Tag Archives: Bruce Springsteen

Just a Quick Thought on Tragic Heroism

As a singer-songwriter born in the 60s and raised in the 70s and 80s, I suppose there are two major shadows under which I labor: I refer to the long shadows cast by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. I am influenced by both, in different ways — but that’s the subject of another tale.

Listening recently to a Springsteen collection, I was struck by a notion. That is that both Bruce and Bob deal primarily with sketchings of tragic heroes. Now, we can very simply define a hero (non-tragic) as someone who responds to extraordinary circumstances and in the process, becomes extraordinary, if only for a brief moment in time. The tragic hero, on the other hand, is someone who is not changed from their basic state of ordinary or extraordinary by the nature of these circumstances.

For Dylan, the tragic hero is an extraordinary individual who is forced to reconcile themselves with ordinary times. For Springsteen, on the other hand, the tragic hero is the ordinary individual who is embroiled in an extraordinary life. The tragedy for both writers is that in both cases, their heroes fail. Dylan’s extraordinary hero does not improve their ordinary situation. Springsteen’s ordinary hero does not rise above their state to absorb the extraordinariness of their time. Both seem trapped, not so much by the mundane nature of either their surroundings, or their personal outlook, but rather by a sense that what really matters is somehow beyond their grasp — and almost beyond their imagination to reach.

A further significant difference is that often, Bob Dylan is the tragic hero himself, as opposed to Bruce Springsteen, who merely assumes the mantle of the hero for the purposes of illustration — at least in the later works of both. There is cross-over in their early years, both ways.

Lastly, it is important to note that the immersion in this world of the ordinary, for Dylan its events, and for Springsteen, its people, has marked each writer in different ways.

Dylan, it seems to me, tends to reach out to the extraordinary that he is sure exists in all humankind. Springsteen, on the other hand, tends to try to communicate with people at their most ordinary, believing that once they acknowledge their shared ordinariness, that acknowledgment itself will result in the development of extraordinary people.

A slight difference, perhaps, but I think very important. The difference between extraordinary ordinariness, and ordinary extraordinariness. Or to put it another way, the magical mundane versus the mundane magical.

What truly defines the subjects of both writers’ songs as tragic heroes, however, is something even more sublime — and that is this: without being immortalized in song, their stories would not even command a moment of our collective attention. This world, that focuses so much on attaining some level of control, no matter how much it costs to acquire the temporary rights to that illusion, does not take kindly to reminders of those who have either lost control, or willingly given it up; reminders that you never really have control, and what control you may think you have isn’t really of much use in the greater scheme of things. Unless, of course, those reminders have a good beat and you can dance to them.

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Ballad of the Undertown

Now, Councilman Zeb Davis says
that tourists are the way to save this town.
Never mind the unemployment
and the high school where the scores are going down.
And the factories that close?
That’s an element we just don’t need around,
’cause misfortune is attractive
when you pass her by, but don’t take in the sound.

Now, the Holy Rollin’ Baptist preacher
says the choice is Heaven or to Hell.
Never mind those that ignore the call,
they’re lost and so we’ll bid them fare thee well.
And the north side is place
where all the comfortable Christians care to dwell,
so don’t mind the local greasers
and the factory boys, and focus on the sell

Now, the cemetery’s full of conflict’s heroes
and the town’s claim to its pride.
Never mind that’s it’s still killing
and there’s never proof that God is on your side.
And the trick is not to have to walk
when you can find a bandwagon to ride,
’cause the further you are from the ground
the better off you’ll be when He decides.

Now, the local boys are drinking
and the local girls are plastering their hair.
Never mind the ozone layer
when you’re looking good and everyone will stare.
And the trick is to forget
there’s no one watching who can take you anywhere,
’cause the ride to love is free,
but the return trip’s where they charge you double fare.

Now, the smiling politician
says his mandate is new jobs for everyone.
Never mind that it takes three or four apiece
to take the place of one good one.
And the skills you need to get ahead
are never taught to any farmer’s son,
’cause the city boys have learned
a briefcase works a whole lot cleaner than a gun.

Now, the trains roll by the station
since there’s never anybody coming home.
Never mind the old folks dying
or the brother sitting waiting by the phone.
And the high school sweetheart pining
’cause you promised that she’d never be alone,
’cause the world outside is promising
to show you things you never have been shown.

Now, the board of education
puts its trust in the community of saints.
Never mind the harsh reminders
that the golden dream could use a coat of paint.
And the faded football heroes selling cars
without a murmur of complaint,
’cause there ought to be a better way,
but everyone believes that there just ain’t.

Now, when Councilman Zeb Davis
swears that tourists will revive our village square.
Never mind the unemployment in the ’70’s
that left the cupboards bare.
And the looks from all the local boys
that tell you there’s nobody living there,
’cause this kind of spirit only comes out
with a lot of fasting and some prayer.

A few years back, when I was living out on 89 acres in middle-of-nowhere Ohio, I decided that I needed to write a series of songs that clung together in the same way as Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. As is the case with any venture of that magnitude, some of ’em worked, and some of ’em didn’t. The point was to capture the essence of that population 8,900 small town that was 12 miles down the state route, where 20 years prior I’d gone to elementary and junior high schools, riding the school bus for over an hour each way through endless fields on concrete, then blacktop, then stone-tar, then gravel and finally dirt roads. My cousins still lived there; so did a lot of people I knew. Many had moved away, but much later in their development than I did. Most that moved away never came back, leaving their parents and grandparents (and their way of life, too) to die in that backwoods place (home of the National Coon Dog Field Trials, BTW). Some things had changed, but a lot was very much the same. When we moved from Ohio to California, that part of Ohio was dying. When I moved back, you could still feel that lingering death in the air, and like any long-time sufferer will tell you, there are parts of the daily pain that you just have to put up with, and others you block out entirely. I had traveled many miles before I returned back to the family farm; along the way, maybe I learned a few things. And maybe some of them were worth learning.

BTW, if you’re a Bob Dylan fan, you can sing along to this one, kinda. It has the same verse structure and rhyme pattern as (Just Like) Tom Thumb’s Blues from Highway 61 Revisited.

If you’re lost in the rain in Juarez, and it’s Easter time, too /
And your gravity fails and negativity won’t pull you through /
Don’t put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue /
They got some hungry women there that’ll sure make a mess out of you

There’s also a bit of Tom T. Hall’s The Ballad of Forty Dollars in there, too:

The man who preached the funeral said it really was a simple way to die /
He laid down to rest one afternoon and never opened up his eyes /
They hired me and Fred and Joe to dig the grave and carry up some chairs /
It took us seven hours and I guess we must have drunk a case of beer

Or maybe Willie Nelson’s Me and Paul:

Almost busted in Laredo, but for reasons that I’d rather not disclose /
But if you’re staying in a motel there, and leave, don’t leave nothing in your clothes

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