jessie cole

novelist/writer

Tag: get lost

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.

Bringing it all back home

Bob Dylan has meant a lot of different things to many people in his time. A 60s troubadour, a protest folk-singer gone electric, a poet, a prophet, even a messiah. The Rolling Stone Album Guide calls him the “most significant American rocker since Elvis, a 60s revolutionary, transforming the world not only musically, but politically and spiritually.” Popular music had produced nothing like him before.

Growing up, music was the unofficial religion of my household, and that made Bob Dylan almost God, or at the very least one of the Twelve Apostles. My parents frequently fought at the dinner table over which song in Dylan’s impressive catalogue was most meaningful. Their tastes were often in opposition, but there was complete agreement over Dylan’s place in the music hierarchy. I attended my first concert at the age of 3 months old, and though I’m unsure of how this affected my growing brain, one thing is for certain, I too caught the Bob-loving-bug.

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A teenager in the 90s, being a crazy Bob Dylan fan was hardly cool. Whilst my friends went gaga over Nirvana, and grieved the untimely death of Kurt Cobain, I curled up in my bedroom and listened to mix tapes of Dylan made years before by my Bob-worshipping mum. I have kids of my own now, and I realized how deeply entrenched this familial devotion to the word-of-Bob had become when my five-year-old son came home from his first day of school, looked up at me with accusing eyes and said – “You told me Bob Dylan was famous,” as though his whole life had been a lie. Clearly, he had asked around, and no-one under 6 had even heard of him.

Recently, a friend gave me a map of Bob Dylan’s America. All the places of significance to the Bob connoisseur, including every place he had ever mentioned in a song. To someone else this might have been mildly interesting, but to me it seemed somehow sacred. It got me thinking of a Bob inspired pilgrimage through the USA, of all the places that I’d known in songs but never seen. There are hundreds of references to place within Dylan’s songs. American towns with exotic sounding names like Tularosa, Ashtabula, El Paso, and Delacroix. I’d never known their locations, never thought to check them on the map. These places had existed for me in a kind of imagined, dream-like space. Though it hurt me to do so, I narrowed my fantasy pilgrimage down to 5 places of major significance.

 ‘Girl From North CountryMinnesota

The state of Minnesota is home to the birthplace of Bob Dylan – Duluth, and the nearby mining town he spent his youth in, Hibbing. Minnesota is the northernmost state in the US apart from Alaska, and is known mostly for being intensely cold. Dylan himself said – ‘I grew up in a place so foreign, you had to go there to picture it. In the winter everything was still, nothing moved. You can have some amazing hallucinogenic experiences doing nothing but look out your window. There is a great spiritual quality throughout the Midwest, very subtle, very strong, and that’s where I grew up.’ Minnesota has produced an eclectic bunch of entertainers over the years including Prince, Judy Garland, Winona Ryder, and the Cohen Brothers. Maybe there’s something in the freezing cold air?

 ‘Highway 61 Revisited’

This staggering American highway had one end in the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans, and the other in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The great south-north route, it was the road jazz and blues first travelled up, and is often referred to as `The Blues Highway`. It ran right through Bob Dylan’s hometown of Duluth. All the culture the young Dylan soaked up came pouring at him along that highway, and in turn it offered him escape out of his cold parochial surroundings. The mother of all road trips, it’s probably not for the faint-hearted.

‘Hard Times In New YorkTownGreenwich Village.

When Bob Dylan arrived in New York City in 1961, Greenwich Village was full of folk clubs, bars and coffee houses. It was known as the Bohemian capital, and the birthplace of the Beat movement. In his autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan says – ‘New York City was cold, muffled and mysterious, the capital of the world. The city was like some uncarved block without any name or shape and it showed no favouritism. Everything was always new, always changing. It was never the same crowd upon the streets.’ Though Greenwich Village is no longer the heart of the NY bohemian scene, some of the original venues Dylan played in still operate today. Cafe Wha? on MacDougal Street, would surely be worth a look!

It`s All Over Now Baby Blue’ – Newport Folk Festival

Dylan played the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and 1964 and was the crowd’s young hero, cheered for his protest songs. In 1965, however, he famously plugged in and shocked the traditional folkies with electric versions of ‘Maggie’s farm’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. The crowd allegedly booed, but ‘folk-rock’ was born, and the face of popular music changed forever.

‘Oh Mercy’ – New Orleans

New Orleans gets a mention in several Dylan songs, and was also where he recorded his 1989 Album ‘Oh Mercy’. Widely rated as the best US city for live music, despite the effects of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was also the birth place of jazz. In Chronicles Dylan writes – “Around any corner, there’s the promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting going. ­There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better…No action seems inappropriate here. The city is one very long poem.” Straight from the man himself!

In 2007 J. Hoberman wrote – “Elvis might never have been born, but someone else would surely have brought the world rock ‘n’ roll. No such logic accounts for Bob Dylan. No iron law of history demanded that a would-be Elvis from Hibbing, Minnesota, would swerve through the Greenwich Village folk revival to become the world’s first and greatest rock ‘n’ roll beatnik bard and then—having achieved fame and adoration beyond reckoning—vanish into a folk tradition of his own making.”

Chasing Dylan’s elusive shadow across a road map of America reminds me of what I most love about the man and his music. It’s that unknown quality, the thing you can’t hold in your hands, or put into words. In Chronicles Dylan says – ‘A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true. They’re like strange countries that you have to enter…You open a door to a dark room and you think you know what’s there, where everything is arranged, but you don’t really know until you step inside.’ I think a pilgrimage through Bob Dylan’s America would be just like that. Stepping into the unknown. You think you know what you’ll find, but you really don’t until you take that first step.

First published in get lost magazine, December 2009.

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