BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN'S new album is called "The Ghost of Tom Joad." The title should give everything away (it's meant to). The trick, in listening to it, is not to try to enjoy it -- but to resist hanging yourself.
If you can survive, say, three cuts, you might get through.
That's how bleak it is. It makes Bergman look like Barney. The essential anthem singer of the '70s and '80s, Springsteen is singing hymns this time. Hymns about death and loss of hope and futility of dreams. Hymns about the dispossesed, the despised, the immigrant, the poor. The new Okies, the new Tom Joads.
In the title cut, Springsteen lets you know right away where he's headed:
Waiting for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box 'neath the underpass.
The music is as disquieting as the lyrics.
The melodies barely qualify as melodies at all.
The voice is spare. Actually, it would need a lot of boosting to get to spare.
No foot stomping, no hand clapping, no finger snapping, no hooting, no blowfish.
Acoustic guitar. Muted drums, if any drums at all. No rock. Very little roll. Not much Broooooooce.
In his concert tour backing the album -- he's playing only small venues -- he begs the audience not to sing along. He wants the people to, well, listen.
It's like church, only quieter.
And yet, I'll be there tomorrow in D.C., where he's playing for two nights. I'll be there for a couple of reasons. One is that Bruce is the greatest American rocker of all time, or at least since the early Elvis. The other is that the album, while not quite great, is quite good.
And not only good, it's important.
Springsteen will be playing acoustic guitar in Washington where the politicians are playing with people's lives. You can bet he won't be playing to the audience alone. He'll be playing for Newt Gingrinch, too.
As you might have heard, Congress is busy trying to dismantle much of the New Deal. Maybe the old ways have failed. Maybe not. But, in either case, the poor -- and there have always been poor -- again find themselves blamed for being poor. Where's Dickens when you need him?
Springsteen will have to do. Like his hero, Woody Guthrie, or another, John Steinbeck, or yet another, Bob Dylan, Springsteen doesn't write off life's losers. He gives them life through his words, instead.
This isn't new for Springsteen. He's been doing it from the beginning. Sometimes, though, the power of the music obscured the message. This was never more true than with his mega-album, "Born in the U.S.A.," which made Springsteen a star. The title song was appropriated by Ronald Reagan in an election year as an example of morning-in-America exuberance. He didn't listen to the words. The song begins this way:
Born down in a dead man's town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that's been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up.
Over the past 10 years or so, Springsteen learned an important lesson: It's hard to be a working-class hero when you've got $40 million in the bank. He fell in love at 40, moved to a mansion in L.A., and wrote not very interesting love songs that made for not very interesting albums.
In "The Streets of Philadelphia," a song about AIDS, he found a new way to deliver something like the old Bruce. In "The Ghost of Tom Joad," he refuses to let the music get in his way. He has something to say, and the only way he knows how to say things is through songs.
And so, if he couldn't be a working class hero anymore, Bruce decided to learn new things. He studied. He read. In his album notes, he credits actual books as source material. He read about those crossing the border from Mexico, about Vietnamese fishermen and the hate they meet in Galveston, about the men living 'neath the underpass. He feels their pain. His songs speak of that pain.
And of the ghost of Steinbeck's famous Okie, Tom Joad:
Now Tom said, Mom, wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I'll be there.