The Prophetic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen

The Art House America blog just published an essay I wrote on The Prophetic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen, my attempt to treat Walter Brueggemann and Wendell Berry as conversation partners with Bruce Springsteen’s newest album.

The first time I heard Wrecking Ball, the new record from Bruce Springsteen, I was driving through the middle of Kentucky on winding country roads, windows down, stereo cranked all the way up, wind whistling through my hair. I was on my way to the Abbey of Gethsemani — where Thomas Merton lived for most of his life — two days after my 30th birthday, looking forward to the time away to read, write, and reflect. With books by Merton (a first-edition copy of his memoir, Seven Storey Mountain, loaned to me by my friend Ian), Walter Brueggemann, and Wendell Berry in my bag as companions for the weekend, I found myself listening to Springsteen’s lyrics through the lens of Brueggemann’s and Berry’s words.

Read the rest here.

And here are a couple of additional comments, my footnotes to the essay, if you will.

• As I’ve written about before on this blog, I love the way Andy Whitman writes about Bruce Springsteen. I became a fan of Springsteen in the first place because of Andy’s writing about him, in paragraphs like this one:

For me — for many of my friends, actually — Born to Run captured that feeling and that era perfectly. I loved it passionately; still do, in fact. I can’t truly say that about too many albums. Springsteen was a poet like Dylan, he put his soul into the music like nobody else at the time, and he played a 3.5 hour show at my university when he was right on the cusp of stardom that just about convinced me that I was not alone in the universe and that rock ‘n roll was no substitute for God, but that it was damn close.

Andy expanded those thoughts recently for Image Journal, in an essay titled “Bruce Springsteen and the Long Walk Home.” Image has posted an excerpt online, but I recommended ordering that back issue to read the full essay, as well as the numerous other worthwhile pieces in that issue. (Although I was sorry to see that my favorite line was changed, in that rewrite, to something that has much less kick.)

• One Sunday, a couple weeks ago, I read through about half of Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz’s “The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen: Rock and Redemption, from Asbury Park to Magic,” and skimmed the rest. My only feeling, when I finished, was one of sadness that the book project Andy Whitman was supposed to write about Springteen never came to fruition. Symynkywicz is a Unitarian Universalist minister in New England, and everything he wrote sounded like he was trying to cram a superficial reading of a Springsteen lyric into one of his sermons. He never approaches the kind of analysis or descriptive language Andy does, like in this column for Christianity Today on “The Stations of the Boss.”

• I was also reading two newly-published collections of essays while I was starting to think about writing my essay, Marilynne Robinson’s “When I Was a Child I Read Books” and Scott Russell Sander’s “Earth Works,” and so quotes from both of them found their way into my piece. I loved both of those collections, and highly recommend them. I’m sure I’ll find an excuse to write at more length about both of them before too long.

• There’s a musical moment on every Springsteen record that I fall in love with, a few bars that make me hit repeat again and again. On 2007’s Magic, it was the fifteen-second piano intro to “I’ll Work for Your Love,” before the full band kicks in. On Wrecking Ball, it is, first of all, the drums on the title song, the way the snare stays out for most of the song except the turn arounds and outro, with the high-hat on off-beats driving the song. And then the way they drop out at the third verse, the track stripped back to just Bruce, strumming away on electric guitar, a B-3 organ coming in on the third line, before (my favorite moment) a second electric guitar part comes in above everything else, playing a beautiful, melodic counter melody, as he sings when your best hopes and desires are scattered through the wind. The first time he sings the next line, and hard times come, and hard times go, the drums kick back in with the bass guitar, first with just the kick drum on the downbeat and tambourine on off-beats, starting a slow build to the chorus, as he turns that line into a mantra – hard times come, and hard times go – before reaching yeah, just to come again, launching him back into the chorus, the in-your-face, half-desperate challenge to those threatening to destroy the lives of those represented by the song’s narrator: Bring on your wrecking ball / bring on your wrecking ball / Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you got / Bring on your wrecking ball

This is the interview with Springsteen that I quoted from in my essay. And here’s a short video from that press conference, with some of Springsteen’s answers mixed in with performances of the new songs.

One thought on “The Prophetic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen”

  1. After reading your piece on the Art House Blog I immediately found the video of Wendell’s Jefferson Lecture. What a treat. Also, while I am not a huge fan of Bruce, “the Boss” Springsteen’s music… you might have convinced me to give this new album a try. Thanks to your piece I had a ton of thoughts spinning round this weekend. 🙂

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