Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Best of Bruce Springsteen -- "The Ghost of Tom Joad," live with Tom Morello

Music on Sunday @ The Reaction


About a month ago, Richard and I wrote a post on Bruce Springsteen. Richard found a website that ranked, in its view, Springsteen's Top 10 songs, and then I offered my own Top 20 list.

The problem, looking back, is that I did it pretty much off the top of my head. I hadn't listened to The Boss in quite some time (a song here or there, but that's it), and the result was a preliminary list with some songs in the wrong place (for me), not to mention a couple of rather embarrassing omissions (e.g., "The Wrestler"). I'd like to rectify that now.

While on vacation recently, we had a car with Sirius satellite radio, and, as you may know, there's an E-Street channel -- all Springsteen all the time. We listened to it a lot, and, since then, my iPod has been all Springsteen as well. Well, almost. Let's just say I've been listening to him a lot, more so than I have in years, and it's been like reconnecting with an old flame (in a good way). I loved Springsteen in high school and then came back to him on and off over the years. This is serious now. I love him again.

So.

Here's my Top 10:

1. The Ghost of Tom Joad
2. Streets of Philadelphia
3. My Hometown
4. Youngstown
5. The Rising
6. Secret Garden
7. The River
8. Tunnel of Love
9. Atlantic City
10. Brilliant Disguise

Of course, I reserve the right to revise this list as well. A lot depends on my mood. Is "Born in the U.S.A." a great song? Yes, but I don't always want to listen to it. Is The Ghost of Tom Joad, with the title track and the wonderful "Youngstown" his best album? Yes, maybe, often I think so. But sometimes I want the earlier stuff. Etc., etc.

But I'm comfortable with "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and "Streets of Philadelphia" in the top two spots. They're both amazing songs.

I included the video to the latter in our post last month. Now let me include a live clip of the former. It may be the best thing I've ever heard from Springsteen -- live with Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine, which did a cover of the song).

Seriously. The. Best. Ever. It's awesome. Maybe it lacks the quieter intensity of the album version, and maybe I can't really choose between the two -- again, it depends what I'm in the mood for -- but... wow. This is truly incredible.

Tom Joad came out in 1995. It lacked the instant-hit qualities of its immediate predecessors, Born in the U.S.A. (1984), Tunnel of Love (1987), Human Touch (1992), and Lucky Town (1992), not to mention the restless energy of his older classics, Born to Run (1975), Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), and The River (1980), and the more grandiose sentiments of recent efforts like The Rising (2002) and Working on a Dream (2009). Tom Joad has more in common with Nebraska (1982) and perhaps Devils & Dust (2005) than with these other works. (All three are folk-roots albums -- it's like he needs to do one every ten years.)

If Nebraska was a response to the early Reagan years, with capitalism and cruelty ascendent, and if his more recent albums have been responses, to a great extent, to the Bush-Cheney years, with the Iraq War, the new national security state, and brutal Republican class warfare on the poor, if not on the non-rich entirely, Tom Joad was all about the other side, the dark side, the underside of the Clinton-era economic boom of the '90s, back when things seemed so bright, when there was so much optimism, between the fall of the Soviet Empire and 9/11, when it looked like technology could solve all our problems and peace and prosperity were here to stay.

There was peace and prosperity for many, no doubt, but the paradise was an illusion, a delusion. For many, it wasn't real at all. Life was still a nightmare, even if the Dow Jones was skyrocketing and American hegemony seemed at hand. The bubble swelled, profits went through the roof, and champagne flowed down the streets. We know how that ended. The bubble burst. But even at the time, there were countless millions who weren't part of it, who didn't prosper and who for any number of reasons remained on, or where kept on, the margins of a society that had no use for them, that didn't give a damn about them, or that outright hated them.

This is what Tom Joad is about -- those on the margins. Immigrants, laborers, the homeless, the destitute, the disadvantaged and disenfranchised, the helpless and the hopeless. Springsteen tells their stories, and the result is an album as moving as any in the history of American music, an album that is political, an album that is angry and rebellious, but in an understated way, not resigned to fate but also not aggressively violent, an album that is deeply humanitarian, an album that asks us to care, to be more genuinely human.

Tom Joad is strong from start to finish, but, to me, the title track and "Youngstown" stand out. Here, below, are Springsteen and Morello performing "The Ghost of Tom Joad" with The E-Street Band on the 2007-08 Magic Tour. (You can find it, along with a video, on the Magic Tour Highlights EP.)

You can watch another performance of the song here. Here's how Springsteen introduced the song, in the waning days of the George W. Bush presidency:

The roots of rock roll all the way back through Bob Dylan, through Hank Williams, through Pete Seeger, through Woody Guthrie, through Lead Belly, through the fathers of folk music, and people who were engaged in, and who wrote about, what was going on in the world around them. All of us here tonight are fortunate to be in this room. If you pick up the newspapers, you see millions of people out of work, you see a bloodfight over decent health care for our citizens, and you see people struggling to hold onto their homes. If Woody Guthrie were alive today, he'd have a lot to write about, high times on Wall Street and hard times on Main Street.

The spirit of Tom Joad, and of Springsteen's "Tom Joad" is universal, just as the struggle for justice is eternal. We are reminded of this in Canada by the recent death of Jack Layton, a man who stood for, and fought for, those on the margins, those without power, those without much of a voice, those who are so easily dismissed, and so commonly forgotten, in our hyper-capitalist, hyper-consumerist society. 

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
Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin' hand
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you'll see me."

Immensely powerful. With a message we all should heed -- and embrace as our own.

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2 Comments:

  • I just love The Ghost of Tom Joad. Bruce did an acoustic version of it on the 1999-2000 tour that was just absolutely beautiful. It really opened my eyes to what a beautiful song it was.

    The version with Morello is amazing in a totally different way. This is what is great about songwriters like Springsteen and Dylan - their songs can get treated in ways that are 180 degrees opposite that they are still great songs.

    But "My Hometown" in the top 10? Seriously? That song is a SERIOUS show-killer. Just sucks the life out of a concert.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 9:31 PM  

  • I'm not sure if I've heard that version. I'll have to try to find it.

    Morello does a version with Rage Against the Machine that's, well, interesting, though I prefer the version by the Irish-American folk group Solas. Lovely with a female singer.

    You may be right about "My Hometown." I really like it, but I can see how it would be a show-killer. Again, a lot depends on my mood. I think I was in a fairly contemplative mood when I put this list together. Normally it'd be a bit lower, I suppose. Probably still Top 10, though, even if it's not a great concert song.

    And, let's face it, there's not a whole lot of difference in quality between most of these songs. I could easily have put "Born in the U.S.A.," "Jungleland," "Darkness on the Edge of Town," "Human Touch," "Born to Run," and "I'm on Fire" in the Top 10, if not several others. And just when I think I prefer one "era" over the others, I find something special elsewhere. That's so much of the appeal. He's such a great songwriter and has spanned so much time that while there's certainly consistency to his songs there's also a lot of difference. If you want folk, you've got "Tom Joad," for example. But if you want something more pop, you're got "Dancing in the Dark," for example.

    I know people who say they only like a certain part of his music -- usually the early stuff. That's great, but how can you not like so much of the rest?

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 10:00 PM  

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