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.