Friday, August 17, 2007

Bruce Springsteen's Magic, Due October 2

I generally come close to putting my hands over my ears before a Springsteen album is released because I want to experience the album as this complete statement, in a fresh way, when it's released. And I'm sure I will try not to read too much about it before I hear it this time too. But, it's funny, I wrote the longest thing I wrote about the Seeger Sessions right after I heard the first song. This time, I feel compelled to write a blog based on the title.

I think the way Bruce uses titles is gutsy--and it's almost always the thing that divides people right off the bat, naming elephants in the living room, promising something bold to live up to and suggesting that we approach everything from an angle very few others are likely to take. It's both why some people recognize he's raising the stakes and why some dismiss everything he does as some kind of cheese. Most creative folks play it too safe and say almost nothing in the process.

It's why titles flummox me in general. For instance, my novel, Night Bird, has a diminutive title, one of many I chose from that also seemed fairly small. There's some good reasons for that--it's a short book for starters. But it is, explicitly, a book about magic, a theme dealt with directly over and over again, and it never would have occured to me to simply stick that in the foreground. I mean, it's not about "magicians" and it's not typical fantasy, but it's about a little group of Okies--secretaries and strippers and corporate axmen, security guards and teachers, all dying for second chances, romance and redemption; little girls surviving that context with dreams and imagination; folks who use "magic" to exploit the other characters' dreams and folks who use "magic" to strengthen others around them and build something new.

I'm not seriously thinking about taking Bruce's title, but it might have worked. It certainly gets me thinking in a fresh way about the focus of what I have done and why I have these issues. I find myself thinking about how much of what I do I get from Bruce's music in particular. It's that underexplored thread that I keep coming back to and that connects his early boardwalk mystique to that sense of opened boundaries with The Rising and what came after, as well as that dream of "The Promised Land" or that plea to "Dream, Baby, Dream" that have closed recent tours.

I think it's something of what makes a lot of fans take sides on the early 90s releases of Human Touch and Lucky Town, too. HT traded a lot in the ineffable, the magical, turning to soul, pop and rock bravado to do that, while Lucky Town stuck closer to Bruce's more seemingly "serious" realism. Still, there's nothing simple about that--considering it's a Lucky Town song he used to perform with arms outstretched as a great black bird (I had some kind of epiphany writing this when I realized that was my night bird).

The picture being sent out with the press reminds me of Houdini, that seems more than right. Talk about a walking contradiction. A man who became something of a folk hero (actually Chaplin size huge, I think) keeping a paradox on the table--he celebrated human potential by doing the impossible and insisting it was a trick. He became a walking metaphor of human potential, particularly for liberation, during the Depression. My sense of that is that it worked so well for Houdini because he was genuinely reconciling what appealed to him and inspired him with what angered him and what he saw exploiting others. Bruce recognizes and calls attention to the foot in both of those worlds that defines the artist and the artist's relationship to his audience. How dare he put that on the table? How could Bruce Springsteen not?

It's where the real keys to the mystery of how we get there from here lie. It has something to do with recognizing the value of that power we can't define and harnassing that energy--or if not harnassing it, working with it--to get to what, right now, seems impossible. On various tours I've found myself turning to metaphors like seances and rain dances, conjuring and, most of all, lock picking (back to Harry), to describe what I see him doing on stage. It's all about working at the limits of what's known to reach a vision of what's possible.

It's the task before all creative people, right now more than ever.


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