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Sunday
Feb172008

New Friends, Old Loves, Reasons To Believe

Ronnie Dunn found a Jack of Clubs out there in the desert, where New Mexico rises into mesas and falls into chasms that spill into the Rio Grande River. A weathered card that promises good times and late nights, pitted by sand and wind and life -- and he smiles when he lifts it off the ground, forgotten by the person who brung it, turning it over and displaying the truth.It is a truth he knows by heart.

Because while Dunn might be a country music king now, he spent years as a wild-eyed Jack -- sowing sparks and fire, neon and kerosene on the heart of Saturday night as a jukejoint, honky tonk flamestarter Stealth and not being so visible often the truest ally of those who would chase the night.

Ali Berlow, mom, wife, NPR sensualist/food essayist, leans back into her seat on the plane lifting off the narrow, cracked runway at Martha's Vineyard Airport and closes her eyes. Her life lies below - and she's spinning into a new orbit for a few days. It's a place where the ponies run wild, the music is life's blood and the friendships form fast and hold fast, starting in the middle

And there in Pittsburgh, Bruce Springsteen holds a hushed and holy altar call for the blue collar faithful. He's a solitary man in his unbuttoned low black gypsy shirt, leather chord knotted around his neck, guitar slung low, too. He is handsome in a rugged way that says high plains drifter even if he's more Jersey shore refugee -- and that low flame dignity is what makes him the patron saint and embodiment of the working classes almost 30 years since Born To Run became a classic.

Bruce Springsteen understands the dignity of the common schmuck, just as he's not afraid to walk through the valley of his humanity. And it's somewhere between those extremes, the valor of lives overlooked emerges, and it does. For not everyone is bold-faced, back-lit, air-brushed, fluffed and buffed and puffed to perfection.

In a world of the real, it is the real who most often get ignored. Not because people aren't dying for it, but because it is so seemingly unexceptional, so common, so not worth noting. Yet in those moments that are the slightly dog-eared just like everybody else -- only maybe a little more distraught -- Bruce Springsteen brings it all back home.

As Lester Bangs tells young aspiring writer William Miller in Cameron Crowe's coming of age as a baby rock-crit flick "Almost Famous": "All you have to do is listen." Indeed. To the heartbeat, mocking you with the echoing of that great big empty chamber you can never quite fill.. To the roar of the room in the enveloping silence. To the way the sweat beads and collects in the moments of desperation from too much boredom and not enough prospects.

Springsteen's world is where the ceilings are too low -- and the only freedom is the vast expanse between here and the horizon. Two lanes of tar covered ribbon tearing up what lies in front, orchestrating an escape, four bald tires gripping for everything they're worth, self-contained exit a matter of pressing the pedal and not looking back.

Within it, though, are truths. Deep essential truths about who we are and how we live our lives. Truths about the scraped, bruised, dinged things that are more precious than rubies -- in part because they are the things we love, but just as importantly because they are within the realm of what can be attained.

There are pipe dreams, and there are brass rings. One is just so much ether to make you high, make you forget, wake you up emptier than you started, mocked by an aspiration that was grounded in less than nothing. But the other, well, that is a whole other truth -- the ability to push one's limits, to seek something better, more -- and perhaps if the risk is weighed properly, a ship that could come in.

Bruce Springsteen's losers have dreams that could wash up on the shore, that could slightly cracked, definitely chipped, certainly faded come true. As the scrawny, scraggly-headed Romeo pledged to Mary, the object of too many lost souls' desire, as he raged against the less than status quo he's being told to accept, "We're pulling out of here to win," it was about jettisoning the shackles and soaring on opportunities made with one's sweat, muscle and dreams, soaring on the thrilling power of what real love, true love -- the kind of love that lets you know you've truly been seen, seen as you are, not as they try to marginalize you -- embodies.

Passion plays. Acts of faith. Ties that bind. Moments that make everything matter more. Revelations that drop illusions. All of it unnoticed, except for the ones caught under the weight of the experience -- or recognition. The people Bruce Springsteen sings about -- the rebels who refuse to die, who get home from work, wash up and go racing in the street. The ones for whom it's not about pink slips, so much as breaking the inertia that pulls you down, that holds you frozen until its beyond too late.

And the crisis of faith turns into the clarity that forges steel wills and iron strength. The man in "The River," triumphantly laid back this night at the University of Pittsburgh is reborn of the eternal flame that burns when you see that life ain't a trap, it's a heroic thing if you'll let go of the side, let it wash you clean and feel the power of its smallest triumphs. This is a man who got captured by circumstances, served a meager fate and yet refused to now bow his head. In that eyes aloft pride, he becomes everything powerful about a man.

Not that everything is such a test of mettle as that. "Two Hearts" serves as joyous a romp for the music man as the sobering reality that is "Matamoros Banks" illuminates the plain brutality that Springsteen sees as the migrants' fate, or "Youngstown," his moaning a portrait of a proud man who worked hard for the factory only to find that his time was up and his effort meant nothing -- in spite of the high water promises of the ones for whom he contributed to the prophet.

But it's in the middles, the recognition that with every tie that binds, there is a knot that gets caught in one's throat, that we can relax and choke down, swallowing whatever comes with it, or merely set and let be what will be. How we choose to deal is as much an element of our priorities as the circumstances we're cast in.

Active decisions, though, are where we define the way we live -- and even teetering on the brink only cashes the check The Bible promised, the one about an untested man being neither good, nor evil, but merely unproven. For it is in being decisive that we are defined.

Say "Yes." Say "No." Say "When."

He'd not yet played The Tunnel of Love's "One Step up," a song about how hard it is to keep the faith, to be married and present in the face of the inevitable erosion of real life -- but recognizing that as easy as it is to fall, it's a damn sight harder to pick up one's gaze after the fait accompli. Sure there's a girl at that bar who's looking single and a focal point narrator who ain't feeling too married -- but in the end, the ties will hold, the honor last, the temptation passes and, hopefully, he goes home to make it stronger.

"This one's for Kenny," he says, cryptic, a reference no one understands. "Thanks for the card."

The card. Another article of faith. A note about why Bruce Springsteen mattered to a kid from Luttrell, Tennessee who was the slowest running back in the history of Gibbs High School. It was a note that spoke volumes about the power of music to transform the unseen -- and also to validate the power of the connection the makers' of music have to the power of their music being recognized as it reflected their life and so many other's in the process..

The note was 4 years old. The power of its "what those songs mean" message held for a man who's beyond a legend.

The power of "what those songs mean" held for everyone in the room, everyone who'd ever believed in a "Thunder Road" or "Mary Queen of Arkansas" or "Sandy" -- and Madame Marie, "Cadillac Ranch"es, floating up into "The Rising." At one point, I look over, and Ali Berlow is crying. She a grown woman of the world, an inhabiter of Africa, a windsurfer in Tobago, a mother of two, a lover of a font maker, a friend, a cook and a nurturer to a changing coterie of strays and fascinating fellow travelers of the world

Ali Berlow is lovely -- falling somewhere between Emmylou Harris and Kim Bassinger, and she can teach you to taste things in a fleshy, juicy plum you never imagined existed. She is a pool of unruffled water, depths barely suggested from the surface, yet willing to whoop and dance in front of whomever might watch should the spirit rise.

Ali Berlow is a woman so many wish to be. And she is a woman they hardly know. What simmers beyond the obvious is where her treasure truly lies. How many miss it, caught in the dazzle of that which is easily seen? And so Ali Berlow runs off for moments with the circus -- trapeze flyers, true believers, hungry hearts and lion tamers who beckon come on, hungry for the tranquility and the mothering she sows without even knowing, drinking up the thrills they take for granted every day.

It's an even trade, this. But also a trade that makes each more. Not just more, so much more. More alive, more vital, more vibrant, more aware of everything around the other. It is more than a halo -- or an aura that is "so purple." It is a truth that makes you see how precious every moment is, every person, every look or smile or tear.

It is the reason Ronnie Dunn, too successful for his own good, can find the kick inside and the exuberance of putting it down, pushing a sun-parched blue highway as hard as it can go with the Allman Brothers' Live At the Filmore East set on stun. It is yowling along with the abandon of being 14 and your parents not knowing you've got the car, the liberation of the speed and the sound and the communion of two voices -- one perfectly pitched, powerfully landing square on each note, inflection, intention there, the other person's slightly bent, just missing it by "this much," yet bringing so much heart to the table that accuracy doesn't matter.

Ronnie Dunn, preternaturally cool, inscrutable behind those streamlined dark glasses, letting go of the "Ronnie Dunn," descending into the unfettered rapture of songs and moments and an exhilarated uncalibrated soul slung wide across the moment. He's come to Santa Fe to dissect hard truths for a tv camera -- the polemics and dichotomies of growing up in a church-anchored family driven by a truck-drivin', wild-cattin', honky tonk squalorin' father.

Ronnie Dunn, who will shoot impossibly high end tequila with the mystical Western artist Bill Worrell at the 5 star Tudor Adobe hotel La Posada, eat eggs at a diner downtown where he knows every waitresses' name, visit the self-portrait of pioneering renegade Indian artist TC Cannon -- cast in blazing indigo and tangerine and lemon and crimson -- he now owns, and can't even believe his luck. Ronnie Dunn is the intersection of contradiction, a man who lives high and lives low with equal appreciation, and that is what makes his art stick.

For whether you were a part of the strip mall honky tonk revolution -- with its loud, primary-color block-cut cowboy shirts and herky jerky line dancing -- or maybe didn't scan except as the dudes with attitude and cowboy hats on the Corn Flakes box all those years ago, Brooks & Dunn have been the sterno on the hotplate of country music's fast-forward evolution. Big guitars, bold sonics, crashing cymbals, throbbing bass -- they took everything rock & roll and brought it straight to the behind-chicken-wire beer joints where the jukeboxes bled neon for a hybrid that blew it up.

But for all the propulsive throbbage of classic hillbilly music -- figure Waylon Jennings set to 11 with a back of Johnny Cash's thrompier moments -- it was about what Brooks & Dunn meant to the working people. Maybe not as eloquent as Springsteen, but every bit the rallying cry for hard work, American made domestic shoulder-down, sweat-soaked and bliss-within-it-all reality-based programming. Their 3 chord, a cloud of dust and the truth performances were a lot about taking the corner on two wheels, extensions of the F-or-fight club that's Hell on weekend nights, but also true believers in the power of one's own hands getting it done, taking care of one's family and bringing it all back home when the rubber meets the road.

It's when you get to "Red Dirt Road," the last song the two both put their names on, that the higher elevations come together. It's the truth about what goes on in the flyover, the places where "I drank my first beer/ It's where I found Jesus/ It's where I wrecked my first car/ I tore it all to pieces" -- and it's also the place that couldn't be jettisoned fast enough only in a perfect siren's song of revenge drew the singer back with even deeper truths than that first motherlode of life, love and lessons.

"Red Dirt Road" has a happy ending. The singer gets the girl he never should have lost in the first place.

But he also comes to realize that salvation isn't "just for high achievers," a fact that means happiness is found along the way -- like the flowers that grow through the cracks in the sidewalk. Not something that'll go for hothouse prices, but is even lovelier for the circumstances that they bloomed through.

That's the thing about these true people truths: they work where they're realized. There is nothing fancy about arrival or awareness or delivery; it happens when and where it does, and you can't be the same after. It's the reality of not being able to not know once you know.

Look at Springsteen. All these years later, still showing us the things most people miss; and in those shared visions, overlooked in the blur of getting by, we find out that what makes us similar, special, precious is not just attainable, it just is.

And in those visions, seconds, connections, all the futility, invisibility that we feel fades away.

In being a number, we become part of the tide of life. Invisible, yet seen by the larger frame condition. Indeed, listening to the Sacred Heart of the Stone Pony strumming that acoustic guitar with a resonance so grand it fills up the University of Pittsburgh's Events Center, it's the things that go unseen that become larger than life.

The truth, though, that saves comes at the very end. After performing "Homestead" with the Iron City's troubadour rocker Joe Grushecky, Bruce dug back into the tautly brooding Darkness on the Edge of Town portfolio for "The Promised Land," a song that puts the power of a bankrupt American dream into the manifest destiny of the man witnessing it.

"Gonna be a twister to blow everything down/ Ain't got the faith to stand it's own ground," he wails.

The anti-hero of "The Promised Land" sees how bereft our way of life has become; recognizes it's barely scraps and getting by for so many factory-men and 9-to-5 women; sees the diminishing rewards for hard work, blue collar values, believing in the promise inherent to this nation. Even as he sees it, though, he's not going to give in. He won't accept what they're selling as the status quo. It is one of those John Steinbeck stark American awakenings.

When the song's object raises his fist vocally to declare, "I'm no boy, no I'm a man/ And I believe in the promised land," it is a profound coming of age. Not just for one young man in transition, but for a way of life that plants its truth in the ground -- and is willing to walk the walk of mattering. Because until we recognize and profess our own value, how can we expect anyone else to see it, or more importantly, treat it with the respect we ourselves have not imbued it with?

That is the beauty and the brutality of the unseen. It exists beyond cognizance, every bit as precious and valuable, but it isn't worth anything at all, because no one even knows it's there.

No, when we are willing to stand up and be counted -- not in insurrection, though that certainly is a truth that holds, but in celebration of all that we are -- we become that which matters. It is in seeing, recognizing, accepting the deepest grace, the proudest reality of our humanity, that our situation no longer defines us. No, we're not just a man, we're golden, we're light, we're everything good and weak and proud and profane about the human condition.

In that moment, in that commitment to who we are and the greater commonality of the human truth, where we are is where we need to be. The promised land isn't just where we're standing or trying to get to, it's a state of arrival that is dignity in the downlow, heaven in the here and now and the deliverance of knowing where and what we are is enough -- and enough is more than plenty.

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