The music on Bruce Springsteen’s 13th album, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” is sparse–mostly Springsteen’s voice and acoustic guitar, more folk than typical rock. The album explores the travails of immigrants, dislocated workers, and America’s economically dispossessed. Its title track invokes John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and protagonist Tom Joad, the displaced Okie who confronts social injustice and is transformed into a radical.
On a solo tour that will keep him on the road through the summer, Springsteen punctuates his performances with commentary between the songs. “There is a part of our population whose lives and dreams are declared expendable as the price of doing business,” he says, introducing one number. At another point, he paraphrases Joad: “Maybe they got it wrong and we’re not all individual souls, and maybe our fate is not independent at all. Maybe we’re all just little pieces of one big soul.”
Sipping Jack Daniel’s, the 46-year-old Springsteen talked with Mother Jones after a performance in Washington, D.C.
Q: At a recent benefit, you dedicated the song “The Ghost of Tom Joad” to the “Gingrich mob.”
A: With that song, I had been watching what’s happening in the world and seeing 30 years of work undone. It seems disastrous to me–and everybody is compliant. I don’t think there is any such thing as an innocent man; there is a collective responsibility. That’s in the song’s line: “Where it’s headed everybody knows.” Everybody knows there are the people we write off, there are the people we try to hang on to, and there are the people we don’t fuck with [laughs]. And that very knowledge could come back and haunt this next election. Everybody knows that, hey, maybe I’m just on the line. And maybe I’m going to step over from being one of these people to one of those people.
Q: Some of the themes you deal with, like immigration, have become hot-button political issues in the last year or two. Did you plan on addressing political issues on this album?
A: No. I never start with a political point of view. I believe that your politics are emotionally and psychologically determined by your early experiences. My family didn’t have a political house. We didn’t have a cultural house. There was a lot of struggle in my parents’ life. In Jersey, when I was 19, they traveled West to start a new life. They didn’t know anybody. They had $3,000 to make it across the country with my little sister. My mother worked the same job her whole life, every day, never sick, never stayed home, never cried. My dad had a very difficult life, a hard struggle all the time at work. I’ve always felt like I’m seeking his revenge.
My memory is of my father trying to find work, what that does to you, and how that affects your image of your manhood, as a provider. The loss of that role is devastating. I write coming from that spot–the spot of disaffection, of loners, outsiders. But not outlaws. It’s about people trying to find their way in, but somebody won’t let them in. Or they can’t find their way in. And what are the actions that leads to?
That pretty much obsesses me to this day–and probably will the rest of my life.
I don’t like the soapbox stuff. I don’t believe you can tell people anything. You can show them things. For this particular record, all I knew was that I wanted to write some good stories…. I don’t set out to make a point, I set out to create understanding and compassion and present something that feels like the world. I set out to make sure something is revealed at the end of the song, some knowledge gained. That’s when, I figure, I’m doing my job.
Q: You’ve said the original idea for the album was sort of an “American noir” theme but then you shifted, and some of the major characters and subjects became immigrants, itinerant workers, and down-and-out people. Why?
A: Part of it is due to my living in California where there is a lot of border reporting. And when I get the chance, I take motorcycle trips and go out to the desert, Southern California, Arizona. I’ll go 1,000 miles, 2,000 miles, where nobody recognizes you. You just meet people. That whole thing probably began with this Mexican guy I bumped into in this Four Corners desert town at the end of the summer. We were all sitting outside at a table, drinking beers. It came up that his brother had been a member of a Mexican motorcycle gang in the San Fernando Valley, and he told us the story of his brother’s death in a motorcycle accident. Something about that guy stayed with me for a year. Then I read an article on the drug trade in the Central Valley. All that led to the song “Sinaloa Cowboys” [about two brothers, Mexican immigrants, who mix methamphetamines]. The border story is something that I hadn’t heard much of in the music that’s out there. It’s a big story. It’s the story of what this country is going to be: a big, multicultural place.
Q: People think that the country–rightly or wrongly–has taken a turn to the right. You’re cutting against that. What brought you to this point?
A: I believe that the war on poverty is a more American idea than the war on the war on poverty. I believe that most people feel like that. And I believe that it ain’t over ’til it’s over. We’ve gotten to this sad spot, where we’re talking about how much should be cut from what we need. It would take a tremendous concentration of national will, on the order of a domestic Marshall Plan, to do the things that need to be done to achieve a real kind of social justice and equality. Whether people’s hearts and wills are into it, I don’t know. I tend to be pessimistic. I want to believe in hope.
Q: There are a few moments of hope on the current album, but they’re very small.
A: I got to the end of the record, and there had been a lot of mayhem [in the songs]. I wanted to leave the door open, so I wrote “Across the Border.” That song is a beautiful dream. It’s the kind of dream you would have before you fall asleep, where you live in a world where beauty is still possible. And in that possibility of beauty there is hope.
Then I had this idea of writing a song [“Galveston Bay”] about the Vietnamese and the Texas fishermen, about a guy who makes a particular decision not to add to the brutality and violence. [In the song, fisherman Billy Sutter goes to kill a rival, Le Bin Son, but instead returns to his sleeping wife.] He decides to let it pass on this night, to leave it alone, for whatever the reason. That’s a miracle that can happen, that does happen. People get to a certain brink, and they make a good choice, instead of a deadly choice.
Q: Do you ever feel the urge to direct your audience toward a course of action?
A: Music doesn’t tell you where to go. It says, go find your own place. That’s what it told me.
I heard a political message in rock music. A liberation message. A message of freedom. I heard it in Elvis’ voice. That voice had its implications. You weren’t supposed to hear Elvis Presley. You weren’t supposed to hear Jerry Lee Lewis. You weren’t supposed to hear Robert Johnson. You weren’t supposed to hear Hank Williams. And they told the story of the secret America.
Q: An album like this recorded by someone else would be a hard sell.
A: Yes, it would. It probably would go virtually unheard. I didn’t put out the record expecting it to be on the big Top 40 stations. It’s not going to be. This isn’t the music business, it’s the money business, and I don’t have any illusions about that.
Q: What is the effect of the concentration trend within the media industry on the diversity of pop culture voices?
A: You mean the hegemony of the homogenous? I have faith in a lot of the new, young, vital rock bands that came up through independent labels. They found core audiences before they hit a major label. If the industry executives think you will make them money, they will do what you ask [laughs]. It’s a bottom-line job for those guys.
But kids who are supposed to be invisible and never be heard, who are kicked out of high school, who are losers–they make their way through, generation after generation. Nirvana, Dr. Dre, Pearl Jam. Hell, they weren’t supposed to become powerful, but they did. It’s a business that depends on the kid in his garage, and it always will.
That’s the irony of the whole thing. [The executives] are sweating about some kid in the Midwest in his garage right now. Then it’s up to that kid to hold on. It’s a question of your toughness, your survivability, and how hard you hold on to what you originally wanted to do.
Q: The White House wanted you to drop by today, but you chose not to go.
A: What ears this man has! [Laughs.] I don’t know what to say. In my opinion, the artist has to keep his distance.
David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.