Sunday, December 11

A promised land

One of the reasons I love Bruce Springsteen's song The Promised Land so wholeheartedly is because from the first moment I listen to it - from that opening harmonica - I feel like I already know it intimately. Not in a superficial, easy-listening sense. The song speaks to a deeper kind of familiarity, but it does so in a way that's both immediate and lasting. I think Springsteen is one of only a few songwriters who can hold depth and immediacy so tightly together in a single song.

Many moons ago, my friend Isabelle watches a Youtube video I link to on Twitter. It's Springsteen performing an acoustic Thunder Road on a sunny-rainy evening in London's Hyde Park, 2012. Later, Isabelle tells me her initial response is something along the lines of, 'oh, he's surprisingly hot'. Yes, yes indeed. But there's something else in the performance that leads Isabelle to listen through his back catalogue one afternoon. The Promised Land comes on, and it's the song that truly turns her ear to Springsteen; so much so that eventually she'll become the kind of fan who can date a photograph of him just from the length of his sideburns.

The Promised Land reels her in to the shores of Springsteen, if you will. There's just something about that song, the way it instantly tears open your defences to beat alongside a thing so deep and raw within you. I got the radio on and I'm just killing' time ... Driving all night chasing some mirage ... Blow away the dreams that break your heart ... I believe in a promised land. 

I guess maybe one reason this song works so well is because, despite its title, the lyrics refer to 'a' promised land, not 'the'. Springsteen's not talking about a specific Land of Milk and Honey, Shangri-La, Arcadia, nirvana. Like many of his songs, the idea of a utopian 'someplace better' remains just that, an idea. Specific definition and detail aren't important; it's the motivation behind the longing that remains true, a central thread unifying all Americans - all humans - regardless of background or religion. The song is stubbornly secular, even though its themes are the same ones religion loves to grapple with: work, faith, commitment, redemption, the hope of something better, doing your best to 'live the right way' despite your constant desire to head 'straight into the storm'. They're questions relatable and accessible to everybody.

The Promised Land is one of the first songs that hooks me in, too. I'm about nineteen years old, and I'm in between things: school and university, adolescence and adulthood, dependence and independence. I'm also struggling to construct the next hour of my life, let alone the next few years, and every day I walk the streets of my small hometown to my quiet retail jobs, thinking that there must be something more than this. Thinking: I get up every morning and go to work each day / But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold / Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode / Explode and tear this town apart / Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart / Find somebody itching for something to start.

Eventually I find the courage to start something, and five or six years later, I'm much further down a better road. But every time I hear The Promised Land, every time Springsteen whips a harmonica from his back pocket and the crowd roars along to the opening chords, I get that same half-frustrated, half-ecstatic, but overall life-affirming feeling, the sense that I can and will find a better place. Because that's perhaps the most significant thing about The Promised Land: no matter where you are in life, it'll always speak to your yearning to head into the storm in search of something greater.

Friday, December 9

Alcatraz | '$24 in glass beads and red cloth'

It is not an unpleasant place to be, out there on Alcatraz with only the flowers and the wind and a bell buoy moaning and the tide surging through the Golden Gate, but to like a place like that you have to want a moat.
I come across Didion’s short essay on Alcatraz by chance, three days after my trip there. When Didion visits, though, the island is a ghostly ruin, caught in limbo between its days as a functioning penitentiary and its present status as a tourist magnet. Despite the fact she’s virtually alone on the island, not part of a crowd, she mentions details that stick for me too: the tear gas canisters in the dining hall, the buckled paint, the darkness of solitary confinement, the soap in the showers, and the views out across the bay. Looking out from the island across the water, actually, is particularly striking for both of us. In the penitentiary's early years, Alcatraz was nicknamed 'the silent island' because convicts weren't allowed to talk to one another. It earns this name in other ways, though. The bell buoy moans through the misty air, embodying the unexpected, if desolate, tranquility of the place. 

But my experience of this scene differs from Didion's in two ways. 
First, my attempts to capture it on my phone are constantly disturbed by the noise of other visitors who keep straying into the quiet. Two women debate endlessly about who packed the water bottles. A man’s patronising chatter to his infant daughter echoes across the island. Didion is lucky to savour Alcatraz when it’s completely uninhabited. 
Second, the very fact I am trying to film this scene on my phone, instead of just being present in it: I bet Didion wouldn’t.

Didion says, 'I tried to imagine the prison as it had been […] tried dutifully to summon up some distaste, some night terror of the doors locking and the boat pulling away. But the fact of it was that I liked it out there, a ruin devoid of human vanities, clean of human illusions, an empty place reclaimed by the weather...’ 

Devoid of human vanities, clean of human illusions. During my visit, standing outside the penitentiary’s tiny morgue, I see a couple probably in their early sixties, except they're dressed like twenty-somethings in matching brand-new sportswear. She has fake nails, sunglasses, and a make-up caked, Botoxed face. Their gum chewing marks a regular beat to their drawl. He has the look of an ageing jock: still the triangular frame, narrow hips, slim waist, the conventionally good-looking all-American face, but everything is slightly droopy somehow. And his hair’s suspiciously un-grey. He regularly squeezes her ass. I imagine their home, low and wide in some homogenous suburb, with leather sofas, huge televisions, and a tacky bathroom. I bet he has a garage full of cars and plays golf at the weekends. She likes home fitness videos and has a handbag-sized dog to put in her ugly designer handbags.

I’m being awful. They’re probably philosophy professors.

But the point is, Alcatraz is no longer an empty place. It's one of San Francisco's biggest tourist pulls, hundreds ferried to the rock and back every day. I am standing in the suffocating black of a solitary confinement cell thinking about how this is my first (and, y'know, hopefully last) time in a prison, and about what it truly must be like for inmates. It is convenient to think of all prisoners as terrible, misshapen humans who need to be kept away from society, prisons a neat solution. And yes, there are the heinous criminals who deserve every horror they get. But what about the prisoners who are unable to escape the world of crime because of their upbringing, their class, their socio-economic circumstances? To physically step inside a prison is to open your mind to all of these kinds of thoughts, and whatever your opinions may be, I think that's an important thing to do. Though some tourists are downright irritating, everybody should have the chance to experience at least some of what Didion felt when she visited the deserted penitentiary. You see Alcatraz differently to what you were expecting, and you're forced to reconsider your feelings about prisons themselves too.

In an American Poetry lecture, my professor, who also teaches at San Quentin State Prison, mentions America's prison-industrial complex with regard to this poem by female black poet Morgan Parker. I think of the milky-skied Sunday afternoon I spent at Berkeley's Grassroots House (which deserves a blog post all of its own) writing letters and mailing books to literature-starved prisoners across the nation as part of the Prisoner's Literature Project. They're a volunteer group that sends free books directly to prisoners who request them, because as their website puts it: 'in American prisons, access to books is treated as a privilege, not a right'. NPR featured the PLP as part of their longform radio series Humankind, and it's worth listening to. Many prisoners request dictionaries, to improve their reading and writing skills, and thus their employability upon release. Because nobody wants to employ a felon, right. Other prisoners pursue diverse interests; one guy I write to is into surfing, Spanish, sociology, and creative writing. Another is looking for 'anything on old Aztec art'. Most letters I open come from Californian prisons, so I'm not surprised to learn, from The Atlantic, that the state 'holds more inmates in its jails and prisons than do France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands combined'. It's a nationwide issue, though. Schlosser writes:
All across the country new cellblocks rise. And every one of them, every brand-new prison, becomes another lasting monument, concrete and ringed with deadly razor wire, to the fear and greed and political cowardice that now pervade American society.
On Alcatraz, we walk through the old prison library, the floors squeaking, the bookshelves long empty. Back when the prison was in operation, the library offered to its better-behaved inmates fifteen thousand books, seventy five magazine subscriptions, and monthly movies. In recent years many prison libraries have been closed and converted into cells to accommodate overcrowding. But how will prisoners ever escape the cycle of crime and incarceration if they're not even granted the basic right to read?

Inmates didn't just read, though, on Alcatraz. Crocheting was an unexpectedly popular pastime. And in the evenings there was music hour: guitars, saxophone, harmonica, keyboard, all played as the sun sank, casting pink and orange through the barred windows. Al Capone practised his banjo in the shower room. 

It's a good spot for birds, too: California gulls, cormorants, orange-footed guillemots, falcons, oystercatchers, black-crowned night herons, snowy egrets. I know very little about birds but those names sound cool, and the range would've suited another of Alcatraz's celebrity inmates, Robert 'Birdman' Stroud. Before Alcatraz, during his time at Leavenworth penitentiary, Stroud became a well-regarded ornithologist, tending to injured sparrows and rearing canaries, even writing two giant treatises on their diseases. His cells (he had two to house all his birds, despite prison overcrowding) became literal cages, laboratories devoted to the breeding and research of canaries. A full-time secretary was even required to oversee the correspondence of his canary-selling business. 

He was a difficult, violent prisoner though, and upon discovery that he was using laboratory equipment to distill alcohol, Stroud was shifted off to Alcatraz. He had ten minutes to say farewell to his birds, for on Alcatraz he wouldn't be allowed to rear them. But Stroud found other occupations on the island. He wrote an autobiography, and the manuscript 'Looking Outward: A History of the U.S. Prison System from Colonial Times to the Formation of the Bureau of Prisons'. He was granted access to the library and studied law there. (Law books are also widely requested from the PLP, and it's not too hard to understand why.) He played chess, and met actor Burt Lancaster who portrayed him in 1962's Birdman of Alcatraz. The film is, of course, almost totally fiction.

I can't write about Alcatraz without mentioning the Indian Occupation, especially considering recent events regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline. In November 1969, one hundred Native American activists settled on the derelict island, citing an 1868 treaty which granted unoccupied land to Native Americans. The protestors demanded the deeds to the land in order to build a university there, offering to buy Alcatraz for '$24 in glass beads and red cloth', which is apparently how much Dutch settlers paid for Manhattan in 1626. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Occupation was hugely important in raising awareness of the rights and reparations of Native Americans. The last of the protestors left in 1971, but their graffiti remains, with a little touch-up and a little paint, on the water tower: 'Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land.' 

When I see those letters for myself, square and red in the misty rain, I'm reminded of one of my favourite performances of Springsteen's Thunder Road (from the legendary 1978 Passaic Night - you can watch the entire thing on Youtube, and it's pretty much my favourite thing ever) and his preamble to the song:
There was this Robert Mitchum movie. It was about these moonshine runners down south [...] I never saw the movie, I only saw the poster in the lobby in the theater. I took the title and I wrote this song. I didn't think there was ever a place that was like what I wrote this song about [...] We were out in the desert, over the summertime, driving to Nevada, and we came upon this house on the side of the road that this Indian had built. Had a big picture of Geronimo out front, said 'Landlord' over the top. Had this big sign, said, 'This is a land of peace, love, justice, and no mercy'. And it pointed down this little dirt road that said 'Thunder Road'.

Didion came to Alcatraz two years before the Indian Occupation, and I wonder how different her visit would've felt, had she ferried over in 1969 instead. I don't know if it's because it's a small island, or because it's so steeped in myth and drama, but Alcatraz seems able to don any identity: barren rock, cell-door-slammin' penitentiary, ghostly ruin, 'land of peace and freedom', tourist heap. And yet despite their wild variations, all these personas participate in the deep questions about what it means to be free and not free, liberated and caged, about what it means to be an American, and by extension, what it means to be human.

A final note: in 2005, Jake the dog participated in the Alcatraz Invitational, a swimming race between the island and San Francisco. He came 72nd.