by Carl Wilson
If you’d asked me last week for a shorthand analysis of my favourite Bruce Springsteen album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, I would have called it his response to punk rock – inspired by it to a new rawness of sound, but on the other hand rebuking it for pitting subculture against mainstream rather than common man against plutocrat.
As an American, anarchy was all too present to him – the anarchy of the Badlands of Terence Malick’s movie and his own song. Rather than transgression for its own thrilling sake, Bruce wanted to betray betrayal and get fidelity; to sin against his country’s original sin and create virtue. Beyond contradiction to dialectic.
But this week I watched a new documentary about the making of the album. Turns out that though punk and politics were factors, Bruce was responding to a lot of other things. Namely, he and his former manager were suing each other, over the contract he’d naively signed that gave the manager control over how he made his records and half-ownership of his songs. This kept the band out of the studio for a long, frustrating time. It kept them from following up his first big hit, “Born to Run,” at the point conventional wisdom in the mid-1970s said they must or risk career death. He was terrified of losing everything, then jubilant when he could finally get back to work.
This part’s not politics. It’s careerism. There’s a daisychain of desire connecting Bruce to the elite. After years as a struggling artist he’d quite quickly become a rock star. He wanted to stay a rock star. All of which is in the songs: “Poor man wants to be rich, rich man wants to be king.” But he knew he had to be wary of success as much as failure, of becoming his own enemy: “A king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything” (a duality always inherent in his nickname, “the Boss”). He talks in the documentary about the danger of losing yourself, the spark that made you do the work, made you who you are –not just as a human being, one understands, but as a rock star too.
He could see only one safeguard: He had to grow up.
Adulthood, he felt he’d learned from his parents, is a state in which you’ve learned what you have to compromise (song after song refers to paying the price, the cost) and what you must not, while giving up the fantasy that you can dodge compromise altogether: “When the promise is broken, you go on living,” he sings in the song that gives the documentary its title, one of many he cut from the record, dumbfounding his collaborators: When a song sounded like it could be an overshadowing hit, he’d cut it for the sake of the whole, giving for example “Because the Night” to Patti Smith, which became her sole radio success. Perhaps this was the adult thing to do. (A double-disc collection of those songs comes out in November. [Yes, please.])
Springsteen was moving away from kids like the lovers in “Because the Night,” who want escape – the heroes of standard rock’n’roll politics, even in punk. He turned towards the viewpoints of people like his parents – his father went deaf (symbolically enough) working on a factory floor – or those even more damaged and hopeless. It wasn’t the guitar sound or the shredded larynx that made Darkness seem almost more punk than punk. Its commitment to reality came with a bitter willfulness that was bigger than nihilistic escapism, the way Hank Williams’ does (another new discovery for Bruce at the time).
Like his earlier work, though, and in fidelity to rock, it still sought redemption in love. When Bruce had two versions of “Racing in the Street,” one just about the two drag-racing buddies and another that adds a painful love story, he asked a longtime female fan as well as Steve Van Zandt which one they liked better. They both said, “The one with the girl.” Bruce was surprised Van Zandt said so and asked why. “Because that’s how life is: You’ve got a friend, the girl comes along, then you don’t have that friend any more.”
At the end of the song, the couple plans to “ride to the sea, and wash these sins off our hands.” The abandoned Sonny has merged into the girl the singer’s somehow made hate her life. In the film, Bruce says the point was that you couldn’t get rid of sins, only figure out how to live with them. How to be faithful to your betrayals. Beyond contradiction to dialectic.
I’m sure he’d be surprised to be compared to Springsteen, but Jacob Wren’s Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed is a novel that seems to revisit many of the same problems a Christ’s age later.
Jacob’s a Canadian practitioner of experimental theatre of a sort, and a friendly acquaintance of mine. He’s another heir to punk, particularly to the communitarian-anarchist and more self-consciously avant-garde, dadaist strains of it that would develop in the 1980s, when he was getting started as a playwright prodigy with the wonderfully adolescent pseudonym “Death Waits.” (I know Jacob Wren isn’t his birth name either, though I don’t know what that is.)
He gained a lot of notoriety around Toronto at that time, and the traces of that child-star-type brush with fame continue to haunt his work – like Bruce he wants both to hold onto success and reject it, although probably in inverse proportions. He does his best to be no one’s Boss, even when he is directing a theatre company.
I’ve read this novel twice now and have trouble reaching a full verdict, but I find it very compelling. It’s set in the very near future, or perhaps an alternate now, and centres around a group of people who have decided to hold weekly meetings to discuss political questions. Specifically the questions, rather than the answers. They feel the left has gone wrong somewhere, stuck between emotional irrational reaction and well-worn quietistic analysis. They think that if they talk in circles, rigorously, critically, long enough they might somehow break through these impasses – political discussion as a kind of Zen meditation. I’d like to attend these meetings, but in themselves they wouldn’t make a very good novel, of course.
What begins to spin out of them, instead of never-attained political nirvana, is a love triangle between a political philosopher, a doctor-without-borders and a nondescript participant who strikes me as the main viewpoint character, though the actual p.o.v. shifts from chapter to chapter. The affair strains the whole group, but it’s especially disastrous for the three of them, who end up separately turning to sexual (mis?)adventure, an expatriate life of fraud and blackmail, and an improbably plausible career as a reality-TV radical activist. Meanwhile the society around them is descending into nearly open fascism, putting all of them in a danger that both attracts and terrifies them.
Like Springsteen’s, this work is about the problem of adulthood and what compromise consists of, and the meaning of fidelity – personal, romantic/sexual, idealistic. It has a more tragicomic sense than Bruce’s and lacks his heroic dimension, as seems inevitable three decades further on in post-industrial capitalism. But it certainly does deal with chains of desire and ambition, and how (or is it whether) to transcend mere contradiction, mere negation.
The question is what the darkness is on the edge of town: Global political exploitation, or the personal darkness that makes us both prey to and complicit with it, and on which nonetheless we have to make our stand? Both of course. But Jacob’s characters are middle-class educateds in despair over injustice, while Bruce’s are closer to the actual sufferers of injustice. What seems amiss in Jacob’s title is that his characters are not dispossessed in the usual sense (in interviews he’s speculated that what he means is that he’s without possession of a viable political position or stake) and they don’t really get any kind of revenge.
The story in some ways seems to sate an urge to experience a much more brutal and vicious western regime to stand against, for capitalism to become the caricature its most conspiratorially minded critics imagine. The title should be something closer to Dispossession Fantasies of the Politically Depressed. If there weren’t a darkness on the edge of town, Wren’s characters might be forced to invent it. Bruce’s version is more surely not made but found.
The paradox here is of course self-conscious. I doubt Jacob thinks we’re close to a state in which writing a book about non-monogamy, or even professors sleeping with their students, would get you disappeared and tortured, no matter how many Tea Party Republicans get into Congress (or lefty bureaucrats to university administrations). Much less if you’re living in Montreal.
So there’s a satirical spirit. But the writer Wren reminds me of most in this book, Wallace Shawn, has a much surer hand with that kind of escalation of absurdities into a harrowing thought experiment. I waver about how much to credit Wren’s relative messiness – whether it’s an admirable attempt to complicate such methods further, or just plain messiness. (Though it’s certainly praise even to make the comparison.)
On the other hand as he’s gone on Springsteen’s projective identification with the downtrodden – who’ve become less Jersey workers, more dust-bowl John Steinbeck characters – has become less and less credible. He wavers between fidelity to that tough realist voice on Darkness and rock-star do-gooder sentimentality. In that sense Jacob’s got a more adult, sustainable fix on himself. In the evasions they each still make, there’s that tension between Peter Pan romanticism and the cynical ruin it can become (as Joni Mitchell memorably warned in “The Last Time I Saw Richard”).
Yet both these artists make stirring leaps at a near-insurmountable wall. As they say about death and comedy (and the parallel’s pretty accurate): Punk is easy, adulthood is hard. I’d love to hold a meeting to talk about it. Or a rock show to shout about it. Or a bed to whisper it in. I’ll be there on time, and I’ll pay the cost.