Over dinner the other night a millennial priest asked me about some characteristics that define Generation X. I started by telling him that my generation was born between 1964 and 1981 and that we GenXers are significantly smaller in number than the generation that came before us (baby boomers, 1945-1963) and the generation that followed (millennials, 1982-1995).
Another GenX priest and I went on to inform our millennial friend that we were the first generation to experience the effects of no-fault divorce and the new reality of both parents going to work, which resulted in the moniker “latch-key kids,” and that we’ve been understood as the experiment of many cultural revolutions. (Tragically, a third of our generation conceived after 1973 never made it out of the womb.)
As far as ecclesial life is concerned, no GenXer has a living memory of the Church before Vatican II. Through our most formative years, John Paul II was our pope, and for many of us, the only pope we ever knew. “JPII,” as we affectionately called him, was a tremendous source of inspiration and stability for many of us, especially in a culture that was sliding.
Our experience of technology involved the novelty of microwaves, cable TV, personal computers, and VCRs, but our phones still needed to be plugged into a wall.
The athletic “participation medal” was yet to be invented, which helped us build character.
And our music? Well, it was great, but you had to work for it.
Millennials and iGens (1996-2012) easily forget that there was a time when access to your favorite music was limited. You couldn’t just download a single, stream a song, or immediately watch a music video on YouTube as we do today. You either bought the vinyl record, cassette, or 8-track—at an actual record store, not off Amazon—or you had to wait patiently for the song to be played on the radio or for the video on MTV (which, believe it or not, used to only play music videos all day long).
Baby boomers catch a lot of flack from the younger generations these days, but no one can deny that boomers created a lot of great music, and that some boomers still do. Take, for example, Mr. Bruce Springsteen. He turned seventy in September and recently released his nineteenth studio album, Western Stars. It won’t get much radio play, but the arguably best music being made these days is not on the radio.
Western Stars is not the traditional rock album that one might expect from a legend like Springsteen; it’s a stripped-down, humble, honest meditation on the alienation, isolation, and loss that all men and women experience, in every generation.
The first two tracks on the record, “Hitch Hikin’” and “The Wayfarer,” introduce us to our protagonist, a former stuntman, as a man without a woman, without a family, without friends, and without community. In a day’s time he hitches a ride with a family man and his pregnant wife, then a trucker who has a “dashboard picture of a pretty girl,” and finally a “Gearhead in a souped-up 72.” It seems like the further along he goes, the further away he gets from what his heart longs for. And as a wayfarer, our character recognizes the need that we all have for a home, for a place of one’s own; he describes his displaced condition singing, “When everyone’s asleep / and the midnight bells sound / My wheels are hissin’ up the highway / spinning round and round,” and then asks, “Where are you now, where are you now / where are you now . . .” His question is both geographical and existential.
“Tucson Train,” which impressively manages to mimic the sound of a train on the tracks, is one of the more hopeful songs on the album, at least sonically. Our character sings, “I come here lookin’ for a new life,” but by the song’s end we’re really not sure if the woman he once loved is actually on the train, returning to him so that he can “show her a man can change,” or if this is simply his wish, and his hopeful imagination at work.
At this point, you may say, “Gee, Father, this sounds like a depressing album. Why would I want to listen?”
Here’s why: because Springsteen is getting at the heart of our fallen condition, and it’s good for us to venture into those shadows. Most contemporary recording artists can’t or won’t dare to take us there, because they either haven’t been there themselves, or could never find their way out. (See my review of Taylor Swift’s Lover.) Even the title track reminds us that there are stars, but with the light pollution of our cities, they are impossible to see. It is only out in the desert, where Western Stars is set, that one can finally see the stars and start to wonder about the meaning of the human existence.
If you’re familiar with Springsteen’s music, you’ll know what I mean when I say that “Sleepy Joe’s Café” is a sister to “Mary’s Place” from The Rising—an oasis where one’s problems don’t go away, but where you can at least forget about them for a while. This particular track is about benign distraction and temporary comfort, but most of the album is about moving, searching, and looking for something important that’s been lost, which on one level may be a soulmate, but on a deeper level may be innocence, both as individuals and as generations.
In his autobiography, Born to Run, Springsteen confesses that he’s battled hard with depression over the years, and his personal psychological struggles seem to show up in lyrics on a variety of tracks:
“I make sure I work till I’m so damn tired / Way too tired to think”
“I’ve got trouble on my mind”
“I lie awake in the middle of the night / makin’ a list of things I didn’t do right”
On Western Stars Springsteen offers us a view inside the mind, heart, and soul of a man who comes to recognize what it is he really wants, because he realizes what he does not have. It’s the via negativa.
I’ve previously argued on this website that Bruce Springsteen is one the finest Catholic artists making music today, and I mean that in the way that Jacques Maritain and Flannery O’Connor understood art and artists. (See O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, p. 172 for details.) Western Stars is a dark album—make no mistake. While some light does sprinkle through and offer relief from time to time, it never lasts, at least not on this side of the veil, which is a good reminder that we are all wayfarers. Don’t expect too much from this life, as our final home is not here.
Now that’s some fine and hard-earned boomer wisdom.
Top Tracks: “Tucson Train,” “Stones,” “Hello Sunshine”