July 15, 2010

DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN


When I was growing up and things looked grim, I found solace in words. They were not from my own language but came from an Ocean away, and I believe that they are one of the things that made me love America as a concept.

While there is much respect on my end for British culture, I am also very much aware of its limitations, its confinements and its inbred arrogance that pretends an Empire still exists and that their universities in Oxford and Cambridge still produce, educate and teach and intellectual elite, while in fact these institutions have produced nothing but a pre-Facebook social network that is held together by shared buggery, both real and imaginary.

Oxford and Cambridge used to produce great thinkers and intellectual giants.

Now they produce people like David Cameron.

They solidify a class system that is not helpful in any way, shape or form to what should be a society based on merit. And we won't even go into the whole problem of what constitutes "merit" in the first place, for the Randians and the Youngists (the latter ones not even realising that Young wrote The Rise of the Meritocracy as a satirical essay, but hell, irony and sarcasm is usually lost on those hungry for an ideology that confirms their inbred prejudices) will come out in force and define it in the most class-based and selfish terms ever.

These are the same people, by the way, who ridiculed Van Gogh when he was still alive and attempted to stretch the canvas, both figuratively and literally, of what art can, what art should achieve.

A sense of wonder, brushes that bring forth a soul and trap it in a painting, there to be reflected upon and reflecting the souls of those who would come later and watch it.

But merit? What is the merit of people like Van Gogh?

76 million dollars, a Randian will tell you. That's what somebody was willing to pay for one of Van Gogh's paintings, and isn't it the strength of the free market to tell us what something is worth? What merit something has? Counted in hard cash, coins and bills that have been used to wipe rich, snotty noses.

But America wasn't like that. Not when I was growing up. With movies and TV shows and music that painted a different picture from the environment I was trapped in. America was mythical. America was vast and unique and celebrated freedom. Germans of my generation loved America. We have a rather unhealthy obsession with Westerns, too. The stretches of landscape, unpopulated and waiting for you. The ability to start anew. The ability to be what you are. The promise of all that.

Mythic.

It's why everybody below 10 years of age played Cowboys and Indians, and all of them may have very well come from a different planet, where the luck of the draw could turn you into a honorable and strong white man like Old Shatterhand or a wise, honorable Indian Chief like Winnetou. The operative word her being "honorable".

Evil still existed there, of that we were sure, but America? In America, good would prevail each and every time, for that's what happens in a mythical place, be it Middle-Earth, Narnia or... America.

But when I was growing a bit older, that mythical place called out in a different tune, its words had become harsher, its sounds darker. The easy times of childhood, conjured up in the cauldron of dreams and illusions became tainted by reality, regardless of how many suburbian adventurelands Steven Spielberg gave us, they were not real and even then, those suburbias could very well be perfection (as in E.T) and horror (Poltergeist).

But the one who made America a real place for me? Who told me that things are the same all over, that dreams are the same, that disappointments feel the same everywhere on this planet, that people live and die, love and lie, fight and cry?

Bruce Springsteen.

Not the best singer, not the best musician, but maybe the best American poet of the late 20th century. I know that some – the ones never leaving their university offices, the ones only reading old and dusty, mouldy and musty tomes of centuries long gone – may take offense at that.

Prejudice. Solidified. By classes and class. What is the merit of somebody who talks about the lower classes? The ones who struggle to make it through the day? Who celebrates in simple, easy, accessible words what it is like to be a loser? What it is like to lose and yet to not give up?

Isn't poetry, isn't prose, isn't drama reserved for those who are "chosen"? Picked out from obscurity by destiny? Living up to their promise, given to them by blood?

It's what is still being celebrated today. The princes and kings. The queens and princesses. The noblemen and their women, especially in British culture. You are destined for something great, and if you make it, it is because you were destined for it.

Bred for it. Born into it.

Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, vomited all over us in different shapes, always going to back to the one, central deceit... destiny. A concept born in Calvinism, the idea that if god loves you, if destiny favours you, nothing you do will be judged, will ever be judged. Only the reasoning behind such a concept changes with the times. First, it was god, then it was Darwin (because we are all so much better than the niggers, than the Aztecs, the Mayans, those strange yellow men... we got science now to back it up, eh?), then it solified into the teachings of facism and nazism.

But it all stems from the same source.

Destiny. Pre-selection, by the divine, by your birthright, by your blood.

And here was Springsteen, and his words were haunting and real. His stories, something you could relate to, if you grew up on the wrong side of the streets. When you struggled for that little bit of happiness, knowing that nobody will give it to you, you would have to fight for it, you would have to steal it, these moments during which you would be a bit more than you were. Knowing that you would always be in danger of losing them, that you were always just one bad thing away from loss.

I knew of Springsteen before Born in the USA. Before Reagan's America took a single verse (not having read the actual song, but then again, nobody ever accuses Reagan of being the brightest bulb anyway) and turned it into an anthem of collective greed, stupidity and consumerism. I knew of the real Springsteen, and he wrote about us. In our darkest hours and that flame that still kept us going.

As the world around us was dark. We were the ones who still held on. To that bright spark inside us. Never bowing. Never bending. Rather being torn down than to tear us down ourselves.

They're still racing out at the Trestles,
But that blood it never burned in her veins,
Now I hear she's got a house up in Fairview,
And a style she's trying to maintain.
Well, if she wants to see me,
You can tell her that I'm easily found,
Tell her there's a spot out 'neath Abram's Bridge,
And tell her, there's a darkness on the edge of town.

Everybody's got a secret, Sonny,
Something that they just can't face,
Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it,
They carry it with them every step that they take.
Till some day they just cut it loose
Cut it loose or let it drag 'em down,
Where no one asks any questions,
or looks too long in your face,
In the darkness on the edge of town.

Some folks are born into a good life,
Other folks get it anyway, anyhow,
I lost my money and I lost my wife,
Them things don't seem to matter much to me now.
Tonight I'll be on that hill 'cause I can't stop,
I'll be on that hill with everything I got,
Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost,
I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost,
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town.
One song. And all of it is there. The yearning. The wishes. The loss. Nobody has ever been able to bring it all together like that, and in a new century that crawled out, bloody and deformed, from the cunts of Cheney and Coulter, I fear that nobody ever will again.

It is fashionable now to look down upon us.

The ones at the bottom. We belong there. We are the scum, and if possible, we would be washed away, out of sight and out of mind. Ants crawling in the streets, small spots that are only barely seen from panoramic windows in towers built to reach up high, to give shape and form to these prejudices. To leave those without "merit" below.

None of this is new, you may say. Fritz Lang's Metropolis, without the hopeful and naive ending. Victorianism, in perpetual motion. Manchester capitalism, now known by its other name, "globalisation". Forces, man-made, now being sold to us as natural order.

And it's easy for those to drown out Springsteen. To say that he is unimportant, that he was of a different time. It's easy, being told that listening to him is an embarrassement.

After America had been mythic to me, after it had become real and at the time I was immersed into it, the woman I loved made me feel ashamed to listen to Springsteen. Little, snide remarks that were dressed up in pretended love, that told me that I was better than listening to this shit, that I had a different fate, a different... ah, yes, that word again, destiny.

Being with her.

Rising up and flying to those towers, where she had come from.

Who wouldn't want to be with the beautiful people?

To be one of the beautiful people?

To believe you belonged there?

It's easy to buy into it. Too easy. Credit card dreams, delusions sold door-to-door by slick salesmen who promise you real estate at the top of the world. Come on. Buy it! Buy it now, before it is off the market, there's a line of people behind you, my man, buy it now! Be somebody!

And many, so many sign that contract, sign their life away for that delusion.

You owe it to yourself, that McMansion.

You owe it to your wife, that gas guzzler.

You owe it to your children.

But in the end, all you are left with... you owe somebody.

You are owned. Signed, sealed, delivered.

And Springsteen warns you of it. He tells you not to listen.

But everybody did. And now they are paying the price.