The Promised Land (1978)
Bruce Springsteen’s “Promised Land” would have to be considered, for it embraces everything that’s wrong with the country and everything that’s absolutely right. Sure, Rock-N-Roll is sometimes considered to be too raw and uncomplicated to rise to the level of timeless art. Whoever believes that nonsense has not heard this luminous, transcendent piece of work.
Indeed, it may already be the national anthem for a sizable chunk of the population of the U.S.A.
Woody Guthrie? Check. On steroids. Bob Dylan? Check. On uppers. Phil Spector, the Ronettes, Motown, the Four Seasons’ working class sentiments, party music, and five power chords? Check, check, check, check, check, check. Political consciousness? Out the wazoo.
September 30, 1985, live at the L.A. Colosseum
“Promised Land” asks the question, “Can human beings liberate themselves from the tedium of working and struggling in a degraded world through the glory and energy of music and words?” The answer – at least for the 4-1/2 minutes of the song – is a bell-ringing, hand-clapping, hoarse-voiced, “Yes.”
The “Yes” is expressed in the chorus that begins “The dogs on main street howl…” following each verse.
On a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert
I pick up my money and head back into town
Driving cross the Waynesboro county line
I got the radio on and I’m just killing time
Working all day in my daddy’s garage
Driving all night, chasing some mirage
Pretty soon little girl I’m gonna take charge
The dogs on main street howl
’cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man
And I believe in a promised land
In concert, by the time the last singing of the chorus rolls around, the audience, whether in a smaller arena or a football stadium in the Midwest, is raising its collective fist and roaring, I believe in a promised land.
In between the lyrics, and just behind them, is a driving beat, like a factory in early 20th century America, machines pounding, exposing the repetitiveness of everyday living as one bleak adversary.
In this case, the alienated narrator works at the family garage in the middle of the desert. Not much going on. And the promised land of Springsteen’s song is in unmistakable contradiction to the place in Chuck Berry’s identically named song, “Promised Land,” to which Springsteen is paying passing tribute.
Berry’s land was golden California, the Eden of dust bowlers, sharecroppers, all the displaced of the Depression, all the Joads who were shut out of the original “promised land” back in the dried up Plains and around the Mississippi’s veins and arteries, the ones who had to move west.
Springsteen’s character doesn’t even make it to California, washing up with his father in East Bumfuck, Utah. But he can still muster the spirit to say, before his anger and frustration rise as he thinks about a fight with anyone for any reason:
I’ve done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start
The final stanza, one that always brings the crowd to its feet if they haven’t already gotten up, holds out the promise of yet another new land. But this is a sweet land of an individual’s interior. It is the promised land of coping and rising above.
The raging storm in the lyrics becomes an incandescent moment, like the storm scenes in Key Largo. Goodness, small as it may be, squelched as it may be, is going to win over the malaise. The storm in “Promised Land” has a physical aspect although it soon rises up as a Shakespearean convention, something psychological the protagonist throws himself against.
There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted
“Promised Land” is one of the many high points of the Jersey sound. The orchestration is full, dense with rhythms and counter rhythms, a dozen musical ideas that streamed out of the head of Phil Sector before his manias consumed him – ideas that Springsteen absorbed and translated. The beat is an incessant, tom-tomming. The saxophone, harmonica and glockenspiel add to the big Jersey, giving it its distinctive early ’60s tang.
Gary U.S. Bonds haunts the “Promised Land,” a fierce party feeling running throughout the track. No one is dancing till a quarter to three in “Promised Land,” though. The character is in a barren wasteland, fixing the few cars that might come by; he wants to physically cut the pain from his heart. Yet through it all, the real party erupts because of a spiritual triumph. His inner strength will blow all obstacles away. The singer is 1000% joyously honest when he shouts/sings as his last line, Yes, I believe in a promised land.
It’s a hell of a lot better than believing in nothing.
- John Landau’s famous line in 1974 about Bruce Springsteen being the future of Rock-N-Roll is powerful. The continuation of the commentary in Boston’s Real Paper is even more telling:
- “I saw rock and roll’s future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.”
Also by Bruce Springsteen on SongMango.com:
- Thunder Road“Thunder Road” very well may be the greatest Rock-N-Roll song of the 1970s and one of the greatest Rock songs of all time.
- Hungry HeartWe are all very much alone in the spiritual sense and the soul's hunger is part of our condition as humans.
- I'm Going DownSpringsteen's ability to work within the great Rock tradition but still expand its boundaries is one of his greatest gifts.