I've said this type of thing about other Springsteen records, but I mean it when i say The Ghost of Tom Joad
is possibly Springsteen
's greatest album. When I was younger I used to place it right down at the bottom of his records, because I prefered energetic rock'n'roll and I wasn't really interested in lyrics all that much. Then, when I started to become interested in lyrics and music that had more than four chord
s and 20 seconds of guitar solo, I suppose I pretty much moved away from Springsteen on the whole, perhaps because I associated him with simplicity, and myself being 13. So The Ghost of Tom Joad
just got burried in the back of my cd cases with the rest of his stuff, which I either wasn't interested in or had exhausted the use of (I was a big fan back in the day, once waited four hours outside the Dorchester Hotel
just for a glimpse). Then, for some reason, about 3 weeks ago, I stumbled across it and decided to give it a spin (quite literally). I digested it over time, because I normally like my first indulge
ment of an album to take place in the dark, while I drift off to sleep. As a result, I can only hear two or three songs at a time before I am no longer awake, so it takes awhile before I know the album in full. But that doesn't really matter. The point is I was completely blown away.
This album has completely changed my opinion of Springsteen: for some reason or another, until I found this record, I thought of him as a nice rock musician who had plenty to say, but had a little trouble saying it. He never seemed like the genius I think he is now. Let me give my adulation of Tom Joad:
It is a theme album. Not in the Pink Floyd sense, but every song has a common theme. It is about desperation, it is about feeling alone, about making mistakes, wishing never to be born, wishing just to die, wishing to be somewhere and someone else. It is about survival, it is about not having purpose, it is about wanting to start over again, it is about wanting to curl up into a ball and to sink fifty feet into the ground, never to be found again. It's about a place on Earth most of us would call Hell. The other night I was sharing this album with a friend, and after hitting the play button I wanted to look at something appropriate. I winded up looking at a dimly-lit drape on the wall, and it occured to me how nice it was. I realised nothing in my world was anything like the world of The Ghost of Tom Joad, but that was why stuff like Springsteen's is important: one can take us all away from our worlds, one can take us to different worlds, but only if the job is done properly. The Ghost of Tom Joad does this job.
1)The Ghost of Tom Joad: the perfect opening track. It sets the scene. It tells you where you're about to be going, it lets you know that the music will be simple, yet beautiful, and that it's only there to give a little lift to the things that will be said. When Bruce sings "the highway is alive tonight, and nobody's kidding nobody about where it goes", the listener has to wonder about what he means. On the surface, I suppose it means the down-and-outs who live on the railroad tracks have no future. But there is a strong religious theme in this song: the character called Preacher carries with him a Bible, and he waits for when "the last shall be first and the first shall be last". Maybe the highway Bruce speaks of is going toward Judgement Day. Among these people, nobody is kidding anybody that it doesn't. I can't help but think of the play Waiting for Godo when Bruce says "Waiting for the ghost of Tom Joad". Rage Against The Machine did a cover of this, but in my opinion, no amount of heavy music could ever match the heaviness of Bruce's voice, the quiet instruments that sound like passing cars, the gentle beat that gives the whole song a place and a mood and a sense of going some place where there's no going back.
2)Straight Time: beautiful, beautiful song. Completely describes the difficulty of remaining law-abiding, which some people unfortunately have. When the main character finally crosses "the thin line" (as Bruce calls it) the lyrics are deliberately grumbled and muffled, so that one has to wonder exactly what has happened. I never realised what the person actually does until I read it in the lyrics, and I now worship Bruce's subtle approach to the dramatic content of the song.
3)Highway 29: the scariest song I can think of. Out of all of the tracks, this song does the best job of taking the listener to an entirely different environment, and it is not a happy one. There is a part in which three of the four lines use the verb 'to slip', and I reckon the base of this song can be whittled down to just that. It is about making a mistake, a very bad one, and regretting it for the rest of a guilt-ridden life. Out of all of the characters in the album, the main character of Highway 29 is the last one I would want to be. He has condemned himself into the closest thing to Hell on Earth, and it poors through into his description of his surroundings ("The winter sun shot through the black trees" makes me think of a lonely barren place from which there is no escape). My favorite part of the song is the line "Well I had a gun. You know the rest", because the truth is we don't know the rest. No matter how many times we listen to this song, we never know what really happened. All we know is that it must have been bad. When the man describes his dream of flying away, the music seems to gently lift off from the ground a bit, picking up pace, and slowly flying away as the song fades out.
4)Youngstown: People often depict Hell as a place where people work with pickaxes and shovels in red-hot environments, but the truth is that plenty of people do it for a living. I like the way Bruce draws the connection between Hell and working in such conditions. The song has a groovy little beat and pretty little riffs in the background. Neat song.
5)Sinaloa Cowboys: Simple, yet beautiful little tune with spanish "twinkling" on top. My favorite piece of music on the album. It's a sad story of two brothers who cross the border into America with hopes of a better lifestyle. I love this part:
"Their father said "My sons one thing you will learn
For everything the north gives
it exacts a price in return."
At first it just seems like a passing rhyme, but by the end of the song the listener realises that it's what the whole song is about. It's kind of like a prophecy, or even the fate seen by an oracle, in a greek tragedy, which no one can escape. The final words are:
"There in the dirt he dug up 10000 dollars all that they'd saved
Kissed his brother's lips and placed him in his grave."
A simple exchange with the land of the North itself.
6) The Line: A sad, sad song about a lonely chap named Carl, who floats around with different jobs and different people. Underneath all of it, he's looking for the same thing everywhere: his wife, who is deceased. He takes a job in the border patrol, and soon his eyes rest on a woman who seems to fill the gaping hole in his soul. The truth is, this woman has features which take him back to being with his wife, and he knows that, but he does whatever he can for her. "Carl, hunger is a powerful thing", says his friend Bobby, refering to the immigrants who keep coming back with hopes of finally making it across the border (and yet it is quite suitable if talking about Carl's hunger for his lost one...). Carl, mad for this woman named Louisa, uses his position to attempt to bring her and her family across the border in his truck. The music picks up just a tiny bit at this point, and Bruce breathes the words just a bit heavier, but it's always enough to get me really pumped and psyched. It's like a movie. And like a movie, there's a scumbag: Springsteen mumbles something about seeing the tape across her brother's chest. When Bobby pulls them over, and Carl stands in his headlights with his hand on his gun, it's equal to a typical climax. Louisa runs away, and after the suspense, Bobby does nothing to Carl, and never brings the incident up. But I can't help thinking that perhaps this was the opposite of the happy ending, because Carl eventually leaves the job, and goes off in search of his Senorita "with her black her down". Bruce brilliantly neglects to say which senorita he means, and I reckon death by the hand of a friend would have been better than Carl's endless search, lonely and longing for the rest of his days.
7)Balboa Park: This is quite a straightforward song, but I can't help feeling that I'm missing something. "Spider", a drug smuggler, doesn't seem to have too much worth living for. I wonder whether the details of all his darting past the border patrol are meant to imply that there is no way he would have been "caught" in the car's headlights; perhaps he just wanted to end it there and then.
8) Dry Lightning: Pleasant little love song, kind of lonely though.
9)The New Timer: Pretty calm song about a lone ranger. It's slightly vague, but from the lyrics one learns a few things here and there about the man, the new timer. It is, however, impossible to understand fully what is happening, which is mysterious in it's own way. I imagine that the name of who he "ought to kill" is the name of whoever shot Frank, but there isn't a lot to bank it on. I prefer it like that, though; I like the way we aren't told everything, how we are only given a few aspects of this man's history and character. There's nothing at all to help you work out who he is, so it is left entirely up to the listener. He is a stranger in every possible way.
10) Across the Border: Perhaps the saddest and the happiest song of the album at the same time. On the one hand, it's all about hope. It's about a new beginning, about a new life, it's about having a family, it's about finding happiness. The speaker is about to embark on a journey into a whole new world, and excitement is there, even in the calmness of Bruce's voice. But on the other hand, having just heard the previous 9 tracks, in the back of the listener's mind, the doubts are there too. The listener is happy for the speaker, who is optimistic about his future, and at the same time the listener is sad for the speaker, because he is almost setting himself up for a knockdown. He's expecting this beautiful, happy ending where "pain and memory have been stilled", but listening to it, I can't help thinking: "you poor bastard, this isn't a fairytale, don't do this to yourself, please". It's a beautiful song, and the album should have stopped right here.
It didn't however. Bruce slammed on two more songs to fill up space, which nearly ruined the whole record for me. Something so touching and so well crafted was still subject to the commercial bullshit of having enough filler tracks to get more records sold. Really fucked me off. All the same, it's a simply wonderful record.