"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.
Here and throughout, Springsteen sings with a starkness and immediacy that's comparable in my experience only with the most haunting blues and country voices--those of Skip James, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, or Son House, the sort of voice that finds you across a dark room and stares you down. When you encounter one of those voices, you either let it in and listen to the stories it has to tell, or you close the door; you don't dust the furniture or carry on a conversation.
From song to song the voice is worried, ravaged, beyond outrage; there is no indignity gross enough to elicit a protest from it. This was enough to make a couple of people I know want to turn away. Too painful, they said, and too much the same. Myself, I don't hear a wasted or careless syllable. Certain lines are hard to hear; the characters are forever swallowing their words and their aspirations. "I was good at doin' what I was told," says the border patrolman in "The Line," and in that he speaks for everybody here. But Springsteen, starting from the fact of their anonymity, fights it every step of the way. The more you listen, the more you're struck by the odd meticulousness of his phrasing, as though every fleeting detail must be set down, made to count.
He means to remember, which is the last thing anyone on the record wants to do. There's another passage in the goodbye scene from The Grapes of Wrath that figures here: Tom Joad is thinking about the preacher Casey--"'bout what he said, what he done. 'Bout how he died. And I remember all of it." But if the act of remembering held out a kind of redemption in a world where others still spoke the same language and shared the same memories, it's strictly a burden to these people--a bad taste left in one's mouth, an impediment to traveling light. At one point Springsteen revisits "Thunder Road," the best of his early love songs, and turns it on its head. "Dry Lightning" is one long ache; if the narrator isn't actually impotent, he may as well be. When he tells his lover, "I can't lose your memory/The sweet smell of your skin," he's complaining; his life would be easier if he could. The counterpoint comes in the middle of "Highway 29," after a botched bank robbery that ends in bloodshed: "In a little desert motel, the air was hot and clean/I slept the sleep of the dead, I didn't dream." For that instant he is grateful, and it's the only moment when any of these men finds peace with himself.
Mostly they just move on, trying to get by, get high, stay alive. The 12 songs that comprise the record are stories without endings; you don't find out what happens to Miguel Rosales after his brother dies in an explosion at the shack where they cook up methamphetamine, or to the border patrol cop who finally quits his job to look for the woman he had risked everything to help across. You don't know whether Spider, the hustler who crawls back to his shantytown bed, wakes up in the morning or not. Their stories simply pass across your field of vision and pass away.
It seems only fitting that the last action any of them takes turns out to be shrouded in mystery. "Galveston Bay" is the story of two men bound together in ways that neither of them can fathom: a pair of Vietnam vets, Le Bin Son and Billy Sutter, who wind up working fishing boats in the same Texas coast town. After Le shoots a couple of Klansmen who were trying to burn his family's boat, Billy swears to kill him. He goes to the harbor late one night and stands waiting in the shadows, a knife in his hand. But when Le passes by, something causes Billy to stick the knife in his pocket. The moment passes; nothing happens. Maybe Billy decides his own humanity counts for more than the vengeance he's dreamed of wreaking. Or maybe he just has a failure of nerve and stuffs those energies back down inside himself to erupt again some other time. You don't know, and probably he doesn't either, because in the end he and everyone else here are as much strangers to themselves as to the people they meet.
I don't know what kind of audience The Ghost of Tom Joad will find; there is no "rock audience" anymore to answer it, to say yes or no, and Springsteen's own audience is in considerable disarray. But I do know the record makes demands of a sort Springsteen has always shied from and that no one else would dream of making. For all its similarities to Nebraska, which envisioned the same winner's America and measured life in its shadow with the same quiet rage, Tom Joad goes further. Nebraska was tidier, easier to put down; Tom Joad's stories work their way inside you and begin to fester.
In the process they come together as a rebuke: to the poisonous cant of Reagan's and Gingrich's and Clinton's America, sure, but they carry an equal measure of scorn for all the decent people who just don't care to know. (The very last song, "My Best Was Never Good Enough," is Springsteen's little valentine to them, a catalog of chin-up motivational slogans incanted with perfect contempt; open it up and it says Fuck you.) As I write this, it's hard to believe that anyone who really listened to The Ghost of Tom Joad could ever see the country in the same way again. Of course that's wishful thinking. It's easy enough to set it aside--as a downer, or a passing swipe at Newt Gingrich, or, as David Browne wrote in Entertainment Weekly, an untrue reflection of "our" America. But as I've played it for the past month, it's made every other piece of music I've tried to listen to seem trifling. And it's made the whole drama of family values and welfare reform and budget compromises seem like not just vile gamesmanship, but the purest obscenity.