Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Springsteen's Magic: Darkness at the Center of Town

From my "Capital Games" column at www.thenation.com....

As I listened to Magic , the new (and maybe last?) album from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, I thought of a buddy and a movie.

A few days ago, a pal of mine, who had spent about a year in Iraq in a nonmilitary but intense position, told me about a recent episode. He had gone to a bar on a weekend night and had fallen into a dispute with a bouncer--a big bouncer. My friend, who's not that young and not that fit, surprised himself by becoming highly aggressive with the bouncer. He was ready for a fight--eager for it--knowing damn well that if one came his way, he would end up on the downside of the deal. Fortunate for him, the moment was defused, and he moved on intact. "That's not me," he told me. "That's Iraq. After being there, you feel you don't have to put up with anything here and what happens here is nothing compared to what happens there."

In Paul Haggis's new film, In the Valley of Elah, GIs come back from Iraq with a different attitude toward violence and death. The war has changed them--not by robbing them of limbs, but by stealing them of innocence (yes, a cliche) and, more important, by undermining their sense of decency. To say too much would be to give away the mystery in the movie. But Haggis's point is that besides the obvious impact of the war--the death count, the physical wounds, the mental injuries (such as post-traumatic stress disorder), there are other costs--subtle but deep--to turning young men and women into killers forced to make choices no one ought to have to face.

As Haggis's film and my friend's experience illustrate, there is a consequence of war that does not fit into the box scores of lives lost, troops hospitalized, and money spent. It's what warring turns us into. And that seems to have been on Springsteen's mind when he penned the foundational songs of Magic.

Much of the album is imbued with a melancholy and a sense of loss, even when Springsteen deploys the power chords, searing guitars, and cascading piano that once (oh so long ago) underscored themes of youthful exuberance, rebellion and escape. This loaded-with-hooks album has its obvious moments. On "Last To Die," Springsteen sings, "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake?" It's John Kerry's once-famous line rock-and-rollified. (In the last election, Springsteen campaigned with Kerry.) "The wise men were all fools," Springsteen wails, as drums pound. Neocons, take note.

But on other tracks, Springsteen eschews the big picture for the nitty-gritty, chronicling broken souls and detailing lovers lost in grief, all apparent victims of a faraway war. On the elegiac "Devil's Arcade," a gravely wounded soldier lies in bed at home and feels "the glorious kingdom of the sun" on his face, as the song's narrator--probably his wife--asks him to "just whisper the word 'tomorrow' in my ear." In the pop-infused (maybe too infused) "Livin' in the Future," a fellow who's received a letter saying "somethin' 'bout me and you never seein' one another again" feels untethered from the present moment. "My faith's been torn asunder," he says, "tell me is that rollin' thunder/Or just the sinkin' sound of somethin' righteous goin' under?"

Well, the answer is clear. The ship's gone down, and folks are left to deal with the wreckage on their own. And the grand sum of all these individual tragedies marks a societal demise. On the title track--a somber, violin-draped number--Springsteen sings of a magician who moves from making a coin disappear to sawing a volunteer into two. "I'll cut you in half," the sly trickster says, "while you're smiling ear to ear. And the freedom that you sought's driftin' like a ghost among the trees." As Springsteen has acknowledged, this song is about the Bush administration, and the Bush-Cheney magic act ends apocalyptically:

Now there's a fire down below
But it's comin' up here
So leave everything you know
And carry only what you fear
On the road the sun is sinkin' low
There's bodies hangin' in the trees
This is what will be, this is what will be.

There's a lot more than darkness on the edge of town. There's ruin. Yet overall the album's music does not match it's downhearted view. Springsteen creeps along a tight rope, balancing his musical brightness with his belief the nation has lost its soul at the hands of deceivers.

He ties it all together, though, in "Long Walk Home." Against Springsteen's long-perfected anthemic bar-band sound, he sings of returning--that is, trying to return--to his home town. But things ain't the same. The place is full of strangers. The veterans hall is closed: "The diner was shuttered and boarded/With a sign that just said 'gone.'" He recalls his father once telling him,

Son, we're luck in this town
It's a beautiful place to be born
it just wraps its arms around you
Nobody crowds you, nobody goes it alone.
That you know flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't.

It's no secret; he's talking not about a fine ol' town but about the romanticized American ideal. Whether it ever truly existed on the ground can be debated. (Remember "Born in the U.S.A"?) But what's for sure is that it's promise has been trampled by the current gang. And the war's one helluva tipping point. In this song, Springsteen's narrator sings, "Hey pretty Darling, don't wait up for me/Gonna be a long walk home."

Springsteen, whose last album was a romping collection of pumped-up versions of songs associated with Pete Seeger, is not wallowing in nostalgia. (Bodies hanging in the trees? We're way past nostalgia, he seems to be saying.) He's expressing a desire. Rock and roll has always been about yearning. In earlier days, it was about longing for sex, love, a fast car, flight. You know, "it's a death trap, it's a suicide rap," and so on. But as he surveys the horizon and sees a nation in trouble, that small town Springsteen wanted to flee as a young man doesn't look so bad now--that is, as a symbol of America's best values: community, compassion, the rule of law. So he's brought the band together and called upon the rock idiom he knows so well to share his present-day yearnings. At the age of 58, Springsteen knows that it's not about running away, it's about walking back. And though the music soars, his message is mired in realism: this walk is not going to be easy.

Posted by David Corn at October 2, 2007 01:35 PM


capt said...

Mr. David Corn,

"(and maybe last?)"

Perish the thought. We should all hope for more good music from Bruce.

Thanks for all of your work.


capt said...

"I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves ... too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: 'Our country, right or wrong!' They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: 'Our country-when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.'"-Schurz, "The Policy of Imperialism," Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schurz, vol. 6, pp. 119-20 (1913).

"We are fast approaching the stage of the ultimate inversion: the stage where the government is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission; which is the stage of the darkest periods of human history, the stage of rule by brute force. " : Ayn Rand in "The Nature of Government"

"The issue today is the same as it has been throughout all history, whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be ruled by a small elite." --Thomas Jefferson

There is absolutely nothing to be said for government by a plutocracy, for government by men very powerful in certain lines and gifted with 'a money touch,' but with ideals which in their essence are merely those of so many glorified pawnbrokers: Theodore Roosevelt


Thanks ICH Newsletter!

Hajji said...

I wasn't a fan of Springsteen until I saw a live show at the Old Boston Garden.

The Concert started at about 8:30pm and was still going strong when they hauled out Peter Wolfe to sing "In the Midnight Hour". Impressive, to say the least.

So many singer/songwriters have addressed the state of things in today's "Amerrikka". All are resoundingly shut out from the mainstream media in obvious ways.

"Way past nostalgia", say's Corn?

We haven't even left the things we desire to be nostalgic FOR, by the look of things.


Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

-Billie Holliday

Carey said...


How is Grant coping with life back here? Must be so difficult.

So I guess David Corn isn't covering the Blackwater hearings?

capt said...

Computer to Read Minds

They're already predicting, mathematically, what you'll want to watch, what you'll want to wear, and who you'll want to vote for. Obviously, the next step is for computers to read your mind—and that's just what they're working toward at Tufts University in Boston.

Your computer won't be picking up details about your plans for the evening anytime soon. But researchers with the Human Computer Interaction group at Tufts have, thanks to a $450,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, come up with a straightforward way for your computer to tell if you are overworked, under-worked or not working at all, according to a paper they will present next week at an Association of Computing Machinery symposium.

That may not sound like penetrating perception, but the researchers hope that capacity will eventually help them gain real-time insight into the brain's more subtle emotional states and help provide pointers about how we can get work done more efficiently.

capt said...

Blackwater's Man in Washington

Last Wednesday afternoon, amid news that Blackwater USA security contractors had killed 11 Iraqi civilians and wounded 12 others in a Baghdad firefight, members of the antiwar group Code Pink gathered outside the Washington office of the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group that represents a who's who of the private military industry. There to greet them when they arrived was Doug Brooks, the IPOA's founder and president, who'd been tipped off to the protest earlier that day by an anonymous caller. "He was on the street with an assistant with an armful of IPOA magazines," said Code Pink's Gael Murphy, who heads the group's Washington office. "He had a smile on his face the entire time as though it were some kind of industry expo day, and he kept [smiling], even as we were asking him about some pretty dreadful matters." Brooks spent about an hour fielding questions and even escorted some of the protesters upstairs to see his office. I asked Murphy if Brooks had managed to change any minds. "No," she said. "We were not fooled just because [Blackwater] has a network to cover them—that they're somehow more legitimate than they were the day of the killings."

Doug Brooks tells a different story. The day after the protest I met him at a bar near his office. He wore a dark suit and wire-frame glasses. "I think we developed some fans," he said, still smiling. "One guy, for example, said, 'I don't like the concept, but I guess if we're going to have companies doing this stuff, we need this kind of organization doing the oversight.'" Brooks seemed energized by the experience, which, despite its being a protest, he treated as an opportunity to convert the opposition. "Their questions were really good," he continued. "We gave them paperwork. We gave them journals. A couple of them even took away IPOA pins." He pulled one from his bag and placed it in my hand. It bore the image of a sleeping lion, the IPOA's logo. "Just got a new batch in," he said.

The son of a history professor, Brooks grew up in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana. "God's country," he says. Although he's lived in Washington for much of the past decade, he retains a disarming Midwestern charm, a quality he deploys to great advantage as the friendly, public face of a secretive, multibillion dollar business.

*****end of clip*****

Corn will head a staff of Washington reporters that also includes James Ridgeway, Laura Rozen, Dan Schulman, Stephanie Mencimer, Bruce Falconer, and Jonathan Stein.

"So I guess David Corn isn't covering the Blackwater hearings?"

Well, kind of.


capt said...

Bombers drill at Eugene airport

I live 10 miles south of the Eugene airport. Early in 2003, prior to President Bush's invasion of Iraq, there were numerous military aircraft practicing approaches to the airport.

Some of the craft were so low and so noxiously loud that my wife called the airport to complain.The airport operator connected her directly to the air controllers in the tower, where they confirmed that military aircraft crews were practicing instrument approaches. Weeks later, Bush invaded Iraq.

Well, they're at it again. There is a B1 bomber crew - yes, a B1 bomber - that for weeks has been making practice runs on the airport and again the air controller on duty confirmed they are practicing instrument approaches. Coincidently, the Air Force last week "mistakenly" flew a planeload of nuclear bombs across America's skies to the East Coast.

Iranian officials had better beware. For the record, I am a four-year veteran of the Korean conflict era, and I do not appreciate what this country has become. I am so ashamed.

Jim Clarkson


Hajji said...


Thanks for asking about Spanky...

I've tried a few times to write that he's "just fine"...but couldn't continue with the lie.

I'll not elaborate much, but for our nation to create a hell like that which Iraq has become just to send our young men and women into it...well, none of 'em are "just fine" I imagine.

We are fortunate that Grant's older brother is close by him. Together, they comprise two of the four+ years of Imperial America's invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Things we'll gratefully never see are always boiling beneath the surface of these young men. While we are ever attentive and willing to listen...well...we weren't there were we?

Both continue as medics and firefighters, hunters and fishermen. Karl's soon to be a father and Grant's breaking hearts all over rural southwestern Indiana.

I just finished watching Ken Burns' "The War".

"Heroes"? "I'm not a hero...the heroes are all dead." I AM a survivor, though".

That's the best we can hope for, I guess...That and the hope that they'll all be "just fine."


capt said...

Bill Moyers on the fallen: Can you find a “phony” in the bunch?

Download (WMV)

Download (MOV)

Though he has far more class than to say so explicitly, I suspect that Bill Moyers was upset by Rush Limbaugh’s statement that any troop member advocating withdrawal was a “phony soldier”. He looks at the seven soldiers who penned the op-ed in the NY Times questioning why remain in Iraq and the tragic price three have paid.

Funny, none of them look remotely phony to me, Rush…


capt said...

Limbaugh Compares Purple Heart Recipient In Vote Vets Ad To A Suicide Bomber

In a new Vote Vets ad released today, Brian McGough, an Iraq war veteran who received the Purple Heart, challenges Rush Limbaugh: “Until you have the guts to call me a ‘phony soldier‘ to my face, stop telling lies about my service.” Watch it: (HERE

In response, Limbaugh today attacked McGough, comparing him to a suicide bomber and suggesting that someone pumped him full of these lies about what I said“:

This is such a blatant use of a valiant combat veteran, lying to him about what I said and then strapping those lies to his belt, sending him out via the media and a TV ad to walk into as many people as he can walk into.

This man will always be a hero to this country with everyone. Whoever pumped him full of these lies about what I said and embarrassed him with this ad has betrayed him, they aren’t hurting me. They are betraying this soldier.

In McGough’s case, Rush’s comments are especially tactless. McGough’s injury in Iraq “resulted from a real-life suicide bomber.” On DailyKos, McGough responds to Limbaugh:

I can assure you that I am no suicide bomber and that I can think for myself. […]

Rush, your phony soldier comments pissed me off. The audacity of someone like you who never had the courage to stand and fight for what you believe in makes my head spin. That is what made me stand up and state my convictions in front of a camera. I wanted to point out that you are wrong. I am not a phony soldier. […]

In the commercial I just taped, I told you unless you had the guts to say something to my face, stop telling lies about my service. Well you haven’t had the guts to say it to my face, but I am waiting and the offer is still on the table.

Evidently, according to Limbaugh, pretty much everyone lies and has ulterior motives…unless they agree with him.

UPDATE: Media Matters and Digby have more.


capt said...

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