Rising Above These Badlands

(Another letter to my son using a Bruce Springsteen song as a muse) 

I’m giving up on trying to avoid talking about my gig as a minister and about spiritual matters. Such things central to who I am. I am going to trust that you don’t see it as meaningless religious speak. I’ll try not to sell religion. I will try to point to the heart and to our need to love one another.

Anyway, in seminary, and in my years at Christian college too, we learned the craft of exegesis. Looking at a text and delving deep and finding meaning out of it, that’s what exegesis basically is. Now, doing this with song lyrics can be a venture in snobby – and boring - intellectualism. But some lyrics reach the level of poetry. I’d certainly say that about Bruce’s lyrics.

One of the major things I learned in those classes on exegesis is this – knowing the context surrounding the text is very important. The context surrounding the song Badlands is actually important for more reasons than understanding what the song means. It is important for your learning how to encounter conflict.

So here’s the story behind “Badlands” and the record this song comes from, Darkness on the Edge of Town.

It is 1977. We have a young Bruce Springsteen, age 27, in a kind of exile. There is a legal battle between he and his former producer and manager Mike Appel over control of his music. At the beginning of Bruce’s career, Appel drew up a contract that gave him as producer and manager the right to make creative decisions. The contract also gave Appel’s company an unfair share of the royalties and profits as well as ownership of Springsteen’s music.

Despite the success of 1975’s Born to Run, Springsteen wasn’t seeing much of the profits and his band even less. This and the fact that Springsteen was denied the right to get Jon Landau, his current producer, on board as a producer made it clear. The contract he signed with Appel put too much control - of Springsteen’s music and career - in Appel’s hands.

So Bruce did not have the right to choose his producer or creatively control his music. 

Not liking this lack of control, Bruce sued.  Appel countersued, and effectively barred Bruce from going into the studio and recording with Landau or anyone else except Appel.

At a time when musicians made records every year if only to keep your name out there and the radio play going, Springsteen had to lie low. There was talk about Springsteen having disappeared, a one-hit wonder no longer to return.

In other words, his life, his livelihood, his music was on the line, and so was his bandmates’ whom he was paying.

His future was uncertain. He had no control over what would happen. He didn’t know whether he’d be a one hit wonder in fact and not just in thought.

I am sure it was tempting for Bruce to say, this is too tough, let me just make music, no matter who is producing it or controlling it. Just get the paycheck and rest easy.

But his music was not just his livelihood, it was his life. It was not just a paycheck. His music was his heart’s language, his connection to the world. His art, which came from the deepest part of his being, was something he could not give away or compromise on.

When it comes to who you are, when it involves something that rises from the core of your being, from your heart, you must stay true, you must sometimes take a stand and not compromise. That’s what adults must try to do.

This presumes something, however. Something very important. It presumes you know who you are. It also presumes you know what is coming from your heart and what is not.

There will be many people and many voices trying to tell you who you are. You’ve probably already noticed that. You may have noticed that coming especially from me and your mom.

You will also hear your own voice chattering away.

But only you as an adult get to decide who you are in this world. All those voices can sing harmony. But only you are writing and singing the melody.

As for your own voice, well, make sure it is your heart and not just your head speaking.

Knowing what is coming from your heart is crucial. This means you got to know your own heart, which is where God resides. Knowing your own heart is where creativity happens, it is where music and poetry begin. Bruce’s soul-force, his music-filled heart, is where his music began.

There is work involved here, son. The work is listening to the muse inside you. The work is blocking out all the noise, all the voices, all the chatter outside and inside your head, and digging and delving deep. The work means being courageous enough to sit alone with yourself. The work means being brave to sit with loneliness and find music and poetry in that silence. The work means learning to be silent sometimes.

Silence, after all, is the foundation of music. Without silence, there’d be no music, only uninterrupted noise. The force that Star Wars talks about is silent, the force is silence. It is born from sitting with God silently and just listening.

“I want control right now…the king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything”

Bruce’s lack of full control of his music and of his future is lurking behind “Badlands.” Control of his fate: he doesn’t have that fully. He cannot rule his own destiny at this point. All he has is the music and his friends, his bandmates, and his community of fans.

When you lack self-ownership, when you lack the ability to influence the direction of your life, it is easy to feel oppressed and then depressed. When you feel like you are forced to follow or sit still instead of lead and move forward, it is easy to feel paralyzed.

The lights might be out. Trouble all around. Collisions and crossfiring. Not understanding why or how. But you must lead where you can and do what you can. Begin with yourself.  Take control of what you can, namely your reactions and your response.

Yes, I’ve said it again and again: don’t be a follower. Don’t simply conform for conforming’s sake. 

Don’t believe the hype or the big stories fed to us all the time. Don’t latch onto another’s ideas or goals without letting your mind and heart lead you first, discerning the wisdom and compassion behind what is preached at you. There is nothing worse than not thinking through things.

Be a leader, son. And being a leader begins inside. Leadership is a mental game first.

Leading means seeing all the played-out scenes and just the in-betweens, and listening to the heart inside you saying, no, I am going to create something new.

Begin anew each moment you can. Take the new moment – and each moment is new – and find the heart and soul of it and live it forward.

Leadership also means putting yourself out there. Put it all on the line. Do what is most important and do it with everything you have. 

This goes back to the practice of digging and delving deep. Only then can you find out what you’ve got. Only then can you take what is great yet latent and make it real and actual and powerful.

I am not saying the American Dream will be realized if only you try hard enough. I am not that foolish. Obstacles are real, and sometimes cannot be overcome. There will be nights where you cannot sleep. You will wake up with a fear so real that it cannot be avoided. You will have dreams and hopes that you wait and work to see come into fruition, but the moment won’t come. Life is hard this way. No way around the truth.

But keep pushing, son. Keep pushing. Keep making music, or poetry, or art, or even jokes. Keep living, every day.

Broken-hearts come with the territory. Heartbreak comes with the territory of being human in this world. We cannot get through life without getting our heart crushed. If there’s been anything I preached that I believe without a shadow of any doubt, it would be this: from brokenness true healing, true wholeness comes. Jesus embodied this, his body broken in order for wholeness to arise. We learn this if we live long enough. Hopefully, you haven’t learned this yet. But when you do, know it will be okay. I will be there. Those who’ve loved you from the start will be there. And from all of it, from the bad will come good, from the heartache will come compassion, from the struggle will come a humanity and humility in you that reaches out to help others.

"This is 'Land of Hope & Dreams'"

Between 1989 and 1999, in the wake of his world-wide success and his local divorce, Bruce Springsteen and his band experienced an extended hiatus. Bruce had not written many rock songs in these 14 years, dabbling with either straightforward pop music or folk music. When Springsteen and the band reunited in 1998, Springsteen wondered if Rock music was still in him. He wondered if that part of himself had passed him by. “Land of Hope and Dreams (LOHAD),” one of the first new songs he wrote post-reunion, gave him his answer. Springsteen stated that LOHAD proved that the thing which got him to the table of greatness, the Rock song, had not left him. More than this, Bruce was returning with a message, with spiritual insight.

Bruce and the band first played LOHAD live in 1999 and a year later in the now famous concerts at Madison Square Garden in July 2000.

It is interesting to me that LOHAD is the only song, in the concerts I’ve listened to anyway, where Bruce introduces the song by name. He will introduce simply with the words, “This is ‘Land of Hope and Dreams.’” This begins the song every time. It is as if Bruce is a preacher giving the title to the secular sermon he is about to give. It is a laying down of the marker. With the introduction he is saying, “we are now entering sacred space, the space from which the gospel of love and music will be proclaimed in full and not just in part.”

The song invokes the oft-used metaphor of the train.   

Almost since the train has been around, it has been used a metaphor in spiritual and gospel music. In some ways, it is a modern day rendition of the chariot, which is a metaphor traced to the Bible – remember the story of Elijah being taken to heaven in a chariot of fire? Well, the train becomes our modern day chariot taking us to heaven. So we have songs like Life’s a Railway to Heaven that appeared as early as 1917 with many renditions thereafter, maybe the most famous by Patsy Cline.

Then there is old spiritual that Woody Guthrie would find and adapt, bringing it to a new audience of folkies – This Train is Bound for Glory.

This song is interesting because its original version would be adapted and answered to as time went on. Its original lyrics were rather moralistic and judgmental. “This Train don’t take nothing but the righteous and the holy. This train don’t carry no gamblers, smokers, no liar, only the righteous and the holy.”

The minister of my childhood church would say this amounts to “works-salvation.” Do the right things, live a clean life, don’t do anything wrong, and you’ve got your ticket to the heaven-bound train.

Well, in 1939, one of Rock and Rolls pioneers, Sister Rosetta Thorpe would record the song and make it less moralistic yet insert more specifically Christian language. She mentions the train being clean because those riding claim Jesus’ name. She mentions those being blood-washed being the only ones able to ride. In a live version of the song in 1964, she’d added, “that you gotta get redeemed to ride this train.”

Here we have a greater focus on faith-salvation. Faith – in Jesus and his blood and his redemptions – saves. Faith leads to us becoming holy. But faith is the first step.

Interestingly, Thorpe’s 1939 recording is considered a prototype of early Rock and Roll, a song that in its use of rhythm  and the blues progression influenced Rock’s development.

Moving ahead some 25 years, to 1965, one of the greatest and most influential songs of the 1960’s is one that incorporated the well-used metaphor of the train, the train as the new chariot bringing us to the kingdom of heaven realized. Of course, we are talking about Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions ‘ “People Get Ready.”

"People get ready, there's a train comin'
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'
You don't need no ticket you just thank the Lord."

There is also the less obvious song called, “Love Train” by the O’Jays. “People all over the world, join hands, start a love train.”

Now, in 2000, Bruce Springsteen, long immersed in the roots of his music and a huge and devoted fan of both Woody Guthrie and Curtis Mayfield, introduced his own train song. It is a song that stands in the lineage of songs using the train metaphor, namely by Woody Guthrie, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, and Curtis Mayfield.

Springsteen’s song directly responds to the old tune “This Train is Bound for Glory,” tweaking it moralism. Instead, Land of Hope and Dreams proffers a Universalist-friendly message that says This Train takes all.

“This train carries saints and sinners. This trains carries losers and winners.”

In this way, he borrows from both Sister Rossetta Thorpe’s less moralistic rendition and Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.”

Also like Tharpe, Bruce points to the importance of faith. Dreams will not be thwarted, for sure. What’s more, faith will be rewarded. What faith? The faith of simply getting on board and joining the glory-bound community.

The Curtis Mayfield lyrics come to mind. “You don’t need no ticket… All you need is faith.”

In fact, beginning in his now legendary live performance in Barcelona in 2002, Springsteen performs Land of Hope and Dream and ends it by climatically including Mayfield’s refrain – People Get Ready, there’s a Train a comin.’ You don’t need no ticket, you just get on board. This quoting is also on the studio recording.

This song hits me deep everytime. As I said, it is a gospel song. But what is its gospel, its good news? The gospel it preaches is basically Universalism. There is a movement, a vehicle, a caravan that excludes none, that picks up everybody eventually as it heads to somewhere more perfect, the land of hope and dreams. There is a community that is ever expanding and moving forward toward complete community.

This collective community, this train’s means and end, its journey and destination are not different, are not separated out. This train heads to the kingdom of heaven, but in its progressing there, in people’s faithful boarding unto the “love train,” the kingdom is being realized all along the way. This tapping into the kingdom of heaven along the way may be momentary, in fleeting moments, but the temporary experience of God’s kingdom is powerful and transforming. And it leads to an eternal experience of God’s harmonizing love.

We see another uniting in the song. The uniting of faith and practice, what the Christian tradition calls works. As I was taught as a traditional Protestant is that faith and good works are separate. Faith is the door, the door unlocked by Jesus.  Good works is the room that you enter after opening the door of faith.  Springsteen sees it differently. Faith is a good work, it is a good practice. It is the first good work. The good work, the practice, is also simple. The good work of faith means getting on board. Yes, this is precipitated by a belief that the train leads us to the land of hope and dreams. But the belief that the train is true and the getting on board happen together.

All you need is faith… you don’t need no ticket just get on board.

Faith, the belief that there is a land of hope and dreams where all are included and none are left behind, is not enough. There is work involved. Diligence is due any great hope. There is practice necessary. There is cultivation and improvement involved.

Bruce and the band practice hard and play their shows even harder. They put in sweat and tears and even blood I imagine each and every night. Sometimes for four hours, usually for three. Just because they are some of the most famous rock stars doesn’t mean they are resting on their laurels. No, their free-spirits are grounded by the hard work of practicing and applying their skill and talent and giving their heart and soul each and every day. Surely, this is made easier knowing they are entertaining, touching and moving people attending their shows. But their keeping the focus on the music, their cultivating their trade and becoming better, is what allows them to thrive and makes them the best live show in music.

I leave you with this, son, as I end talking about my, as you know, favorite Bruce Springsteen: Never ignore the beautiful, transforming gift of community and music. And never ignore their power. What is more, never ignore that they go together.

Yes, you can make music singing alone and with just your voice. But how limited that music will be. This amounts to musical narcissism. Music means putting it out there. It means using instruments (and even given those instruments names like B.B. King’s Lucille), adding in harmony, playing with other musicians, playing in front of other people. Even singing acapella alone involves the community of your voice, the space you sing, and sound waves resonating from your mouth and in your ears. It involves a community of notes and rhythm and maybe words.

Don’t just simply not ignore these things. Tap into them.

My hope for you, son, is that you regularly experience the power of community and music. There are not many things in life we can reliably say make our life better and more complete. Being part of a community of friends and playing and getting lost in music are two of those sacred things that make our life better and more complete. 

Build community and make music and do both at the same time. That is the lesson here.