Born to Run (2016)
THE GHOST OF TOM JOAD
We were now bicoastal, spending July to December in New Jersey and January to June in California. It was during our California stay that I began to think about my new record. Working once again on my home equipment in our guesthouse, I began to record a variety of acoustic and country rock songs I had recently written. The Ghost of Tom Joad was the result of a decade-long inner debate I’d been having with myself after the success of Born in the USA. That debate centered on a single question: Where does a rich man belong? If it was true that it’s “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” I wouldn’t be walking through those pearly gates any time soon, but that was okay; there was still plenty of work to be done down here on Earth. That was the premise of The Ghost of Tom Joad. What is the work for us to do in our short time here?
I began recording with just myself, my acoustic guitar and the remnant of “Tom Joad” I’d tried to write for the band. Once I cut that song in the version that appears on the album, I had a feeling for the record that I wanted to make. I’d pick up where I’d left off with Nebraska, set the stories in the midnineties and in the land of my current residence, California. The music was minimal, the melodies uncomplicated; the austere rhythms and arrangements defined who these people were and how they expressed themselves. They traveled light; they were lean, direct in their expression, yet with most of what they had to say left in the silence between words. They were transient and led hard, complicated lives, half of which had been left behind in another world, in another country.
The precision of the storytelling in these types of songs is very important. The correct detail can speak volumes about who your character is, while the wrong one can shred the credibility of your story. When you get the music and lyrics right, your voice disappears into the voices you’ve chosen to write about. Basically, with these songs, I find the characters and listen to them. That always leads to a series of questions about their behavior. What would they do? What would they never do? You need to locate the rhythm of their speech and the nature of their expression. But all the telling detail in the world doesn’t matter if the song lacks an emotional center. That’s something you have to pull out of yourself from the commonality you feel with the man or woman you’re writing about. By pulling these elements together as well as you can, you shed light on their lives and honor their experiences.
I’d been through the Central Valley of California many times on the way to visiting my parents. I’d often stop and spend some time in the small farm towns off the interstate. But it still took a good amount of research to get the details of the region correct. I traced the stories out slowly and carefully. I thought hard about who these people were and the choices they were presented with. In California, there was a sense of a new country being formed on the edge of the old. You could feel the America of the next century taking shape in the deserts, fields, towns and cities there first. That vision has come to fruition and all you need to do is take a walk down the main street of my own three-thousand-mile-away Northeastern hometown, Freehold, on any summer evening to see the influx of Hispanic life, the face of the nation changing as it’s changed so many times before, along with the hard greeting most of those who bring that change face upon arrival.
The old stories of race and exclusion continue to be played out. I tried to catch a small piece of this on the songs I wrote for Tom Joad. “Sinaloa Cowboys,” “The Line,” “Balboa Park” and “Across the Border” were songs that traced the lineage of my earlier characters to the Mexican migrant experience in the new West. These songs completed the circle, bringing me back to 1978 and the inspiration I’d taken from John Ford’s film adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Their skin was darker and their language had changed, but these were people trapped by the same brutal circumstances.
“Youngstown” and “The New Timer” were two songs inspired by a book called Journey to Nowhere by my friends Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson. Both songs chronicled the effects of post-industrialization in the United States and the weight of lost jobs, outsourced labor and the disappearance of our manufacturing base on the citizens whose hard work built America. I’d seen it firsthand when the Karagheusian Rug Mill, based in Freehold, rather than settle a labor dispute with its workers, closed up shop and shipped south for cheaper, nonunionized labor. The jobs were gone. My dad had worked on the floor there when I was a kid; my musical life and the Castiles had been born not fifty yards from its belching smokestacks and clacking looms. (It closed in 1964 after sixty years of operation.)
By the end of Tom Joad I’d written about the death and destruction that accompany the lives of many of the people who inspired these songs. I was working on “Galveston Bay,” a song that originally had a more violent ending, but it began to feel false. If I was going to find some small window of light, I had to do it with this man in this song. I’d already written “Across the Border,” a song that was like a prayer or a dream you have the night before you’re going to take a dangerous journey. The singer seeks a home where his love will be rewarded, his faith restored, where a tenuous peace and hope may exist. With “Galveston Bay” I had to make these ideas feel attainable. The song asks the question: Is the most political act an individual one, something that happens in the dark, in the quiet, when someone makes a particular decision that affects his immediate world? I wanted a character who is driven to do the wrong thing but does not. He instinctively refuses to add to the violence in the world around him. With great difficulty and against his own grain, he transcends his circumstances. He finds the strength and grace to save himself and the part of the world he touches.
The Ghost of Tom Joad chronicled the effects of the increasing economic division of the eighties and nineties, the hard times and consequences that befell many of the people whose work and sacrifice created America and whose labor is essential to our everyday lives. We are a nation of immigrants and no one knows who’s coming across our borders today, whose story might add a significant page to our American story. Here in the early years of our new century, as at the turn of the last, we are once again at war with our “new Americans.” As in the last, people will come, will suffer hardship and prejudice, will do battle with the most reactionary forces and hardest hearts of their adopted home and will prove resilient and victorious.
I knew that The Ghost of Tom Joad wouldn’t attract my largest audience. But I was sure the songs on it added up to a reaffirmation of the best of what I do. The record was something new, but it was also a reference point to the things I tried to stand for and still wanted to be about as a songwriter.
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On November 21, 1995, I stepped onto the stage at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey, for my first full solo acoustic concert since the early seventies at Max’s Kansas City. I was going to have to hold this audience for two and a half hours … without a band.
The nakedness and tightrope drama of solo performance is a nervous revelation. It’s one man, one guitar and “you,” the audience. What’s drawn forth is the emotional nucleus of your song. What’s revealed is the naked bones of your relationship to one another and the music. If your song was written well, it will stand in its skeleton form. “Born in the USA” exploded into a Delta slide blues, its full meaning laid bare; “Darkness” hovered in its aloneness. In the house, my sound engineer John Kerns used the power of our audio system to turn my one acoustic guitar into a percussive orchestra or a barely heard ambient scratching accompanying my voice. I found new subtleties in my vocals, developed a high falsetto and learned to use my guitar for everything from a drum to a feedback-screeching canvas of sound. By the end of that first night, I felt I’d discovered something not as physical but as powerful as what I did with the E Street Band that spoke to my audience in a new tongue.
I devised a new repertoire of guitar tunings and voicings, refreshed my fingerpicking techniques and used the full power of my voice throughout its range. This allowed for a variety of musical settings that kept two hours of a guy and a guitar from feeling claustrophobic. The fans had to bring the quiet, and they did. Many of my characters were isolated men and you needed to feel the weight of the space and emptiness around and inside of them. You needed to hear their thoughts to bring the starkness of their landscape to life. The magic of this music was in its dynamic range, from guitar crescendo to whispering silence.
These concerts revived me. They inspired me to dig deeper into the core of my songwriting, sending me back to my hotel room each night to spend the early hours of the morning with my song book, working the new vein I’d found.
I ended the tour recommitted to my “topical” songwriting, something I’d abandoned during the last several records. I finally felt comfortable again in my own skin. There were new songs to write.