BRUCE, LEVITICUS, AND BROKEN HOMES
What the Bible has on Springsteen when it comes to toxic domestic spaces
by Stephen Hazan Arnoff
What’s missing from much of Bruce Springsteen’s recorded work today, and what makes his older work so compelling, can be found in spades in Leviticus 14.
Both the Bible and the Boss take on an impossibly big idea: the contamination and healing of a home. But the Bible understands much better than the Boss that in order to unpack this big an idea, storytellers must mine the intimate details of the story, and not just the expansiveness of its theme. (I invite you to listen to Springsteen's Wrecking Ball to get a sense of the problem.)
While the Bible exposes large truths about the fragile balance between brokenness and repair in a dwelling by literally leaving no description of a stone in such houses unturned, Bruce Springsteen, as Dave Bry and Jody Rosen have made clear, has become so invested in serving as rock and roll’s voice of protest in a time of toxic loans and toxic homes that his music has lost the intimacy that once made it so powerful.
But, just like the Bible, there is always old Bruce to go back to again and again, even when present expressions of his or its vision are not so great. Like the Bible as cultural cloth out of which meaning can be cut in countless ways, Springsteen’s older stories can appear to have been weaving the fabric of pop experience forever. For someone like me, who has been listening to Springsteen since I was rolling around on the floor in pajamas with footies, they have been shaping imagination forever.
Recently, I shared my thoughts on the Boss and the Bible with Springsteen authority David Billotti. He directed me to Springsteen's 1981 album The River. Thanks to Billotti, rather than twisting in the hope that I will start to like Wrecking Ball more than the barely lukewarm way I like it so far, I have been re-listening to The River. It says far more about homes in peril than anything on Wrecking Ball.
Nearly every song on this The River addresses a home. These are homes contaminated, feared, broken, or playfully avoided from the first song “The Ties That Bind” to “Wreck on the Highway” four sides of vinyl later. There is the greatest mother-in-law song in rock and roll, “Sherry Darling.” There are homes suffocating their residents in “Jackson Cage” and “The River”; surviving a broken home in “Hungry Heart” or “I Wanna Marry You”; and a favorite Springsteen trope of a son mourning the losses of a father’s home as he leaves it behind in “Independence Day.”
The River can be wrenching like the slow ritual reclaiming of the leper’s house in Leviticus, but also like Leviticus, the brick-by-brick explanation of how poison is pulled out of space is animated by fervent hope that even contaminated homes can still stand. Perhaps most interesting of all is the narrative mortar that holds “The River” together: Springsteen’s men scout out and claim the stones in broken places, but it’s the perspective of women that grounds these tellings. Most of the songs on “The River” are told from the perspective of a woman or place a woman as an actor in a drama rather than an object. All of the relationships in and around these homes are imperfect dialogues, but the intimacies of life detailed inside them make their stories universal. Springsteen’s narrators today overreach for big themes without describing the people who make their houses real.