Where Is Radio Nowhere?

A while ago, a friend of mine who doesn't like Springsteen summed up his objections as follows: "Bruce is like a more polished, professional version of Dylan."

This led me to a theory that in rock and roll, one's critical "cred" is inversely proportional to one's professionalism. And why not? We all like some grit with our rock music, don't we? The theory holds up reasonably well.

If Bruce is a more polished and professional Dylan,
Billy Joel is a more polished and professional Bruce
Elton John is (sometimes) a slightly more polished and professional Billy...

You can do this with a lot of other artists as a starting point, but in all cases the game ends when you get to Neil Diamond.

Dylan sometimes seems to be on another plane of reality - the good moments in his concerts, if you have ears to hear, bring about this ecstatic, "lifted out of myself" level of the sublime. The pleasure of a Bruce concert tends to be more grounded. It's ecstatic all right, but you always know that Bruce is from the planet earth, flesh and blood like the rest of us. That's part of the appeal. He seldom breaks new ground, like Dylan did, so much as do things others had done better.

But there's often more to Bruce's songs than meets the eye - more ways to look at them. Most of them make enough sense right on the surface that we don't need to think of new, hidden meanings in there. But sometimes the context of a song can change its meaning completely. Take, for instance, "Radio Nowhere."

I was tryin' to find my way home 
But all I heard was a drone
Bouncing off a satellite 
Crushin' the last lone American night
This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?
This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?

I just want to hear some rhythm
I just want to hear some rhythm

On the surface, this is pretty straight forward: a rock and roll song about driving around wishing there was some decent local radio, but only hearing corporate-owned satellite stations that lack live DJs. It's a fine rock song on that level.

It was the lead song, and single, off of his 2007 album, Magic. Following on the heels of The Rising, Devils and Dust and an acoustic tour (I love the E Street Band, but I tend to like his shows without them even better), early press assured us that Magic was not political in the least. But it was actually more political than the 9/11-themed Rising, on which some of the best songs were actually written before 9/11 ("My City of Ruins" was about Asbury Park before it started to sound like it was about New York) (or New Orleans). "Last to Die" echoes John Kerry's old line about asking someone to be the last to die for a mistake (Vietnam in his case, Iraq in Bruce's). "Long Walk Home" sounded like something he'd do with The Seeger Sessions band (in fact, he premiered it live with that band). "Magic" was all about smoke and mirrors, "Living in the Future" was probably political, though I was never sure what he was on about in that one. And then there's the album's closer, "Devil's Arcade," an epic about a love affair and/or a lost comrade in the middle of a war zone. If Dylan had written that one, we'd say it was one of his masterpieces. 

Like many Bruce songs, it's hard to tell exactly what the song is about. Like "Backstreets," you could get the idea that it's a song about a gay couple, though one or two stray words suggest otherwise. On some readings, the whole song sounds like it's about sex, on others it's all about war. Either way, it builds to a crescendo of chanting "the beat of your heart, the beat of your heart, the beat of your heart..."

Now, imagine how "Radio Nowhere" would sound if it came after "Devil's Arcade."  Now the image in your head isn't Bruce driving in a car listening to the radio - it's a soldier on a raging battlefield, shouting into his walkie-talkie. "this is radio nowhere...is there anybody alive out there?" And when he sings "I just want to hear some rhythm," you don't think of a guitar track, you think of the last song that came before: 'the beat of your heart, the beat of your heart..."

The interpretation works through ought the rest of the song, as well. Think of verse two in terms of a soldier:

I was spinnin' 'round a dead dial
Just another lost number in a file
Dancin' down a dark hole
Just searchin' for a world with some soul

The song continues in much this same vein - looking to make a connection to someone, to hear a thousand guitars, a million voices. Heart beats, gun fire, drum beats, the roar or battle, the wail of guitars all merge together. "Is there anybody alive out there...I just want to hear some rhythm...the beat of your heart, the beat of your heart..."

Now, whether Bruce meant the song to work like this is sort of an open question. He never played it "Radio Nowhere" after "Devil's Arcade" in concert (well, not yet, anyway). At his "Storytellers" a year or so before, while explaining "Devils and Dust" line by line, he cheerfully said, "Now, how much of this was I thinking when I wrote it? None of it. I wrote that down yesterday at my kitchen table. But how much was I feeling? All of it."

Bruce has gained a lot in critical cred in recent years. From what I see poking around on forums, it's entirely acceptable in the punk world to be a huge Springsteen fan these days (ten years ago it would have been a major faux pas in many circles - and on the Springsteen forums, it's a still inviting a flame war to suggest he's done anything good since 1978, but that's just the way of things on forums). People my age tended to lump Bruce in with Rod Stewart, Bryan Adams, and the like. But now he's sort of hit "national treasure" status - an American hero, an artist with balls the size of church bells, and just about the last guy to keep his songs out of car commercials.  He's the guy who was willing to follow The River with the  stark, ridiculously un-commercial Nebraska, who can get political without looking like a jackass. 

No comments:

Adam's New Book: Sept 2013