Saturday, January 31, 2009

the rest of it's there too

Jon Pareles has gotten some great quotes from Bruce Springsteen for his big piece in today's New York Times. Pareles knows it's big, that his claim is big. The piece is called "The Rock Laureate."

I, for one, accept the claim (happily as well as logically).

Others have seen Springsteen in the Whitman/proletarian Guthrie/folk American tradition (the best writer about Bruce in this mode is David Wyatt in Out of the Sixties--and Greil Marcus gets it too), but I still can't help feeling as a fresh wind in my face the vague faux-rough visionary romanticism of Springsteen's spoken rhetoric. Below are two quotes from Pareles' essay. In the first, the phrase "eight years" obviously refers to the two terms of George Bush. The oracular ("swimming in the current of history") is flattened and made humble really really nicely by "your music is doing the same thing."

The second quote begins unpromisingly with yet another Where were you when Obama was elected? anecdote but then indulges gorgeously, I think, in the vaguest American pronoun referent - the it of liberationist folk spirit. This is the same "it" that Steinbeck uses clumsily at various points in--and at the end of--The Grapes of Wrath. But Henry Miller, when he really got going, used it well. Dreiser, too, in rare upbeat passages. And, at several crucial moments, William Carlos Williams. And early in Kerouac. And Ashbery in several poems about America, most movingly in "The One Thing That Can Save America" (ironic title--but the sentiment about "it" is true). And, in his hyperdemocratic WWII newspaper pieces, Ira Wolfert. And in times of crisis, Eric Severeid (he of Upper Midwest labor-populism), spoken on the air in the endless insistent sentence. And Whitman, often.

At its least interesting, all this takes us merely to a cheap, easy spot where, because of some momentary alliance, Kate Smith meets Woody Guthrie. At its best, though, it's the great provocative American cultural confluence.

"[E]ight years go by, and that’s where you find yourself. You’re in there, you’re swimming in the current of history and your music is doing the same thing.”

"[O]n election night it showed its face, for maybe, probably, one of the first times in my adult life,” he said. “I sat there on the couch, and my jaw dropped, and I went, ‘Oh my God, it exists.’ Not just dreaming it. It exists, it’s there, and if this much of it is there, the rest of it’s there. Let’s go get that. Let’s go get it. Just that is enough to keep you going for the rest of your life. All the songs you wrote are a little truer today than they were a month or two ago.”

Well, this is a circular and probably self-serving final statement. Of course the songs are "truer" now that you're on the inside--you're in and so you can sing them as part of the bona fide (but, alas, temporary) language of the nation. No, the songs being truer now than before is not what's remarkable about Bruce. What's remarkable is his strong antipoetic (and thus very poetic) sense of the big "it," and he enacts this sense out of two great talents simultaneously: first, a resistance to narrowing or clarifying it and an ability to flow fast with it and yet not infuriate listeners; second, his sense that new songs will come from the place where the rest of it is to be found. He's on a roll, no doubt. Listen for some of the rest of it in the new album.