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Joad Ode Rings False

Bruce's Back: The cover of the Boss' newest, "The Ghost of Tom Joad"

Can Bruce Springsteen catch up to his own past as a populist?

By Geoffrey Dunn

In the 1970s, Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band captured the imagination of young America with a driving rock & roll idiom firmly rooted in the mean streets of factory-town New Jersey. Songs like "Born to Run" and "No Surrender" became anthems for a generation. By the early 1980s, Springsteen had forced his way into the American mainstream. Both his haunting solo album, Nebraska (1982), and his angry yet triumphant Born in the U.S.A. (1984) were infused with working-class sensibilities and political commentary.

His subsequent tour, followed by the release of Live/1975-1985, which included covers of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" and Edwin Starr's "War," was nothing less than Whitmanesque in its populist proclamations--a rock & roll Leaves of Grass singing the body politic electric.

Live/1975-1985 was one of the greatest-selling rock albums of all time, and it marked the apotheosis of Springsteen's national impact. Critic Jack Newfield, writing in the Village Voice, proclaimed Springsteen "a strong, generous, patriotic, drug-free, non-sexist, antiracist American hero."

What appeared to be a moment, and perhaps even a movement, of national significance, however, turned into a full-blown retreat. Caught up in the prison of his own celebrity, Springsteen abandoned his Jersey roots, broke up the band, headed out west to the Hollywood Hills and married supermodel-turned-actress Julianne Phillips. His next three albums--Tunnel of Love, Human Touch and Lucky Town--which chronicled the break-up of his marriage and his romance with fellow rocker Patti Scialfa--were all introspective, and with few exceptions, failed to engage in the social discourse that had defined Springsteen's earlier work.

Now, after nearly a decade of wallowing in the confines of self-pathos, Springsteen has once again discovered America's dispossessed in The Ghost of Tom Joad (Columbia). The album and the corresponding tour--which stopped off in Berkeley last week--mark a bold, if somewhat schizophrenic, turn in Springsteen's career. Quite frankly, I'm not sure if it works.

Springsteen lets us know--both in his scripted-out concert rap and on the jacket of the album--that the Tom Joad he's referring to is not the communist-leaning character of Steinbeck's novel Grapes of Wrath but the watered-down Henry Fonda version of the Hollywood film version. It's a significant distinction.

In the album's title song, Springsteen takes on the voice of a homeless itinerant--"no job, no peace, no rest"--in search of salvation. He finds it in the fictional ghost, who promises: "Wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy/Wherever a newborn baby cries . . . /Wherever somebody's struggling to be free/Look in their eyes, Mom, you'll see me."

The Tom Joad mythology may have been fine for the Great Depression, but it was ultimately a racist myth, one that excluded the Mexicanos, Asians and African Americans who worked side by side in the fields with the Dust Bowl migrants--and who stayed in those fields long after the Dust Bowlers had been assimilated into middle America.

Springsteen seems to be somewhat aware of those contradictions, as his album includes several songs that focus on the plight of Mexican immigrants. His sympathies are well-meaning, but these are the first Springsteen songs I have ever heard that lack immediacy and connection--that don't sound authentic. They come off distant and hollow, like an A.P. Sunday feature story, and, indeed, Springsteen actually cites on his dustjacket a couple of L.A. Times articles as "sources" for these songs. His mispronunciation of Spanish words (and misspelling of Spanish names) are nothing less than shameful.

There's more than a little hypocrisy involved in Springsteen's current pose. I attended one of the Berkeley concerts and watched as Bay Area celebrities huddled around their stretch limos, while Springsteen's personal entourage arrived in a BMW convertible and a Cadillac sedan. The crowd was uniformly well-heeled (tickets were being scalped for as high as $300) and almost entirely of European descent (the only African Americans or Latinos I saw were working security or outside scalping tickets). In short, few of the people whom Springsteen was singing about were around to catch his performance.

This isn't to say there aren't some moments of greatness in the new songs--I especially like the dirge "Youngstown," which focuses on economic depression in the Rust Bowl--but, quite frankly, Springsteen's not doing anything that performers like John Prine, Tracy Chapman, Ry Cooder and Los Lobos haven't done more profoundly during the last decade while the Boss was asleep at the wheel. He's got some serious catching up to do.

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From the Dec. 7-14, 1995 issue of Metro

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