Dylan and Springsteen: Beyond Angst

Like Dylan, Springsteen masterfully channels negativity and despair into a grand series of musical vignettes, demonstrating his mastery of crafting desolation into an opportunity of musical and emotional enlightenment.
03/19/2012 04:08 pm ET Updated May 19, 2012

Written by Ben Cherkasky

The last two years of my life, the first half of my college career, have stripped me of the innocence and comfort I had been so accustomed to and taken for granted for the majority of my life. Since I embarked on my college journey only a year and a half ago, I have experienced the death of my grandfather, the man that I will always revere and admire most, and death of my parents' marriage. Both of these circumstances have derailed my sense of emotional stability and shattered the foundations of a family dynamic that I have always cherished . This loss of innocence has riddled me with extreme anxiety and pain, making my life extremely unhappy. Last spring I began to deeply engage with the music of Bob Dylan and I immediately felt a resurgence of power that I had not felt for a while. Paralleling my 19 years at the beginning of college with Dylan at the same age when he released his first album gave me a creative outlet to dissect the music, making me realize that darkness was just a part of life as light.

This is where Springsteen takes the baton -- like Dylan, he masterfully channels negativity and despair into a grand series of musical vignettes, demonstrating his mastery of crafting desolation into an opportunity of musical and emotional enlightenment. In my search for spiritual enlightenment at such a young age I look to Bruce and his determinism to use his music as a safety net to catch those of us that have fallen. Born In The U.S.A. makes no allusions that a fast track out of town guarantees a successful life, in fact he makes it clear that the most heart-wrenching and terrible moments instill in people a greater appreciation for life.

I have started to repeat the mantra 'be intentional' to myself as a way to force every footstep to be firm and so every moment is lived with purpose. When Springsteen power-slides across the stage in jeans that make you lose faith that a better-tailored ass exists in this world, he reaffirms the concept of intentionality that I am striving to maintain (but not by damaging my knees). Living with despair and angst have become commonplace for me, even expected, but I am wading the waters of the Springsteen Ocean so I can learn to 'dance in the dark' even in the face of a vast, directionless future.

Born In The U.S.A. was the first Springsteen album that legitimately helped me to negotiate my cynical and disillusioned feelings with positive enthusiasm for what's to come next in my future. The album was largely made famous by the pre-release of "Dancing In The Dark" as a single, but I consider No Surrender and Bobby Jean to be the epitomizing pair of songs that made Born In The U.S.A. a paradigm of contemporary music. Bobby Jean can serve a surrealistic function as the ever-elusive American Dream that Springsteen engages with throughout his career. I interpret American Dream as an ideology that creates a dynamic continuity between the past and future, sustaining the call and response motif that is a cornerstone of Springsteen's creative method. After listening to No Surrender about twenty five times, I understand vividly what 'no surrender' really means, not just being stubborn but confronting the wars I fight each day, whether they are economic battles, moral conflicts, or fights to keep personal relationship healthy and meaningful. No Surrender is a dominant exclamation of Springsteen's resistance to succumb to the dark times that he sang about in Bobby Jean. In his biography of Bruce, Two Hearts, Dave Marsh wrote:
It sounded like Bruce was trying to recover from Nebraska [a highly meditative and reflective period]. He was ready to rock again; he wanted to and he knew that was what he was gonna have to do or he couldn't finish, and he made a valiant effort to get a series of things to rock that were written from a place inside of himself that was just not rocking.

The juxtaposition of Bobby Jean between No Surrender and I'm Goin' Down motivates the Bruce motif of reveling in the difficult times, seeing them as a long-term advancement towards whatever truth you are seeking, and wisdom is a result of the process in action. This album is the one I have had the greatest emotional connection with until this point- I finally realized, after listening to Born In The U.S.A., the depth of commitment Springsteen has to showing that life is going to treat us horribly but we need to get out of bed and walk forward even when darkness has crept into all corners of our lives.

Ben Cherkasky is a Sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focusing on sociology and film studies. Having previously taken my classes on Bob Dylan and The Vietnam Era, he is serving as a "peer mentor," a position he previously filled for a class on "Dylan, The Beatles and the Sixties." His goal is to " push myself as well as the other students to be creative and insightful" and views music as "a powerhouse of positive insight and compassion."