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Celebrating Bruce Springsteen’s dark folk masterpiece

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Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

There’s no question that the most essential music in the Bruce Springsteen catalog includes the albums he recorded with The E Street Band, especially those between 1973 and 1984. However, for a select few acolytes of The Boss, it’s that time between his periods working alongside his faithful band that yielded his most interesting and fruitful material. We’re talking about Tunnel Of Love, Human Touch, Lucky Town and, perhaps most importantly, Springsteen’s stark acoustic masterpiece, The Ghost Of Tom Joad, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this November.

“This is one of my favorite records,” fiddle queen Soozie Tyrell—who played a key role in the sessions for the album—told The A.V. Club. “Tears well every time I listen to it. Each song is like a novelette… so rich in storytelling yet so concise. The album takes me on a journey.”


The news of Tom Joad—considered by many to be a sequel of sorts to 1982’s Nebraska in the context of its mood and subject matter—came as a surprise to fans. Especially considering Springsteen’s creative maneuvers in the couple of years leading up to its street date (November 21, 1995). In the wake of the whirlwind success he had experienced with his award-show-sweeping single “Streets Of Philadelphia” from the soundtrack to Jonathan Demme’s groundbreaking drama Philadelphia, Springsteen spent the majority of 1994 in the studio working on an album tentatively called Blindspot with the same pulsing synth-driven feel of his unlikely hit.

“Armed with a stack of premade drum loop CDs, he passed most of the year working on a new collection of synthesizer-based songs,” wrote author Peter Ames Carlin in his bestselling biography Bruce. “Much of what emerged shared an undulating, trance-like sound.”


According to Carlin, the majority of the Blindspot material has never seen the light of day. The exceptions are an early version of “Secret Garden” and the song “Missing” that was included on the soundtrack to the 1995 Sean Penn film The Crossing Guard, which the author states allows “for a fragment of insight” into the direction Springsteen was going. He would go on to laud the tune for its “insistent percussion, drifting veils of synthesizer, a chukka-chukka rhythm guitar filtered through a wah-wah effect, and, as the song builds to a close, a metallic guitar solo spidering through the layers.”

By Christmas of ’94, the synth sessions were scrapped, as Springsteen feared an album as experimental and weird as the one he had been creating would further alienate his core audience even more than Tunnel Of Love and the Human Touch/Lucky Town one-two combo had done in the years prior. So he got The E Street Band back together in the first two months of ’95 to record music for a greatest-hits package to be released that spring, along with an EP titled Blood Brothers, also the name of the documentary chronicling the reunion.

“Really, the band for me at the time was a way of restabilizing,” Springsteen told Carlin in Bruce. “Of letting people know I honored their feelings and these things that mattered a great deal to them also mattered to me.”

Unfortunately, the hard feelings for Springsteen parking The E Street Band still resonated in the hearts of some members, making the reunion short-lived and an experience Carlin describes in his book as “something like post-traumatic stress disorder.”


“The wound was still open,” longtime E Street bassist Garry Tallent said in Bruce, a sentiment you can clearly hear among the entire group on both “Secret Garden” and “Blood Brothers,” some of the most downtempo and contemplative songs Springsteen ever conspired for the band. The sessions did yield its share of more muscular material, including “This Hard Land,” “Waiting On The End Of The World,” and a cover of the Los Angeles folk-punk group The Havalinas’ “High Hopes.” But it was within those darker, more minimalist moments of those Blood Brothers tapes did the seeds of what would become The Ghost Of Tom Joad get sown.

Once Springsteen arrived back home to his then-residence of Los Angeles, he began taking routine motorcycle trips into Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave Desert, sometimes with his longtime friend Matty Delia. It was during these trips that Springsteen would come to meet the random loners, drifters, migrant workers, and outlaws who would become composites of the characters he would draw up for the album’s material.


“Bruce had taken a few long motorcycle trips with some of his buddies across the deserts of the southwest,” Tyrell remembers. “I’m pretty sure that those road trips impressed the ambience of the album.”

“Once I found myself in that geography, I stayed there,” Springsteen said of the trips during a concert at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles in November of ’95, according to a review of the show by music critic Edna Gundersen in USA Today. “It’s a fascinating place filled with tremendous tension, a lot of gray moral areas, clashing cultures and interesting people—hiding and running and searching and trying to sort it all out. I wanted to get that feeling on the record.”


The origins of The Ghost Of Tom Joad’s title track were conceived back in January at the start of the Greatest Hits/Blood Brothers sessions, when Springsteen began to think back to the news stories he had read in the Los Angeles Times about the struggles of those who existed along the Mexican border. It would inspire him to revisit one of the key proponents of his 1978 classic Darkness On The Edge Of Town, John Ford’s 1940 cinematic adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel The Grapes Of Wrath.

“Their skin was darker and their language had changed,” Springsteen wrote in his 2001 book Songs. “But these were people trapped in the same brutal circumstances.”


However, there was another book that played an even deeper role in the creation of these 12 new songs.

I was in the library one night, and I pulled a book out called Journey to Nowhere: The Saga Of The New Underclass, which I had bought years before but hadn’t read,” he told Bob Costas in a November 1995 interview for the “Columbia Radio Hour.” “The text is by a fella named Dale Maharidge and some really great photos by a fella named Michael Williamson. And basically what they did is they went out on the road and they rode the trains from I think St. Louis to Oregon and it documented a lot of what had been happening to this group of Americans in the latter half of the ’80s. The people that the trickle-down economy never trickled down to. It’s a book that makes things very real and puts real faces on what its like if you slip through those cracks. It was very frightening. I remember I read it all in one night. It strikes the fear of what if you can’t take care of your family? What if you had to leave them? What if you couldn’t be home with your sons and your daughters? What if you couldn’t pay for their healthcare or you couldn’t provide them with the healthcare they need? What if that was your kids? I know how deadly important my job is to me. What if I didn’t have that job? Or what if I couldn’t do that job after I did it for 20 years or 25 years? So these are all questions I ask myself a lot, I guess. And I’ve had an enormous amount of luck and fortune, but it never feels that far away. It feels as far away as the guy next to you. And that’s not that far.


Songs like “Sinaloa Cowboys” and “Balboa Park” tackled such weighted Southwestern topics as meth labs, drug traffickers, and the “border boys” caught in a web of smuggling and hustling in order to stay alive. Meanwhile, tunes like “Youngstown” and “The New Timer” dug deep into the opening cracks in the wealth inequality problem American was facing only at a fraction of the distress level it harbors in 2015. Then you have tracks like “Straight Time” and “Highway 29,” which tell stories of seemingly imperfect white men caught in the crossfire of morality.

“What struck me first with the song was the graphic lyrics,” explains Swedish singer Moa Holmsten about “Highway 29,” one of the 15 Springsteen songs she covers on her new album, Bruised Arms & Broken Rhythm. “I was thrown in to the story and the characters with all senses, I could hear their voices, I could smell the smoke from the cigarette, and I could feel the choking heat and pain they went through. Like so many times with Springsteen’s songs. And there are so many powerful lines of realization and reconciliation like, ‘I told myself it was something in her, but as we drove I knew there was something in me’ and ‘I closed my eyes and I was runnin’, I was runnin’ then I was flyin’.”


Setting the mood for the bleak prose, Springsteen gathered together a small ensemble of elite auxiliary players from all stages of his career, among them Tyrell on violin, Marty Rifkin on pedal steel guitar, longtime Springsteen session man Gary Mallaber on percussion, and E Street mainstays Tallent on bass and Danny Federici on keyboards and accordion. No doubt Tom Joad superseded Nebraska in terms of its spare, atmospheric mood and tone. If you didn’t know it was Springsteen, some might mistake this record for an album by Smog or Low. And it’s that very darkness that exists on the edge of the towns Springsteen was singing about on Joad, which informed the desolation of its sonic accompaniment.

“The stories are told bluntly and sparsely, and the poetry is broken and colloquial—like the speech of a man telling the stories he feels compelled to tell if only to try to be free of them,” wrote longtime music journalist Mikal Gilmore in his December 28, 1995 review of Tom Joad in Rolling Stone. “On Tom Joad, there are few escapes and almost no musical relief from the numbing circumstances of the characters’ lives. You could almost say that the music gets caught in meandering motions or drifts into circles that never break. The effect is brilliant and lovely; there’s something almost lulling in the music’s blend of acoustic arpeggios and moody keyboard textures, something that lures you into the melodies’ dark dreaminess and loose mellifluence. But makes no mistake—what you are being drawn into are scenarios of hell. American hell.”


Looking back on the 20 years since the debut of The Ghost Of Tom Joad, it’s incredible to observe the resonance this album has enjoyed in this period of time. Its proper studio follow-up would be The Rising, released in 2002 to a nation coping with the trauma of 9/11 who found solace in the profession of love and hope conveyed by Springsteen his reunited E Street Band. It was the first of three full-lengths he would record with the classic lineup before losing both Federici in 2008 and the beloved “Big Man,” sax great Clarence Clemons, in 2011. Not too shabby for a band who in 1995 was in psychological shambles. But from the sound of not only The Rising, but Magic and Working On A Dream they were back and firing on all cylinders. He would release another acoustic LP in 2005, Devils & Dust, which remains in line right behind Tom Joad among the most underrated works in the Boss canon. Then there’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, an exercise in the kinetic energy of his folk roots, while both Wrecking Ball and High Hopes seemed to have picked up where he left off in 1994 with his use of drum loops and synths, aided by Springsteen’s recent collaborative partnership with producer Ron Aniello. He’s toured regularly throughout the last two decades, both as a solo act and with the Seeger Sessions Band as well as The E Street Band, including closing out the old Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, back in ’09. He also endured the death of his longtime assistant Terry Magovern.

Who knows if Springsteen could have handled such a rollercoaster of highs and lows had he not re-calibrated himself with The Ghost Of Tom Joad? The fruits of which we are still enjoying to this day, evidenced in the 2014 release of High Hopes, which not only revamped that old Havalinas cover and made it the title cut, it also revamped “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” into this brilliant electrified mashup of the original and Rage Against The Machine’s famous cover that pits Nils Lofgren and Tom Morello in a head cutting guitar duel for the ages. But regardless of how its served, the message in not only that song but the entire record it represents only grows more urgent with each passing year.


“The American story is transience and the idea of over the rise,” Springsteen told Costas in that 1995 interview. “Which is less now I suppose, but I think it’s an ingrained part of not just the American spirit but human spirit in general. My characters have always been on the move going someplace. Searching for something, whether its a better life or running from something or its the idea that moving might somehow make you better. It’ll heal you inside.”

If you are going by the algorithms of the way Bruce Springsteen makes music, seems like it’s high time for a new acoustic Boss record. Rumors online suggest that might, in fact, be the case. And on the 20th anniversary of Springsteen’s darkest hour, it would indeed be intriguing to see him unplug once again. Especially when you consider just how exponentially the themes of not only Joad but all three of his acoustic albums have prophetically evolved through time and beyond our shores here in the U.S.


“I just listened to the title cut to Tom Joad in this very moment,” proclaims Holmsten. “Being Swedish and European, seeing Syrians fleeing for the lives, walking across a continent, leaving their homes with newborn babies in their arms, hoping for shelter, peace, and friendly smiles getting off the trains at the train station here in Stockholm gives it more dimensions and layers than we could ever imagine.”