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Praise Music For a Secular Life

Suffer Well, Rejoice Better with Bruce Springsteen, Part I

When I was young, I accidentally activated my mother’s dormant Catholic guilt. She was raised in the church, abused by nuns in the standard fashion of the day, and my childhood was very much church-free as a result. When we went to see my best friend attain her first communion, I couldn’t remember ever being in a church before — certainly not one as beautiful as St. Raphael’s. A modern catholic building, Raph’s has gigantic, floor to ceiling windows behind the altar. The chapel is open, airy, sunlight poured in. Parishioners were giving Ashley, who was wearing a beautiful white dress, BASKETS OF MONEY. I was upset my mother had kept this from me, I shamed her for it. With that, I was swiftly baptized (age 9) and enrolled in Sunday school. Whoops! I hated it, and for years I constantly sassed the teachers, asked bad-faith questions, and just generally rebelled until I finally reached the final gauntlet of Catholicism — the sacrament of Confirmation. To attain it, I was required, along with everyone else in Sunday school, to attend a weekend-long confirmation retreat, led by adult youth ministers and youth group teens who had already been.

This event occurred during an…upsetting part of my youth. No sooner had my parents finalized a long and difficult custody agreement that my dad was diagnosed with cancer. At this stage, we were just shy of learning it was terminal. I was fifteen, maybe sixteen, drinking, smoking, lying, self-harming, etc. To make matters worse, it was 4/20 weekend (I was missing out on mischief). A boy I loved had just dumped me over AOL Instant Messenger (sign of the times cruelty). I brought my pack of parliament menthols (what?) and my determination to be miserable. To help with that last bit, I brought music. It could have been my Walkman, or maybe my Creative Zen Micro Mp3 player (loaded with borrowed tracks from a Napster subscription). If it was the Walkman, The Cure’s Wish was spinning, and I was drowning at the edge of Robert Smith’s deep green sea. If it was the Mp3, I was living in the lyrics to Pavement’s Zurich Is Stained. And it’s not my fault” I repeated with Malkmus, trying to believe it. I succeeded in my misery the whole hours-long bus ride to rural Sandwich, Illinois, but by the end of the weekend I was redeemed, my broken heart claimed by god. Swiftly, and severely, I had been changed.

As I grew in faith, god became the greatest coping tool I had in my arsenal, but I never stopped reading song lyrics like sacred texts. They seemed incompatible initially, but having both compasses enabled a richer view of my world and made space for experiences and feelings that felt incongruous to my religiosity. By the time Bruce Springsteen’s gospels entered my life in my mid twenties, I had long renounced my place in the Catholic church. I still find immense value in carrying over religious principles to non-religious experience: faith” itself is a religious word seamlessly applied to secular existence. The aim of this column is not to mock or minimize the church, but to examine how secular music assists the faithful and the not-so-faithful in bringing spiritual sanctity and reverence to their lives, in moments mundane and profound, by extolling virtues of self-examination, accountability, and personal myth making. For this installment, we look at suffering, rejoicing, and The Boss.

I won’t argue that Bruce Springsteen hasn’t been given due praise, but mostly it’s as a caricature portrait artist of blue collar americana. I haven’t heard his impeccably introspective biographical songwriting praised enough, so I’m being the change I wish to see in the world. When I think about this sensitive side of The Boss, I think of 1987’s masterpiece Tunnel of Love, and 1992’s Lucky Town. When contemplating what I wanted to express most about these two albums, I initially fixated on the rareness of the tone of Lucky Town. There’s so much gratitude, joyfulness, and tenderness in this album. There’s something about the sheer force of jubilation of Better Days,” the album’s opening track, that felt exemplary. The organic rejoicing of it all! The deeper I listened, the more I heard Bruce’s skillful introspection, his uncanny ability to glance into the rearview as he surveys his present landscape. The more I listened to Lucky Town, the more I reflected on Tunnel of Love, which brought me to my central thesis: to truly rejoice in life’s brightest days, we must be well acquainted with ourselves and our suffering — and we must be ready to notice the changes as they happen. Secular music provides us with plenty of blueprints for suffering, and I’d argue, significantly less anthems for rejoicing. Rarely do we get entire albums dedicated to the act of noticing ourselves through both loss and gain, which provides the foundation for us to excel at both states of being.

Secular people are rarely urged to praise the conditions of their lives by rejoicing, although we do know how to celebrate. Rejoicing is distinct in its addition of gratitude and awe. While celebration brings to mind party anthems, songs about material riches, notable achievements, fruits of the ego, rejoicing joins our hands with the ineffable to praise the feeling of luck, or of fortune that might not have come directly from us. I’ll steadfastly insist that even an atheist can appreciate that he is not directly in control of all aspects of his life — if he were then he would simply never fail nor be pleasantly surprised. Whether we attribute our come-ups to luck” or to randomized chaos, we can still access that quality of mystery and give thanks to it. Furthermore, the act of Rejoicing is a tool for deepening one’s investment in the narrative of their life, one that cannot be accessed without candid, unabashed self-awareness. And we have Bruce to show us how.

As life is constructed in moments of contrast, the first critical piece of Rejoicing in the Act of Noticing is to take stock of wherever we are; if we cannot face our suffering and our despair, neither can we recognize our potential for repair and expansion. So that is where we begin. Lamentation. When he released Tunnel of Love in 1987, Bruce was already quietly separated from his younger, stunningly gorgeous model wife. Once we can get past the sonically ugly Can’t Have You,” and through the coy, flirty Tougher Than the Rest,” we begin to get the picture. We’re no stranger to Springsteen’s large collection of personal iconography: on Tunnel of Love we meet again the river, the willow, the road, the vagabond, the home builder. We also see holy matrimony become part of this cadre. We see it introduced in Brilliant Disguise,” alongside the gypsy, whose integrity Bruce questions right alongside that of his beloved: we stood at the alter, the gypsy swore our future was bright, but come the wee wee hours, well maybe baby, the gypsy lied.” We see it in One Step Up”: girl in white inside a church in June, but the church bells they ain’t ringing.” He recalls his own wedding day and the role of his father on Walk Like a Man,” and remembers his mother dragging him and his sister up a hill to watch newlyweds exit the church as the bells rang — would they ever look so happy again, the handsome groom and his bride?”

The feeling of uncertainty is everywhere as Bruce doubts his perception of his wife (“Brilliant Disguise”), of his self (“Two Faces”), of his feelings at large. His crumbling marriage contradicts the image of his childhood memories. The relationship starts to feel like a third person, an entity comprised of mistrust, fear, secrecy, and doubt. This entity gets mistaken for love on the album’s title track, where it is likened to the carnival, full of distortions in funhouse mirrors, leering attendants, and the interior of shadows so dark it’s easy for two people to lose each other.”

Oughta be easy oughta be simple enough, man meets woman and they fall in love but this ride is haunted and the ride gets rough.

It would be just as rational to describe two people traveling through the Tunnel of Love — but to Bruce, and to us, the direction his life is headed is down.

Valentine’s Day” closes out Tunnel of Love. It’s a song full of air. Bruce is on a night drive, it feels like the windows are down. It’s all around him, this cold vapor of loss and longing. He’s pining for his love — tonight I miss my girl, tonight I miss my home, and it’s nothing but the fear of losing her that has him out on this spooky old highway” in the first place. His heart pounds. We drive with him, and the drive is long. Bruce revisits his icons, illuminated this time by the voice of his friend from a recent phone call: a friend of mine became a father last night. When we spoke in his voice, I could hear the light. Of the sky and the river, the timberwolf in the pines, and that great jukebox out on route 39.” The slow, elegiac quality of the song gives us the melancholy impression that his car will never make it home, he won’t again be alone with his beloved. Then we have the dream. Earlier in the record, Bruce dreams of holding his wife in his arms as they dance into the fading darkness; the music was never-ending.” But here we witness the dream’s true conclusion: They say when you die in your dreams, you really die in your bed, and honey last night I dreamed my eyes rolled straight back in my head…I woke up in the darkness scared, breathing, and born anew.”

We drive on as Bruce goes through the list of what he expected to lose in his real/dreamed death experience. It wasn’t the wind in the grey fields rushing through Bruce’s arms, nor the cold river bottom, and not the bitterness of a dream that didn’t come true. All of Bruce’s personal iconography, the images he uses to describe his identity are not what falls away. No no baby, baby it was you. This death, the thing slipping through his grasp, is his beloved. When he finally pleads, tell me you’ll be my lonely Valentine,” we know that the woman he’s begging is no more than a memory. A phantom.

I can’t stop thinking about Valentine’s Day” as a final word, a ribbon tied so gently around this box full of broken mirrors. It contains this feeling of never-ending roaming — the dark expanse of disappointment and the darker, infinitely larger, future of lonesome uncertainty. We leave Bruce in this collapsed state to examine the times in our lives, perhaps this present moment, when we have found ourselves similarly collapsed. What have we lost and what dreams has that loss swept away? How did the collapse of the dream take with it our concept of ourselves, our faith in reality? It might be our immediate instinct to ask, what next? But the point of Tunnel of Love is simply in noticing. Bruce examines this relationship from every angle. Each shard of mirror glass is a piece of his own perspective, experience, and narrative. In this way, Bruce accepts responsibility for his side of the street so to speak — there is little blame in his observations, so although we get the feeling that his marriage has disintegrated, we don’t totally feel like we know why. The ability to center ourselves in our loss, examine our stories and our myths, and to mourn them before we go on making adjustments, empowers us with some amount of accountability and control. Without this foundational act of self-examination, of noticing, the answer to what happens next?” cannot hope to matter.

#

The last time I reached for Tunnel of Love, I was looking for comradery in heartbreak. It was March of last year, just a week shy of the eighth anniversary of my dad’s death, when my beloved dog and companion Rex left the world in my arms. I reached for it again that April, when my relationship simply evaporated in the shadow of loss. My best friend was trying and failing to get me to leave the house — I could not, would not, leave my bed. I’d reached for this album many times before, and through practice I’ve learned that when life gets like that, one’s primary job is to let collapse what can collapse. So I did. I took Bruce’s example to heart — I stayed present in the ruin, and The Boss kept me company.

Join us next week for Part II, concerning Springsteen’s 1992 follow-up, Lucky Town.

Lish Ciambrone

IG: @iamyourdad_now

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