Author’s Note: Upon Bruce Springsteen’s endorsement of President Obama for a second term in office, one gave thought to summer ’84 when Bruce Springsteen’s popularity reached a new peak. That same summer, Ronald Reagan was on his way to a second term as President. It was a time of celebration for the Republican Party’s right wing, which was enjoying a peak of its own. Those of us lamenting the political situation then had little idea of how far-right the Republicans would go. We wouldn’t have expected them to one day nominate a Sarah Palin for Vice President or to hear one of their Senatorial candidates discuss “legitimate rape.” Neither would we have expected their kindred to favor bringing guns to church. It’s a lot to hope for, but it would be great if the election on Tuesday could lead to reversing such madness.
The guy in Bruce Springsteen’s “My Home Town” feels let down. He isn’t that bitter, just shaken over the changes he’s encountered and wary of the changes ahead. Wife and kid in tow, he’ll start over in a new place, maybe in one of the southern states, where the job market holds promise. The guy hates to leave his home town; it’s the setting for the memories of childhood and where the mysteries of adulthood unraveled, often joyfully, but at times with the ball in his court and the pressure on to make the right play. Scoring the winning goal in the real world is tougher than on the playground.
As with “Downbound Train,” another song from 1984’s Born In The USA, the storyline in “My Home Town” is beautifully rendered. Springsteen puts us in the guy’s shoes. His character in “Downbound Train” is the ’80s equivalent of the Depression era’s migrant worker, working at the car wash, “where all it ever does is rain.” The guy feels drenched, not so much by the water spraying down the cars, but from the misery pouring down on him. We read from Matthew 5:45 that it rains on the just and the unjust. Surely it does, but many of the characters in the songs on Born In The USA simply wonder when the storm will let up.
Born In The USA has engaging narratives by one of America’s most thoughtful songwriters, but too often its songs are cluttered with ’80s styled production techniques. There’s bombast with the pounding drums and synths. Bruce Springsteen albums are supposed to sound like a collection of Bruce Springsteen songs. There was no need to emulate Phil Collins and other noise-polluters of that age. The flashy sounds too often got in the way of Springsteen’s sharp observations.
Three years later, Springsteen released Tunnel of Love, a revealing and brave album. The production was far more restrained; so the haunting and beautiful melodies take center stage. That approach worked splendidly again in 2002 with The Rising. Released less than a year after 9/11, Americans looked to their heroes, and Springsteen is considered one, to deliver consoling messages of hope, perhaps the way young workers in the smokestack towns did in ’84. Springsteen delivered. “The Rising” is not only a great album, but in the words of Atlanta writer-actor Tommy Housworth, “an event, a comeback and an apolitical commentary on loss in America.” Springsteen gives consideration to what’s been lost, but advocates, as he has before, having a little faith. The days of celebrating do not remain in our past. The music on the album reinforces the spirit of his messages; the melodies soar, sway and comfort.
Let’s think of America as an old vinyl 45. The “A” side reflects the nobility of the country’s ideas and its generosity. Certainly it will be a hit record heard and loved by millions. It calls to mind the songs on The Rising. But there’s a droning B-side too. It reveals anger based on fears, lies and prejudice. Some disc jockeys, particularly those on the political right, can’t resist playing it. That brings us to the group now masquerading as Lynyrd Skynyrd.
This is not your father’s Lynyrd Skynyrd. That band met a tragic end October 20, 1977 when its chartered plane crashed in Mississippi, taking the lives of lead singer and principal songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, back-up vocalist Cassie Gaines. Such talent and vision cannot be replaced, but a band calling itself Lynyrd Skynyrd, with only guitarist Gary Rossington from the glory years, continues to release new albums and tour. In an effort to project authenticity, this Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lead singer is Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie’s younger brother.
Commonality of flesh and blood does not guarantee replication of a sibling’s accomplishments (see Jorge Santana or Chris Jagger), but maybe the little brother’s spirit could excite Lynyrd Skynyrd’s hard-core devotees at concerts as they listened, closed their eyes, and made allowances. Even though Lynyrd Skynyrd never made a classic album in the four years before the crash, they did record many great songs, enough to fill a red-hot set list. The faux Lynyrd Skynyrd, devoted to those songs, could crank ’em out and satisfy the fans.
Keeping the fans happy is important. They might be armed.
Go back 35 years. 1975. Rock and Roll had moved on from the days of peace, love and understanding, but it was years away from reflecting the views of people who become bitter, and “cling to guns or religion.” Lynyrd Skynyrd, one of the two hottest bands in the American South at the time, conveyed a wariness about those packing heat in their song, “Saturday Night Special.” Co-written by Ed King and Ronnie Van Zant, the song’s message is clear.Observing the carnage, the older Van Zant made a suggestion.
Hand guns are made for killin’
Ain’t no good for nothin’ else
And if you like your whiskey
You might even shoot yourself
So why don’t we dump ’em people
To the bottom of the sea
Before some fool come around here
Wanna shoot either you or me.
Polluting the oceans with pistols is not advisable, but Ronnie Van Zant was on to something. Those easily acquired pistols bring a lot of misery and shouldn’t be so widely available. Jealous husbands, angry gamblers, drunks and street thugs use them to their advantage.
Now, back to the present. The faux Lynyrd Skynyrd is touring behind their latest album, God and Guns. The title cut and another track, “That Ain’t My America” depict a nation in free fall where citizens are deprived of their rights to smoke, worship God and procure firearms to protect their families. They represent America’s droning B-side. It’s the America where slamming Uncle Sam won’t be tolerated, never mind The Bill of Rights. It’s the America where it’s thought a child is denied his freedom to worship if organized (coerced) prayers are not allowed in the public schools. It’s the America going the way of the Roman Empire unless the people who somehow connect the Prince of Peace with “peacemakers” form a line of defense.
It’s to the women and the men who in their hands hold a Bible and a gun
And they ain’t afraid of nothing, when they’re holding either one.
In the heart of America’s droning B-side is an organization called God and Guns. On its website a “Statement of Faith” is offered, not much different than that of many Evangelical groups, conservative and otherwise. It’s followed by a “Statement of Faith about Weapons.” Here’s where it gets strange. This faith organization holding Jesus Christ as Lord cites only scriptural references from the Old Testament, none from the New Testament which covers the life and teachings of Jesus. That probably saves them from having to explain away scriptures such as Matthew 26: 50-52, in which Jesus was seized prior to his trial and crucifixion. One of his disciples drew a sword and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. Jesus admonished his defender, saying “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” In Luke 22, we read of Jesus healing the slave’s ear. It’s curious that a group so enamored of weaponry overlooked this action-packed story.
People experiencing hard times can be easily exploited. The approach of the gun groups is to align their cause with what millions deem most important, like faith and salvation. Those exploiting say just enough to get people worked up and fearful of losing their freedoms. It’s a common refrain on America’s B-side.
Americans, whether they listen to Springsteen’s songs of hope or the songs of resentment by the band calling itself Lynyrd Skynyrd, have seen changes making life here different and more difficult. Yet Americans are still able to worship as they choose, buy firearms to protect themselves and say what they please about the government. Just look at the last 50 years of the nation’s history; new freedoms have been embraced and supported by law. It’s still a country Ronnie Van Zant’s “Free Bird” would enjoy traveling through.