Monday, May 01, 2006

Michael Riley: The Curious Apocalypse of Bruce Springsteen

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 04/30/06

It comes down to two words, really.

Two words and the end of the world.

These two words form the moral and emotional center of Springsteen's new album, and perhaps more poignantly, for his current concert tour on behalf of that album. (The disc, titled "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions," consists of 13 covers of folk songs popularized by folk singer Pete Seeger.)

Those two words are part of the chorus to the gospel song cum civil rights anthem called "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize."

"Hold on," Springsteen sings again and again, and in doing so, he moves his traveling chautauqua/tent-revival show into the world of apocalyptic literature.

Most of us hear the word apocalypse and think of the visions conjured up in the last half of the Book of Daniel and in the Revelation of John: visions of world-ending battles, blood-soaked bodies stretching for miles. The skies darken and redden, filled with fierce armies of angels doing battle against monsters and dragons, while the stars fall and the world ends. It is theology as science fiction.

But those images almost miss the point of apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic literature is written during times of hardship and persecution of those who see themselves as God's people. The fantastic and befuddling images are code, meant to keep the true message out of the hands of the powers that be, those with the whips and chains.

And the true message is simply and inevitably this: The world seems to be spinning out of control. Justice is a myth, and life is filled with sin and pain misery. But God still is in charge of history, he still loves his children and is working even now to deliver them from evil and bring them home.

Apocalyptic literature is a tract for hard times, and the message at the heart of it is simply: "Hold on."

And that is the message Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band are evidently going to bring night after night on the current tour, which will make stops in New York and New Jersey in late June.

Most apocalyptic preachers give us images of the future. Springsteen's apocalypse is curious in that he has reached into the past, bringing songs over a century old to bear on the world of today and tomorrow.

He opened one of the recent rehearsal shows at Asbury Park's Convention Hall with "Mary, Don't You Weep," a song that says our tears will end once we realize that if God has delivered Moses and his his people in the past, he will surely do the same again for us: "This old world will rock," he sings, and a fire is coming.

Everybody assumes that the apocalypse is a world-shattering event. But its always the end of the world for somebody. People die every day.

Springsteen's work always has chronicled the lives and deaths of those with hard luck or hard hearts.

He continues those stories in the appropriated folk songs in his new work, and even as he reworks his own songs:

The steel driving John Henry drops dead from hubris or progress or a broken heart.

Jesse James is shot in the back by a friend.

Johhny 99 still is begging to be put to death.

Much of the music belies the sadness and anger of the words of the songs. It seems almost as if the promises of God are carried in the driving or light arrangements of the songs.

Springsteen often links songs together in concert, forming set pieces that carry the narrative he's telling onstage. This tour would seem to be no exception. At the show I attended, Springsteen followed his own "If I Should Fall Behind" (a duet with his wife Patti Scialfa, performed as a waltz) with the Irish anti-war song "Mrs. McGrath," in which a Mother (and widow?) faces her wounded and ruined soldier son. Even if love lasts and brings forth new life, the juxtaposition of the songs seems to say that the horrors of war can take it away of ruin it.

Springsteen and the band melded "Cadillac Ranch" with the chorus of "Mystery Train," at first glance an unwieldy mixing of metaphors, or at least a strange amalgam like the horned beasts of Revelation. But both songs are about the destination that awaits us all when our hearts beat no more. We get there in a fast car or an iron horse, but we get there — and those we love are carried off as well.

But the most striking combination of songs comes when Springsteen sings the Depression era "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" It is a litany of injustices in the world and the unfairness of life. The question is sadly rhetorical. But Springsteen provides an answer with his next song, the Sunday school favorite"Jacob's Ladder," based on a dream the Biblical patriarch had of a ladder descending from heaven and angels traveling up and down it.

Theologically, Jacob's dream vision says something about the closeness of heaven and earth, of God and humanity.

Jacob's ladder is a gift of grace, a gift of God. He has not forgotten nor forsaken Jacob or us. There is a way up. Note also that reaching God requires effort — "Every rung takes us higher," we sing.

"How can a poor man stand such times as these?" a weary world asks.

And "climbing Jacob's ladder" is the answer, which means answering God's call, accepting his gifts and working for justice and mercy he requires of his children.

The theme is repeated in the gospel like "My City of Ruins," which is filled with broken lives and blasted landscapes, but ending with a call to rise up, to pray and work.

That sense of working for the kingdom of God is muted in a lot of modern apocalyptic blather.

But some people know that the two are connected, which is why folk songs become gospel songs and union songs and civil rights songs.

At the close of the concert, Springsteen sang the old Dixieland favorite "When the Saints Go Marching In," and you would expect it to blow the roof off the place.

But no, it was a quiet, muted performance, alternating lines sung by Springsteen and current bandmate Mark Thompson:

"Some say this world of trouble," they sing, "is the only one we need/But I'm waiting for that morning, When the new world is revealed."

That new world is at the heart of apocalyptic literature — what happens the day after the day the world ends? — and the answer is a new world, a new paradise, where humanity gets it right at last and the Lord is never far away.

"I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in," the two men sing with yearning in their voices, and then gain strength and power from each other as they continue to sing, and their hope becomes palpable.

The song thus becomes a quiet prayer of sorts, a prayer asking for the presence of God in our lives and in our land and the strength to find him in unexpected places.

It is every prayer we ever pray, in some sense, and certainly the prayer that ends the Book of Revelation.

"Come, Lord . . ." John writes.

"I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in," we hear, and music is so good and fine that you get the feeling that that fine day could right around the corner.

Michael Riley is an ordained Baptist minister.

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