Praise Music For a Secular Life

Suffer Well, Rejoice Better with Bruce Springsteen, Part II

In the first half of this essay we considered how secular music can provide blueprints for navigating the narratives of our lives, and learned from Bruce Springsteen as he elegantly suffered the dissolution of his marriage and his dreams on the 1987 album, Tunnel of Love. This time we flip the coin to see what The Boss can teach us about rejoicing.

We don’t hear from Bruce again until 1992, and when he returns, he returns with force. He releases two albums on the same day: Human Touch, and the subject of our focus, Lucky Town. In the interim years, Bruce’s divorce was finalized and he moved in with friend and bandmate Patti Scalifia. They married two years later in 1990, and welcomed their first child that same year. So, after the chill night air of what we can only assume was early February, we awaken to the blaring cacophony, the frenzy of springtime with all its promises of rebirth — we awaken to Lucky Town. There’s no better way to open than with Better Days.”

The first time I heard the song, it was months after the last time I’d wept listening to Valentine’s Day,” and the paradigm shift in Bruce’s voice knocked the wind out of me. The song comes on like praise music. Bruce is doing his best gospel impression, which for him sounds like screaming at the top of his lungs. Think of this in all caps:

Well, my soul checked out missing as I sat listening
To the hours and minutes tickin’ away
Yeah, just sittin’ round waitin’ for my life to begin
While it was all just slippin’ away

Well, I’m tired of waitin’ for tomorrow to come
For that train to come roarin’ round the bend
I got a new suit of clothes and a pretty red rose
A woman I can call my friend

These are better days, baby
There’s better days shining through.

Bruce continues on with his own thesis here, establishing the points that he’ll return to throughout the album: One, the luck” he refers to is not fortune, and his material wealth hides what he considers to be his failures. Two, he has been saved — and just barely — by the redeeming love of his wife and his child, and three, that what he’s been saved from is, in part, self-imprisonment. I appreciate the self-conscious way Bruce acknowledges that it’s hard to have sympathy for a world-famous rock musician:

Now a life of leisure and a pirate’s treasure
Don’t make much for tragedy
But it’s a sad man, my friend, who’s livin’ in his own skin
And can’t stand the company

We can see the rearview mirror in front of us as we travel through this newly illuminated landscape. We see the new fruits of his world, but the past is still very much present here in contrast. Bruce continues his renunciation of false fortunes in the wry title track and we hear him assert agency over his change of luck for the first time. He toasts:

Here’s to the loaded places that we take ourselves
When it comes to luck, you make your own
Tonight I got dirt on my hands, but I’m building me a new home.

Throughout the album Springsteen revisits his favorite motifs, but there are more off-topic tunes than on TOL. In Local Hero,” allegedly inspired by a moment Bruce saw his own photograph hung up in an establishment in his hometown, he imagines his identity as famous musician as akin to a false prophet of sorts (and can’t help but invoke the damn gypsy again). Souls of the Departed,” in the tradition of Born in the USA,” is thought to be inspired by the Gulf War. Big Muddy,” about the inevitable moral failings of man, contains one of my absolute favorite lines, relayed to the narrator by a friend: poison snake bites you, and you’re poison too.

Both Book of Dreams” and If I Should Fall Behind” dote on his new wife, revisiting the entity of marriage with renewed hopefulness, almost as if he is singing his vows. We know grief, especially in its early days, is a wild animal. Best not to ask why” of it — it won’t answer you. Joy too can be that wild, incomprehensible animal. Bruce takes a stab comprehending it anyway, on the almost unlistenably goofy Leap of Faith.” The absurdity of the lyrics exude the punch-drunk feeling of being in love: he describes himself as Jesus’ son, sanctified, born again into [his wife’s] love. Buckle up folks, we are worshiping at the altar of her tits! Again he takes personal agency rather than claiming divine intervention, asserting that his romantic redemption comes as a result of accepting his wife’s encouragement: trust your heart even after it has faltered — take the leap of faith.” It’s a funny foil for what is, in my incredibly biased opinion, one of the best songs ever written, “Living Proof.”

We get basically one reference to god by name in Tunnel of Love, as the light he sees when he dies in his dreams. Living Proof” gives us a few nods to the big man: Bruce (who is back to basically screaming) looks for god’s mercy, and he finds his living proof.” He rejoices in the love of his wife and child, the resurrection of the dream that died in Tunnel of Love. The sight of his newborn son in his wife’s arms is the missing words to some prayer, that [he] could never make.” Bruce digs deep into his suffering, and his shame:

Well, I put my heart and soul, baby
I put em high upon a shelf
Right next to that faith
Faith that I’d lost in myself

I went down into the desert city
Yeah, just tryin’ so hard to shed my skin
I crawled deep into some kind of darkness
Lookin’ to burn out every, every trace of who I’d been

You do some sad sad things baby
Oh, when it’s you you’re tryin’ to lose
You do some sad and hurtful things
I seen living proof

and acknowledges his role in his suffering:

You shot through my anger and rage
To show me my prison was just an open, open cage
There were no keys, no guards
Oh, just one frightened man and some old shadows for bars

We have the ability to take Springtseen’s references to god as shorthand for the ineffable mystery I referenced earlier. I too have searched for divine mercy in my mortal life and found it, often by looking backwards into darkness and accepting the storm clouds as indivisible from their silver linings. This mindset welcomes many levels of contrast in the same scene. It encourages the understanding of one’s privilege in a world where the bottom of human suffering is so deep we can’t begin to imagine it, while also accepting that even lucky as we are, we are suffering nonetheless. Here we are holding the pain caused by our entanglements — our heartbreak — side by side with the redeeming potential of love. Feeling our pain and evaluating how much of it is self-inflicted, or self-perpetuated. And for fuck’s sake, admitting it. To continue the theme of centering oneself from Tunnel of Love, Springsteen takes a tremendous amount of personal responsibility for what he’s experienced. Both in suffering and in joy, he never loses his agency or succumbs to victimhood. Bruce looks and he finds, he takes the leap of faith, he builds his own home. He also does those sad hurtful things as he tries to lose himself. Nowhere, blessing or curse, does god simply give.”

My experience with religion showed me the velocity with which our minds can change. One second I was a bereft teenager, the next second I truly had it all. With or without a conception of god, this velocity is everywhere in life. Our existence can be drastically altered, or ended, in a second. Suddenly faithful, or suddenly in love, suddenly expecting, divorced — or dead — many things can instantaneously appear and disappear. Allowing for such changes, be it collapse or reward, with attentiveness instead of resistance could have propelled both of these records and their inspirations into being. By the end of Lucky Town, we get the sense that Bruce accepts that things may change again, though he is prepared to view them from a new perspective.

In a narrative sense, Beautiful Reward” could have been the first, rather than the last, song on Lucky Town. We pick up much where we left off on Valentine’s Day, but this time as a great black bird soaring over the same windy grey fields” we drove through years ago. Again we are traveling alone, searching. Springsteen reflects for a final time on his loss:

Your hair shone in the sun, I was so high, yea I was the lucky one,
but I came crashing down like a drunk on a barroom floor.

After a whole album telling us that he has, in fact, already found his reward (and living proof, afterall) it seems odd to end on the theme of endless searching. There is a subtle genius to ending the album here rather than beginning with it: luck, whether given or made, changes. So after all of that triumph and joy, it’s not Springsteen’s turn of luck that signifies the greatest shift, but his change in perspective. The grey fields stay grey, but he views his life from new heights, addressing his familiars from the vantage point of a bird in the sky rather than a heartbroken highway traveler.

That first time I heard Better Days,” I was driving down 83 alone on my way to do some innocuous errand — and for the first time since the spring I had the thought, holy shit, I might be ok. I had been deeply mourning for months, but it was time to notice something new. I wasn’t out of pain (and neither was Bruce), but I was out of my house and starting to function again. Lucky Town was both the encouragement to notice that I was now somewhere other than the pit of suffering, and the permission to allow light to flood back in by rejoicing in that observation. I needed both the reminders. All of us, at some points, do. It’s a beautiful function of music, to create these emotional environments that allow us to reflect and transcend. I ended that drive certain that the cage bars were indeed just shadows. I was free to walk out into my changed life.

As The Boss instructs, life is just a house of cards. Fragile is our existence, our happiness — and regardless of our relative fortunes, we suffer. Whatever shape redemption takes, if we are searching for it, if we are attentive to ourselves and to others, then the mercy of a nourishing rain is as promised as the drought. As we search for our own beautiful rewards, we may find them through taking responsibility to notice ourselves, our patterns, our changes, our personal mythology. We may find them too, in the love that surrounds us. If we must suffer, let us suffer well, and rejoice at the top of our lungs when we can, for all that we can.

Lish Ciambrone

IG: @iamyourdad_now

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