Bruce Springsteen, "We Take Care Of Our Own"

>> Friday, January 20, 2012

Being the anointed one has got to be a bitch. I remember how excited everybody was over The Rising when it came out in 2002: here was The Boss' first album since the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, and it was just a given that he as one of America's cultural spokespersons, he was going to make a statement about 9/11, this was The Boss' statement about being an American, Mr. Born In The U.S.A., the man from New Jersey, just across the river from ground zero. Well, it was an okay album, but let's be honest: it wasn't great, either, a couple of strong tracks but nothing really matching his early passions or, seen in retrospect, the subsequent strength and confidence of records like Magic (2007) and Working On A Dream (2009).

But he was stuck with that, you know? I mean, some of the tracks on The Rising weren't even originally written with September 11th in mind: they were pieces he'd been working on well before the attack; some of them he reworked but there were others, really, that really just became 9/11 tracks by virtue of seeing their first official release ten months after the event. Of course, being Bruce Springsteen™, anything he might have done would have been hungrily poked over for authority, solace, statement of intent; and being expected to say something, it's natural (and justifiable) that Springsteen gamely tried to step up to what was collectively expected of him by fans, critics, the music press, talking heads on TV, maybe the whole country even.

It just wasn't, to repeat, much of a record. Not bad, not bad, I didn't say it was bad. Sometimes I forget he recorded it, though, or would if there weren't some awesome live recordings of the title track bouncing around out there.

Anyway, it comes up because (as you may already know), it's kind of happening all over again. Springsteen has a new album coming out in March and there's already talk circulating about how angry and raucous and 99% it's going to be (even if some of the people doing the talk are conceding the album was largely written before the Occupy movement became a thing--shades of The Rising, again?). (I can't help thinking of that great line Bono drops when introducing "Sunday Bloody Sunday" on the Under A Blood Red Sky EP: "There's been a lot of talk about this next song, maybe, maybe too much talk; this is not a rebel song...." There's been a lot of talk about this next Bruce Springsteen album....) Which is what everyone expects of Springsteen, right? It probably isn't fair, because I don't really think he asked to be the anointed one, I think he just asked to be loved for, and make a pretty good living by making music, but when you've hit the level where Ronald Reagan was talking about how awesome you are (even though Reagan doesn't know what he's talking about, has missed the point completely, etc.), well... well, you're pretty much fucked into having to make statements for the rest of your career.

If the statement is "We Take Care Of Our Own", I'm a bit disappointed. (Yeah, that's what all this was building to.) It starts off promisingly with that pounding beat and dogwhine guitar (e-bow, I presume); I'm always thrilled when an old dog I like shows up with a new trick he's learned, and I am clapping my hands with childish glee if this is the kind of thing that will happen because of all the time Springsteen's spent over the past few years with Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello, a damn fine guitar player, that one. (Springsteen--who may or may not be the one playing that part of the song, as surrounded by guitarists as he is these days--is a damn fine and underappreciated guitar player, himself, as a look at videos from some of his live performances can attest.)

If only the song wasn't kind of tripe. It's nicely anthemic, it just doesn't say a whole lot, which is regrettable when Springsteen is a guy who is generally great at saying things. I don't mean just political or economic things, I mean, he's eloquent just singing about carnies and checkout girls (and, yes, in fact I did purposely choose a song from his first album and his last (to date) album to make that point--though I also have to edit this to add: I chose songs with "queen" in the titles by some subconscious accident, I just realized). But--

I been knocking on the door that holds the throne
I been looking for the map that leads me home
I been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone
The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone
We take care of our own
We take care of our own
Wherever this flag's flown
We take care of our own

I'm not even sure what that means. Seriously. The throne of power, God's throne, somebody's tying up the bathroom? He's lost, okay, I get that, but then he's, what? Bastards are good people, too, when they're not being bastards, or does he mean that good people are no longer good (which seems sort of an oxymoron to me, maybe)? The road of good intentions used to be, what, rain-soaked, underwater, moist? And then the platitudes and, hang on--"Wherever this flag's flown", huh? American flag? Surrender flag? Freak flag?

That's the first verse, and the whole song is pretty much like that. I've got no idea what he's talking about. And maybe somebody's saying, "Well, Eric, it's an anthem, you know, it doesn't have to make sense, it just has to get your heart pounding and your fist pumping." And if there is anybody saying that, let me just say that's a load of horseshit--I've got your first verse (and chorus) of an anthem, buddy:

Lights out tonight
trouble in the heartland
Got a head-on collision
smashin' in my guts, man
I'm caught in a cross fire
that I don't understand
But there's one thing I know for sure girl
I don't give a damn
For the same old played out scenes
I don't give a damn
For just the in betweens
Honey, I want the heart, I want the soul
I want control right now
talk about a dream
Try to make it real
you wake up in the night
With a fear so real
Spend your life waiting
for a moment that just don't come
Well, don't waste your time waiting

Badlands, you gotta live it everyday
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you've gotta pay
We'll keep pushin' till it's understood
and these badlands start treating us good

There's a guy who's lost and looking--and then what he's going to do about it clearly involves kicking ass, chewing gum (he is, like Roddy Piper in They Live, out of gum), and assuming defiant poses while the wind blows dirt against his gritted teeth.

But, most importantly, it makes sense. I've got a sense of place ("trouble in the heartland") and a physical sense of turmoil ("a head-on collision smashing in my guts, man"), a sense of action ("We'll keep pushin' till it's understood and these badlands start treating us good") and what it'll cost us ("broken hearts... as the price you've gotta pay"). These are all very sharply focused images establishing where we are. I don't expect Springsteen to be as passionate now about anything the way he was when he was in his twenties--I'm not as passionate now as anything I cared about when I was in my twenties, this is just how the world works, we get older and our fires come down (which is good, in a lot of ways: those of us who don't learn how to smolder burn out quickly 'til there's nothing left). I don't expect Springsteen to still have that fire (or car wreck) in his belly, I just expect him to make sense.

I hope the rest of the album is better. I mean, I'll be buying it (surprise, surprise) and I'd like it to be a record I listen to a lot this year and am glad I bought, and not just something that occupies shelf space between other discs for the sake of some kind of fannish completism. Heck, if the rest of the record is great, maybe "We Take Care Of Our Own" will be one of those tracks I crank up in the car but don't really listen to (maybe you know how that is)--it really does have a good beat to it.

Still, color me disappointed.

I think I have to add in closing that there's some further, sad, ironic absurdity in that Springsteen probably summed up a lot of the national feeling already--thirty-or-so years ago, now that The River (1980) and Nebraska (1982) have become depressingly relevant again, and around fifteen years ago with the underrated The Ghost Of Tom Joad (1995). In fact, here's a pair of songs about people who have lost everything in an economic downturn and are struggling to take care of their own in ways that are much more affecting than the song we've been talking about--"Atlantic City" and "The Ghost Of Tom Joad":


Eric Friday, January 20, 2012 at 1:35:00 PM EST  

Actually, it's funny: in the course of writing the above piece, I never got to the absolutely worst line in the song and the one that annoyed the crap out of me. This is, as far as I can tell, an officially-released video (though it may not be the final official video, if there is any), and appears on Springsteen's YouTube page and is embedded at The Boss' official site, and it presents a line as:

"There ain't no help, the calvary stayed home"

...which, unfortunately, is also what The Boss clearly sings.


As probably every Giants Midgets reader knows, Calvary is a place where Jesus was, we're told, nailed to some boards by the Romans with historic (and perhaps spiritual) consequences. It always stays at home, if by "home" you mean the place where it is, at it is, in fact, itself a place (and therefore always is where it is). A cavalry, of course, is a group of mounted soldiers (or, more recently, a group of soldiers who have helicopters). Cavalries do, sometimes, stay at home, it's true, and as far as I know, nobody has ever claimed Jesus was crucified while serving in one.


Curiously, somebody actually did use the right word in the lyrics reproduced on the album's official webpage.

It's irritating not just from a language Nazi POV, but just because Springsteen is a literate enough songwriter to know better.

vince Friday, January 20, 2012 at 9:55:00 PM EST  

But "cavalry" calvary" can sound almost identical when some says them, much less sings them. I mean, listen to the Manfred Mann's Earth Band version of "Blinded By The Light." Does Chris Thompson sing "Wrapped up like a deuce" or "wrapped up like a douche"?

I think the problem with any artist with a long career is that there will be highs and lows. You can't always be good, much less great, on every song, or even every album. And while I agree that The Rising isn't a great album, I actually think it's a good album.

Some day I hope to come out your way, and perhaps we can get together and share some excellent alcohol and great music.

Eric Saturday, January 21, 2012 at 11:00:00 AM EST  

You may be right, Vince; I'm pretty sure Springsteen sings the word wrong, but I also have to concede my hearing may have been influenced by the error in the words appearing in the video clip. That's actually a pretty-well-known psychological phenomenon: your brain will often process the A/V streams coming in through your ears and eyes based on what you're expecting to see. A classic example shows up in a lot of "paranormal" recordings where gibberish starts sounding like words when somebody insists the random noise is "saying" something.

Speaking of the Manfred Mann cover of "Light": I don't know if you've ever seen the Springsteen episode of VH-1's Storytellers (or heard the bootleg recording of it that's out there), but Springsteen has some very wry comments on the "deuce/douche" thing in his version versus the Manfred Mann cover, concluding, "what can I say, the public spoke and they were right"). (Part of it can be heard here.)

If you're ever out my way or I'm ever out there--or if there's ever a UCF gathering we both can make it to somewhere--that sounds like a blast, Vince.

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