American Caesar: Some Associative Notes on Springsteen in a Big Sedan — Dominic Jaeckle

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem.

Ronald Reagan, speaking during his first inaugural address, January 20, 1981

I get up in the evening
And I ain’t got nothing to say
I come home in the morning
I go to bed feeling the same way
I ain’t nothing but tired
Man I’m just tired and bored with myself
Hey there baby, I could just use a little help
You can’t start a fire
You can’t start a fire without a spark

Bruce Springsteen, from ‘Dancing in the Dark’ [1984]

 

In the spring of 1837, an economic depression afflicts the north-eastern United States. Banks spread across NYC, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore suspend cash payments. There were just shy of a thousand operational banks serving north-eastern counties, and up to half that number would partly fail, fold or close in the period of high unemployment and general poverty that would follow the crash of ‘37, as the years draw in towards a subtle uptick in a young America’s economy that would begin taking hold in ‘43. In the mid ‘30s, foreign investment, supporting America’s industrial evolution, augmented a bubble which – once these investors withdrew in direct response to fiscal panic – would implode. President Martin van Buren, a Jacksonian democrat, refutes the possibility of any governmental involvement in a bailout, takes the bullet, becomes synonymous with bad debt, fractious economic systems, and loses his seat to his electoral competitor – William Henry Harrison – in 1840. In his first address in office, Harrison’s rhetoric is pointedly Roman in character. His references swing from Caesar, Camillus and the Scipios, to Octavius and Anthony in the Senate, to statues of Brutus, to envisaged swathes of people lining the forum. His heavy symbolic vernacular leads to a simple argument that runs up against the boundaries of his presidency and its preceding electoral campaign, set against the contexts of financial disequilibrium and the local tragedies precipitated by the collapse of the banks: his is a consideration of imperial management, the management of expectations, and the maintenance of a soft, cultural power that could tide on from America’s democratic governmental centre to its cultural life and influence. Here, the Romans run a fantasy line in success.

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The Roman sphere of metaphor would return again in 1997, as James “Jim” Newell Osterberg, Jr., playing his part as Iggy Pop, would release American Caesar; a seventeen track paean to America’s misdirection. Mark Kemp, writing in Rolling Stone, suggests that the record has just one axis: ‘Pop’ as both a formal figuration and an individual singer, ‘bemoans our complicated times.’  In Osterberg’s tone of voice the Roman scene is a framework for parody. Rather than imperial possibility, here we have a degraded imperial power exacted as aggressor. Pop refrains a repetition: Throw them to the lions/ Throw them to the lions/ Throw them to the lions/ Thumbs down. In both cases, Harrison’s inauguration and Pop’s record, the Roman analogy becomes a methodology with which to charter a sense of America’s continuity from the nineteenth century to the twentieth and an ongoing need for a representative hero that could ground its self-definition all bunched up around a picture of an individual figure – an American Caesar at work on some perception of an American empire. Between the two of them, they’re framing the fall of a Roman metaphor, the failure of a symbolic language.

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The American Caesar is not an original character, for Pop. In 1978, William Manchester would take the term for title of his biographic celebration of General Douglass MacArthur – his own “Caesar” – a dignified war hero whose life would span from 1880 to 1964, and service see him through the first and second world wars and on to Korea. MacArthur is the kind of war hero adulated and adored by Hollywood. He litters the late twentieth century in celluloid transposition. Dayton Lummis would play him in the 1955 Otto Preminger picture The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell; Henry Fonda in the television movie Collision Course: Truman vs. MacArthur in ‘76; Gregory Peck in the ‘77 film MacArthur; Laurence Olivier, Inchon in ‘81; Daniel von Bargen in the HBO film Truman, ‘95; in the 2013 film Emperor, he is played by Tommy Lee Jones; and in 2016, Liam Neeson in Operation Chromite. As Manchester’s allotted “Caesar,” MacArthur is endemic of a distinct period in American feeling; a forced Roman optimism, in step with the self-defined impression of Truman’s doctrinal stewardship. America was a better idea than it was a reality – a single soldier would realize that fact for Manchester and throughout MacArthur’s cinematic iterations – and this Caesar could have his history rewritten and performed again and again to reiterate the strange melancholy prevalent in America’s twentieth century self-reflections. MacArthur’s cinematic reappearances and resurrections are not so much timely as they are indicative of the country’s fixation with cultural revisionism. A single figure can resurface, again and again, and transmit as a speaking part designed to “bemoan our complicated times.” But by the time we get to ‘97, Pop’s Caesar is a character under threat. Beware the ides of March, Pop sings; Caesar, who is this man? The nature of that Roman symbolism shifts again; we’re no longer talking about possibility, about growth, but singing about historical inevitability. About the possible decline and fall of an American empire. You can assassinate a Caesar but you can’t execute an idea. Through Harrison and Pop’s Rome, America is following itself around not knowing where it’s going… looking, incessantly, for a means to make sense of its own standing. It’s the look for a Caesar, and acknowledgement of their absence, that calcifies a sense of America’s continuity. Here, the Romans are a codification of failure. A poorly told joke. A bad poem.

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In Fellini’s La Dolce Vita the orgiastic character of his contemporary Rome finds its symbolic parallel in an evocation of the orgies of a bygone, ancient Rome. By the time he makes Satyricon in 1970, as Pauline Kael would note, he reverses that analogy. He paints a picture of historical loss; a picture of ‘man without a belief in God,’ in leadership, ‘reduced to a lecherous beast.’ Here, Kael infers, the Roman is a picture of historical inevitability and here the Roman feels distinctly American.

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The movement from asserted power to melancholy – and its association under the banner of a single, authoritative name – is the discernable subject of Bruce Springsteen’s memoirs, Born to Run. Springsteen writes consistently about the ghostly nature of an American Caesar – inferred rather than named – and time and again, seems persistently on the verge of asking whether he could possibly take the title for himself. But the issue is one of adaptation. Of American evolution rather than revolution. As with MacArthur – rematerializing intermittently as Gregory Peck, as Tommy Lee Jones, or as Laurence Olivier – Springsteen’s reflections are unswervingly dedicated to a scrutiny of continuity as the studied centerpiece of American culture. His is the admission that, if that idée fixe sits at its centre, there’s a want for an individual personality that could exact themselves as a synecdoche for the country’s slow progress, its slow ability to shift without some haunting memory of its own past – its need to state and defame its own narrative. “History is a ribbon,” Reagan would famously claim in his second inaugural speech of ‘85; “history is a journey always unfurling,” pointing back on itself. If the country is looking for a representative figure, it’s a person always looking backwards. A look for the start point of that spinning ribbon.

In talking about himself, Springsteen knows he’s trying to talk about an America he has obfuscated in song; and in talking about America through song – as he has done throughout his career – he knows he’s talking about that journey and that backwards glance in a wholly different tone of voice. Springsteen is at work on envisaging a very specific kind of value, a very specific kind of scarcity, constellated around the possibility of self-knowledge without the driving force of a Caesar… without the sculpted ideology at play behind a single person, a single figurehead, that could essay themselves as a metonym helping to divine some keen sense of purpose at the purest and most local of levels. But Springsteen’s characters convert as covert symbols: every song a balancing act between the asserted value of an isolated context, of some reality of personality, and a more essential social reach. A symbolic gut. His is a very specific sadness, bunched up tight around an understanding of freedom’s limitations. Early into the book, Springsteen gets into his idea of entertainment. Reflecting on a broke childhood, ‘the only family entertainment’ there was, he writes, was ‘to go for a drive.’

Gas was cheap, thirty cents a gallon, so nightly my grandparents, mother, sister and I cruised the streets to the outer edges of town. It was our ritual. On warm nights, with the windows in our big sedan wide open, first we would roll down Main Street, and then out to the southwest end of town to the edge of Highway 33. […] We’d ride the backroads to the north end of town, where scratching the sky in the fields bordering the Monmouth Memorial Home was the town radio tower. It had three bright lights rising along its grey steel structure. As our radio glowed with the otherworldly sound of late fifties doo-wop, my mother would explain to me that there in the high grass stood a tall, dark giant, invisible against the black night sky. The ascending lights were merely shining red buttons on his jacket. We would always end our journey with a ride past the “buttons.” As my eyes grew heavy and we turned towards home, I swear I could see the outline of the giant’s dark figure.

 

The “ride,” as Springsteen would go on to seat it, is his subject. It is a lamentation that sits where Reagan would seat his allegorical journey, but inverted; it’s a paean to loss, ‘to fifty-nine, sixty, sixty-one, two and three,’ to ‘the beautiful sounds of American popular music. The calm before the storm of the Kennedy assassination, a quiet America, of lost lovers’ laments wafting along the airwaves.’ The ride, the journey, has a mournful form; Springsteen, a long memory, outdone by the lifespan of his songs. His figure in the long grass is sculpted by that sense of nostalgic dejection. His own submission to the competitive pictures of an American Caesar. An imagined figure, ghostly, standing tall behind every single American broadcast.

The ride was entertainment, for Springsteen, but ultimately meaningless; nothing but a satellite that would spin around his own, private life. Rather than a fiscal crisis augmenting presidential rhetoric, Springsteen sees a crisis concerning a philosophy of representation that is at once both political and aesthetic. Springsteen’s subject, as he himself has it pinned from the 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town onwards, is local economics, is austerity, an “everyday heroism” made manifest by quotidian struggle and urban poverty. The car is indicative of Springsteen’s romance, or, at the very least, his appeal to some romantic predilection. Having driven, having nowhere to go, wanting for nothing but to drive. Reagan’s ribbon marks a boundary, a limiting point, a single track that Springsteen sees in a white line on tarmac that intermittently goes and goes and goes, cutting the road in two, pushing on. But the car, not the highway, is Springsteen’s Roman, Springsteen’s Caesar. His is a figure marked with a ghostly liberty, mechanical, in service to a figure with nowhere to go. Always a question of hypothetical utility. Of the possible alleviation of weight. With his eye on heroism, Springsteen’s navigation proves an effort to adumbrate some sense of hope or, at the very least, outline the possibility thereof against some prevailing powerlessness, but the line swings between those two caveats. Cutting the road in two. His childhood ride is emblematic of that sway. It’ll inevitably just see him back to where he began. The singer can’t outdistance the song. Springsteen will frequently name his characters. His Billy. Mary. Joe. His Johnny, Janey, Margarita or Maria. But the reality of local hardship, of austerity, of faltered communities obscures their figuration. He’ll write from a real nexus, but they’ll become something else in his picture. It’s their context screened in some high definition, and it’s that context that limits their freedom either as figured people or as regular ciphers. Neither a metaphor nor anything else.

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 The louder atmosphere running through Springsteen’s conception of a vehicular entertainment is then a troubling thing, perhaps. The car, like the Roman, runs as a symbolic representative for an American associative semiotic power forking as an arrayed, systemic failure. A crash, deemed inevitable and repetitive.

The car has its violent relationship with culture.

This is the car that killed Jayne Mansfield as she drove towards New Orleans on Highway 90 in a ’66 Buick Electra 225:

the-car-that-killed-janye-mansfield

This is the car that killed James Dean as he drove Route 466 in a Porsche Spyder 550; a car affectionately referred to as “Little Bastard”:

crash-b

This is the Oldsmobile convertible that killed Jackson Pollock:

crash-c

The American car, in the latter half of the twentieth century, is a cipher for cultural self-destruction; a moving picture of the myriad ways in which the country has moved to cannibalise itself. This is the extension of Springsteen’s “ride” preponderate across his corpus. We listen to the shifting piano of Springsteen’s ballad of ‘78, ‘Racing in the Street;’

Some guys they just give up living/ And start dying little by little, piece by piece/ Some guys come home from work and wash up/ And go racin’ in the street

The scene around his characters will fade but for verbal action. Springsteen songs are always like doing words, but the car is a loaded metaphor. Read in the contexts of these cultural deaths, the car – for Springsteen – is a romantic gesture towards these mixed Roman motifs, met at a crossroads; they’re a codification of the difficulties moving through from localized economic hardship to entertainment.

When I come home the house is dark

Listening now to ‘Racing in the Street,’ it feels hard to separate the song from the crisis that hit America’s automotive industry after ‘08. Weakened by a substantial increase in the prices of automotive fuels, and peaked by the ‘03 to ‘08 energy crisis which discouraged the purchase of SUVs and pickups with their relatively low fuel economy, the profit margins of these vehicles encouraged the chief American automakers – General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler – to make these more substantial vehicles their primary focus. With fewer fuel-efficient models on the market, sales slide and, by ‘08, the global downturn seats further pressure on the prices of raw materials. The “Big Three” were pushed to the verge of bankruptcy, ushering in a form of corporate welfare under the adage of a kind of lemon socialism; a subsidy for the rich, a capitalism for the poor. Springsteen’s song creaks under the heavy weight of that motto. ‘Racing in the Street’ is a song about the emptiness of his childhood ride in the backseat of a big Sedan, maybe, or a remembering that and letting it hang as a common practice that would follow him into adulthood. There is almost nothing in the picture. But the road conveys the possibility of there being something, some possibility, that could be gleaned if we follow a line out of sight. That movement is nothing but distraction under Springsteen’s pen, but that distraction a positive thing heralding an iota of regained control. The car is Springsteen’s Caesar, his subject a lack of direction. Maybe it’s there that sits a little hope.

Me and my partner Sonny built her straight out of scratch/ And he rides with me from town to town/ We only run for the money, got no strings attached/ We shut ’em up and then we shut ’em down

The car, the “ride,” the “race” can be couched as a context, cliché, or a metaphor for Springsteen. But it feels like an effort to stake some option on reality. To temper the rhetorical departure significant to a song. To limit the poetry, and chase something local, something close….

*

Poet Gregory Corso is being filmed by James Raisin and Jerry Poynton on Horation Street, New York City, in 1992. He is reading sections from the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. Corso breaks off from script to ruminate on the mesh of America’s political and aesthetic vitality. “Tom Jefferson,” he says, “he did the declaration; if he had been in England at that time he would have been a poet, with Shelley and Keats and all of them. But because he was in America, he was a politician. They didn’t have any poets then.” Corso, speaking to America’s origins, and speaking at the tailgate of the twentieth century, seems particularly interested in the switch that breaks the continuity of America’s predilection for the political – he’s looking for the point at which an aesthetic America took over on the road.

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The conception of a lemon socialism runs deep in America’s domestic economic policy, drawing back to the crisis of 1837 and its potential trigger-point in Andrew Jackson’s closing of the Second Bank of the United States in 1834, and Jackson’s socializing of the losses and poverty of that epoch, spreading the impact across America’s working classes of the young industrial nineteenth century. Harold Bloom draws it forwards. Penning an op-ed for The New York Times in ‘08, a matter of months before Obama would take office and a matter of weeks after the collapse of the Lehmann brothers, Bloom – speaking in an orderly fashion from an academic standpoint – would suggest that any new president need turn to the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In Emerson, Bloom sees a charter for continuity. He compares the 1837, 1929 and 2008 economic crises in the US to show that all the three crises have one commonality, one harmonizing principle: America’s reliance on external investment, on borrowed money. Bloom holds this economic caveat not to outline a tenable political stance on America’s economic endurance, or to lay out some paean to economic isolationism, but rather to remark on a sense of continuity and a need to outline some libertarian id as manifestly standing central to the field of vision. A debtor, as pictured. For Bloom, this figure is Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was there in ‘37, and Emerson would stand at safe distance. Using that crisis as his lens, he divines a view of the critic. Of an “American scholar,” hiding under the guise of some critical, exceptional subjectivism.

There is a difficulty coeval in Bloom’s perambulations of economic patterns, his leaning on Emerson, and in Springsteen’s ride in a remembered Sedan. Emerson is Bloom’s Caesar, but Emerson’s conception of authority is a complex thing – for both Emerson and Springsteen, we’re caught painting pictures of our various contingencies. Boundaries in place that we can’t figure, monetary systems that circulate and mark out a periphery. Emerson’s critic moves in an informational economics. That movement is art enough; it’s that registration of movement giving it purpose and purchase. ‘The marketplace,’ as he would later pin it, ‘being the Louvre of the common man.’

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In 1988, The Reebok corporation ran an advertising campaign under the slogan ‘Reeboks let U.B.U.’ Directed by David Bailey, whilst the billboard campaign carried quotations from Arthur Schopenhauer, the television commercials were shot in old primary colours over a soundtrack of tango music played on violin and piano. We’re given a swift montage of brief scenes featuring people moving across the screen: people dressed in idiosyncratic attire; people behaving in idiosyncratic ways; people buoying around various scenes of American domestic fantasy. A house. A room. A porch. A garden. Each scene was accompanied by a spoken caption drawn from Emerson’s famous essay ‘Self-Reliance’ – “Whoso should be a man must be a nonconformist… A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little mindsTo be great is to be misunderstood…” – a total of ten captions in all. Responding to the immediate reception of this campaign, Aline Brosh, writing in The Harvard Crimson, suggested that the campaign sought ‘to transcend the image of Reebok as just an exercise shoe.’ In citing Emerson, ‘the [advertisements] exploit a key aspect of American society:’

We thrive on thinking of ourselves as original, as rebels. What the Reebok ads deftly obscure is the fact that buying Reebok is not an act of individualism but an act of conformity. The U.B.U. ads conflate being a good shopper with self-reliance. […] The campaign emphasized the crucially American dialectic of individual versus community. We can all wear the same sneakers, the ads tell us, but we will each wear them in a different way.

Perhaps it’s this sensitivity in Emerson’s writing that suggested to Bloom that he was the more urgent American thinker for ruminations on individualism in the wake of financial collapse. In Emerson, the existence of an ideology of individualism appears initially as a paradox since that very individualism would seem to be diametrically opposed to any form of social control, but from the minute that the term became a part of the American vocabulary in the early part of the nineteenth century, Emerson strived to conceive of individualism as a social formation. The shoe is like a Springsteen song: a perfect picture of limited freedom, endemic of a transcendental consumerism – a weightlessness where self-identification should be, a weightlessness where minds need be grounded.

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The song seems a perfect device for treading out the romance of that sense of local entrapment. It gifts a sense of possibility, it draws itself outward to frame a history, a tradition, but punctuates that with the urgent gut of that moment of contact, of touch. Of lying down. Of standing up. But a song can’t figure itself as a truth. We’re navigating the subject of some hypothetical use. The song conveys a very specific kind of consumerism – it’ll do what we tell it to. We’re not coercing its meaning, it’s a high water mark for its contexts that’ll be risen way above any question of content. A buzz of collateral emotion rerouted. A question of revised, remote control.

*

Neil Young and Crazy Horse at a Republican rally.

*

The car, for Springsteen, is a metaphor for cumulative personality. The way we develop, sophisticate a mindset, shift things on and carry things with us. ‘New parts of you simply jump in the car and go along for the rest of the ride. The success of your journey and your destination all depend on who’s driving.’ All you could do, he carries on, is try and figure a machine, your means of operation, as identifiably a part of your individual ride. It’s a crisis in both political and aesthetic representation, of a representation on both a private and public stage. Of a lack of medial power. The car, for Springsteen, is an emblem shifting to levy that sense of loss. Versify it and set it in the tenor of an individual speaking voice. Rather than a nostalgic gesture, the absent control here platformed is figured as a thing operable in a world figured on a new definition of movement renewed on a daily basis. The car is somebody else’s statement, prefabricated. Imperial. Its use, its hypothetical utility, gives it value; it heralds a strange, symbolic subjectivism; limited, but for where the thing itself remains at the mercy of its operation. It’s an elective valorization, an elective necessity. You tell it where to go. Perhaps that is his song? Perhaps that seems to be the keystone to Springsteen’s metaphorical language, and his ability to open up a problem, crack a cliché and its wide mouth wide open? A song can be manned, maneuvered, and rather than painting a picture of culture as subordinate to its context, the car represents a play with meaning under the duress of limited freedoms and social confinement. A play accessed only in the machinations and imagination of a possible movement, the possibility of redirection.

But that redirection can be merciless. An aesthetic object cannot frame its own oppositional power; it’s at the mercy of its misdirection. Maybe that’s what Springsteen is singing on. The figure in the long grass; the ride. Maybe that’s the purgative issue wrapped up in Springsteen’s sedan. In the constant want to race the streets, movement is nothing but roman for Springsteen. Nothing but a want for some newness. Nothing but a gestural want to do away with nostalgic categories. But the road goes two ways, and therein sits his anxiety. A song on its own is a useless thing. A driverless car. He can’t tell us what to do with it. Can’t tell us where to go.

The idea of a fading American empire is a dupe. To say it is to suggest that we’re talking over a sophisticated civilization in decline. What is Springsteen singing about? There’s no Caesar here, just an usher to a vacant vehicle. You’re born into a barbaric country; a country as a Barbaric thing; he sings it through as though he’s looking for something small, something active and attainable to persist within that rough realism. Looking for something to live in. Live off. Feed off. Move on. Find in it some semblance of a real thing. His is a speaking to an object, an aim to exact its possible utility, glean its possible surveillance of a small hope. Springsteen’s ride is perhaps a looking out for a way to move past metaphor and begin talking in local realities. Knowing, full well, there’ll be no movement without a guiding hand – some figuration of progress. That there’ll be no fire without a spark.


Dominic Jaeckle is a writer living in London. He writes about reading.

Images: Dominic Jaeckle (banner), Wikipedia (all others)