Working On A Dream –
The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen
By David Masciotra
Continuum – £14.99
Where exactly to begin with Bruce Springsteen regarding his validity as an artist and performer, writer and musician, is no easy task. That he’s released such an enviable amount of astonishingly, timeless good work over the years, ensures the writing of any really valid critique, will undoubtedly always remain something of a colossal undertaking.
To be sure, any hardcore fan come qualified writer such as Dave Marsh – whose three books Born To Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, Glory Days and Bruce Springsteen On Tour 1968- 2005 I’ve read – can piece together a commendable, albeit horribly duplicitous, obsequious assessment of the songwriter’s career. All one has to do to do, is merely blanket the book with as many cloyingly saccharine descriptions such as great and genius, as one can possibly muster. But to write a translucent, honest and analytical assessment of Springsteen’s vast body of work – taking into account not only its depth of musical structure, political intellect and (occasional) social forensic foresight, but also the density of its worldwide influence – one has to nigh academically anaesthetize oneself into almost becoming the work, in order to partially understand it.
It’s only once this has been embraced, that one is truly qualified to write a compelling analysis on Springsteen the artist and performer, writer and musician. And in my opinion, David Masciotra has both ascertained and achieved this. In Working On A Dream – The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen, we finally have a credible and critical evaluation of one America’s finest and most potent of songwriter’s. Along with the likes of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, Springsteen too stands proud amid the pantheon of poetic proliferation and social anti-stasis – a belief and mode of reflective writing which hasn’t in any way, bypassed the analytical antenna of the author.
Delving back in time, to surely one of Springsteen’s finest moments in Chapter Three’s ‘Up To My Neck In Hock,’ Masciotra dissects the song ‘Factory.’
End of the day, factory whistle cries,
Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes.
And you just better believe, boy
Somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight,
It’s the working, the working, just the working life.
In so doing, he sheds light not only upon the song’s continued influential hold over Springsteen’s writing itself, but the possible trajectory of its reflective relevance in relation to the current Obama administration: ‘’The men pass through those same gates they did eight or nine hours earlier, and are hauntingly and brutally depicted as having ‘death in their eyes.’ The physical difficulties of manual labour combined with the mental paralysis of the nature of the work make these men unreachable. They typify Marx’s alienated worker. Hostility builds inside of them, and their resentment for their structural surroundings breeds unhealthy behavioural repercussions. The song’s warning that ‘Somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight’ captures the desire for ‘induced psychosis’ and recklessness that follows […]. The song ends with a sweeping coda which, similar to other Springsteen songs, evoke passions and emotions of mourning. The alienated worker’s suffering and struggles are to be mourned, as is what communities lose when workers are objectified in this fashion. Most of all, they are to be remembered – in art, life and politics.’’
Like Springsteen, Masciotra ensures that art, life and politics are never too far removed from just beneath the surface. In fact, they resonate throughout this more than courageous book from beginning to end. Hence the title. Hence there being an abundance of material such as that quoted above; all of which totally dissect and describe like nothing else I’ve ever read on the artist. None that is, apart from the occasional, well considered article in the British broadsheet press. None that is, until now.
As the author continues to clarify, the politics of art and life feed off one another like an abstract addiction: ‘’Far from exclusively glorifying the worker’s continual lull in life, Springsteen honestly wrestles with its tragic implications in grim and provocative artistry. Although it bears similarities to Marx’s theory of labour alienation, its impetus is not derived from a philosophical text but from his own household. He witnessed the real-life effects of theoretical diagnosis in his father’s eyes, and felt it in the air of his working-class home. Springsteen would go on to write more songs about his father, but none of them focused on the condition created by his work as precisely and powerfully as ‘Factory.’ He nearly navigated the same territory in 1984 with the Born in the U.S.A. hit ‘Glory Days,’ but for unknown reasons eliminated a significant portion of the song’s lyrics, which would have made the impact of the song much stronger and would have provided a clearer picture of the America he described in that album’s misunderstood title track. The ‘lost’ verse was published in a collection of Springsteen lyrics titled Songs […].
My old man worked 20 years on the line and they let him go
Now everywhere he goes out looking for work they just tell him that he’s too old
I was 9 years old when he was working at the Metuchen Ford
plant assembly line
Now he just sits on a stool down at the Legion Hall, but I can
tell what’s on his mind
Yeah gone bad, glory days
Oh he ain’t never had, glory days
That David Masciotra substantiates (t)his point – among many – by bringing to our attention (as well as to perhaps many a misguided fan) that of ‘Glory Days’ lost verse, is in and of itself, meritorious. That he has done so within the political parameters of quintessentially plausible reasoning, accounts for Working on a Dream – The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen being an epitomic piece of work. Exemplary beyond any literary doubt and quite possibly the finest Springsteen book I’ve ever read.