In Milwaukee the Magic tour came to an end. To pass the time till the next tour on this blog I will continue to bring you, on a regular basis, a look at the songs Springsteen covered and some bootlegs of note. I will also try to dig in the past of Springsteen's own songs a little more. Starting with some of the pillars in the Magic stets. Today I'm taking a closer look at Reason to Believe.
Reason to Believe, or rather the Nebraska album was a turning point in Springsteen’s career. It would turn out to be the first album Springsteen would release without much else than him and his guitar and proved to be a shift in songwriting, both thematically and structurally. Though the process had started with the River, or maybe even with the song Factory, on Nebraska Springsteen stripped away all the excess in his songs. Gone was the Dylanesque verbosity of his earlier albums, these songs went straight to the core. “I was interested in writing kind of smaller than I had been, writing with just detail,” Springsteen would later admit in a ’84 interview. With this smaller, more cinematic writing, the content started to shift. Where it had been possible to tap into a bashful optimism on earlier albums, Nebraska’s songs were bleak, uneasy affairs. Nobody spat in the face of these Badlands successfully, there seemed very little believe in the Promised Land.
Though Springsteen had been stripping away all through out the River sessions, Nebraska’s bare bone approach was strikingly different from that album. The River had been filled with stylistic exercises. On the River Springsteen set out to create some of his own Pop and Garage classics, to replace the once he was covering in his live sets. The River was an ode to R&R with a Boss twist. Nebraska was a reflection on America and Springsteen’s personal life. Though some of these reflections were molded into R&R, quite a few songs barely hint at R&R’s exorcism that provides the necessary escapism for the scenes of Nebraska. Intended as demos the material, at the time, didn’t allow for the songs to escape the Badlands. Though E-Street Band arrangements were attempted at the time, everybody involved agreed that the band was squeezing the life out of them. Ironically enough one of the few songs that made it as an E-Street arrangement, Born in the USA, today is living proof of that. The original demo, when it was released on tracks, proved to be a much more powerful (and less ambiguous) version than the one that drove the Boss to mega-stardom.
Reason to Believe was the perfect coda to an album filled with images of the people who the American Dream passed by. Helped by Landau, Springsteen had begun his journey into his life long Woody Guthrie/Jon Steinbeck obsession around the River tour. This, I suspect, allowed him to gain a deeper understanding of his own, and his father’s working class background, which ultimately found their voice in Nebraska. Though the album is often viewed as commentary on Reaganism, I doubt this was the case. Springsteen had yet to become outspoken on politics. In fact, when Reagan used Born in the USA for his second term campaign two years later, Springsteen hardly commented. It is however not without irony that the album saw light of day in the era of silicone optimism. During the Reagan era America’s disenfranchised simply seemed to stop existing, left to fend for themselves. It was indeed a valid question if these people still had reason to believe.
As a song Reason to Believe if the flip side or maybe even the negative to Promised Land. Where the latter affirmed believe, the second did a little more than question it. Though the song could be misinterpreted as a lament for people who believe against all odds, it is in fact probably Springsteen’s most cynic song. The protagonists in the song have no reason to believe, no reason to expect that the American dream will come knocking on their door. Like the Joads in Grapes of Wrath, they belong to an America that is up against an anonymous machine over which they have no control but that does determine the course of their lives. Like Steinbeck, Springsteen captured the forces in society, that sometimes have a tremendous impact on our personal life, in art. With Nebraska Springsteen made mechanisms tangible, with a few strokes on the guitar, that scholars and journalists need volumes for to put in perspective.
Reason to Believe has never become the staple Atlantic City has been over the years in the set list. One of the reasons for that is probably that the song proved harder to whip in an electrified shape than other songs on Nebraska. Thematically however, the song trumps Atlantic City as an representative piece for the ongoing narrative in Springsteen’s music. Throughout the years Reason to Believe stayed close to its album arrangement in the various live settings. A little harmonica and guitar was added during the Born in the USA tour, but not much else. All the way up to the Ghost of Tom Joad tour it retained its bare bone structure. Even though during the Tom Joad tour the arrangement started to shift slightly. During the Tom Joad tour the soft strumming gained in viciousness with Springsteen adding the first hints of the hard rocking ‘Boogie Chillun’ version it would become during the Magic tour. 1996 may have had a Democratic president in the White House, but with Clinton’s continuation of economic policies first implemented by Reagan and the further scaling down of social security measures, the characters on Nebraska were slipping further from main stream America. Clinton’s focus was on a strong economy where people created their own chances, whether those chances were within your reach or not. The louder strumming, the bigger voice, it seemed a necessity for those forgotten voices to be heard.
Ann Arbor, September 26th 1996
The song transformed further during the D&D tour when it adopted the controversial bullet mic arrangement. Not everybody was as charmed by the howling and growling. Over Springsteen’s stomping and the muffled effect of the mic, the words seemed to get drowned out. They were only there for those who wanted to make an effort to hear them. In my mind a perfect analogy to the Republican reign in the White house, that seemed even more indifferent to the people that live within the Nebraska album than before. Poverty in the inner cities of America was hardening and small towns were crumbling under the influences of globalization. Yet it seemed as difficult to hear the people hit by those trends as it was to make out the words of that bullet mic version. Still travel the back roads of America and you’ll find abandoned farms, trailers and towns as a testimony of those voiceless.
The Magic tour suddenly brought those voices out to the front again in a raving R&R exorcism. Viciously strumming on his Vox Mark Teardrop Van Zandt combined with the opening howls of Springsteen through the bullet mic gave the song as much an edge of desperation as it did in celebration. The road house riffing based on John Lee Hookers Boogie Chillun (or ZZ Top’s La Grange version thereof) suddenly transformed the bitter and cynic lament into the perfect vehicle to exorcise the venom of 25 years in neglect. Embedded in that highly political edge the first few legs had, Reason to Believe stood out as the center of the set. Those first legs showed a Springsteen that seemed angrier than he had ever been over that neglect while at the same time more determined to get the voices heard society tends to forget. In 1990, during a benefit performance for the Christic institute, a public interest law firm, Springsteen had introduced the song by advising his audience “this song is about the price, that blind faith and refusing to give up your illusions extracts from you.” Words he didn’t repeat during the Magic tour, but certainly applied to the re-election of president Bush. Words that needed to be heard loud and clear with the end of that second term in sight. Those first legs of the Magic tour were about Springsteen imploring us to give people Reason to Believe again.
The Nebraska photos are available through Snap.