Monday, April 30, 2012

Land of Hope and Dreams

DT and I have very little in common. One of the very few things we do share is this: we are both befuddled by the fact that a lot of our fellow Bruce Springsteen fans don’t really care for his newer stuff. In fact, some of the most devoted of his hardcore followers have seen him hundreds of times, from back in New Jersey dives before he even had a record deal. They’ll still angle to see him a dozen times per tour and buy each and every release. But they don’t really like his new stuff. And in some cases, when I say "new stuff" I’m talking about anything from the last twenty-five years.

I can sorta kinda almost relate, in least in theory. I’ve been thinking for a long time about the way we listen to music and how I believe it changes as we get older, and I suspect much of that ties into this. But I can’t truly relate, because the best of Springsteen's stuff over the past decade and a half is just stunning, an almost unprecedented catalog in all of rock and roll history.

Springsteen's got so many gems, many of which DT and/or I will hopefully get to eventually. But perhaps the very best of them all is "Land of Hope and Dreams," a song that sort of sums up in just a few minutes the post-1980 Bruce Springsteen the way "Born to Run" did the pre-1980 Bruce Springsteen.

Musically, it’s magnificent. Kicking off with The Mighty Max’s patented drums, it’s soon joined by Bruce’s mildly distorted guitar line, pure rock and roll. Next comes the late Danny Federici’s organ, bringing with it a hint of gospel, and then finally the entire band kicks in. Of particular note is Roy Bittan’s piano—always tasteful and technically perfect, his lines here are especially interesting, with his almost contrapuntal playing lending a subtle darkening of tone. And perhaps the nicest touch is the most basic—the tambourine played by The Big Man. Syncopated, it gives just the slightest hint of a hip-hop groove and opens the entire arrangement up.

Every single time I listen to the first fifteen seconds of this song I marvel that it’s not a staple of rock and roll radio, the way "Rosalita" and "Born to Run" are. Mainly it reminds me of the promise The Band held and occasionally delivered, but never, to my ears, more gloriously than  this. "Land of Hope and Dreams" may not be Bruce Springsteen’s best song. But he has never released a better one.

Interestingly, "Land of Hope and Dreams"—unlike "Blinded by the Light" or "Rosalita" or "Hungry Heart" or "Born in the U.S.A."—doesn't really have a traditional chorus, a relative rarity for a Bruce Springsteen song…but it is  something it has in common with both "Born to Run" and "Thunder Road."

The lyrics, though, are pure Bruce, filled with promise yet never denying that hard times led to this place and that there’s still hard work ahead:
Grab your ticket and your suitcase
Thunder's rolling down the tracks
You don't know where you're goin'
But you know you won't be back
Darlin' if you're weary
Lay your head upon my chest
We'll take what we can carry
And we'll leave the rest

Big wheels rolling through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams
The train imagery is, of course, pure Americana and has anchored countless blues, country, gospel, folk and rock songs, from "Mystery Train" and "Johnny B. Goode" on up to and including the late Curtis Mayfield's great "People Get Ready," lines of which are actually interpolated, and grounds the entire thing securely in the American tradition. But note, too, the legendary (mythical?) American tradition of a nation of people on the move, pilgrims, if you will. They don't know where they're going—but they know they won't be back. Once upon a time it meant looking for the eastern shore. Later it meant the midwest, or west coast, and later still The Great Migration largely (but far from entirely) northward. Here it's clearly figurative, symbolic, but no less powerful.
I will provide for you
And I'll stand by your side
You'll need a good companion for
This part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there'll be sunshine
And all this darkness past
That's an interesting bit right there. The most obvious interpretation is that he's exhorting his companion to let today be the last day she has sorrows, but nearly as obvious is the implication that it'll be the last day, full stop. Given the song's strong gospel roots, that's not entirely surprising, although it would make it somewhat sui generis in Springsteen's oeuvre.
Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams
Which would make Springsteen's vision of heaven...basically middle America. Which is so delightfully Springsteenian, albeit far more in the stereotypical idea of Springsteen's catalog than the much grittier reality of most of his work.

But taking the lyrics at face value, what's even more striking is the faith Springsteen still has in the promised land, a land he first sang about as a young man back in 1978—or, rather, not the promised land, but a promised land. Similarly, he doesn't look to find the land of hope and dreams, merely a land of home and dreams. And he's still searching for it, after all these years, after all the heartbreaks and amazing triumphs. He doesn’t claim to have gotten there, or even to have caught sight of it yet. Yet he’s positive that there’s a way to get there—but not just a way; note that he wants to meet there, meaning each voyager finds his or her own path—and that he and all who care to will get there eventually, with help and by helping, and that there’ll be room for all who are interested in making the journey.
This train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls
This train—dreams will not be thwarted
This train—faith will be rewarded
This train—hear the steel wheels singin'
This train—bells of freedom ringin'
This train carries broken-hearted
This train—thieves and sweet souls departed
This train carries fools and kings
This train—all aboard

This train—dreams will not be thwarted
This train—faith will be rewarded
This train—hear the steel wheels singin'
This train—bells of freedom ringin'
And who'll be making this trip with him and his loved one? A motley crew if ever there was one. Saints and sinners, whores and gamblers, fools and kings, losers, winners, thieves—lost souls all. In other words, the place he's searching for sounds just like the America we all learned about growing up in school. And in the case of Bruce Springsteen, famous lapsed Catholic, populated largely by the disreputable but not irredeemable people a certain very famous long-haired, bleeding heart liberal hippie philosopher prominently featured in the New Testament chose to hang out with. It even looks something like the odd assortment of individuals which make up the E Street Band. (Not to assume about their collective moral turpitude or nothin'.)

In the end, Springsteen’s sure, dreams and faith will—in fact, must—prevail. He's no naïve waif; he has, as he's sung, been around a time or two. And yet. And yet he still believes. Somehow, at the end of every hard-earned day, he still finds some reason to believe. He still has dreams. He still has faith. And that’s just one more reason Bruce Springsteen is my hero and why I wish every schoolchild learned this song in first grade, why I wish it were handed out to each and every new immigrant to our nation and why, as you walked into the polling place each election day, you were handed a copy of the lyrics. 

Dreams will not be thwarted and faith will be rewarded. 

All aboard. 

1 comment:

  1. Great take! Always loved this song. Trying to take it to church, but I doubt I can do it justice.