, with Brilliant Disguise in particular, I listened to him, really listened to him. Also, the Springsteen quotes in Stephen King books helped. Something clicked and I've been a fan ever since. Human Touch/Lucky Town are favorites because they were the first new CDs released after I discovered him. And The Rising is probably my second favorite song of all time (still love Born to Run).

As to the writing comments, oh my do I agree with your comments and Victor's. I am all over the place and, so far, I'm writing what I like and let the readers find me.

And you ended with some of my favorite Bruce lyrics. Others, from "Living Proof" also help the doubters out there:

You shot through my anger and rage
To show me my prison was just an open cage
There were no keys no guards
Just one frightened man and some old shadows for bars

BTW, what was the name of the documentary?