ONE CANNOT help but be impressed with the quality of people one meets on campus nowadays. These are industrious, idealistic students, determined to make, in their chosen fields, a personal contribution, however small, toward some notion of justice or public interest. They have their goals firmly in mind and pursue them with unwavering competence. After graduation they will disappear down the ferret-holes of success, to emerge later as brilliant lawyers, famous doctors, great musicians, and conscientious artists. It is enough to make you sick.
I prefer the slothful breed of the '60s, people who thought their future lives--and this was wonderful--would bear no resemblance to their pasts, and who, when called upon to discipline their personalities, to get on with it, just stood there dumbfounded, refusing to budge a calculated inch. Better to wander here in circles through the bright trappings of that discarded future.
There are a few of these people left in Cambridge, refusing to drift away into maturity, writing graduate theses that never get done, waiting for the perfect job which offers all the qualities of post-revolutionary life as well as tenure. Despite their lack of spine, or rather because of it, like jellyfish, they have declined to be beaten into place in the grim division of labor that has descended on us. They are the laggard remnants of an unruly "new working class" vanguard which has long since marched stiffly and sullenly to take up positions in the new corporate order. As such they are admirable, in a sense, but not enviable. For if the prevailing militant regime of purposive competition seems a bit unstable, a bit uncomfortably hypocritical--a bunch of closet Marxists running around trying to be Supreme Court Justices--that is perhaps only the inevitable queasiness of a recently resuscitated social order taking its first few strides. And life in this new order can never be the same as it was when you could taste socialism in every song coming out of a window.
ROCK AND ROLL, like all other aspects of youth culture, has not been left behind in the advance to nowhere. The music one hears really does seem crummy these days, and it is not because there are fewer individual talents, although that is undoubtedly true. The social content of rock has changed, and that, it turns out, is really what mattered. What was once the aesthetic and cultural background against which we measured our collective progress has become merely the shifting aggregate of individual talents and trends. They give us a nice way to get our utils in. And in form and lyrical content rock is responding to all the changes going down around itself. The enthusiastic anger of "Street Fighting Man," taken seriously in its time, has been replaced by the staged, mechanical rebelliousness of "Smoking in the Boys' Room." Oh my, my. Can you do the antiseptic boogie? The sterilized fly?
Had Bruce Springsteen appeared a few years ago, he might have been an important person in each of our lives. As it is, he is a "rising young star." We are to catalogue his influences (allegedly Dylan, but sounds like Van Morrison with laryngitis) and praise the accomplishments of his brilliant talent. But luckily Springsteen is better than all this. He has walled off the cultural miasma which surrounds him, and has created a music which is anachronistically exciting without being a historical relic.
For one thing, he does not seem to think that his own life as a performer is all that interesting. This may not seem a lot to ask, but one of the consequences of a pervasive division of labor is that artists tend to see themselves as a caste apart, performing a specific function as society's Entertainers and Interpreters. And since these people are constantly told to draw material from their own "real" lives, it is only logical that we should be entertained by commentaries on the traumas of working on the road, on the sociology of backstage life, the horrible, wrenching, self-divisive experience of being an artiste. At its worst, this heightened sensitivity has produced such apparitions as Billy Joel's "Piano Man;" at its best, self-congratulatory pieces of fluff like Truffaut's "Day for Night" ("A film is like a train in the night," the director tells his leading man.).
Springsteen is more confused about his role, and as a result seems to be living in the same world as the rest of us. He sets his songs in a mildly romanticized street semi-underworld somewhere in between New York and his hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey, and the music, at least the best of it, is suitable raucous and scruffy. Unlike his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, where the descriptions bristled with enough Dylanesque alliteration to make them look like typing exercises ("Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat"), on E Street Springsteen works with an easy, economical sense of concreteness and colloquial ambience. He talks normal, only we should talk so good. The "E Street Shuffle" itself is a literal evocation of street-corner cacaphony, in which "Little Angel steps the shuffle like she ain't got no brains" and police and kids seem bent on heroic mutual harrassment.
And Springsteen's fresco of muscle and dope is not the revelling in machismo that it might be (i.e. J. Geils), although clearly anybody who has proclaimed in song that "I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra" is to be watched closely. But even when a chorus of women sing "Those romantic young boys, all they ever want to do is fight," it conveys a soft ironic criticism which runs through the whole album, up to the point where Springsteen tells a girl friend "you oughtta quit this scene too."
THE FINAL cultural force which Springsteen defies might be called the Cult of Authenticity. As the principle of division and specialization takes hold, it is not enough merely to be into "rock" music. It seems there are various types of music--blues, country and western, hard rock--each with its own little rules and traditions which were emphasized by knowledgeable critics and advertising men as the massive rock audiences of the '60s were weaned away from the Beatles and introduced to more exotic American musical cultures. Within each of these specialities the quest for the "good" consists mostly in a search for the essence of the musical form, for the "authentic" blues, for real Country and Western.
Faced with these rich, self-contained traditions, the attitude of many countercultural refugees came to be that of overawed disciples. And what if you liked country songs but didn't like the discontinuous steel guitar work or the plodding, tchika-tchika drumming? Well, then you just weren't into Country and Western music. The whole effect of this categorization of musical genres was to impart a sort of guilty arteriosclerosis to more suburban artists, even if it did open up new areas to people and let the experts have something to be expert about. When somebody wails at you "CAN YOU DIG IT, I MEAN CAN YOU DIG THE BLUES?" it is difficult, even within your own mind, to answer "well, sometimes, but usually not, and couldn't you change the chords around a little more?"
There was a blues man, Mighty Joe Young, on before Bruce Springsteen at Charlie's Place two weeks ago, and in a moment of insecure generosity, after the audience had feebly said that it could dig the blues, he said "And believe me, we got dynamite comin' on after us." He was right. Springsteen explodes every rock type there is. It's not that he has his own completely new personal style, like Stevie Wonder for example. He is a borrower, and he takes other people's styles and explodes them, and picks up the pieces and puts them back together all mixed up like maybe they should have been all along. And he does not stop until all the potential within a song is out.
A good A.M. song will have a verse, a chorus, and then, if we're lucky, a break--a middle part where it gets slow or bridges and changes keys, or something so it doesn't get boring. Do Springsteen's songs have breaks? How many commercials can fit in between acts on the Mid-night Special? I mean, there are breaks within breaks within breaks on this album. Even when all the music sounds like it is just good A.M. material, there is so much of it, and Springsteen's construction of his songs is so ambitious that one can only wonder at the poverty of everything else.
A good example is "Kitty's Back" on E Street, which combines elements of Broadway, blues, barroom horns and raunch in a stunning tour of every emotion you would feel if you knew somebody named Kitty and she was back. But the best example is "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)", Springsteen's showstopper.
"ROSALITA" is a juicy, scat-sung Van Morrison-type song in which Springsteen wants to steal away his girl friend from her parents to spend what seems to be a life-long communal orgy in the hangouts of New York. The song builds up to a seemingly final crescendo with terrific fast loud chorus. Where can he go from here? But the music keeps on--you feel like shouting. Then all of a sudden it is happening, the entire band is standing up there in the studio, chanting "HEY, HEY, HEY, HEY, HEY"--it is like the Ohio State football team has just charged onto the record--HEY, HEY, HEY--rather than end it Springsteen is dragging it out, on a level plane, at its moment of ultimate climax, of absolute ecstasy--HEY, HEY, HEY--the saxophone blasting higher and higher in Latin swoops, faster and faster--and then it is over in a final blast. You want more, but not really, since it is not clear that there could be any more.
LIKE SEX, even Springsteen at his best cannot completely satisfy, or inject rock with the popular meaning it had in the '60s. He offers only a partial solution, as long as we are listening to his albums or his performance and blocking out other thoughts. In talent, he probably offers more than most of the people who seemed central back then, but he cannot, after all, singlehandedly fetter the forces of production, detail the freight train of history. He should end up being a big success. Nevertheless he is a good person to have hanging around.