Early 90’s Springsteen and the Duality of Human Nature

The cold wet air could best be described as a “shitmist”.  On the way from Oklahoma City to Dallas.   In the back of the van trying to unlock why, even in the midst of his supposed slump, the early 90’s,  Bruce Springsteen was still able to create works that have staying power.  Strip him of his band, bring in a bunch of session players that lack any discernable personality, record things in a way that is somewhat stiff, and there is still something there if you pay attention. 

With every wish there comes a curse

Listen to the song With Every Wish from his Human Touch album.  It has a dark seductive power to it as it examines someone whose dreams fall short.  In fact I think it is because Springsteen never shies away from the hard truths of reality that his songs are more than one dimensional.  

Any life when viewed from the inside, is simply a series of defeats.
     –  George Orwell

In the midst of life we are in death, etc.
     – Morrissey

This is not to say Springsteen’s music lacks hope or love or joy.  In fact his music is often quite life affirming despite how often darkly realistic his lyrics can be.  They often deal with a loss of innocence as someone grows older and comes to terms with the harsh realities of the world.  But even in spite of this, his characters often carry on.  Although there are characters of his that are on the long slide to oblivion, many also often find love or are determined to bear hardship. 

Springsteen is too smart to ignore complexity.  There are no easy fixes.  Love in and of itself will not solve all problems.  Things can be made better, but there is hard work to do if it is to be so.  Dreams can just as easily circle back to haunt you.  He never forgets the passion of the teenager, but he also never ignores the struggle of adulthood.  It is this duality that gives his work power. 

This duality, this complexity in outlook, means that even his lesser albums have moments that are worth recommending.   I think his most misunderstood album, Human Touch,  has many such moments.  Although it does suffer somewhat from the production and choice of musicians, and it is not a front to back masterpiece, there are a lot of songs where the writing is really sharp.  He also writes a lot of great melodies that bring the lyrics to life, whereas the slightly more critically accepted Lucky Town is slightly too sepia-toned for me, despite a couple great songs. 

I think if you are a fan of his, like I am, and you have ignored this period, it is worth revisiting.  There are also some stellar out takes from this period on the Tracks box set, especially Gave it a Name.  It is clear that Springsteen had read Flannery O’Connor by this point, as he adopts some of her haunted Biblical language to deal with these adulthood struggles. 

As one of our country’s greatest artists, Springsteen is often reduced to a caricature, like many larger than life figures.  (He did himself no favors in the propaganda films serving as music videos that accompanied Born in the U.S.A.)  But he has remained someone that constantly searches for meaning in a fallen world, always aware of the light and dark in our national character.  

Writing Doesn’t Have to be Complicated

ORWELL

I just started reading Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.  I’m not very far into it.  It’s clear that she has a laser-like mind that is an excellent bullshit detector.  However, one thing that actually surprised me is how simple her writing is.  The ideas inherent in her work are complex, but they are delivered clearly and directly.  Occasionally she will use a German or Jewish word without explanation, and you would need to have at least a basic level of history, but aside from that her work is very easy to read.  It might not be as direct as Orwell, few are, but it’s not far behind. So many times really intelligent academics use language that is impenetrable to anyone outside of their field.  Sometimes, as having written a peer reviewed chapter in a book myself, the form dictates such language.  Often however, I think this is due to the individuals either inability to write clearly, just because you are a genius in biology does not make you a great writer, or because whoever has been in their field so long that they forget that most people don’t understand the basics of what they are talking about. But if you again read someone like Orwell, who said to never use a big word where a small one will do, you understand that extremely complex and powerful ideas can be conveyed with the simplest of language.  If you are writing poetry or some kind of fictional prose that has a poetic element to it, then I understand trying to be flowery with language.  However, if the main purpose of your writing is to convey some kind of idea, then there is simply no need to further complicate things with the kind of language that is used.  In the worst case scenario you are extremely limiting the amount of people that can understand the ideas inherit in your work, and in the best case, you are just simply boring the shit out of someone while they try to grasp whatever it is you are saying.

How Complex Should Your Argument Be?

I have written songs, blog posts, and a chapter in a book.  Many political issues are complex shades of gray,  although many want to reduce them to black and white.  In order to sway people to your favor should your writing be closer to a well formed argument that takes in different ideas and acknowledges that complexity, or should aim for propaganda that elicits attention to your cause?  Of course some of that depends on your aims, but I also think the form matters. 

If you are writing a book or a long form magazine article, you have the space to measure and weigh all the nuances of an issue.  While proving your point you can take the time to acknowledge the complexity of the situation you are dealing with. 

In a blog, which you want people to be able to read at any point in their busy day to day lives, I used to read blogs between calls at work, I feel that you have less space.  I feel as though you may want to acknowledge the complexity of a certain issue, it is better to provoke people to become interested in a topic, and then get them to think and follow up on their own.

In a pop song, which is usually no more than a few minutes, with some of those precious minutes giving time for the music itself, you should write as close to propaganda as possible.  Say something bold and immediate that cannot be overlooked.  You want something that jumps out of the speakers and grabs people by the throat.  Music is meant to be emotional and you should aim to create strong emotions whatever they may be.  Although clearly modern radio would disagree, I still believe it is important to ask of an artist the question, “What do you have to say?”  If someone is interested enough in an artist’s possibly nuanced position, they can spend the time to find out.  In music I love those artists that piss lightning and crap thunder.  Did I just quote Mick from Rocky? 

Complexity, Art, and Monsters

I feel a strange kinship with Michael Moore.  They’re trying to pit us against each other in the press, but it’s a hologram.  They really have got nothing to do with one another.  It’s just some kind of device, some kind of left-right.  He makes some salient points.  There was some very expert, elliptical editing going on.  However, what the hell are we doing in Iraq?  No one can explain to me in a reasonable manner that I can accept why we’re there, why we went there, and why we’re still there.  

The fear mongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys.  

I doubt very highly if, while reading the above quotes, you attributed them to Mel Gibson.  Jeez I get up to some strange shit at night.  Somehow at 1am I started watching Braveheart and then I went down the rabbit hole of IMDB.  I think Mel Gibson is an interesting figure because if you like his films, as I do, it brings up many interesting questions.  Should we separate the art from the artist?  Do we have the right to judge people’s whole lives on possibly momentary lapses of reason?  Aren’t people almost always more complex than our media portrays them?  I have defended him here before and these quotes again made me remember why I have.

Mel Gibson is someone that struggles from alcoholism and bi-polar disorder.  Having known people with both, I know that especially with alcoholism that people that are good and decent in most of their lives can turn into absolute monsters.  Most of us would say that alcoholism is a disease and that we should realize the good in people that are struggling against that disease and not condemn them completely for the monster that they may become.

I again am not supporting in anyway the awful things that Gibson has said.  He also has displayed extreme hubris by doing things like building a personal chapel on his own property.  Any of you that read this blog on a regular basis know that I believe in equality for all and also have politics that at times differ greatly from some of the things that Gibson has professed to.  However, what I do defend is his right to make art.  Whatever laws he has broken he has paid for.  I also read last night that after his drunk driving episode he was on probation for over four years where for several months he had to take classes four times a week.

If you look at our criminal justice system it punishes people long after they have served their debt to society.  Many poor people have trouble finding work after serving time or after receiving something like a DUI.  Someone like Gibson has the money that they don’t have to worry about those kinds of consequences.  He never has to work another day in his life if he wants to.  However, we have to be even handed in our justice system.  We should prosecute bankers that commit fraud just as we prosecute low level conmen.  Inversely if we are going to forgive low income offenders after they have paid their debt to society, which we do not but should, then we should also forgive someone like Gibson once they have paid theirs.

Also, I believe that one should try to separate art from the artist.  I am sure all of us own albums or watch movies that have saved our lives at certain times, where if we knew the personal behavior of their creators, might sicken us.  I remember hearing a priest one time on the radio talking about how art is often a thing created by people trying to heal themselves from their personal demons.  Because of that it is often an altruistic force that should be allowed to stand apart from its creator much of the time.  Therefore we should rightly condemn the anti-Semitism of someone like Wagner, but we also should not prevent ourselves from enjoying the extreme beauty of his music.

There is also a portion of our culture that is truly sick that capitalizes on the struggles of others.  On the high end this is represented by something like TMZ.  On the low end this is represented by something like Busted Magazine or any number of low level publications that print mug photos of our fellow citizens.  They capture people at their lowest and weakest moments and make sport of it for the rest of us.

People are complicated.  The world is complicated.  We live in a society that often values simplicity whether represented as left vs. right or good vs. evil.  There are times when we must make hard value judgments that come down on one side or the other of this divide.  However, when the world allows it, we should allow our feelings and interpretations of what we see to be, well, complex.

Different Kinds of Terrorists

After reading Larry Kirwan’s excellent book Green Suede Shoes and now having begun Brendan Behan’s already excellent Borstal Boys, I realize that those fighting for Irish independence were a diverse group.  If I screw this up please let me know.  I am trying to get the basic ideas out, and I realize the situation was probably even much more complicated than I am aware of.  Anyway, I know of at least two factions that were under the larger umbrella of the I.R.A.  There was a group that was slightly more right wing that was fighting for independence largely based on patriotism.  Then there was a left wing side of the rebellion that was fighting for social and economic justice, often for the working poor and the small farmers.  The two sides were united by a common enemy, but they were far apart in their beliefs about justice and economics.  I’m sure as I read more and more of the Behan book that I will begin to understand this situation much more.  It also is clear that those fighting against them lumped them all in together. 

We are fighting against terrorism in many different countries.  That means that there are different factions in different countries and within the same country.  The Taliban and Hamas would be two examples of two different groups alone.  I personally admit full ignorance in not knowing what these different groups, and I’m sure many other groups, believe in and are fighting for in relationship to one another.  The Palestinians have a very different goal than the Taliban.  Although the tactic is terrorism anytime someone blows up a bomb in a café, when we lump everyone into a large group of “terrorists” and “religious extremists” I believe we are probably going to royally screw up this War on Terror, as if we already haven’t in many ways.  During the Bush years we just seemed all too willing to rush head on in a country without understanding the situation on the ground. 

We also allow ourselves to get too easily whipped up and distracted by politicians that use these emotions against us. I am sure, or at least I hope, that many of the people that are actually dealing with these regions know the difference between these countries and political groups within these countries.  However, I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that our media does not do a good job in educating us as citizens as to why these people have cause to fight us.  Might a certain percentage be closer to “freedom fighters” than “terrorists?”  I know this idea might make some people’s head explode.  However, I want to beat the people that truly threaten our fellow citizens or that even threaten innocent life in countries that we already have a presence in.  Do we not stand a better chance at combating global terrorism if we do our best to understand the complexities involved?