High Hopes & The Cult of The Boss

On Bruce Springsteen’s new album and how “the future of rock & roll” maintains his mass-media relevance.

High Hopes, Bruce Springsteen’s 18th studio album was released today and it’s heartfelt and beautiful. At times it can be haunting and devastating. Yet there is hope. The album is a departure for Bruce because it is comprised fully of covers, outtakes and remakes. Yet Springsteen, as he has always done, takes us on a journey. This time it is to remind us that life may end in death and the world may stomp a beautiful dream, but at the end of our journey there lies a kingdom in waiting.

High Hopes opens with the title track which is also the album’s first single. No, it’s not Bruce’s homage to Obamacare (“I got high hopes”). It’s actually a song that was originally recorded in 1995.

“Harry’s Place” may be the exact opposite of “Mary’s Place,”a destination Springsteen welcomed us to on The Rising, where various deities celebrate together during a garden party. (“Harry’s Place” originally ended up on The Rising chopping block.) “Harry’s Place” is where the “Murder Incorporated” hang out. It’s a place for those “that have a special sin that they can’t quite confess.” A place where you can “taste that one little weakness you allow yourself.”

There’s “American Skin (41 Shots),” which was penned in 2000 in response to the NYPD-involved shooting death of Amadou Diallo. The song took up new meaning to its author following the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012.

A man is stuck in a lonely motel room, drinking leftover wine and smoking his last cigarette of the evening. The man’s frozen and yet he’s burning “Just Like Fire Would,”a cover of a song by the Australian punk band The Saints. His yearning has become an inescapable burn. Springsteen can occasionally obsess over certain imagery-infused words such as “fire” and “kiss” as he did on The Rising. He does so with “fire” on High Hopes. On “Down in the Hole,” he writes “fire keeps on burning.” In the song he uses the sound of a mine shaft superbly. Think of “Tunnel of Love,” where Springsteen took sounds from a real life carnival to inject his song with added energy and innocence. It’s the exact opposite on “Down in the Hole.” He uses the sounds of a mine shaft in a claustrophobic way. You feel like you are stuck in a dirty elevator with soot smeared across your face, ready to trade the freedom of fresh air and sunlight for a dark prison of coal.

Springsteen’s songs inevitably feature a place where freedom and happiness exist, yet the journey to find that place can often overwhelm a traveler. Whether an open road or the arms of a lover, the search is a big theme in Springsteen’s music. More frequently that place has become a kingdom, as Springsteen adds more traditional spiritual themes into his lyrics. The uplifting ballad “Heaven’s Wall” uses a church choir chanting “raise your hand” much like its use on The Rising.

A seamless gospel transition to a hard-driving guitar brings listeners to “Frankie Fell in Love,”a song inspired by Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt’s young Ashbury Park cohabitation.

“This is your sword. This is your shield. This is the power of love revealed.” “This is Your Sword” is a play on the Woody Guthrie classic “This Land Is Your Land” but it has that budding spirituality found in the lyrics of an aging rock icon, which continues on “Hunter of Invisible Game” a Celtic-inspired ballad of men traveling through a wasteland but knowing that “there’s a kingdom of love waiting to be reclaimed.”

The reason to buy this album, if you need only one, is the updated “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Just be advised, if I hear one punk kid say I can’t believe Springsteen covered Rage Against the Machine I will go apes—t. This song was always one of Springsteen’s best contemporary songs. Add in Rage’s Tom Morello and the song has a new and unexpected edge. Maybe we need this song now. With everything that has taken place in the last few years the lyrics take on a different meaning than they did when Springsteen originally recorded it (in 1995) and even when Rage covered it (in 1997). “Wherever there’s a cop beating a guy/Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries/There’s a fight against the blood and hatred in the air/look for me and I’ll be there.”

Reason number two to buy the album is “The Wall.” A friend is speaking to a fallen comrade. “If your eyes could cut through that black stone tell me would they recognize me? For the living time must be served. The day goes on.” The song was written as a tribute to a childhood acquaintance of Springsteen’s who died in America’s war in Vietnam. But the song now carries greater weight after the death of E-Street heavyweight Clarence Clemons in 2011 (who is credited on two songs on High Hopes). “The Wall” ends with a beautiful saxophone wailing that ultimately fades away. It’s an obvious tribute to Clarence. This was Springsteen speaking to The Big Man, telling his brother how much he misses him and how life is not quite the same without Clarence standing next to Bruce in the spotlight.

The album ends with the ever-building “Dream Baby Dream” (a Suicide cover) a song that is reminiscent of “All That Heaven Will Allow.” Yet Springsteen is not describing his date with a beautiful woman but his date with the millions of people who have watched his breathtaking performances over the last 40 years. “Come on and open up your heart….I just want to see you smile.”

“I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”
— Jon Landau

Rock critic Jon Landau made the above statement in writing in 1974. This was before musician Bruce Springsteen would release one of the quintessential American albums, Born to Run. Whether or not Landau’s statement became fact could probably be debated. Did Springsteen become the future of rock & roll? I don’t think so, he became something more. He would redefine the genre and distance himself as the last great icon of true rock and roll. Springsteen carries with him an aura. He is not just a rock star, he is a music messiah. John, Paul, George and Ringo….we didn’t need their last names. Just their first names would suffice. With Springsteen, it’s the same. All we need is Bruce. In reading Bruce, Peter Ames Carlin’s definitive biography on Springsteen, I learned that Springsteen, aided by his personality and immense talent, created a cult around him that was cultivated very early in his career. Bruce makes me think of the Monday morning quarterback. Its pages are littered with the verbal gushing of various people who just knew Springsteen was going to be the next big thing. This is when the Boss was walking barefoot in Ashbury Park, had released two albums that showed very underwhelming sales, and had begun to lose faith in his dream. Maybe they all truly did believe Springsteen was going to usher in a new era of popular music. Maybe hindsight’s 20/20. Springsteen’s own journey from Jersey mutt to Newsweek and Time cover model in the span of a few years is all the proof you need that he had an ability to make people believe.

The most dangerous person is a person with nothing to lose. Maybe that’s how Bruce Springsteen created a perfect rock and roll record. Springsteen’s first two albums were erratic and scat-like. The lyrics spewed from Springsteen’s mouth in diarrhetic form. The vision was there, but it was hazy like the air outside a Jersey factory.

The recordings for Born to Run were torturous. Springsteen’s perfectionism nearly derailed the entire record. His control over every aspect of its creation was dictatorial. Yet the addition of Landau as a producer helped Springsteen find the voice he was searching for, the one that was at the tip of his pen and the struts of his guitar, the one that northeast club owners and barflys could anticipate coming from their new icon. It was all finally released. A grassroots marketing campaign spurred by various people around the country who had begun worshiping at an Asbury Park altar helped Springsteen gain traction quickly. Springsteen had created this idolatry much in the way any great cult leader does, through patience, flair and the understanding of the desires of his followers. By tapping into that, by accepting his role as something more than entertainment, Springsteen grew his parish.

He was ever careful to maintain that relationship. It took him years to decide to play arenas consistently because he was cognizant of the venues’ limitations to an audience. He understood that he wasn’t playing to thousands of people. With every concert he was playing for each individual and the hopes, dreams and desires that brought them to the front of the stage. He was singing to an anxious youth or star-crossed lovers not to a mass of screaming people. This is why a Springsteen concert is more than a three-hour show. It’s a moving miracle. It’s a baptism. It’s a revival. Springsteen’s connection with his audience has changed little in four decades, although the stages have changed dramatically. That’s allowed Springsteen to continue to move people consistently as his music has developed and transformed, regardless of critical and commercial ingestion of his albums.

The power of the “Boss” has awarded Bruce loyalty from his fans, his producers, his crews and the members of his vaunted E-Street Band even if for Bruce Springsteen that road was at times a one way street. Springsteen sacrificed personal relationships for his music, most glaringly abandoning the E-Street Band then asking the band to return to his stage when he felt his music called for it. Bruce opens in a prologue describing how Springsteen earned his famous nickname “Boss.” There is a mystique to the “Boss.” Not only does the name exude the power of a rock idol but it also helps create a personal connection with Springsteen. He’s the Boss, he’s one of us. That is where the magnetism of Springsteen is at its greatest. He is one of us, no better and no worse. He’s just a friend that has stood alongside us through the winding twists on the road of life. He was there for our first kiss, our first road-trip, and the first time life abandoned us on the side of the road to choke on the exhaust fumes of passing vehicles.

I wish Bruce had spent more time diving into the personal relationship of Bruce and his father Doug. In all fairness to the author, I’m sure this is a difficult subject to broach with Bruce and his family. Doug Springsteen wasn’t a bad man, but he was a complicated one. Doug Springsteen struggled to find and hang on to steady work. During Bruce’s childhood he spent his nights in the family’s kitchen sipping beers, smoking cigarettes and lost in his own thoughts. He was suffering from depression and like many of his generation was unable to articulate his feelings. The words he was searching for, as he sat silent in his own kitchen, were maybe the words his own son would use to become the voice of an America searching for its own answers to the heartbreak of existence. Bruce Springsteen has also struggled with depression. His work ethic and avoidance of the excess of super-stardom may be his desire to avoid falling into a pain that consumed his father. Maybe the personal connections Bruce makes with his audience is a direct result of the fact that he was unable to forge one with his father as a young man. Doug Springsteen isn’t only responsible for creating a child that would grow to become one of the most influential men in music history His own life became a canvas on which his son Bruce could paint great American artwork. Doug softened as he aged and rekindled his relationship with Bruce. Doug once was a man who felt Bruce’s musical aspirations were pointless. Did his spurn of a young Bruce Springsteen’s dreams drive a boy to become “the future of rock and roll”? I suppose only Bruce can answer that question. But in the end a father grew to respect his son, a son grew to cherish his father and a rock and roll icon released an album he titled High Hopes.

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