To Set Our Souls Free: A different view of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball

August 10th, 2012

by Dave Marsh and Danny Alexander

You might wonder, for good reason, why we are writing about Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball five months after its release. Some of the reasons have been personal. But  there are better reasons why we’re speaking up now, and speaking in the way that we are. Part of it is that we both like to listen slow, and listen frequently. Too much music writing now seems hasty and undigested, and that takes a toll. (Deadline perceptions are fine if there’s nothing important in the details, vastly inadequate if there is.)  More important was our  desire to hold off until we’d heard a larger dialogue: Just what would the world make of this record and what would we have to add to that conversation? But that dialogue has been slow in coming. Most of what was written and said  about the album missed the overriding sense we have that this record speaks directly to the Arundathi Roy/Grace Lee Boggs maxim: “A new world is possible. A new world is coming. A new world is already here.”

          Because we listen both as long-term Springsteen fans and as activists,  that’s what we heard here from early on. It’s a big part of what makes Wrecking Ball something different, especially in the way these songs interact with the dialogue about the movements for social change currently taking shape in our society.  This album doesn’t sound like anything else he has done, and its call stands apart, both musically and lyrically. It calls for us not only to react, emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually, but also to act, to not just stand but fight “shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart,” the last words sung on the record.

           Such a call requires—demands—a response in kind: detailed, direct and the result of lots of interplay between our own ideas and those of others. So we’ve taken our time and as much space as we needed to use. We hope this is part of a beginning. 

TO SET OUR SOULS FREE….Dave Marsh and Danny Alexander write: Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball opens with an alarm, with air raid sirens blaring and tribal drums kicking. The singer, recognizing the enormity of what he’s dealing with, begins in quiet caution. He knocks on the palace door; he desperately seeks a map to bring him home; he stumbles over once-kind neighbors turned callous to his suffering and their own. Like the man in “Rank Stranger,” the Stanley Brothers song that influences so many rock dystopias, the singer can’t believe the devastation he’s seeing, not in the streets but in the faces, the gestures, the way people are standing and moving: “Where’s the eyes, the eyes with the will to see…Where’s the work that will set my hands, my soul free…Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” There’s one thing he needs to make sure of: He chants it obsessively, as if himself amazed that he still fully believes it, even against all this evidence that it can’t be true: “We take care of our own, we take care of our own / Wherever this flag’s flown, we take care of our own.”

Trying to figure out how to realize that promise occupies the bulk of this album, the most complete narrative work Bruce Springsteen has created since the trilogy that runs from Born to Run to Darkness on the Edge of  Town  to The River (1975-1980). At the end of the first two albums in that series, we found his central character left wounded and stranded, on a hilltop above those who’d given up, with no choice but to come back down into the valley of mundane reality where he has remained ever since. But now that mundane world itself has become tinged with fantasy, swept up in a phantasmagoria of all-against-all: Marauders, carrion eaters and blank-faced rank strangers who, though some have intentions every bit as noble as those of “Promised Land” and “Born to Run,” find the game impossibly rigged. Those “different people” who came down here to “see things in different ways” have indeed swept all away before them. It’s a haunted place now, beset by vultures and wrecking balls. Even with their bones picked over, it seems the dead may have better advice to offer than the living.

Determined to pull out of this world without options, Springsteen begins by deploying some of his old tools: Layer upon layer of guitar against swelling keyboard, driving percussion, exuberant backing vocals and lush strings. We’ve known this guy for decades, and part of what we know is that, at his core, he’s just as desperate as Wrecking Ball’s first track makes him appear. But he’s not nearly so bereft of new ideas as our first reaction to desperation implies. He has, as he so often does, the other possible reaction to desperation, the one that generates alternatives rather than merely succumbing to realities–the ace in the hole called hope. He also has new collaborators, who helped him find loops, samples, an array of new instruments—many of them antique—and most startling, new beats as well. The surprise is the dawning realization, as he moves remorselessly through a dozen songs describing this grotesque landscape and its denizens, that Bruce still believes that  if we look hard enough we’ll discover that we too have just as much reason for hope as for despair—and at least as many devices for realizing that hope, too. Particularly the hope that, if not America, at least Americans can remember what life is supposed to be all about, and then … well, then, act like they believe it, mainly.  And beyond that, can get to the hard work of change, not as rank strangers but “shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”

In the world Springsteen invented for himself (and us) forty years ago, hope was an abundant commodity—hope came cheap. Today, hope’s so much harder to discover that most of the time it seems practically beyond price. Nevertheless it’s the indispensable key to solving the fundamental question posed by Wrecking Ball: Can a society that’s torn apart “from the shotgun shack to the Superdome” function on its most basic levels? Should it? Will it? It’s all too obvious (to everyone but the willfully blind) that we no longer take care of more than a few. But how do we admit it to ourselves and begin again?

Springsteen literally prayed for some force—human or supernatural, maybe both—to provide him with this answer a decade ago, in “My City of Ruins.” Now, he’s telling us what he thinks. He’s singing not just about changing the dialogue but altering the way we behave. That is, he wants to begin—he wants all of us to begin–confronting our own weaknesses and illusions. Springsteen presses a point he’s made since he first called out and it’s fundamental to dismantling those lies we tell ourselves: “Nobody wins unless everybody wins”—taking care of me and taking care of you can’t be separate options. They have to become part of one process.

Like any great musician—and this album marks him as one, not just a great songwriter or supposed poet—Springsteen’s process begins with listening, hearing what’s around him and what’s within him. James Baldwin said it: “[T]he man who creates music…is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air.” On Wrecking Ball, Bruce creates from what he hears a catalogue of what he calls his own: a cross section of American voices and sounds that connect to various pieces of himself. And that first song’s emergent voice, proclaiming the necessity of our commonality in order to retain our ability to rave on as individuals, is an almost predictable piece of what makes Bruce Springsteen who he is.

But with his very next step, the tone turns darker. “Easy Money” bursts forth with bombastic percussion accompanied by handclaps. Springsteen sings with an all-but-indecent braggadocio and a twinkle in his eye—veteran fans may recognize the kid who tossed the bus driver a quarter and told him to keep the change. Seemingly mundane preliminaries (getting dressed, taking care of the pets) give way to busting the town wide open. It sounds like this guy’s out for nothing more or better than kicks. And then he states the grim facts as he knows them, and he knows them well: “There’s nothing to it, mister, it won’t make a sound /when your whole world comes tumbling down.” He notices that “all the fat cats… just think it’s funny,” and he’s made a choice. If he has to be a fool, he’s not going to be their fool. The music evokes gangster charisma, a recklessness as infectious as it is cynical. The soaring shout and hoot and holler of his vocal, the steel guitar, fiddle and exuberant backing voices travel alongside it, taking hold before the point emerges clearly: “Easy Money” tramples the line between an ordinary fool headed for destruction and a rock and roller bound for glory.  It’s anything but a plan to confront Springsteen’s own illusions, much less the illusions of the larger audience.  Such a way out isn’t even on offer. Yet the song does possess a seemingly unsinkable spirit. Such swagger can make holding tight to one’s illusions seem like enough, but the way it works out, generally only the fat cats are still smiling at the end. This might well be the character in “Ramrod,” except the guy in “Ramrod” wasn’t looking to kill anybody. That’s how much or how little the world has changed.

“Shackled and Drawn,” a work song through and through (like “Night,” “Factory,” and “Youngstown,” among numerous others before it), begins with a spry guitar figure over pounding percussion. This one’s about awakening to a realization that if wages aren’t quite exactly slavery, they certainly leave the worker “trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong.”  It rejects the 9mm nihilism of “Easy Money” but the only replacement offered is a primitive “Badlands” slugged out on an anvil. When the lyric asks, “What’s a poor boy to do but keep singing his song?” he’s obviously asking a personal question—but also an ethical question and, in a collapsing economy, a practical one.  It’s certainly the only way this artist knows to move closer to taking care of his (and ostensibly our) artistic concerns while “up on Banker’s Hill, the party’s going strong.”  He hangs onto that last word so that it all but evokes the rhyme “wrong” before returning to the chain gang: “down here below, we’re shackled and drawn.” But the moment of ignition comes when a female preacher’s voice calls out, “I want everyone to stand up and be counted tonight,” and Springsteen shouts back, relieved to find that somebody is alive out there.

The narrator of “Jack of All Trades” could be any of the guys we’ve met so far. But he could also be any of a hundred other characters Springsteen has created, from the little kid with his feet rooted in the earth and his head in the stars in “Growin” Up” to the father who drives with his son on his lap in “My Hometown” and returns to walk through the town square, wondering when it all really went to hell in “Long Walk Home,” or the man in “Counting on A Miracle,” hearing a new heartbeat as he lays against his wife in their sleeping bag and tries to figure out how he’s going to take care of yet another life. “Jack” is sung in the voice of a man whose best moments have been left behind, down by the river or in the aisles of a supermarket or in the dust of Iraq….or maybe there are pieces of him scattered in all those places, and many more. (Any Springsteen fan could give you a list three times this long and twice as specific.)  But there’s a reason he can speak so frankly, as he sits with his hands around a cold coffee cup, leaning across the kitchen table, looking straight into the eyes of the person he loves most and telling the biggest lie of them all: “Honey we’ll be all right.” 

The music uses the chords of “When the Saints Go Marching In” (in Curt Hamm’s trumpet solo, it simply is ‘Saints”), and they bear what that song always carries, a vision of the certain finality of death so unquestionable that all arguing must cease. Which doesn’t mean the details don’t matter—the way he sings “the banker man goes fat,” so that it threatens to resonate as “fair” is the best example. He sounds weary on that line, like he’s almost sighing, and the fairness is understood to be that of yet another rigged game. It just means the truth is what it is, a pitiless pathway to the grave. If you take it seriously enough, you’re likely to want to take someone else with you—and if you go one step beyond that, you wind up in the coda, a Tom Morello guitar solo so remorseful it beggars any language but its own sounds. And the violin that follows that hums the same tune, albeit maybe another verse. Maybe the one that talks about “when the moon grows red with blood.”

The tragedy of Springsteen’s career may be summarized in the reaction of many of his veteran American fans to the appearance of this epic song in concert: They get up and head for the toilets and the concession stalls. It’s not that they don’t get it. They won’t get it. (In the European shows, the song is accompanied by a stillness and silence so deep it carries a jolt.) And so, as Springsteen says for the first but not the last time on this album, “it’s happened before and it’ll happen again.” Now’s the time for your tears.

The shimmering starlight emanating from the final note of “Jack of All Trades” opens the door to the full blown fight song that follows. “Death to My Hometown” begins in Celtic delirium, pounding drums offset by handclaps, penny whistle, a touch of banjo. Vocals enter, but they’re chanting transcendental Pentecostal incoherencies. There’s a hint of cannon fire. But the clearest noise of all, perhaps unintentionally not buried in the mix (or maybe situated there with perfect calculation, like a Motown tambourine), comes almost three minutes into the song. It’s a gun being cocked—and like the good student of Chekovian drama he is, having now mentioned the option of the gun in three out of five songs, Springsteen makes sure this one goes off, though you’ll have to listen up to hear it (That this is buried in the mix cannot be accidental.) 

Do we know the character Springsteen portrays here? He’s not the guy standing by the roadside, kicking a dead dog—although they might be related. He’s not the maniacal nihilist who calls himself Johnny 99. He’s maybe more like the guy in “The Big Muddy” who believes “You start on higher ground but end up somehow crawlin’.” Except this guy refuses to crawl—that’s what that shotgun’s for, a way of keeping him on his own two feet. It’s how he takes care of his own.

This infuriated Irish-American damns his enemies, gives them names (“marauders,” “vultures,” “greedy thieves”), declares in sputtering rage that the greatest of the injustices is that they “walk the streets as free men now.” But what sort of justice would he have them face ? The gun goes off but without repercussion…and when he has the bastards most clearly in his sights (and this guy’s vision is a lot clearer than Jack’s), he suggests that something else is what might work: “Now get yourself a song to sing / And sing it ‘till you’re done / Sing it hard and sing it well / Send the robber barons straight to hell.”

It’s a rock’n’roll answer. But it’s also something else: It’s straight out of the beloved community that produced the most effective American social change of Springsteen’s lifetime: the Civil Rights Movement. For this ever-moral (and moralizing) artist, the song is always mightier than the shotgun. Hold that thought. 

Hold it tight against what comes next. 

“This Depression” sounds not nearly so much depressed as desperate, and not the desperation of the outlaw who’s crossed some invisible line, more that of a man who’s being slowly tangled by the lines of hip hop beats, ethereal keyboard washes, floating wordless backing vocals and more Tom Morello guitar, which tools through this soundscape of isolated misery as if it’s on a lonely Jersey Girl’s journey between stars…although this certainly isn’t the lights of the sun, let alone where the fun is. More likely, it’s a roughly spackled ceiling dropping paint chips onto her Sistine Chapel dreams.

The nakedness of the song’s self disclosure marks it as utterly contemporary. The voice stripped of bravado, or even energy to face the struggles ahead, suggests the dead ends and bad dreams of “The Promise” and (more so) “State Trooper,” where the singer declares “the only thing that I got’s been botherin’ me my whole life.” But whether “This Depression” refers to the character’s personal clinical depression or an international economic depression, or more likely both, it’s absolutely not a way out. In fact, it’s not even a coherent response to the threat we’ve just been hearing about. He keeps declaring, to some unspecified “baby,” “I need your heart,” although the musical heart of the song, its pulsation, stumbles around like it might give out (or give up). And you have to wonder if he might be staring into a mirror. Until you see that if that’s so, it’s because we all are.


In the midst of a vinyl revival, one thing you’d imagine would be mentioned more often is that Bruce Springsteen is approximately the last artist whose records almost always divide as if Side One and Side Two were pertinent digital terms. On Wrecking Ball the turn from “This Depression” to the title track clearly marks the story’s emergence as a struggle toward light, after six songs cursing the darkness.

That light doesn’t exactly pour in. These lyrics are the ultimate mixture of the personal and the political on an album where that particular combo is the daily special. Although the song’s metaphor depends on the planned demolition of Giants Stadium in the Jersey Meadowlands after the Springsteen run of shows there in 2009, even back then it wasn’t “about” the disappearance of a major concert venue or even a quasi-historical site. Bruce first sang it on September 30, 2009—one week to the day after his sixtieth birthday, annus horribilis for any rock star. It was also a year since Springsteen traveled the campaign trail with Barack Obama, and ten months since Obama’s Administration had begun squandering whatever chance there may have been that the vultures of Wall Street would no longer walk the streets as free men.

It’s a funny song, but the humor’s anything but light. For every “mosquitoes grow big as aero-planes” and jangly guitar lick there’s  “when all our victories and glories have turned into parking lots,” a mordant summation of both the man and the building’s career highlights. We are urged to raise up our glasses to those who have fallen (“because tonight all the dead are here”), but we are much more surprisingly and unsentimentally instructed that the way out of the mess is to “hold tight to your anger and don’t fall to your fears.”  That’s not the advice of a nice guy from the backstreets. It sounds more like the admonition of a seasoned barroom brawler.

More than that, we’re told that even after the game is decided and the wrecking ball is heading straight for a sock in our eye, we have to hold tight and not fall because “hard times come and hard times go / and hard times come and hard times go / and hard times come and hard times go /  and hard times come and hard times go / and hard times go” and then, his voice coming down on the words like his strings on a power chord, “Yeah, just to come again.” This is a man who’s sick of laughing in the face of defeat after defeat. This is a guy who won and then watched the victory turn particularly sour. This is a guy who’s not sure anybody within earshot (give or take the band) is on his side and isn’t letting that stop him.

This is the tragic hero, finally learning the fundamental lesson that repeating the same mistakes over and over again is worse than insanity. Springsteen here is like Bo Diddley, condemned to endless repetition and delighting in it, too. Condemned to learn the lesson and to spit in the lesson’s eye. Condemned to act crazy and finding in that the greatest delight of all.

It’s not that the endless cycle of hard times doesn’t matter. It’s that it matters so much—and so does what so many have learned about the unsettling ways in which what matters presents itself, opportunities as well as obstacles. At the end of the song, with the whole band in full swing and a wordless chorus pressing relentlessly forward, what you’re hearing is precisely a group admitting its own (very mortal) limits in order to risk whatever it takes for hard times to come again no more.

The record’s musical turning point hinges on not only tearing down walls but reaching through the rubble for helping hands to rebuild.  “Wrecking Ball” itself shifts the focus of the horn arrangement from Clarence Clemons’ tenor sax to Curt Ramm’s trumpet, but that’s a product of inevitability. Producer Ron Aniello is new, as are almost all the engineers and mixers. And though this is a rock album, there’s hardly a track where the E Street Band appears intact. Instead, dozens of different musicians and singers appear, from so many different genres that many songs defy classification.  The lyrics suggest that junking the whole works might be worth the risk, but he’s not just saying it—the idea is made more plausible because it emerges from greater musical risks than Bruce usually allows himself.

Suitably then, the first song after this cataclysmic anthem is a reach of the hand. “You’ve Got It” begins as a wooing, with only voice over acoustic guitar.  Electric guitar, piano and steel guitar turn the second verse into a country-flavored seduction, celebrating that thing the loved one has that makes her like no one else.  Once the singer observes, “You can’t read it in a book/You can’t even dream it,” the full weight of the album’s sound kicks in with bluesy guitar and soulful horns.  By the end, it’s apparent this song’s about the creative heart of the album—that individual human spark that makes us fall in love, yes, and that same spark that binds us together and lends us surprising strength in numbers—like the massive band second lining onward into the unknown beyond the fadeout. A thing so elusive and so fundamental that it’s hardly any wonder that the first time Bruce played it live, he explained it in terms of the Higgs boson.

Springsteen’s writing has edged toward outright gospel since the turn of the century. “Rocky Ground” is the payoff—one of his most musically dramatic and emotionally lavish productions ever. The opening samples a Pentecostal preacher proclaiming, in a voice that sounds remarkably like Bruce’s own, “I’m a soldier!” over and again. The gospel choir that follows—the Victorious Gospel choir of Asbury Park, N.J. with which Springsteen’s worked before—caresses what will become the song’s chorus: “We’ve been travelin’ over rocky ground, rocky ground.” The bed is a synth echoing “Streets of Philadelphia,” before a particularly liquid guitar riff sets the stage for Springsteen’s hoarse recitation of the verse. He begins where he left off in his other gospel choir song, “My City of Ruins” from The Rising, exhorting, albeit with quiet sadness, his flock to “rise up,” a term never more saturated in political and religious conflict. He shows which side he’s on immediately, invoking the expulsion of the money-changers from the Temple, as well as the prospect of (perhaps divine?) retribution, in death and in life. But the second time through, “Sun’s in the heavens and a new day is rising.”

When Springsteen finishes, Michelle Moore steps out of the choir and delivers a rap. It’s written for an impoverished woman, a mother, but she could be that “Wrecking Ball” character (“You pray that hard times, hard times come no more”). Her prayer is simple: “That your best is good enough, the Lord will do the rest.” Still, in a sleepless night, faith curdles to doubt and “only silence meets your prayers / The morning breaks, you awake, there’s no one there.”

“There’s a new day comin’” the song declares but the voice sounds like Bruce Springsteen, not God. And as Michelle Moore’s voice fades out, repeating the title phrase, what’s left is more than a moment of doubt. The song is an answer to the challenge posed in “We Take Care of Our Own”: If the cavalry stayed at home, what now? The stark answer is that all that’s left is us.

And as the choir opens the next to last song, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” recasting a staple of Springsteen’s live shows since the E Street Band reunion in 1999, that’s right where the answer stays.  This rendition is that much more intense, edgier, louder—even Little Steven’s mandolin has some added urgency—because that choir is present to connect Springsteen’s Woody Guthrie elements to those he took from Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, a secular cross between “This Train is Bound for Glory” and “People Get Ready.” What this means is that the weary traveler finds love even as the material losses multiply. But it’s not God she meets in that field where sunlight streams. It’s just that ordinary guy, the same one we’ve known since “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road,” “a good companion for this part of the ride.” Surrounded this time by (and seemingly at one with) whores, gamblers, thieves, lost souls and just plain sinners alongside the saints and winners, the journey remains just as important as its destination. 

The pledges of religions and governments are one thing. The bond between individual humans is what always seems truly sacred in Springsteen music, and it has to be carried out, step by painful step. Forgiveness is possible—hell, forgiveness abounds—but the price is as high as it’s meant to be.  Those bells that ring might be the bells from the courthouse in “Long Walk Home,” because their promise is defined exactly the same way. They are “bells of freedom ringin’.” And if, as Springsteen has long contended, the real issue in his songs is whether love is real, then the only qualification might be “in this life.” It’s heartbreakingly real here, heartbreaking because that is one long, long ride. But it can’t start unless we get on board.

However religious he may be, Bruce Springsteen for sure believes that, each and every night, all the dead should be with us. It’s one of the joys of this record that Clarence Clemons makes his final appearance on “Land of Hope and Dreams,” in the heart of one of the band’s greatest songs, in a performance that actually tops the live one.

But the Big Man, like Phantom Dan before him, is gone and he’s not coming back any more than your good manufacturing job is. The question isn’t whether that’s true—only a politician would pretend we don’t know that answer—the question is what we are going to do about it. To really set off on the trip to the Lands of Hope and Dreams, we need to find ways to accept who we really are, to fight off the vultures and the marauders, to rise up so we can hear those bells of freedom ring. 

To Springsteen, the dead still have a role to play—just as they do in “Wrecking Ball,” they reappear in the finale, “We Are Alive,” a mocking, dead-serious merger of Johnny Cash, mariachi, Morricone soundtrack music and a little of that old devil dust.

A bass note from what sounds like scratchy vinyl opens “We Are Alive,” then folky guitar and some truly outré whistling. (The whistling could also be termed “ghostly” and given that the E Street Band’s onstage whistler was Clarence, maybe that’s a better way to put it.)  But then the mariachi horns arrive, and a bass and drum figure out of “Ring of Fire.”  The singer starts looking up at Calvary hill, but he’s immediately distracted by “a graveyard kid” lurking among the dead, listening to corpses tell their stories. The singer kneels and places his ear to the headstones, so he can hear them too. The first three are a dead railroad striker, a little girl killed in a civil rights era bombing, and a border crosser who expired in the Southwestern desert as he attempted to reach the U.S. It’s not much of a reach to connect the gamblers, workers, jacks of all trades, fighters and athletes—each, like all of us, systematically isolated. 

But not only are these dead not content to be silent, they’re not even content to watch us forever screw up. They are about to issue marching orders, not in order to evoke the old days but to ensure that we have the best possible new ones. “We are alive!” they exult. “And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark / Our spirits rise / To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”

The singer dreams himself dead—carried under to confront the worms and the dark and the loneliness. Then the voices appear again to remind him: “We are alive…our souls and spirits rise / To carry the fire and light the spark / To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”

Call it a rock’n’roll version of magic realism, if you wish, but you still won’t have nailed the biggest, most significant change Bruce Springsteen has wrought in his work—and perhaps therefore himself—with Wrecking Ball. The man with the amazing ability to remain a mere moralist while traveling on Presidential campaigns has finally discovered his politics. And so he’s willing to strongly suggest what we might do if we would like to rid ourselves of the vultures and thieves who pillage our lives. Even if he does put his ideas in the mouths of the dead.

Maybe that’s as it should be, the musician listening to the voices he’s gathered and relaying what they say. Those ideas he hears are living things, never more vital than at these moments when we all feel out of options.  What matters most is not that the speakers are the dead (or even that the dead aren’t in the most important sense gone), but that we are alive—right here, right now. All of us: the Jack of All Trades, the punk in search of Easy Money, the ones who’ve got it and the victims of the death of their hometowns, the ones starving on rocky ground or discovering that the lack of a job shackles them as much as the drudgery of a job ever did. Not to mention those sure the train holds no place for them. Wrecking Ball  leaves no one untouched, unmarred or at the very least unchanged. But the people out there in the dark, listening, aren’t buried. They’re still moving and the future lies in the ways in which they move—together and apart, bonded and isolated, terrified and overjoyed, in hope and in despair–as they always have moved when hard times come and come again. Wrecking Ball dares to put all of them together on that train to the certain nowhere that is our only blessed future and then, it does the unimaginable: It tries to start a conversation.  In its own way, armed with not much more than a song to sing and a belief that if we travel over this rocky ground together there is a promised land at the other end, it aims to change the world.

Whether it succeeds in changing it, of course, isn’t up to Bruce Springsteen. It’s up to those who hear his call. It’s up to the ones who are alive out there. It’s up to us. 

 [Many thanks to Daniel Wolff, Craig Werner, and Lee Ballinger as well as the entire Stratlist.]


May 20th, 2012

“Ther is absolutely no doubt that the extraordinary Donna Summer belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Regrettably, despite being nominated on a number of occasions, our voting group has failed to recognize her–an error I can only hope is finally and permanently rectified next year.” — Jon Landau, chairman, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee

I loved Donna. She was sweet and  smart every time I got a chance to meet her. And she never acted the diva. One of my greatest regrets is that our plans to do an interview on Kick Out the Jams, my Sirius radio show, in 2008, when she’d put out Crayons fell through.

She was NOT churchy. She was not just a dance music singer. In the way she dealt with beats, essentially square on, she was a flat-out rock singer. If she were white, Donna Summer would have been in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the minute she was eligible. If she were white, I wouldn’t have to explain it.

I hope we change those facts next year, too.



April 16th, 2012

You probably never knew my friend Kathy Rich. You really missed something. A good way to find out what is to read Margalit Fox’s obituary for her in the April 7 New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/07/health/katherine-russell-rich-who-wrote-of-cancer-fight-dies-at-56.html?hpw). I’d bet all my socks that Fox knew Kathy, partly because she captures so much that’s crucial about her and partly because Kathy seemed to know everybody. (I seem that way too and we had more than one laugh about our mutual reputations in this regard.)

I’m not so sure Kathy would be thrilled about the headline–she did so much more than fight cancer, although to a lot of folks it would maybe seem like she just lived her life (likethat’s a little thing). But her book, The Red Devil, is the definitive account of the price of surviving cancer–in her case, a 19 year struggle against stage IV breast cancer, and yes, I know that sounds impossible. All the more reason for you to read it, for anybody who is beginning or in the middle of cancer treatment to know it by heart, which is what happens when you read it.

It is not a guidebook on how to survive. Stage IV is lethal, and after a couple of decades even Kathy Rich couldn’t live with it anymore. Fuck that. What matters is, she lived.

I met Kathy in ’94, I think, or maybe late ’93. I told our mutual friend Joanne Goldberg that I was going to up to Sloan-Kettering, the NYC cancer hospita, to do something else. She said that Kathy was in the hospital with stage four breast cancer, and she was a writer too. I ought to meet her. I’ve gotten better advice but not often.

Kathy was a horror, as anyone is after bone marrow transplant. Swollen of face, scrawny of limb, bald, her room a havoc. There were no pictures around but I understood for other reasons–personality, confidence, but not complaints–that she was under what had previously been normal circumstances an attractive woman.

Sitting in the chair next to the bed talking to her was a guy who turned out to be the best friend of my own family doctor. He and I sat by for an hour or two, as Kathy held forth about the travails of the hour–not just cancer, but the treachery of magazine jouranlism and of the men in her life. She did not so much continually reiterate as act our her intention of beating her illness…fuck cancer, she was more or less in a mood to beat death itself. And you had to think, yeah, yeah, she might.

We had journalism in common, which we had practiced very differently but there is not all that much distance between Rolling Stone and Allure, come to that; and we had had very different experiences of cancer, and while what had already happened to my duaghter Kristen and what not been happening to Kathy suck equally, they are quite different–survival without the disease relinquishing its grip might be worse than death, or so we had to suppose. But we also had to suppose that living was better tahn dying, and there you are, the paradox of young adults with cancer. “Can’t stop won’t stop,” indeed.

Anyway, we supposed both things together and for all our differences, after that day, she was my friend and I tried to be hers. I did what I could to support her book, when it came out, and I knew I could send any young woman who needed it to her book and thence to Kathy herself and they would always have some wisdom imparted from that source. We have many more friends in common for many other reasons.

Then, when she didn’t die, Kathy went off to India to study the language. She had a habit of sort of disappearing for a couple of years and then turning back up, always chastened, never less determined, and she’d tell me about the journey, the weird people she met, what she’d learned, what she decided not to learn, how many relapses and surgeries and dodged bullets had come across her path. I’d fill her in on what I’d been doing. We’d do a little gossiping, we’d laugh, we’d both wonder more than we let on how long anyone could survive stage IV breast cancer (as the saying goes, there is no stage V). I don’t know what she assumed. I assumed she was so tough and smart, she might outlive me, at least, and probably a whole lot of other people. (And in a whole lot of the other cases she did and hell yeah, that’s something to brag about.)

And that was it. The second book, Dreaming in Hindi, was both a struggle to read — it was so internalized, it was so unmetaphoric, so literally true. Which mean you couldn’t put it down either. It’s really not about learning to speak Hindi, and it’s not even a travel book, or a book about how to live in cultures that are poles apart. It’s about trying to inhabit the mind of strangers, maybe. And it is ruthless about the strangers, the author, the world in which it occurs, and out of that ruthlessness comes a stronger sense of Kathy’s intelligence, courage, and determination than you get in the cancer book. I read a few chapters and thought about them and read some more. Sometimes a year would go by and I wouldn’t touch it and then I’d dive in again and get lost in her head. I never told her this–it was embarassing, no one reads books like that, it’s like an implicit criticism. But really all it means is, you don’t drink a strong bottle to the bottom any way but warily…if the contents are as pure on your palate as they are powerful.

Kathy’s struggle seemed endless: when we met, I had hair and Kathy didn’t, then I lost about half of mine and the rest turned gray, while hers grew back and looked just fine. Twenty years is a very very long time. And most of that time, we had no idea what hte hell was up with her. But when I sent a newly diagnosed friend, whose tumor was also at stage four and also seemed indolent, to talk to her, it was just the right thing to do and Kathy and I emailed about it but we didn’t talk on the phone or see one another for lunch or any of that. I didn’t know such a serious relapse had occurred–although I knew there were relapses, they were pretty much continual– and the news took my breath away that Saturday morning.

Kathy was nothing like Kris Carr, who has an indolent tumor and has an hilarious survival yarn about it that has, I suppose, saved many lives, presuming that relying on eating a lot of wheatgrass and other dietary stuff, and yoga, etc. has anything to do with surviving cancer. I don’t know what Kathy ate and if I had asked her, she’d have very likely said something that amounted to, “What made that your business, buster,” and moved on to what she was actually interested in, which was her life. (Skeptics are like that and no journalist worth anything is not a skeptic, even if the writer in question is also a true believer.)

But these kind of semi-survivable tumors do exist and not only in breast cancer. They’re rare but so are the kind of people who know how to make a life, really a life not just a series of struggling days. Kathy taught me that, and how you have to live differently and not compromise a single one of your goals or principles as you fight, because you fight. And that it could be done.

I asked her once why she left Allure, and she said some of the things about it that are in the Times article and then–now that I think of it, it might have been that day in the hospital–she spun this long, rather mordantly funny story about her last days in the fashion journalism world, and how Conde Nast reacted to her departure: They gave her a lunch with the staff, or something like that, and a Prada bag, the same thing they gave everyone who left in relatively good graces. The message was not “I’m nothing special,” the message was “they don’t know I’m something special.” Is there bitterness attached to that? Well, there ought to be.

Kathy wasn’t everyone, she was as specific a someone as anybody I’ve had the luck to know and care about. And I am pissed off about it to this day, because she’s right, the devil of cancer is red, not black. Blood red. And to this day, when I see Prada–the logo, the clothes, the ads–I think about Kathy Rich and how little respect she got and how much she deserved.

Well, all I’m trying to say is, Kathy Rich was a great person and I loved her, truly I did. And, you know, as long as I’m here, she’s here, I’ll make sure of remembering her however I can. And telling you about it is part of that.

So startled and sad as I was when I heard the news, I didn’t cry. I started to and then I got to thinking about Kathy and how it was that we met and how it was that we were friends, and I think the tears just got beaten back by the only thing that sometimes can do that, even in the face of death, which is the living truth, as we have ourselves witnessed it.

Here’s what she taught me in a nutshell: You have to die and you have to bear it in mind. Then you have to go out and be who you are and let the dying take care of itself. And rage, rage, because that isn’t Tinkerbell’s light that’s dying, it’s your own and, goddamn it, it’s irreplaceable—irreplaceable to everybody not just you.

So don’t clap your hands to save Kathy Rich, just live your life and refuse to forget that it will end someday. That’s not just the acclamation she deserves. It’s the one she earned.



April 9th, 2012

I wrote this for Rock & Rap Confidential, the (now online) newsletter about music and politics I’ve edited with Lee Ballinger for thirty years–we started right about this time of year, too, I think. I’ve said very little at RRC in recent months, and this topic (suggested by Lee) seems a good place to get in and start wrestlin’ with written words again.

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The massive South by Southwest music festival (SXSW) has been held in Austin, Texas in the spring of every year since 1987. Dave Marsh reports on this year’s shindig.

I know something about SXSW keynote addresses. Little Richard and Smokey Robinson both did theirs as, in part, dialogues with me—sitting live in front of several hundred people, Richard being Richard, Smokey being serious, sincere, smart, and as handsome as seventy will allow.

To a certain extent, it’s a setup: All the attendees who don’t care find other things to do and most of the rest come to have expectations affirmed. But it’s not that simple either. I had the best fun of the last twenty years just asking four questions, sitting and watching Little Richard rave for (I timed it) 17 and a half minutes without pausing for breath. Then he turned to me, clearly winded, and said breathlessly, “Ohhh, Dave! You’re still here. I bet you want to ask me some more questions.”

But it’s not that simple either. The best moments can also be absolutely pedagogical: Smokey ended with a seven minute spiel telling people how to find and deal with stardom, beginning with an admonition (“Thicken your skin”) and ending with a parable about the invention of show business. Since 2010 that last part’s gotten almost half a million hits on YouTube. Richard, who appeared in ’08, seemed to just rant but in reality he was preaching a sermon on the same theme as Smokey, offering all kinds of nuggets but coming back to the main point over and over again: “Sign your own checks!…Sign your own checks!” Afterwards, a young woman came up to me, eyes a brimful of tears, and said, “Thank you, thank you, that was everything I came here to learn.”

Steve Earle began by lecturing his audience: “Let me make something extremely clear. Kiss is not cool, Kiss was never cool, Kiss will never be cool.”

But Bruce Springsteen, this year, was something else again. He offered career advice wrapped in biography, history complete with instructive examples of where he’d swiped a couple of his classics: the doo-wop crooning that led to “Backstreets,” the way the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” provided the core of “Badlands,” and how and why “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” is “every song I’ve ever written including the new ones.” Rocker he may be, but not rockist: “The elements you’re using don’t matter. Purity of human expression and experience is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntables, to microchips. There is no right way, no pure way, of doing it. There’s just doing it.” Bruce wrestled with Lester Bangs and Woody Guthrie, post-authenticity, the transformative self, Roy Orbison’s paranoia, Phil Spector’s musical violence, the cover of Meet the Beatles as “the silent gods of Olympus,” the barely comprehensible existence of Nintendo-core, black death metal, and the yearning needs of soul. It was as if someone had managed to translate “A wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom tutti frutti” into a comprehensive treatise on the development and meaning (or lack thereof) of the past sixty years of Anglo-American popular music.

He avoided the hard political realities at the core of his new album, Wrecking Ball, in favor of talking eye to eye with an audience he assumed (correctly) consisted of people who either knew these things or needed to find them out. It was a practical speech, aimed at a specific group of people. He didn’t even know it was being broadcast live or, as far as I can tell, imagine that it would wind up all over the Internet, words stuck in the heads of millions of listeners. (The full audio’s at npr.org. It’s also worth looking at the segments posted on YouTube, particularly the stuff about the Animals.)

Raves arrived immediately, but I don’t think anyone’s used the term that best describes it for me: Generosity. The speech gave far more than it took and it held back on self-promotion (granted that the entire speech was wrapped in Bruce’s persona, but I’ve already quoted the only reference to his new album.)

Springsteen never has opening acts. That day he had five. Before the SXSW speech, Jimmy LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson, and Juanes sang Woody Guthrie songs (plus one original by Juanes). It was beautiful and loving, and all the things that a tribute to a great artist on his centenary ought to be. The highlight for me wasn’t Juanes singing a verse from “This Land Is Your Land,” which he told me later was the first time he’d ever sung in English onstage, but Juanes stepping up to challenge the audience when it didn’t sing along heartily enough. LaFave sang wonderfully as he always does, his Oklahoma roots deliberately on display, and his commentary on Woody’s music and life more trenchant than ever. And Eliza, firebrand that she is, kept the music contemporary, insisting on its relevance—or rather, insisting on her listeners paying attention to its continuing relation to the world descended from the one Guthrie described. Eliza has been the best female singer-songwriter for several years now, LaFave has been the best interpreter of Guthrie, Dylan and Springsteen for longer than that, and maybe this performance will help the news spread from Austin. Juanes, of course, is a rock star of Springsteen’s magnitude throughout Latin America and much of Europe; imagine John Lennon in Spanish.

That evening at the Moody Theater Springsteen had two openers–Low Anthem and Alejandro Escovedo with his full band each did about 45 minutes. (Springsteen had done a couple of numbers with Alejandro the night before at the Austin Music Awards show.)

The Austin show was only Springsteen’s second since the release of Wrecking Ball and, like its predecessor—an Apollo Theater benefit in honor of SiriusXM’s tenth anniversary—it contained some beautiful one-off wrinkles. Instead of invoking Curtis Mayfield, Wilson Pickett and Smokey Robinson (and James Brown by way of a lunatic climb into the rigging), this time Woody Guthrie framed the action. Bruce opened with his now-17 member E Street Band doing “I Ain’t Got No Home” a cappella and closed with “This Land is Your Land” with Escovedo, Low Anthem, Joe Ely, and a couple members of Arcade Fire helping out.

Is there another performer in our culture who operates in both the folk-rock and soul-gospel traditions? It’s as fashionable lately to evoke Springsteen as a literary figure as it once was to display him as an articulate pseudo-gas station attendant. But what’s most remarkable is the ability to move smoothly among soul and gospel music and the folk and country tradition in the way that Springsteen does. He has reached the point now that on Wrecking Ball’s “Land of Hope and Dreams” he does both in the same song. Generally, one is lurking in the background of the other in any of his songs, especially live. (Which can’t be discerned if all your attention is on the lyrics which is where, I suppose, the shade of the Great American Poem lurks in the minds of the critics who think it’s mostly about the words.) Yet in pulling these sounds together, Springsteen is capable of convincing more than a few that the beloved community truly could be in our future.

The Wrecking Ball songs (at the Moody he played eight of the eleven) have the strongest connecting thread of any Springsteen album since The River–from the furious social questions of “We Take Care of Our Own,” through the economic despair and determination of “Jack of All Trades” and “Death to My Hometown” to the glorious anthem of hope “Rocky Ground”—with its invocation of God, who does not answer—to the final, unambiguous call to action, “We Are Alive.”

I don’t suppose Bruce Springsteen has a much clearer vision of where, exactly, that action must lead to prevent the “hard times come and hard times go” cycle that he pounds away at six consecutive times in the song “Wrecking Ball.” But you can glimpse what it might feel like in any great musical performance, not just one of his. And, from my perspective, that is the real purpose of SXSW. Truth is, there hasn’t been a commercially important act that broke out of the conference since Hanson, fifteen years ago. But so what? It’s still the biggest, best music school in the United States, maybe the world.

And while Bruce’s show couldn’t offer the kind of community that he evokes in songs like “Land of Hope and Dreams,” it did evoke a sense of musician solidarity that’s essential to what happens with SXSW at its best. It’s a glimpse, but even a full-on Bruce and the E Street Band show is just a glimpse of what it would be like to live with equality and justice every day.

SXSW is as imperfect as any other human project. The sheer size of it has outstripped Austin’s transportation infrastructure and its deficit is ever-widening. The business panels are just the record industry trying to talk itself into believing it still exists. Hip-hop, dance, and ethnic music never get an equal shot in the press coverage and Austin’s local Mexican/Chicano community is invisible.


What SXSW offers is a chance to attend that music school not only as student but as teacher. Not to study music but to observe and participate in the stewing mess of it. I have gone to Austin for this peculiar rite of March madness for the past, I think, nineteen years. I went to speak, I went back to listen. I keep going back not because I think I’m going to find any next big thing, but because I might run into musical glory.

This year, I got it in half a dozen ways—from Bruce, of course, but also from Eric Burdon, whose surprise (even to him and Springsteen) appearance to sing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” at the Moody was a fiery proof of every accolade heaped upon the Animals’ frontman earlier that day. Where else could I interview, in the space of forty-eight hours both Juanes and Eric Burdon? Where else could I see old Austin friends like LaFave, Gilkyson, Michael Ramos, Michael Fracasso, Joe Ely and the Krayolas? Where else could I spend an afternoon and evening at a taqueria with Alejandro, Jesse Malin, Lenny Kaye, Rosie Flores, and new favorites like Maren Parusel?

Where else could I (with massive help from David Alvarez at KUT-FM and my producer Jim Rotolo) put on a live Sunday radio show, from nine to eleven AM, with seven musical guests? None of them played a record or sang a song I’d ever heard before. And all of them were flat-out great. None of them got paid—at SXSW no artist at an official gig ever gets paid, and very few get paid at any of the others, either. It is, most of the time, music for the love of music.

I go to SXSW to recharge, to remember why I love music, why we’ve still got a chance. And this year, like that young woman said, I got everything I came to learn.—D.M.

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Making Sense of Ron Paul (courtesy of Tim Wise)

January 28th, 2012

This article originally appeared at the website of Tim Wise, who wrote it. It appears here with the permission of Wise, but you would do well to connect to the original page: http://www.timwise.org/2012/01/of-broken-clocks-presidential-candidates-and-the-confusion-of-certain-white-liberals/ Tim Wise is the outstanding white opponent of racism and white supremacy in the United States today. The connections he makes here […]

A Letter to My Daughter on the Nineteenth Anniversary of Her Death

January 3rd, 2012

Dear Kristen, Can I tell you a secret? It’s ridiculous but I didn’t even know it was a secret until I heard Lady GaGa’s “Hair” this morning and then I realized that I’d kept it even from myself. In my ears, it’s a record where I always find you. “I’ve had enough, this is my […]


December 2nd, 2011

Effective December 4, 2011, my Sunday morning SiriusXM program, Kick Out the Jams, which covers the world of music, with an emphasis on music and current events (or music and politics, if you prefer) moves from the Loft (channel 30) to The Spectrum (channel 28). The first show on The Spectrum will be the pre-recorded […]

Who’s Demonizing Who?

October 17th, 2011

President Obama said yesterday that Dr. Martin Luther King would want “us” (whomever that may be) to “challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing those who work there.” Talk about raising more questions than you answer! Let us ask: 1. For what reason should the proscription against “demonizing” apply to Operation Wall Street and […]

Music on Kick Out the Jams for July 31, 2011

July 29th, 2011

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Music from Kick Out the Jams July 17 and July 24, 2011

July 25th, 2011

Kick Out the Jams 7 17 2011 Howdido, Woody Guthrie CD: Nursery Days Do Re Me, Bob Dylan  CD: The People Speak soundtrack Pastures of Plenty/This Land is Your Land, Lila Downs CD: La Linea This Land Is Your Land, Bruce Springsteen CD: Live 1975-1985, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Buffalo Skinners, Jim […]