Bruce Springsteen – Devils and Dust (2005): Gimme Five

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When Bruce Springsteen’s Devils and Dust was released on April 26, 2005, I was in the middle of a vacation. Late at night, sitting in a big comfy chair at our hotel, I sipped a glass of scotch while I listened.

At first, what came through my little headphones was not the story of the title track’s conflicted soldier, but a short chain of Bruce-related memories that said a lot about my relationship to this music. For people who are long-time fans of any music, the attached memories can grow in importance over time, making the music not just a “soundtrack” (oh gawd, how I hate that “soundtrack of my life” description) but an integral part of the timeline.

That time I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad straight through with TheWife™? That shared experience was a revelation for us. We’d gone from lives where nothing was shared, escaping emotionally dead relationships to discover that perfect other person. Sharing was again possible.

When I hear Springsteen sing, “fear’s a powerful thing — it can turn your heart black you can trust,” I think of those dark times and am glad to have come out on the other side. Here are four other memories from Bruce Springsteen’s Devils and Dust

“THE HITTER”

At first listen, a depressing story about a boxer whose glory days have gone by. An earlier version of “The Wrestler?”

Well, during that first listen I sort of got caught up in the violence and the gory details. Leather gloves slipping “‘tween skin and bone,” broken jaws, blood on the floor. And actually, worse than that was the resignation, the weary tone of the storyteller’s voice. The light of success was gone, replaced by a fading substitute.

When I was finally able to hold the dislocating emotional shock of the story at a remove, I noticed that I’d missed the true heart of “The Hitter,” delivered with these lines: Understand, in the end, Ma, every man plays the game/If you know me one different then speak out his name. Does every person at some point in their life give in to a grand bargain? Trading adventure for comfort? True love for security? Wealth for a life well-lived? Part of me thinks that’s absurd. It’s binary, reductionist thought, coming from a purely cynical outlook.

On my darker days, I’ve certainly had thoughts along those lines. But when the clouds clear, I have to admit that yeah, I do know me a few different.

“BLACK COWBOYS”

I’ve got to admit that I can’t really imagine living in the circumstances portrayed in “Black Cowboys.” While I’ve known people who’ve had to deal with such things (including my own sister), the idea of living with the constant pressure of stray bullets and wasted lives? It’s totally foreign. I’m a kid from the middle of nowhere, where this stuff doesn’t happen. Does it?

This is what makes Bruce Springsteen’s song so powerful: I don’t have a direct connection to this scenario and yet I can feel both the despair and the hope (of which there is very little). The parallel that’s loosely drawn between the arc of Rainey Williams’ life and that of the black cowboys of Oklahoma is a masterful storytelling move. It’s concise, subtle, and focused. But what’s going to happen to Rainey out west? Will his life be better? We just don’t know, but it would seem that his chances have been improved slightly.

Looking back at the ideas presented here, I’ve often wished that my sister had been given such a chance. It seemed like she’d finally managed to conquer the gravitational pull of that white powder, but the years of stress related to her various situations took their toll. Like a lot of people, she left the planet never seeing the light of hope that might have been just over the horizon.

“JESUS WAS MY ONLY SON”

As I first read over the lyrics to this song, I was reminded of my nephew. Devils and Dust came out not too many months after he’d been killed in a motorcycle accident. There’s a verse in this song that speaks to such a loss. That is, of a parent losing a child.

Now there’s a loss that can never be replaced,
A destination that can never be reached,
A light you’ll never find in another’s face,
A sea whose distance cannot be breached

While Bruce Springsteen had written of Mary specifically losing her son, the universality of such a terrible event is obvious. No parent wants to outlive their children. In my sister’s case, she was never the same. Years of hardships, stress, mental illness, and drug abuse had already taken their toll on her. This loss was too much to bear.

My sister was a big Bruce fan — she took me to my first E Street show. I don’t remember ever speaking with her about this particular song. Maybe when we got here we both changed the subject.

“LEAH”

When I began to revisit Devils and Dust, I was brought back to the evening of the first listening session. A sort of timeline was constructed on that night, taking a couple’s histories and drawing a line through parts of it, with memories of Springsteen albums taking up important points along the way.

I couldn’t have thought about it at the time — because these things take a while to make themselves known — but song’s like Maria’s Bed and (especially) “Leah” are what make Devils and Dust an other-side-of-the-coin companion to Nebraska. Yes, surely the subject matter is different, but both collections are weighed down by experiences of fear, tragedy, and doubt. But this small handful of songs — and I’d have to add “Long Time Comin’” and “All The Way Home” — puts a slight positive spin on a dark world.

I loved “Leah” right from the start. A man’s in love and that’s his driving force. It’s the same way I felt on that night. And Bruce Springsteen channels his considerable writing power into beautifully simple lyrics. That last line, “I open the door, I climb the stairs…,” wraps up the whole story in only eight words.

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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