An Ode to "The Boss"

[caption id="attachment_774" align="alignleft" width="432" caption="Photograph by Mark Seliger"]Photograph by Mark Seliger[/caption] [This piece was written for another publication in November of 2010 about the then newly-released Bruce Springsteen CDs: "The Promise: The Los Sessions, Darkness on the Edge of Town." Unfortunately, the essay was not used and I now present it to my blog readers in its original form.] There was a time when I didn’t care for Bruce Springsteen’s music—when he first appeared on the national scene, when he took the covers of Newsweek and Time, when there seemed to be a clamor about this Rock and Roll phenom. At the time, I was into soul, funk, R&B, including the Chicano forays into these genres from East LA, Texas, Detroit, where Mexican migrants landed for work and life, many generations by then, adding their own twists and nuances. I was into ghetto/barrio soul. Then one day in 1980, I was with my compadre, Tony Prince, in San Francisco and we decided to see “No Nukes,” a documentary of various acts at Madison Square Garden, including Bruce and the E Street Band. Tony went on about how great Bruce was. "Yeah, sure," I muttered.  But there in the movie theater, I first saw and felt what everyone was talking about. Bruce debuted “The River” in the film and it knocked me out. That robust voice, harmonica lament, stinging guitar, Bruce jumping from one end of the stage to another, sliding, kneeling, shouting out words of love, regret, pain, and liberation. Tony and I were two of those working class fools Bruce wrote about. I had married my sweetheart when she was just two months out of high school; three-and-a-half years later, with two small kids, we were done. While I was in gangs and a drug user in my youth, giving this up by the time I turned 19, most of my friends had died in violent acts or drug overdoses, or bound to prisons and/or the factories. Since a teenager, I also labored in construction, as a truck driver, a bus driver, a smelter worker, a maintenance mechanic in a refinery, and four years in a steel mill. I had barely left this life by months when I saw Bruce’s performance on the screen. At the time I was preparing to become a writer, part of the Summer Program for Minority Journalists at the University of California, Berkeley, and on the side, a poet. I connected with Bruce. In the music of the time, only he seemed to sing about this world I knew, the fast-moving cars, the smoking towers in the rearview mirror, and languid embraces in lover’s lanes or poor people’s watering holes. Bruce didn’t seem to be about any one genre, in my eyes he transcended rock and roll, which was largely white, loud or glam, punk or pop, but far removed from what moved me. He was the modern working class troubadour, the voice of the people whose blood and sweat built this nation. He didn’t hit you over the head with this. But that spirit was in his love paeans as much as his odes to the marginalized, pushed out, to those who felt the urge to run away, to move on, to find where true grace and power may yet reside. \I was also fortunate to meet Bruce not long after the Bethlehem Steel Mill closed in Southeast LA and the US Steelworkers Local 1845 created the largest food pantry in the country, feeding up to 6,000 families a week, mostly Mexican/Chicano. In 1984, Bruce had released “Born in the USA,” and on tour he often connected with rust-belt union halls and community organizations dealing with the growing unemployment during the Reagan Administration, the worse since the Great Depression. The Local Hall also held theater and writing workshops among the unemployed steelworkers, which later became part of the “Lady Beth” performances, with real steelworkers as actors and its own national tour. Bruce donated money to the pantry and workshops. One day, he showed up at the union hall, with the LA Times in tow. I was sitting there and said I had a poem that I wanted to dedicate to Bruce called “Bethlehem No More.” I read it and everybody became quiet, including Bruce. After I was done he broke the silence by saying, “only you could have written that poem.” My favorite song of Bruce’s at the time was “Downbound Train.” The lyrics spoke my story, my hurts, angers and hungers.
I had a job, I had a girl I had something going, mister, in this world. I got laid off down at the lumber yard. Our love went bad, times got hard. Now I work down at the carwash Where all it ever does is rain. Don't you feel like you're a rider on a downbound train. She just said "Joe I gotta go We had it once, we ain't got it any more." She packed her bags, left me behind. She bought a ticket on the Central Line. Nights as I sleep, I hear that whistle whining, I feel her kiss in the misty rain, And I feel like I'm a rider on a downbound train. Last night I heard your voice. You were crying, crying, you were so alone. You said your love had never died. You were waiting for me at home. Put on my jacket, I ran through the woods, I ran till I thought my chest would explode. There in the clearing, beyond the highway, In the moonlight, our wedding house shone. I rushed through the yard, I burst through the front door, My head pounding hard, up the stairs I climbed. The room was dark, our bed was empty, Then I heard that long whistle whine. And I dropped to my knees, hung my head and cried. Now I swing a sledge hammer on a railroad gang, Knocking down them cross ties, working in the rain. Now don't it feel like you're a rider on a downbound train.
Quintessential Bruce. I first saw him in concert at LA’s Sports Arena, where he invited us former steelworkers to sit at a table, talk to patrons, and carry donation buckets into the crowd. I was enveloped by the magic Bruce and his band brought to the stage. His fans were generous, heeding Bruce’s words to support Local 1845’s food pantry. I remember one of the old timers standing next to me, now since passed on, who remarked, “I’ve never felt as proud being a steelworker as I do now.” Only Bruce could do that. Twenty-six years later, Bruce has new double-CD recordings called “The Promise: The Lost Sessions, Darkness on the Edge of Town.” I hear the echoes of those songs of the 1980s, although these were a collection of unreleased songs in-between 1975’s “Born to Run” and 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” (actually part of the “Darkness” recording sessions). Yet you can capture the fundamentals of what would later become “Hungry Heart,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Glory Days,” and “Born in the USA.” It’s great to hear what didn’t make it at the time, although I envision the possible hits that would have come out of these recordings. “Because the Night,” made into a 1978 hit by Patti Smith, would have cemented a top ten spot on the charts for Bruce, I’m sure of it. But none of this really matters. What matters is that these songs have now seen the light of day, that they can finally be enjoyed, that an empty chapter in the progression of Bruce’s style and interests in close to forty years of recordings has now been filled. And this ex-steelworker, formerly lost, confused, who was once wrong about Bruce’s music, this dreamer caught in the pearls of a young woman’s eyes, the dark around starlit skies, and rider of street machines—I once owned a lowered ’54 Chevy Bel-Air—couldn’t be happier. Bruce’s songs have become the soundtrack of my life’s trajectories. Even now, they electrify one’s core, they touch the calluses and creases of a working man’s battered heart, even now, in these hard times, as jobs become obsolete in a world of robotics and outsourced labor, where a new world may now be imagined and created, these songs teach us to “never surrender,” for “desire is hunger, is the fire I breath, love is the banquet on which we feed...and they can’t hurt us now, they can’t hurt us now…” (from “Because the Night” by Bruce Springsteen). c/s

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