"I ran for president in 1992 to restore the American Dream for all our people, to bring the American people together, and to assure that America would remain the world's strongest force for peace and freedom, democracy and prosperity, into the 21st Century." This is Bill Clinton, speaking to the recent gathering of the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization he helped found in 1985 to push the Democratic party to the right, toward Reagan country, in hopes of claiming a bigger electoral share. The cadences are familiar, but the language--a language of democratic values, of common purpose and common commitment--is dead. A moment later he elaborates: "We know that the government of the 21st Century must be a constant challenge to our people to seize opportunities and assume responsibilities."
Now that language, banal as it is, has power; it's the language of power. And its call--which is at bottom a warning to get with the dictates of the marketplace and to forsake any thought that the powerful might concern themselves with your welfare if you can't oblige--is answered over and over in Bruce Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad, not least in "Sinaloa Cowboys," the story of a pair of brothers, illegals come across from Mexico, who take a job cooking batches of methamphetamine for Mexican mobsters. They weigh the demands of the market, seize opportunities, assume responsibilities:
You could spend a year in the orchards
Or make half as much in one 10-hour shift
Working for the men from Sinaloa
Ah, but if you slipped
The hydriodic acid could burn right through your skin
They'd leave you spittin' up blood in the desert
If you breathed those fumes in
You could call The Ghost of Tom Joad the poison pill in the Contract With America, as some reviewers in effect have done, and be right as far as it goes, but it would hardly be going far enough. Because to say as much is to suggest that Newt Gingrich's America is different from Bill Clinton's America, that it's an aberration, which it is not. For the past 15 years the most prominent public voices have spoken the same language and seen the same future, one in which all questions will be settled by the implacable hand of the market. In the words of Greil Marcus, reviewing Tom Joad's precursor Nebraska 13 years ago, what they envision is an America "where social and economic functions have become the measure of all things and dissolved all values beyond money and status." Those who are worthy make it, those who make it are worthy; the rest are roadkill. In a country like this--where everything, including the imagination, is a commodity to be privatized--empathy becomes a radical gesture and an un-American activity.
Tom Joad is a radical work for exactly that reason: It tries to imagine lives we are all supposed to forget. The record opens with a prayer that echoes across its 50 minutes. Sitting by a campfire, a homeless man tries to coax a voice out of himself--to bear witness, to rise up and start something. The voice he covets is that of Tom Joad, the hero of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, though it's actually the closing speech from John Ford's film version that Springsteen has in mind. In the movie, Joad (played with a taut edge of menace by Henry Fonda) is getting ready to go on the lam after killing the union-busting goon who murdered his friend Casey. His mother worries about what will become of him; how will she know? Well, he answers,
Maybe it's like Casey says--a fella ain't got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul. The one big soul that belongs to everybody. Then--then it don't matter. I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready. And when people are eatin' the stuff they raised and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too.
And then he disappears over a hill--to "find out what it is that's wrong," he tells his mother. The power of the scene can't be explained solely in terms of the burning dignity of Fonda's performance; what makes it transcendent is that, in the context of the movie and the America in which it was made, it seemed inevitable that he would find people who spoke the same language and sought the same answers. This faith is precisely what the characters who populate Springsteen's Tom Joad lack, because in an America where winners take all, they're invisible. When they take to the road, all they find is road. When they disappear over a hill, they're gone.
But before they go, they manage to tell you more than you ever wanted to know. Tom Joad is deathly quiet--so quiet, someone joked, that it makes Nebraska sound like a party record, which is not far wrong--but if you listen to it more than once, the stillness begins to speak, coughing up countless indelible details that are as much a matter of the voice and the spare musical arrangements as of the lyrics. At the end of "Balboa Park," a hustler named Spider, a kid who's maybe 12 years old, gets hit by a car that speeds off into the night. In the last lines of the song, Spider "limped to his blanket 'neath the underpass/Lie there tastin' his own blood on his tongue/Closed his eyes and listened to the cars rushin' by so fast." There's horror in the way Springsteen lingers over those last few words. You hear the utter disconnection between their world and his, but you hear something else, too: a terrible sense of wonder. Lying there in the dark, probably dying, the kid is still enthralled by the intimation of the world those cars represent. His own life seems as pale and trivial to him as it does to the people in the cars.