Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Gospel According to the Boss

This story covers Jeffrey Symynkywicz, a preacher at a Universalist Unitarian church, and his new book, The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen: Rock and Redemption from Asbury Park to Magic. Springsteen has long been noted for religious elements in his music -- songs about suffering, redemption, pregnant Marys, and other girls claiming "immaculate concpetion" abound.

The book includes a list of "Bruce's Ten Suggestions for Spiritual Living":

To avoid copyright issues, I'll just include the summary. You may get the list with some additional commentary at the link above.

1. The world has gone awry.

2. There is a power within the souls of men and women to transcend the world and to achieve real victories in spite of the world.

3. The world is as it is.

4. Life without connections is empty and dangerous.

5. Our stories symbolize something deeper.

6. Life is embodied.

7. It's all about change.

8. There is no guarantee of success.

9. Hope is resilient.

10. There is always something more. If Bruce is luminous in his work — shining a light of perception on the horizontal dimension of this earthly life — so he is numinous as well — casting this life we lead in the brilliance of an almost mystic glow; shedding the radiance of discernment on that vertical beam which crashes through the linear plane of existence and points it toward that which is higher, deeper, somehow transcendent.

I had read Springsteen in more existential terms, guided in large part by Deena Weinstein's take in an essay called Serious Rock that addressed Springsteen, Pink Floyd, and Rush, though many of the observations therein apply here.

Considering the first point here, it is certainly fitting that Springsteen wrote an album in light of the terrorist attacks (The Rising) which also includes the "hope is resilient" theme that Symynkywicz notes. One of the clearest examples of these two points is his Nebraska song, "Reason to Believe." The song closes the bleak album (does my use of this term give away my age?), though it is certainly not the only "ray of light" on it (see also "Open All Night" with the urge to get "back to where my baby lives"). But "Reason to Believe" is about the need to have some sort of hope even when there doesn't seem to be any.

The first verse deals with "a man standin' over a dead dog lyin' by the highway in a ditch" who the narrator sees. After describing what he sees, he muses, "Struck me kind of funny seem kinda funny sir to me / Still at the end of every hard day people find some reason to believe." Of course here, the man looking at the dead dog (perhaps there's some symbolism in my dyslexic typing, leading me to frequently type 'god' instead of the correct 'dog') is poking it, hoping that "that dog'd get up and run." The dog doesn't, of course, but the desire is there.

Two other verses deal with failed relationships -- a husband leaves his adoring young wife and in the final verse, a groom waits for his bride to show up, wondering if the wedding is going to happen. The other verse is about baptism and death -- different ends of life. In the final verse, the "Groom stands alone and watches the river rush on so effortlessly," the river symbolizing (of course) the inevitable passage of time and events and the inability of the groom to harness the passing of events to his plans. But the song concludes with the search for a "reason to believe."

This "reason to believe" is also a way of finding the "power within the souls of men and women [that can] transcend the world and to achieve real victories in spite of the world." Suffering occurs with the loss of someone beloved, even if it's "just" a dog (or even a stray). Actually, this one song contains the ten "suggestions for spiritual living" that Symynkywicz describes.

Marcus Griel called Nebraska the quietest punk album made (though punk fans would tend to disagree; no way could Springsteen be punk by their standards). His concerns about the emptiness of modern life certainly agreed with them and he didn't take a stance against materialism (not a prerequisite for punks) per se (though he certainly lashed out against unfeeling corporate goons in songs like "Seeds" and "Born in the U.S.A.") while emphasizing the point of view of common people who had been dislodged or at least suffered in socio-economic terms.

What I find especially interesting is that different artists coincided in a message like this at about the same time -- The Police have the song "Invisible Sun" that, stripped of its specificity about Northern Ireland, is exactly the same thing -- the "reason to believe" that Springsteen's character is an "invisible sun" inside each of us. Springsteen was largely apolitical or even anti-political on his early albums -- that changes on Nebraska (1982) and continues with "Born in the USA" and "My Hometown" on the following album (you know the one). Pink Floyd also became directly political with The Final Cut (1983) and the Police's Synchronicity the same year (1983) also became their most political statement, with the aforementioned "Invisible Sun" and also the critique of modern live in "Synchronicity II" as well as "Walking in your Footsteps" (though the nuclear war paranoia was found on their first album with "Born in the 50s"). Likewise, Springsteen and Pink Floyd had already spelled out their view of the human condition on their earlier albums (see Weinstein's essay). Even as Springsteen and Pink Floyd embodied the 70s in different ways (one they had in common: punks hated both bands -- and many others), they also sensed that something had gone disastrously long as the 1980s band -- and that was something they shared with the punks and the Police (and let's not forget that the Police emerged in the punk climate of the late 1970s as a band that quickly embraced that more mainstream "new wave" label).

And here is the rest of it.

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