Ed Driscoll

Bruce Springsteen: Greetings from Sunset Boulevard

Back in 1999, long before Roger Ebert transformed himself from an insightful middlebrow movie critic to a wannabe pundit terrified that the Red (State) Scare would sap and impurify his precious bodily fluids, he made a great observation about Norma Desmond, Gloria Swanson’s Sunset Boulevard character:

Norma of course is not a wrinkled crone. She is only 50 in the film, younger than stars such as Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve. There is a scene during Norma’s beauty makeover when a magnifying glass is held in front of her eyes, and we are startled by how smooth Swanson’s skin is. Swanson in real life was a health nut who fled from the sun, which no doubt protected her skin (she was 53 when she made the film), but the point in “Sunset Boulevard” is that she has aged not in the flesh but in the mind; she has become fixed at the moment of her greatness, and lives in the past.

Trapped in your own Glory Days, as Bruce Springsteen would say. Which brings us to John Boot’s review of Wrecking Ball, Springsteen’s new album at the PJ Lifestyle blog, which thanks to Boot’s great writing and an Instalanche, is well over 130 comments and climbing.

Springsteen is a decade older than Swanson in Sunset Boulevard; he’s a physically youthful-looking age 62, but like Norma Desmond, he’s desperate to stay relevant in a young person’s game:

On the most incendiary song on Wrecking Ball, “Death to My Hometown,” whose title sounds like some sort of al-Qaeda parody of eighties-era Springsteen, the Boss ventures even further. The song sounds like a traditional Irish fighting anthem, and he apparently feels that the old-timey feel gives him cover to say exactly what he’s thinking about how bankers — “vultures,” “marauders,” “greedy thieves” and flesh-eaters — allegedly came to town and ruined everything:

No cannonball did fly
nor rifles cut us down
no bombs fell from the sky
no blood soaked the ground
…but just as sure as the hand o’ God
they brought death to my hometown
…they destroyed our families’ factories
and they took our homes
they left our bodies
on the plains
the vultures picked our bones…

At this point Springsteen urges his audience to shoot the evildoers.

So listen up my sonny boy
be ready when they come
for they’ll be returning
sure as the rising sun
…send the robber barons straight to hell

To make it clear how the robber barons should be sent to hell, the song climaxes with the sound of a rifle or shotgun being cocked and fired.

Springsteen’s meaning couldn’t be clearer, and though he will no doubt claim that his words aren’t meant to be taken literally, he has millions of devoted followers hanging on his every word. How would he feel if someone acted on his bloodthirsty directives? At the very least, Springsteen should apologize, recall the album, and edit out the sound of the gunfire, and maybe the line “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight” as well.

No conservative or Republican entertainer could escape outrage and condemnation after issuing such a naked appeal to kill anyone by whom they feel victimized, and Springsteen should know that shooting bankers isn’t the solution to the failed promise of the Obama presidency.

The Anchoress responds that “Springsteen’s Phoniness [is] finally clear:”

I’ve never bought his “working man” schtick, and his mot recent “big” songs have been lazy three-note drone-fests (Philadelphia, Secret Garden). Now the botoxed, hair-weaved, fake “everyman” who summers in the Hamptons (where his children showcase their equestrianism) is writing some pretty irresponsible lyrics that appear to advocate violence against the fatcats and bankers with whom he rubs elbows while munching arugula at the Classic.

Maybe he’s looking to be the new Che shirt. He was ever a phony and is a phony still.

Actually, at the start of Springsteen’s career, he wasn’t a phony — and he was making some of his best music. But back in the mid-’70s, Jon Landau, a former Rolling Stone critic who quickly hitched his wagon to Springsteen’s hemi-powered drone, transformed it into an inert hybrid family sedan, stuck in the mud of a history that never existed. (No wonder Springsteen is yet another weirdly nostalgic “progressive.”) Back in 2005, in a rare insightful piece in Slate titled “Faux Americana,” (whose metatag reads “Bruce Springsteen, Bullsh**er”) Stephen Metcalf noted that Springsteen, who made brilliantly accessible music at the start of his career with albums like The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle and Born to Run, was transformed into something unrecognizable by Landau:

By 1978, and the release of Darkness on the Edge of Town, the endearing Jersey wharf rat in Springsteen had been refined away. In its place was a majestic American simpleton with a generic heartland twang, obsessed with cars, Mary, the Man, and the bitterness between fathers and sons. Springsteen has been augmenting and refining that persona for so long now that it’s hard to recall its status, not only as an invention, but an invention whose origin wasn’t even Bruce Springsteen. For all the po-faced mythic resonance that now accompanies Bruce’s every move, we can thank Jon Landau, the ex-Rolling Stonecritic who, after catching a typically seismic Springsteen set in 1974, famously wrote, “I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”

Well, Bruce Springsteen was Jon Landau’s future. Over the next couple of years, Landau insinuated himself into Bruce’s artistic life and consciousness (while remaining on the Rolling Stone masthead) until he became Springsteen’s producer, manager, and full-service Svengali. Unlike the down-on-their-luck Springsteens of Freehold, N.J., Landau hailed from the well-appointed suburbs of Boston and had earned an honors degree in history from Brandeis. He filled his new protégé’s head with an American Studies syllabus heavy on John Ford, Steinbeck, and Flannery O’Connor. At the same time that he intellectualized Bruce, he anti-intellectualized him. Rock music was transcendent, Landau believed, because it was primitive, not because it could be avant-garde. The White Album and Hendrix and the Velvet Underground had robbed rock of its power, which lay buried in the pre-Beatles era with Del Shannon and the Ronettes. Bruce’s musical vocabulary accordingly shrank. By Darkness on the Edge of Town, gone were the West Side Story-esque jazz suites of The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. In their place were tight, guitar-driven intro-verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus songs. Springsteen’s image similarly transformed. On the cover of Darkness, he looks strangely like the sallower cousin of Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik, the already quite sallow anti-hero of Dog Day Afternoon. The message was clear: Springsteen himself was one of the unbeautiful losers, flitting along the ghostly fringes of suburban respectability.

Thirty years later, and largely thanks to Landau, Springsteen is no longer a musician. He’s a belief system. And, like any belief system worth its salt, he brooks no in-between. You’re either in or you’re out. This has solidified Bruce’s standing with his base, for whom he remains a god of total rock authenticity. But it’s killed him with everyone else. To a legion of devout nonbelievers—they’re not saying Bruuuce, they’re booing—Bruce is more a phenomenon akin to Dianetics or Tinkerbell than “the new Dylan,” as the Columbia Records promotions machine once hyped him. And so we’ve reached a strange juncture. About America’s last rock star, it’s either Pentecostal enthusiasm or total disdain.

But hey, when it’s an election year, the DNC knows who to call. Forget corporate rock — Springsteen is the ultimate Corporatist Rocker. Or as I wrote in 2008, to borrow from the vernacular of The Boss’s early ’70s glory days (to coin a phrase), has any musician become more Establishment than Springsteen?