Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Sandbags: Waking up to Springsteen
"Racing in the Street"
Some of my college friends were obsessed with Bruce Springsteen. I was just discovering "classic rock" at that time—Beatles and Dylan, mostly—and I had not yet awakened to the possibility that the Boss had something to offer beyond the bombastic new-Americana I knew from the radio. As a budding professional thinker-about-music, I had taken an anti-Bruce stance.
Just as every arts writer has his or her own personal pantheon of all-time greats, we each also construct a mirror image set, populated with creators we love to hate. We take stances based upon our own feelings and opinions, but also in reaction to those of others. What would one stand to gain, for example, by expressing a dislike of a figure like Bruce Springsteen if he were not beloved by so many? If he weren't, the opinion would exist in a vacuum. It would score one no points; the act of expressing it would have no object.
Over the years, I have taken great delight in late-blooming passions for the work of this or that artist. It could be a band I never knew existed (the early-’70s British folk outfit Comus blew my mind the other day) or it could be someone like Bruce, against whom I'd formed a somewhat proud prejudice. I have just finished listening to Darkness on the Edge of Town in its entirety for the first time (via the awesome recent box set The Promise), and it was glorious.
I think of a hot-air balloon, and how you have to throw sandbags overboard in order to soar higher. Negative opinions, especially those that have calcified without much practical experience to back them up, are ballast. We hold onto them tightly. The more other people love, the more we want to hate. The world toasts Arcade Fire; we retreat to our rooms to blog crabbily about them, or we blithely dis them in conversation. Criticism is all well and good, but one has to monitor one's own dislikes and make sure they're informed, "accurate," useful, nonrestrictive.
At this point, it's easy for me to see that holding on to some sort of blanket distaste for a great American artist is self-injurious. I see that I had turned my back on a whole vista of music without giving it a chance. And to what end? This petty pride in saying "No" while many others say "Yes."
Consensus can be a terrible, scary thing. I'm not saying go with the flow at all costs. But sometimes the People are simply right. And from what I am starting to discover, I realize they were right about Bruce.
I've been thinking a lot about the idealized space he inhabits, the ’70s. I am so into this idea of art and commerce being unified. Of not having to turn to this pompous, exclusionary "indie" sphere for your intellectually and emotionally nourishing pop music. You could go to the record store, and there the giants would be, lined up on the racks. Your Jonis and Neils and Cats and Bruces. The band America is another recent obsession—lighter, maybe, but still with so much substance. Music everyone can enjoy, that everyone can think and feel about.
Here's to letting more of that "everyone" in, to embracing a time when appreciating music was not a walled-off act, done in a snobbish spirit, buoyed by passion but also weighed down by reactionary baggage. All of that is why I hate this idea of CRITICISM and why I never self-identify with that term. I know that the same demons whisper in my ear, the seductive call of dislike, of anti-, of crossing your arms, of saying "impress me," of "been there, done that." Of judgment, I guess, but more specifically the kind of tuning out that happens when you feel there's something vast and appealing out there that so many others are privy to and that you're maybe in the process of getting left out of.
I think that's a big part of it, this idea that "I could never catch up." Bruce Springsteen, for example, has 30 albums, and these people have spent a decade or more learning about every one, and I don't want to feel behind. We all want to be ahead of the curve. Sometimes it's great to bring up the rear. To just be like, "You know what? You guys were right." And to not worry about timeliness and just wake up anew to the fact that there is SO MUCH SHIT OUT THERE TO LEARN ABOUT.
Darkness on the Edge of Town is an old album, but it is new to me. It is a reason to be happy today. Goodbye to the anti-Bruce sentiment—one less sandbag to weigh me down.
P.S. "Streets of Fire," live 1978:
P.P.S. Branford Marsalis on the late Clarence Clemons, via Do the Math.