jessie cole

novelist/writer

Tag: bruce springsteen

Words and Music

When pondering inspiration and where it is found, the cross-pollination that occurs amongst artistic genres always comes to mind. Art works that inspire writers, novels that inspire plays, plays that inspire films … the list goes on. Think of novelist Tracy Chevalier and her meditative take on Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. But one of the least talked about of these artist-muse relationships is the interaction between music and writing.

A couple of years ago I read Paul Kelly’s mongrel memoir How to Make Gravy, and what struck me most forcibly about it was the breadth and depth of Kelly’s reading life. At seventeen Kelly was reading Herman Hesse, Arthur Rimbaud, Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, by nineteen it was Walt Whitman and Jean Paul Sartre, with a bit of Nietzsche on the side. He spent large chunks of his twenty-fourth year lying on his bed reading Marcel Proust.

The opening line of the memoir alludes to Homer’s Odyssey, and the references to literature just keep coming. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Henry James, Sir Walter Scott, Emile Zola, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth, Raymond Carver,as well as more contemporary writers like Nick Hornby, Tim Winton, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Ondantje, Robert Drewe, Peter Carey, Jeffery Euguenides and Gao Xingjian. Don’t even get me started on the poets! It seemed to me that Kelly’s book was, among other things, a meditation on the place of reading in an artist’s life. In this case, a songwriter.

Paul Kelly

Paul Kelly talks about the way songwriters continuously ‘borrow’ from one another – “Ever since Homer’s repeated use of ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, ‘ wine dark sea’, and other formulas in The Odyssey, songwriters have been drawing on the communal pool of phrases and images available to anyone with ears.” He follows this up with – “Some people continue to be surprised by this – those who have notions of the artist as some kind of self-dredger, dragging pieces of originality up from the depths of their soul.” And then the somewhat cheeky – “Self expression is overrated, though. There’s so much of it around these days …”

Reading Kelly’s memoir, it was interesting to imagine the young Paul devouring all those literary classics, and how they must have swirled about in his subconscious, coming to light – sometimes years later – in mysterious ways. He wrote the song ‘Everything’s Turning to White’ – a retelling of the Raymond Carver short story ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ – five years after reading it. When he got back to checking the story, he was startled by how exactly the details of story and song matched up. Kelly explains how some of the time this borrowing is subconscious – “Writing, though it may involve a lot of thinking, is never entirely under our conscious control.”

As with ‘Everything’s Turning to White,’ sometimes these cross-genre inspirations can bear wonderful fruit. Singer songwriter Gyan’s musical interpretation of the poems of Michael Leunig – Billy the Rabbit – is another tantalising example. In this case, Gyan turned to the work of Michael Leunig as solace when she was feeling burnt out. She spent twelve months putting a host of his poems to music. Eventually a friend who had worked with Leunig encouraged her to send the songs to him. She did, and Leunig loved them. And there began an unusual mixed-media collaboration, with the two of them giving performances involving Gyan singing while Leunig drew.

But what about how songs influence other art forms? A fan of the 1999 film by Paul Thomas Anderson – Magnolia, years ago I bought the movie soundtrack, and discovered within the liner notes a rather unusual dedication. It seems the whole movie was inspired by the songs of Aimee Mann. As Anderson explains – “Like one would adapt a book for the screen, I had the concept of adapting Aimee’s songs into a screenplay.” He gives details of how the process worked – “For instance, in my original motion picture screenplay, Claudia says ‘Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?’ I must come clean. I did not write that line. Aimee Mann wrote that line as the opening of her song, ‘Deathly,’ and I wrote backwards from that line. It equals the story of Claudia. It equals the heart of Magnolia. All stories from the movie were written branching off from Claudia, so one could do the math and realise that all stories come from Aimee’s brain, not mine.” Thomas ends the CD liner notes with: “So here it is, the perfect memento to remember the movie – or you can look at the movie as the perfect memento to remember the songs that Aimee has made.”

When I first read this dedication I was a few years out of high school, crazy about music but not a musician, interested in writing but managing nothing more than a few occasional scribbles in my diary. It struck me as wondrous that someone could hear one line of a song and a whole movie might spring from the earth like a blossoming tree. I’d never heard of Aimee Mann, but I was dazzled by the potential in this kind of relationship.

Fast forward ten years or so and I was writing. The idea for my novel Darkness on the Edge of Town hit me late at night like a whack to the back of the head. It wasn’t something I pondered; all of a sudden it was just there. I was more than three quarters through writing it before I realised how distinctly (in my mind at least) it echoed the early work of Bruce Springsteen. His song ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ seemed to hold all the nuances of my main character’s voice, even though I’d never consciously thought about the song at all. At that point I began to consider the influence of songs on the work I was doing. Before I started writing Darkness on the Edge of Town I’d come out of a very bewildering love affair and was obsessively listening to the Lucinda William’s album West. It must be said that listening to the raw and heartrending Lucinda Williams after having your heart broken is not the wisest of musical choices, and in an effort to buoy myself I’d turned to Springsteen, who has the knack of imbibing his music with a kind of hard won optimism. It was as though the work of the two musicians had somehow morphed in my brain. Lucinda’s sorrow and pain with Bruce’s tentative redemption. And the result was a novel, a strange hybrid of musical influences, but somehow all my own.

I’m not the only writer who feels awed by the power of music. When asked about the musical references scattered throughout his novels, Jonathan Franzen answered – “I’m more envious of music than of any other art form – the way a song can take your head over and make you feel so intensely and so immediately. It’s like snorting powder, it goes straight to your brain.”

But I’ll leave the last words to Kelly himself. In his memoir he says – “Writing songs is a magpie business. You build your nest and fetch and carry to it the bright shiny things that catch your eye. You don’t care where they come from just so long as they fit just so … New life begins when strange things connect.”

First Published in the Northerly, July-August, 2103

Man of Constant Solace

There wasn’t much my parents were sure about, back in the day. I was a child of the 1970s and experimentation was key. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ were social constructs, money-making was passé, and polyamory was the new frontier. Anything could happen and probably did.

There was only one thing my parents believed in – one firm truth – and that was the mystery and power of music. My parents worshipped music like Baptists worship God. Their tastes were far-reaching, and sometimes in great opposition, but they were united in their fanaticism and the continuity of their praise. Whole pockets of my childhood were marked by obsessive listening. The summer of Tim Buckley. The winter of the Velvet Underground. Limitless years of Bob Dylan. Bruce Springsteen for hope. Neil Young for despair. And when things got tough, small snippets of Judy Garland, and constant late night reruns of a desperate sounding John Lennon. My parents used music to soothe their pains and express their troubles, and there were times when I was a child when it hurt just to step inside the chapel.

Bob and Bruce

Having grown up in such a faith it is hard to view these musicians as anything but religious icons. And not only that, as known entities. I attended my first Bob Dylan concert at three months old, and have seen the man perform almost every time he’s been here since. Even though he was up on stage and I was in the audience, he’s one of the most stable adult presences in my life. Sticking with me from childhood into adulthood. Enigmatic, eccentric, bamboozling, but ever-present. An endless reservoir of wisdom and strangeness. His now craggy face is more familiar to me than many of the adults I grew up with, his startling nasally voice a constant in an increasingly disjointed world. Is there a term for this kind of relationship? Because ‘fan’ really doesn’t seem to cut it.

As many of us know, there isn’t much Bob Dylan hasn’t sung about. Most pressing questions have been addressed somewhere along the way, and if they haven’t – there’s plenty of time left … right?

The forlorn realisation that a seventy-something year old man cannot go on producing music indefinitely brings me to the issue of mortality. Of finiteness. Of watching these icons slowly lose some of their capabilities. I recently saw BB King perform to a large audience and was distressed by his immobility and confusion. Helped into a chair in the middle of the stage, in some songs he stopped in the middle, lost in a sort of reverie, and in others he just played a riff here and there, like a sad faded version of his younger effervescent self. My brother, a musician by trade, remarked with gentle melancholy – “They will all eventually die. And who will we look up to? Who will sustain us?” And it got me to thinking about religion and worship. About how it begins, and what it means. I don’t pray to Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen to save my soul, but maybe I could? If faith is about belief and love, nourishment and sustenance, about living with joy and despair – then perhaps there are no better idols than musicians to see us through.

Legend has it that as a young man Bob Dylan hitchhiked across America to visit his hero Woody Guthrie who was dying in hospital, to sing him a song. Later he recorded a poem entitled Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie which ended with the lines:

You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in the Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it’s only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

Now, it’s only my opinion, I may be right or wrong, but I think when BB finally passes over, he’ll be there too. His smile wide, infused with peace and joy, he’ll be strumming his beloved guitar Lucille – with all the others – in the Grand Canyon at sundown.

First published in March 2012 in the Big Issue #402.  

Born in the USA

Alongside the American flag, fast food, fundamentalist Christianity, and giant-sized SUVs, Bruce Springsteen is a name synonymous with the USA. If we each searched our memories we’d probably all have a vision somewhere of the man himself – bandana-clad, belting out the chorus to ‘Born in the USA’ while punching in the air, big drums pounding in the background. For a long time now Springsteen has been held up as the USA’s patriotic man of the hour. But what does The Boss really have to say about his homeland?

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The album Born in the USA came out in 1984. Widely read as a piece of nationalistic sloganeering, it made Bruce as big as Coca-Cola, but closer inspection of the lyrics reveals a much more complex picture. The title track begins “Born down in a dead man’s town, the first kick I took was when I hit the ground. You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much, and spend your whole life just a-covering up.” Cut to the bombastic chorus – “I was…born in the USA…” Though the rocked up delivery might be somewhat misleading, the overall tone of the song is borderline desolate. A Vietnam veteran returning to a country that has very little place for him. The last verse ends with “I’m ten years down the road. Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.” Bruce himself describes the song as about a “spiritual crisis, in which man is left lost…It’s like he has nothing left to tie him into society anymore. He’s isolated from the government. Isolated from his family…to the point where nothing makes sense.” It’s a far cry from the patriotic anthem that many of us remember.

So, if Bruce Springsteen’s USA is not a macho gun-slinging, flag-waving, republican heartland, what is it? It turns out that this is rather a large question. Much of Bruce’s earlier work centred on his native New Jersey, but with a recording career that includes 16 albums in 37 years, he has covered a lot of ground. Springsteen specialises in stepping inside a character to tell a story. Empathy is his signal gift, and he describes the process of song writing as – “that old job of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, while you’ve got a foot in your own shoe. And that’s how it works. I’m grounding this song in something I’ve experienced myself, that I believe I can write about.” Listening to Bruce’s albums is like travelling across the USA from the inside, and it is a surprisingly poignant journey.

Born to Run

Early in his career Springsteen seemed obsessed with cars, the road, and the need to escape. ‘Born to Run’, released in 1975, speaks of wholesale disenchantment – “In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream. At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines.” Turnpikes, highways, and freeways all feature strongly in Bruce’s USA. The automotive imagery is potent – “Just wrap your legs ‘round these velvet rims, and strap your arms across my engines”. The song pleads with the audience to get out while they’re young. Destination unknown, it is the freedom of leaving that matters.

The River

This song seems to encapsulate Springsteen’s vision of working class America. The narrator has married young, he is ‘working construction’ but jobs are scarce. All the things that seemed important have vanished right into the air. He is drawn again and again to the river where he remembers what it was like to be young, free, and bright with hope. Filled with an aching need to live up to the future’s promise, but tinged with the knowledge of dreams already lost, he asks the question – “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”

Nebraska

An acoustic album, Nebraska is Springsteen’s starkest ever recording. He inhabits the voices of some of America’s most marginalised: petty criminals, disillusioned gunmen, and the rural poor. “Down here it’s just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” Originally supposed to be just a demo, it was first recorded straight onto a tape-cassette. Bruce later admitted he carried the tape around in his pocket for a couple of weeks before realising that it was going to be the album. Bleak in tone, Nebraska could be seen as a road trip through the more isolated parts of the US. Nebraska, Wyoming, Michigan County, New Jersey, and Atlantic City all get a mention.

The Ghost of Tom Joad

Largely concerned with the plight of Mexican’s trying to cross the border into the US, it covers entirely new territory for Bruce. California, Texas, Ohio, San Diego, Sinaloa, Galveston Bay. Highway patrolmen and Mexicans; border crossing, drug running, and fruit picking. The complexity of illegal immigration is explored from many different angles. The drive to escape still haunts the album, but this time around Bruce’s not so sure it’s where salvation lies – “The highway is alive tonight, but nobody’s kidding nobody about where it goes …”

The Rising

A response to the 9/11 attacks in the US, The Rising deals with grief and loss, but also with the resurrection of hope. Reportedly, Springsteen got the inspiration for the album a few days after the 9/11 attacks when a stranger in a car stopped next to him, wound down his window, and said – “We need you now.” The title track beseeches the audience to “come on up for the rising”, and was later used in several Democratic political campaigns. It was also the first song performed at Barack Obama’s Inaugural Celebration. Springsteen himself remarked on the distance the song had travelled – “If someone had told me in 2001 that ‘you’re going to sing the song at the inaugural concert for the first African-American president’, I’d have said, ‘Huh?’ But eight years go by, and that’s where you find yourself. You’re in there, you’re swimming in the current of history, and your music is doing the same thing.”

Travelling through Bruce’s America is travelling the back roads of a nation whose forefront as the world’s economic superpower is only just now on shaky ground. The song’s settings – dead-end small towns, blue-collar workers, discharged soldiers, unwanted immigrants, and vast stretches of highway – highlight a place reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s America. It is the underbelly of the American dream that Bruce Springsteen lovingly lays bare.

First published in get lost magazine, December 2010.

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