Monday, October 13, 2014

A Price in Return: Brandon Daily - Narrative Music

A Murder Country is about to topple the TBR pile of a good many of you out there. If you regularly read this blog it was written just for your sensibilities. Rough-hewn and full of feels, the type of tome that makes explicit the relationship and hell the rhymy-ness betwixt dirty and perty. I asked author Brandon Daily for Narrative Music piece and was shocked not at all that he selected a Springsteen example. When you're done with this piece, check out Craig McDonald's Springsteen contribution and then what the hell, go pick up the Joe Clifford edited Trouble in the Heartland anthology to maximize your Bruce. But first, Brandon's bit...

A Price in Return: Bruce Springsteen’s Tale of Brothers, Loss, and Pain

There’s no doubt about it: Bruce Springsteen is The Boss. He has a sound so unique that you can’t help but stop and breathe it in; as a writer, I’m constantly inspired by his music. But Springsteen’s power as a song-writer and story-teller goes deeper than just having a good sound; his words are unparalleled, always focusing on the themes of the working man vs. the world and the importance (and, in some cases, the futility) of hope.

The American Dream is constantly at his songs’ cores, but that Dream is always marred by reality and life (“The River” offers a beautiful example of this theme). Springsteen speaks to the blue-collar worker, the fatherless child, the people working three jobs just to pay rent and afford deli meat. His voice is raw, graveled, and rough, but that’s what makes his songs ache of a universal truth.

In 1982, Springsteen released his brilliant, bare-bones album Nebraska. The record is littered with pain and heartache, despair and broken hopes. Look through the track listing and you see darkness followed by more darkness—they’re all narrative songs that speak of violence and loss. The title track (based off the real-life story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate—the same couple immortalized in Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands) offers a first-person account of two teenage kids with nothing better to do than go out on a killing spree. It’s painful to sit through, but there’s something beautiful about the story of young love, and that’s a hard pill to swallow for a listener. Yet, while Nebraska, the album, is viewed as one of (if not the) crowning achievement for Springsteen as a story-teller, I must disagree. Instead, I say it is Springsteen’s 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad (TGoTJ) that truly is his magnum opus of pained characters and innocence lost.

The Ghost of Tom Joad takes its name from Steinbeck’s novel (The Grapes of Wrath is, in my opinion, The Great American Novel—the title of my first book comes from Grapes, so I am biased). Like Grapes of Wrath, TGoTJ is focused on laborers in the twentieth century. This album is full of beautiful and haunting tales of violence and regret; the tone is defeated, negative, just like Nebraska, though, unlike the latter album, TGoTJ doesn’t offer much hope—in TGoTJ, not “everything that dies someday comes back.” TGoTJ’s title track offers a retelling of Steinbeck’s novel, the stripped down “Youngstown” is a brilliant meditation of fame and wealth and eventual loss. Yet there is no other song on the album as raw and full of desperation as the fifth track: “Sinaloa Cowboys.”

In my opinion, “Sinaloa Cowboys” may be Springsteen’s most fully realized narrative song, and it is also one that very few people know—which is a shame. When listening to “Sinaloa Cowboys,” it’s hard not to be reminded of “Highway Patrolman” (off Nebraska). The structures, sounds, and themes are similar, as are the stories’ narrative focus on two brothers; though “Sinaloa Cowboys” does not give us that hopeful image of one brother watching the other drive to his freedom.

Sinaloa Cowboys” tells the tale of two Mexican brothers, Miguel (the older) and Louis Rosales, who cross the border illegally “at the river levee when Louis was just sixteen.” The kids make their way to the San Joaquin Valley in California where they find work in the farm fields there. They just want to make a better living for themselves, and what better place than America, the land of opportunity? Soon after they arrive, though, they hear word of work “deep in Fresno County.” (Just the geographical symbolism of the stark desert and dry heat there—a foreshadowing of Hell possibly??—plays into the stark realism of the narrative). The brothers take the job and find themselves working within a Meth lab in a “deserted chicken ranch.” Though this set-up is incredible, there is something so universal to this concept of finding yourself waist-deep in a situation you cannot escape from . . . a situation you endure because of the potential payout in the end.

The Rosales brothers are guided simply by hope. This setup also plays into one of Springsteen’s most oft-used themes of what someone will do to survive; we’re told that the two brothers “could spend a year in the orchards / Or make half as much in one ten-hour shift” in the Meth lab. Here, Springsteen is forcing us to confront the harsh reality that, at times, especially in the economic environment we live in, there becomes a necessity to do the wrong thing, the illegal thing, in order to survive.

Though, as with all opportunities, this new job is dangerous, and Springsteen foreshadows the violent end with his seemingly out-of-place description of “hydriodic acid . . . burn[ing] right through your skin,” and the fumes that can “leave you spittin’ up blood in the desert.” These dangers are laid out bluntly and jarringly to us, but Springsteen does this so we can see just how much Miguel and Louis are sacrificing in hopes of financial security and a good life.

Though told in retrospect at the end, we see that Miguel and Louis Rosales, instead of frivolously spending the money they make, are saving it, burying the cash in the earth within a “eucalyptus grove.” With this simple act, we come to sympathize with both of them, wanting them to succeed and make their dreams come true. Yet the American Dream is a lie, and for the Rosales brothers, tragedy marks that lie. In the final two verses, Springsteen tells us how Louis is killed when the Meth lab “exploded, lighting up the valley night.” The narrative is simple here, not gratuitous, as it could easily have been. Instead, Springsteen focuses on the brothers. Miguel (who survived the blast because he was outside the shack) carries the body of his younger brother “over his shoulder, down a swale / To the creekside,” where Louis eventually dies. Springsteen chooses not to give emotion to the characters, rather focusing on Miguel’s actions; we see how Miguel drives the body of his dead brother to the eucalyptus grove where the money they were saving—totaling ten thousand dollars at this point—is buried. In the beautiful and telling final image, Miguel kisses his brother goodbye and then buries Louis in the same “grave” as the saved-up ten thousand dollars once filled. And then there is nothing. No hope that Miguel will be alright. Hell, we aren’t even allowed the image of Miguel getting back in his truck and driving off into the distance, moving on, etc. No. We’re left in that eucalyptus grove, awaiting a progression to the story that will never come. It’s gut-wrenching and sad. Hopeless. The only sense we can make of it all is the haunting words of warning given earlier in the song by Miguel and Louis’s father: “‘My sons one thing you will learn / For everything the north gives it exacts a price in return.’

And, thus, we are challenged here: Is financial gain worth the possibility of pain and loss? We’d like to say No, never, but I think Springsteen is looking us square in the eyes and really asking us to examine our inner beings, forcing us to directly confront the demons of hope and the American Dream. Is money worth it?

Sinaloa Cowboys” offers a simple, straight-forward story. It has no chorus, only six verses, all of which are sung in Springsteen’s stripped and graveled voice, accompanied by a strumming guitar. It is interesting to note that when the Rosales brothers begin working at the Meth lab and their path toward eventual death and loss begins, another guitar—a Spanish guitar, specifically—and synthesizer (both instruments that add an aesthetic beauty to the song) begin to play. These latter instruments directly contrast the pain of the narrative and is done for a purpose: Maybe loss is a beautiful necessity of life? or something along those lines. Possibly. It’s hard to tell for sure. But what is clear with this song is that there is a narrative genius in Bruce Springsteen, one spawned from pain and loss and anguish, a genius that cannot be matched in story-telling.    

Brandon Daily was born and raised in Southern California. In 2012, he and his wife moved to Central Georgia, where he now teaches high school English and Literature. He holds an M.A. in American Literature and has worked as an adjunct professor and freelance editor. Brandon’s short fiction has been published in several online and print magazines, and his one act play “South of Salvation” was performed and won first prize in the CAST Players One Act Play Festival in 2012. A Murder Country (Knox Robinson, 2014) is his first novel, and tells the story of three violent men living in the late nineteenth century; each man is seeking an understanding of his life and his place within the larger realm of the world. The novel is inspired by Brandon’s fascination with the tension between nature and man as well as the power and fragility of belief and conviction within humans. Brandon is currently working on his second novel and several more short stories. Check him out on FB here.


Chris said...

Good stuff. The only Springsteen I've ever found listenable is Nebraska. Downloading The Ghost of Tom Joad now based on this post. However, if it gives me the hives the rest of his stuff does, I'm coming for the both of you. . . .

jedidiah ayres said...


Brandon Daily said...

You like "Nebraska," I'm bettin "Ghost" is right up your alley....hoping so, at least.

Chris said...

I've now listened to Ghost twice and definitely dig it. The Boss owes you guys a check. And I'll definitely be picking up A Murder Country as well.

jedidiah ayres said...

Chris, I bet you've got a slew of terrific Narrative Music pieces knocking around inside... just sayin

Chris said...


MMmmmmmaybe. . . .