The Ghost of Tom Joad takes its inspiration and title character from John Ford's film adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath. Though it's Springsteen's bleakest (and best) album since 1982's Nebraska, it's also a whispered challenge. When ultraconservatives seem poised to steer the country to the right, it energizes Springsteen artistically: If Nebraska's stark tales of desperation were Springsteen's response to Reagan's trickledown economics, Tom Joad is his answer to Newt's Contract With America.
Springsteen may be a rich rock star whose taxes would decrease if the Republicans get their way, but he's also a gut-level populist who believes none of us really wins unless all of us do. Last Wednesday at the Berkeley Community Theater, a few shows into a solo acoustic tour of small venues, Springsteen not only sang from the perspectives of the blue-collar protagonists of Tom Joad, he inhabited them -- becoming a down-and-out steelworker, Mexican immigrant, or border guard as his lyrics demanded. If that sounds like a bit much to believe, remember that, on some level, Springsteen is always playing a role, whether it's born-to-run rebel or rock 'n' roll true believer. Either he's damn mercurial, or he fakes it so real he is beyond fake.
Whatever the case, Springsteen seems to ache with just as much empathy on the album as he did live. Musically, Tom Joad is almost all acoustic guitar and mournful harmonica, and Springsteen's voice sounds as worn-out as the subjects of his songs. Thematically, it has more in common with Ford's film than it does with any pop music released this year. Like the Joad family, Springsteen's protagonists lose everything they've worked for to abstract economic forces they don't understand. And like Joad himself, many of them resort to desperate measures -- sometimes violent ones -- that often have tragic consequences.
Of course, in Ford's time, a job cooking methamphetamine wouldn't cost a Mexican immigrant his life, as it does in "Sinaloa Cowboys," and Springsteen's steelworkers are a far cry from Dust Bowl sharecroppers. But the implied comparison is still powerful -- even to a Berkeley audience more threatened by carpal tunnel syndrome than black lung disease.
Still, the profound sense of betrayal the Joads experience is a universal sentiment. We've worked this land all our lives, they say when they're about to be evicted by a corporate landlord, just as the laid-off ironworker of "Youngstown" laments, "Now sir, you tell me the world's changed/ Once I made you rich enough/ Rich enough to forget my name." The song is "about the people who built America," Springsteen said when he introduced it at the concert.
Less a defeatist shoulder-shrug than a dare to the ignorant, Springsteen's point isn't that somebody should do something, whatever that may be -- most of his characters are already dead or too burned out to care anyway -- but that we at least bear witness to the strangulation of the working class. At the end of the film The Grapes of Wrath, when Joad is forced to leave his family, his mother asks him where he's going to go. "I'll be all around you in the dark," Springsteen said at the show, quoting the film. Or as he sings on the album's title track: "Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand/ Or a decent job or a helpin' hand/ Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free/ Look in their eyes, Mom, you'll see me."
If Springsteen sees Joad as a kind of role model, it's the ultimate conceit. A successful rock star living in the proverbial mansion on the hill can only come so close to understanding the disenfranchised, whatever his original class background. And as we've all learned by now, songs can't change the world. Still, for almost two hours in Berkeley, Springsteen had a spellbound audience believing they can.
As for Springsteen, he hasn't believed a song can change anyone except himself in about a decade. After the chorus of "Born in the U.S.A." was appropriated as a jingoistic campaign slogan in 1984 (which cast Springsteen in the role of unlikely stadium superstar), he abandoned the political for the personal on Tunnel of Love, then pondered adulthood on Human Touch and Lucky Town. Springsteen breathed new life into a few of his older songs, in addition to covering most of Tom Joad. He tore through an angry "Darkness on the Edge of Town," hitting his guitar strings almost hard enough to break them, as though he were seething with the alienation the words once merely explored.
One of the set's highlights, though, was the hit that probably drove Springsteen away from politics in the first place. "I've read many times that this song has been misinterpreted," Springsteen relayed as an introduction to "Born in the U.S.A." "But the writer always gets the last shot." With that, he launched into a bluesy rearrangement that was more angry than anthemic. Reagan stole the song from Springsteen; now Springsteen's stealing it back.
And he's learned his lesson well: The only line that could possibly sell a product refers to the highway being alive tonight -- but it's populated with "Families sleepin' in their cars in the Southwest/ No home, no job, no peace, no rest." As Springsteen knows damn well, being on the road is only an escape if you have a home to return to. And no matter how fast you go racing in the street, he infers, you'll never outrun a dead-end job in a dead-end town. Not in Newt's America, anyway.