Just over a week ago, Cranbrook Art Museum opened a summer-long exhibition — "Springsteen: Troubadour of the Highway" — that steers the postmodern 18-wheeler off its usual route, away from showing the edgiest paintings, sculptures and installations its curators can find, and off into the vastness of our collective heartache. With this show of album covers, videos, memorabilia and — most importantly — more than 70 works by nine great photographers (Edie Baskin, Joel Bernstein, David Gahr, Lynn Goldsmith, David Michael Kennedy, Annie Leibovitz, David Rose, Pamela Springsteen and Frank Stefanko), the museum hooks into the cultural mainstream and tows it down a long, lost side road into rock ’n’ roll’s unconscious. Although some of the prints on display are on-stage performance shots, the real grain and grit of the show are in the images of small-town America, empty highways and badlands that form the backdrop of Springsteen’s mournful lyric dramas.
I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain
As a boy in New Jersey, Springsteen lived in the town of Freehold on a street where his aunts, uncles and extended family occupied the other houses. Even though the Garden State (so named when it was mostly rural towns and truck gardens supplying produce to New York City) had long since been ravaged by industrialism and suburban land-grabs, a sense of close-knit community hung on in the aftermath of World War II, a hope for the possibility of a mythical Promised Land in the New World.
But by the time The Boss was rocking clubs along the Jersey shore, that hope had crumbled. Small towns emptied as their kids went off in search of chimerical fortunes and ever-elusive happiness. Some of them, as if inspired by Jack Kerouac and the Beats, flamed out down the highway on two or four wheels to explore the darkness on the edge of town — and Springsteen has been a faithful troubadour of their adventures and losses. In the Cranbrook show, a photograph by Annie Leibovitz captures the beginning of his personal quest: his home street in Freehold, empty and almost desolate, with only a ghostly feeling of what once had been, as if it were hidden just out of sight.
I went out for a ride and I never went back. —"Hungry Heart"
If you’re a poor working-class kid hanging out on corners and stoops wishing you could find a real world that answers to your desires, there don’t seem to be too many options. A photograph by Frank Stefanko shows a young Springsteen sitting on the headlight of a sleek 1960 Corvette, the ultimate road machine, as if getting ready to head off for awesome parts unknown. Taken just after The Boss had completed one of his greatest works, the soul-burning Darkness on the Edge of Town, an album full of tragic yearning, this shot gives us the feel of a neighborhood that could be Ferndale, Westland or Everytown, USA. It seems to imply that careful career planning and responsibility get you nowhere but brain-dead — only rock ’n’ roll, the exhilaration of miles speeding by and the endless American horizon hold out promise.
The highway is alive tonight/But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes. —"The Ghost of Tom Joad"
But Springsteen doesn’t have his head in the sand of anyone’s myth. He knows the wages of desolation row and being born to keep running. He has also given witness to what America can do to its own, to the ruthless uncaring of its daily MO. In 1982’s Nebraska and 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, he went acoustic, turning off the current while turning up his compassion for the downtrodden of this continent.
Tom Joad was his transformation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath into a saga of immigrant migrant workers wending their ways across the unforgiving plains of the Western states. And his sister, Pamela, a professional photographer, has responded to that album with an extended series of black-and-white photographs reminiscent of the devastated American visions and vistas of photographer Robert Frank or filmmaker Wim Wenders. In them, we get to a stark nowhere, an end-of-the-line finality that’s fearsomely beautiful. She captures her brother, walking like Kerouac hitchhiking along the road, his hot wheels long gone and nothing but the promise of our common lot, mortality, before him.
You wake up in the night/with a fear so real. —"Badlands"
Which is the real revelation of this show — Springsteen’s bottom-line awareness that everything disappears. You go back home and what you once knew is gone. You struggle and pine for a better life, and then?
There’s no denying the power of song to bring up feeling. And when it’s underlined by power-packed images like those in "Springsteen," just prepare yourself for the truth. If you can get through this no-frills exhibition without its wallop welling up in your throat, then you’re better defended than I. Organized by Colleen Sheehy, director of education at the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, it will travel in 2004 to the Experience Music Project in Seattle and the Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey.
"Springsteen: Troubadour of the Highway" is at Cranbrook Art Museum (39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills) through August 31. Call 1-877-462-7262 for information. George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]