There's An Opera Out On The Turnpike

Outside the street’s on fire in a real death waltz
Between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy
— Bruce Springsteen 
Now my ma she fingers her wedding band
Watches the salesman stare at my old man’s hands
He’s tellin’ us all ‘bout the break he’d give us if he could but he just can’t
— Same Fella

There's a line you'll hear a lot if you profess to being a Springsteen fan. "I want to like him, but he doesn't really get working class life," or, "the working class hero bit gets old." Some variation on that. Something I've heard more then once since the release of his autobiography, is that he's a fascinating guy with a lot to say, but that his songs are trite. 

(I'm pulling a lot of disparate thoughts together in this piece today. I'm not sure If I'll pull it off.)

I've long argued that each different artistic medium has its own strengths and weaknesses that should be celebrated or acknowledged. I rail against using the term 'graphic novel' (a war I have quite clearly lost...) because I want to talk about comics on their own terms, not in comparison to a 'better' art form. There are things comics can do better than any other medium. There are things they can't do. In the same vein, I roll my eyes if a standup comedian has to be praised by being something else. A poet, or a troubadour. I don't like to talk of a TV show being 'like a novel.' To my view, we should celebrate the great things for being the best version of their art form, not a weaker version of a different one. 

But I'm also thinking a lot about the way we talk about our media. Avengers: Infinity War was, to my mind, exactly the film they set out to make. A series of interconnected scenes that push our emotional buttons, based on pre-existing ties we had to all of these characters. But we talk about all films as if they're setting out to achieve the same thing, and then base our criticism on whether they hit that standard. 

Another point that's true, is that entertainers and storytellers get a different emotional reaction for their work than anyone else. As my pod-partner Chantelle has pointed out on Crime Friction, an accountant can do a brilliant job, but they don't have an audience emotionally invested in their work. As writers, performers, storytellers, we do. 

More and more, in a topic I'm sure I'll return to later, I'm realising that storytelling rests on selling emotion. It rests on feeling. Plot, structure, grammar....all of these things are useful tools. They're good guides. But we stand or fall by whether we can make the audience feel. In the moment. And then again in the next moment. And so on. All facts, all ideas, all plot mechanics, all arguments about act structure, are secondary to that. In a recent podcast interview, Writer/Director Chris McQuarrie said that 'exposition is the enemy of emotion.' And he should know, as the guy who delivered the last two Mission Impossible movies, and crafted one of the greatest plot reveals in cinema history. As a growing action director, we can view his work as an ongoing lesson in making people feel. Sure, Tom Cruise does a big stunt that they'll put in all the trailers and use to sell the movie. But the key to those scenes is how we're feeling about them. Are we tense? Are we scared? 

If we successfully sell the emotion and the character, the plot and message will take care of itself. 

And that brings me round, as much as I want each art form to be praised for it's own merits, to thinking about what they have in common. It's that emotional bond. To a greater or lesser degree, a successful piece of art in any medium will make us think, but to earn that they have to make us feel. A joke can pierce deep into the hart of an issue, but needs to pay it's dues first by being funny. A song can be political, can be about some deep social issue, but we need to viscerally feel that issue. Novelists get probably the most room to play. We can choose to take our time, to deep dive into any subject we want. But even still, we need to be aiming for the emotion of every single scene. Write a chapter from the point of view of the person most invested in it. 

(Do I have a point to any of this? Probably not. But I started out with the vague idea this was going to be about Bruce Springsteen. I used quotes, and everything. So I should make some effort to circle back there.) 

I don't really understand any of those arguments against Springsteen. That's not to say I don't also agree with some of them. I grew up in a working class area, I had family members who were long-term unemployed, and I got married young. So when I listen to a song like the River, all I can feel is a vague hollowness. The song doesn't touch me. Doesn't feel anything like the lives I saw or lived. But at the same time, there are few songs that feel as real, as true, to me, as Used Cars. That thing should be a national anthem to somebody, somewhere. To some degree, Springsteen's 'working class' songs are essentially about a life he saw his parents living. Viewed on those terms, we unlock a key to the emotional side. The songs that tap into youth and frustration, or into the way a younger generation struggles with their elders, are the ones that feel purest. 

But I'm not sure why we judge someone's entire career based on whether or not his working class songs are accurate. Is he a documentary film maker? No. Is he a novelist or photographer? No. He's a rock and roll songwriter. There are things that form can do better than anything else. There are also limitations. 

I'm not entirely sure why it's become so common to write off the guy who wrote Born To Run or Jungleland based on whether he really captures the spirit of Ken Loach. 

Let's take another example. There are few finer trickster spirits wandering our artistic highways than Tom Waits. It's easy to forget now, but at the start of their careers, at around the same time, Springsteen and Waits were marketed as east and west Coast analogues of each other. Both young, vaguely beardy, street poets in newsboy hats. In fact, the more you know about Waits, the more you see the whole first decade of his career was an act. The jazzy noir pose, the ballroom heartbreak, the piano that was drinking, and the exposed heart of a Saturday night. All of it was an act. Tom being something he thought he needed to be, and the record company packaging something they knew how to sell. At some point, he shifted, like someone pulled the focus very slightly on the camera following his life. He stepped between the cracks and went loveably crazy. I would give a lot more than I own, to be able to travel back in time and watch a Waits fans' eyes as they dropped the needle on Swordfishtrombones for the first time. Suddenly he's singing about dwarves who live underground, about catching a black crow inside a guitar, he's warbling about Singapore noodles and shore leave, he's taking us on a weird German marching band tour of a back alley. And he's doing it all with a wink and a smile. 

(Side note: 16 Shells From a 30.06 is possibly the best song ever about writing. Shooting a hole in the sky, capturing the blackbird that flies down through it, trapping the bird inside a guitar, and playing the strings just to drive it crazy. Beat that.)

So, to me, ditching Springsteen because a few of his 'working class songs' don't ring true, is like dismissing Tom Waits because his 70's period was a bit hollow. It's simply not what I go to them for, and there's way more to their art than one ingredient. Springsteen found fame as the man who wrote about operas out on the turnpikes, and ballets down in the alley. About big dreams, and small chances, and the need to escape. He has an ear for the mythic. Later on, as his first marriage was failing, he turned inwards, and started to write startlingly honest narratives about the heart. Both of those periods are amazing. I go to Springsteen for those moments, captured in the two quotes I opened with. Big mythic themes, and small focused observations. I don't really go to him for anything in between. Just as I go to Tom Waits for his odd soundscape, the imagined landscape of tricksters and bruises. Somewhere out there, in the mythic rock and roll landscape, I think Waits and Springsteen characters probably meet up and trade stories. About circuses, clowns, street fights, road races, and lost loves. Admit it, you'd want to watch that movie. And you'd feel the hell out of it. 

And if you think you can tell a bigger tale
I swear to God you’ll have to tell a lie
— Tom Waits