David Masciotra @ The Book Cellar (tonight!)

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In “Working on a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen” (just released from Continuum books), David Masciotra examines how the musical legend’s work has been inspired and influenced by the fractured political texture of this country, and in turn contributed to the possible futures and hopes of its people.

It was at Trinity Lutheran Elementary School in Lansing, Illinois, where Masciotra “first began to learn about maintaining a compassionate sensibility, communal solidarity, and measuring your value in the world by the depth of your love and extent of your service to other people.” It was also there that he became interested in Bruce Springsteen. “When I was in eighth grade, the principal saw me carrying around a Mellencamp CD, and recommended Springsteen. I was immediately drawn to the exciting musical ride of ’50s rock, ’60s soul, and timeless folk that Springsteen creates.” 
 In high school he began to look closer at Springsteen, to “consider the depth and profundity of the lyrical content. But, even then I was incapable of fully comprehending and internalizing the subversive and complex philosophical substance that comes through those powerful words, which comment on not only politics, but love, intimacy, spirituality, sexuality–essentially the whole range of the human experience.”

“Even though I first sat down to write Working On a Dream in June of ’08, it has been a book in the making since I was 13 and that principal said, ‘you should check out Springsteen.'”

Brandon Will (BW): What are probably the three most commonly misconstrued popular Bruce songs?

David Masciotra (DM): I still get surprised looks when I tell people “Born in the USA” is not a patriotic anthem, but the exact opposite–a song of protest and dissent, the story of a man born in a “dead man’s town,” who goes to Vietnam to fight in the war that took his brother’s life, returns home unable to find a job and entirely ignored by the collective American polity. Social services are absent or ineffective. He is rendered invisible. The chorus becomes a statement of overwhelming despair, almost a cruel joke: This shouldn’t be happening to me here, but it is.

“Glory Days,” is interpreted as a party song because of its infectious vocal ebullience and bouncy beat. However, there is some serious pain in that song. It sketches the lives of people who peaked in high school, and have been locked out of the American dream. Springsteen originally wrote a fourth verse of the song that detailed the life of his own father, who was in and out of dissatisfying jobs his entire life and found solace only in booze. Had the “lost verse” been included, the song may have been more easily understood.
 “Born to Run” is misconstrued as a blank slate anthem for individual exploration and conquest. It is about something much deeper–the meaning and discovery of love, the search for a home where justice, authenticity, and companionship are not only discussed but enshrined, and the fight for individual freedom. However, that fight for individual freedom is directly connected to inclusion and participation within a particular community. That is a deep message in a culture that ties individuality to the market and tells people, “you are your cell phone ring tone” or “you are your sneaker.” Springsteen is saying, “you are your sense of integrity, your act of creativity, and your commitment to solidarity.” 
BW: What should a peripheral Bruce fan know about the man and his music that they maybe don’t.

DM: That there is more to the music than the radio friendly songs. It doesn’t all begin and end with “Born to Run”, “Born in the USA”, “Hungry Heart”, etc. They should know he was deeply involved in progressive political causes long before he campaigned for Kerry in ’04. It is amusing some Republican fans became angry with this endorsement, revealing a profound ignorance about his music–really more of an obliviousness. When you look at the organizations and causes Springsteen has invested in throughout his life, the Kerry endorsement was probably the most politically mild thing he did.
The most important thing to acknowledge and applaud is that he’s a person who puts suffering and struggling everyday people at the front and center of his world-view. Whether it is the gay man dying of AIDS in “Streets of Philadelphia,” or Amadou Diallou–the West African immigrant wrongfully gunned down by police officers in “American Skin,” or the Mexican immigrant dying of thirst in the Arizona desert in “Matamoras Banks,” Springsteen begins suffering people who are routinely ignored and disrespected by the American political system and media. That’s a deeply democratic message. 
BW: And let’s not forget to touch on how fun he is.

DM: There are so many great, fun rock songs–“Out in the Street,” “Ramrod,” “Tenth Avenue Freezeout.” The list could go on and on. Working On a Dream has a chapter that deals with some of these, because even they are connected to the larger, sociopolitical vision. Party ritual is extremely important to a satisfying life, and in America–an overworked culture that often degrades leisure–the glorification of party ritual and leisure activity is very refreshing and meaningful.
One of my favorite concert memories was when a friend and I went to see the show at US Cellular. He closed with “Rosalita” and “Dancing in the Dark.” We had seats on the field, and that field became a dance hall. We grabbed two beautiful girls standing in wonderful proximity to us, and had the greatest time dancing. 
BW: What do you have to say to people that say that Bruce Springsteen is lame? Also, to people who say he is a caricature of his former self?

DM: Read my book.
In all seriousness, I would encourage that person to invest time listening to the albums, especially the songs not well-known. The caricature criticism is beyond ignorant – he’s put out some of his best music in the 2000s. This has been the best decade for Springsteen since the ’70s. People who think he’s lost his magic need to listen to The Rising, Devils and Dust, Magic, and We Shall Overcome.
I’m not trying to convert everyone to Springsteen fandom. I am trying to reveal how powerfully and poetically his music comments on American society, and use that music as a predicate to re-imagine American politics, sociology, culture, and spirituality.
David Masciotra reads from and discusses his book Working on a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen with Chicago author Ben Tanzer (Lucky Man, Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine) tonight at 7p.m. at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 N. Lincoln Ave. – Brandon Will

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  • I am so profoundly upset that I missed this reading tonight. Not only am I so on the same page as Masciotra that it's like we are twin Springsteen fans born of the same womb, but I even recognize some of the same complaints:

    When I was 18 I wrote a paper for school about how "Born in the USA" may be the most misunderstood rock song ever--even by Bruce fans.

    When I was 21 I went to the Vote for Change Tour headlined by Springsteen and became thoroughly annoyed by Republicans carping about how left-wing Springsteen had become. I wanted to ask them if they'd ever even listened to the lyrics of any of his songs.

    Count me as a fan already. If Masciotra is half as eloquent on the page as he is in this interview, this book will be worth every penny.

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