Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
by JOHN MARKS
2010 seemed like a good year to let it ride. We are the people par excellence of the open road, after all, generation upon generation moving, stopping and moving again; the story of the pilgrims sailing across the Atlantic prefiguring the wagon train motion of the pioneers; the forced transport of the African slaves becoming an exodus through suffering to freedom; two centuries of overseas journey by European immigrants recurring in the unbroken crossings of illegal aliens out of Mexico.
We cross, we connect, we commute. We never seem to rest.
For most peoples since the dawn of the era of nationalism anyway, it is not the road, but the final destination, the home–the homeland–that matters most. Americans are bound together by something else, by the moment of transition (of translation), by the intersections of our highways and back streets, our farm-to-market and interstate, by the homeland lost and the unfulfilled promise of the one to come.
But how do we understand ourselves in this strange, ever-flowing state? How do we fix a national identity when the soul of the enterprise remains forever unfixed?
Song helps. American troubadors have been singing about the open road for centuries–”Across The Wide Missouri”, “Erie Canal”, “Oh Susanna”, “I’ve Been Everywhere”, “Across 110th Street”. One collection of songs, in particular, invokes them all, Bruce Springsteen’s masterpiece Darkness At The Edge Of Town, a work of what he calls “apocalyptic grandeur”, a true battle hymn of the republic, re-released last year in conjunction with a batch of never-before-released songs from the same era.
What perfect timing for a year of travel. On that album, a community of almost defeated, almost destroyed, mostly despairing men and women take to the streets as a declaration of faith in their own destiny, however blighted. Originally released in 1978, the songs on Darkness At The Edge of Town are a cultural artifact, heralding the collapse of American industry in the postwar era, but taken together as a statement, they amount to far more than a lesson in social history. They are a portrait in sorrow and rage, rendered on the brink of physical, social and moral annihilation, of what it means to be born on the wrong side of the American street.
Springsteen says in the documentary made for the re-release that he wanted to find a way to honor the place he came from without turning his back on the future, so Darkness On The Edge Of Town is the sound of an artist carving his way back to whatever was worth loving in the the small towns and factories of New Jersey while at the same time blowing open a way forward. He doesn’t want to forget his roots; he doesn’t want to be trapped by them. The road is the only solution.
In the record’s finest hour, in what has to be considered one of the greatest of all American popular songs, “Racing In The Street”, Springsteen sings about a pair of friends who spend their weekends racing cars for money. One of the friends meets a girl, the friendship ends, and the sorrow that results is almost unbearable. But sorrow is never the end for Springsteen. It’s almost always the beginning.
“She sits on the porch of her Daddy’s house
But all her pretty dreams are torn,
She stares off alone into the night
With the eyes of one who hates for just being born
For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels,
Rumbling through this promised land
Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea
And wash these sins off our hands.”
By the end of the song, “racing in the street” isn’t just about “a 69 Chevy with a 396″. It’s about everything. It’s about what it means to come to America, believe in America, survive in America and die in America. Ignition is redemption, but sometimes the car won’t start, and you have to walk. Other times, the car drives, but it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Now and then it goes straight to hell.
For me, no record released in 2010 captured so beautifully the real mood of the country, but that’s where the troubling question begins. Does my feeling about the national mood have anything at all to do with the country or is it just about me, getting older? The more I think about it, the more I wonder if the America that I saw over 5000 miles in 2010, hopelessly steeped in a Springsteen-marinated romance of the highway, isn’t a personal illusion that hides a harder, meaner, tougher truth about who we are now.
With my family, in the month of July, I logged more then 3000 miles between Austin, Texas and Los Angeles, California, a trip that even now seems like a shining dream of the deep past, a work of the imagination rather than a matter of mileage.
There were trips through Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey and New Hampshire, and further south, stretches of Alabama, Florida and Georgia, a quarter of the country under my wheels, most of it in river-like reaches, hours and hours long.
I caught up with old friends at way stations and dinner tables, Al over pork barbecue in central Georgia, Craig and Caroline over fish tacos in Malibu, Doug and David and lobster in Provincetown, Gail and Sue and baked ham in Tallahassee, John and Paula and pizza in New Haven. I stood at the grave of Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, walked the street where Billy the Kid shot two peace officers in Lincoln, New Mexico, waited in vain for the Marfa lights in far west Texas and arrived at the end of Route 66 in Santa Monica, California.
Flashes of this travel come back to me in brief moments, the sight of police car lights whirling in tiny circles in a speck-like corner of a huge, dark, post-industrial city somewhere in the Northeast; a desolate museum dedicated to a mostly forgotten meteor crater west of Odessa, Texas, the only sign of life a huge black tarantula on a wall; the spectacle of a storm trapped inside what looked like a single cloud a hundred miles south of Monument Valley, Utah; the ghastly, sterile, manmade sight of a brand new city on the rocks above Lake Mead, my vote for the worst place in the country; and the sight of young girls in nothing but thong bikinis and translucent shifts walking on high heels through the clattering, crackling maze of a Las Vegas casino that hardly seemed to notice them.
As I think back, the whole year ceases to be a measurement of time and becomes instead one colossal, labyrinthine space, but where exactly is it on the GPS? That’s the question that keeps returning. Are the 5000 miles in the United States of America or are they merely playing on that Bruce Springsteen record in my mind? Did I imagine them? I don’t mean the odometer reality. I mean the feel, the taste, the moral weight of them.
One thing has become clear enough. On the road, when you turn the noise down, you hear mostly silence. That’s the true music of the 5000 miles, not Bruce, not Gaga, not Kanye West, certainly not the pundit racket of 24-hour cable news. A great silence rode with me, watching and waiting around every bend. It rides with us all. You feel it in the deep cuts between hunks of billion-year-old geology, in the exurban outer squares of massive southwestern metropoli, in the wind turbines spinning atop high desert landscapes in Texas and California and the congestion of densely packed, fatally over-developed southern Florida. For all the endless chatter on Twitter and Facebook, the echo of what seem like human voices through endless and trackless viral forests, the real sound of America in 2010 was the silence that lay behind the noise.
In that silence, once the chatter faded and I had time to concentrate, a single vision of the country appeared on the horizon; not two countries, not a divided nation, not red and blue, not even purple, but a single land with a common future, too gorgeously complex to be color coded. Our horizons tend to be mirrors of what we want to see rather than topographical descriptions of what’s actually there, so I come back to my sense of being trapped with my own personal mirage. There are plenty of mirages to go around, of course.
A lot of us look back fifty, sixty years and see a dusky westward line to which we long to return; there is a kind of chronological Jerusalem in the decade of the 1950’s. No map I’ve ever seen shows the way back to that fabled post-war place. It might as well be El Dorado. But people believe in it, long for it, gas up and try to get to it. Still others see a golden dawn rising in the east, down a ribboned way leading through those wind turbines like gigantic sunflowers, lined with local farms, aglitter with bicycle-riding e-readers and noisy with children who know nothing of race, class, religion or sexual difference. For those riders, that world shines dimly but unmistakably through a haze of rightwing fanaticism, corporate greed and medieval ignorance.
The two visions came streaming at me on the road, mile after mile, the metaphysical scrims against which so many of our political debates are now set, so insistent and relentless that they have obscured the one grain of truth that both utopias have in common, their single shared point of reference. There is, in fact, a country comprised of fifty states, sharing a border with Mexico in the south, Canada in the north. That much is incontrovertibly true. Springsteen didn’t invent this country, but he may have invested its national roads with more power than they really possess. Thirty years on, he knows it well.
But do I? I felt such reckless hope on those roads. Helplessly, I felt a taste of old guitar redemption in the quiet motion that carried me from one state to the next. If it doesn’t sound too ridiculous, I felt a kind of peace. I stopped thinking about the country in terms of congressional voting districts, red and blue, Republican and Democrat, and began to feel a new humility in the face of such a vast geological, biological and social terrain. We’re all so small in context, the 300 million who supposedly populate this country, and we seem increasingly eager to let ourselves live inside our smallest identities, miseries and outrages, to be as tiny as we can possibly be, as defined as humanly possible by the strict affiliations of religion, class, race, gender and political affiliation.
In 2010, Springsteen and the road reminded me of the bridges that connect us across our chasms, but as soon as I came to any resting place, that other reality presented itself. Bill Bishop’s theory of the Big Sort reasserted itself, and in every town I passed, I thought I could see traces of loyalty to one thing or the other, but never to both. Were there lots of churches with sayings indicating a warrior god who brooks no contradiction? I must be in a red place. Was there a coffee shop playing Phish and selling muffins made from locally grown, multi-grain wheat? I must have transitioned into blue.
How many American flags were flying in any given place on July 4? What did the bumperstickers say about guns and Jesus and global warming? About George W. Bush or Obamacare?
In this America, impossible to miss, Springsteen’s vision began to seem like another line from his greatest record, something from ‘The Promised Land”:
“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”
There were times during the 5000 miles of 2010 when I began to wonder if Springsteen’s dream of a country in which the roads connected us, even across our greatest divides, might be nothing more than these lines, one of those dreams “that break your heart”, one of those “lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted.”
In the end, I’m beginning to understand, it’s impossible for me to say which is real. I’m too deeply compromised. I’m too rooted in the Springsteen ideal, playing in my mind for three decades now. The roads may not be the answer, but they will always be for me a place to go to be reminded of those things that unite us rather than divide, those visions of American identity that rise above the subdivisions where we sourly lay our trenches against the enemy. Could be I’m just getting older and am no longer able to stomach an unpalatable truth. Could be that I will never be able to accept that we no longer live in the land of the open road. We live in the country of the blown bridge and the barricade.
If that’s the case, so be it, but I swear I saw some other place last year. In the darkness at the edge of town, in every inch of the 5000 miles, I saw a mirage of surpassing beauty and heartbreaking grace that seemed like our common American home.
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