js-quotesIn the Spring of 2000, I went to the Rose Garden and saw Bruce Springsteen on his reunion tour with the E Street Band. In the second encore, he played an awesome song that I had never heard. That song kind of fell into the background until the following March when a live version was released on Live from New York City. It was called “Land of Hope and Dreams“. The guitar riff at the beginning of the song instantly became one of my all-time favorites. In spite of its 9:46 length, it ended up on several of my mix tapes, including my best of Bruce Springsteen, even though its length meant at least one other song wouldn’t make the cut. In those days when not every song at a concert ended up on YouTube the next day (when I updated my Top 100 U2 Songs a couple of days after seeing them last month all the songs from my concert were already available), I looked for more versions of the song. But, unlike “American Skin“, the other new song on the Live album, there didn’t seem to be a studio recording. I kept hoping for one and really felt it should have been on The Rising, the brilliant Springsteen album that followed in 2002. I kept buying Springsteen bootlegs and it still kept not appearing.

Then came Wrecking Ball, Springsteen’s fantastic 2012 album, complete with a studio recording of “Land of Hope and Dreams“. It was even better than I could have imagined.  Though I have maintained for over thirty years that “Born to Run” is the greatest song in the history of rock and roll, there are a lot of days when “Land of Hope and Dreams” is my favorite Springsteen song. It was so good that Major League Baseball began using it that fall for their ads for the postseason. It is so good that I have played it over twice as many times as any other song on my work computer even though it came out a year and a half after I got that computer. The studio version is the sixth most played song on my home computer, even though I had the computer for three years before the song was released. When combined with the original live version and the live version from 2012 for the Sandy Relief Concert, it becomes the most played song. Between my two computers, I have listened to versions of this song for 36 hours. That doesn’t include all the times I listened to it in the car or all the times I listened to it on mix-tapes or before 2009.   That is how much I love this song.

I love this song not just for the guitar riff or the mandolin or the violin or the piano or all the brilliant music that Springsteen puts together. I love this song for the feeling of hope and redemption that it offers. Just look at the lyrics:

This train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls

I said, this train, dreams will not be thwarted
This train, faith will be rewarded
This train, hear the steel wheels singing
This train, bells of freedom ringing

And after that, we go into one of the most beautiful sax solos you have ever heard. In the original live version, it was Clarence Clemons, the Big Man (“Well the change was made uptown / And the Big Man joined the band” as Bruce sings in “10th Avenue Freeze-Out“). But the studio version was released in March of 2012 and Clarence had died in June of the previous year. Well, this is what Bruce said in his eulogy for the Big Man: “Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.” That’s Clarence on that brilliant sax solo.  And when they go on tour now?  Well, that’s Jake Clemons, the little Big Man, the son of the great sax player standing there playing one of the all-time great sax solos.

But the lines that have the most meaning for me are these:

Leave behind your sorrows, let this day be your last
Well, tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past

When I finished my novel in.your.most.frail.gesture in June of 2003, I did it with two characters watching Springsteen’s Live in New York City and the narrator singing along the song. He is then asked by the woman he used to love, who shattered his heart so completely that the novel came out of it, “Do you really believe that? That tomorrow there’ll be sunshine.” “I do,” he replies, saying words he wished he had been able to say to her in different circumstances. But he is happy enough to have never said them – he has said them to someone else, to someone who has already led him into that land of hope and dreams.

When I began working at Powells City of Books in 2000 it was a job I thought I would be happy to keep forever. And for three years it was. And then came that horrible last year and when I left Powells in February of 2004, it was very bittersweet. I sent out a company wide e-mail, laying out a lot of the reasons I had loved working there and the reasons why I was leaving. In spite of the bitterness that had lead me to leave, I chose to depart with this:

I thank you all for 3 years and 7 months of my life.  It was not always a pleasure.  It was very fun for a year and a half and then very not fun for a year.  It’s no longer what I want to do, so I will go do something else.

If you enjoyed working with me, I thank you and I bid you farewell.  If you hated working with me, you can be glad I’m gone.  I have long believed that it takes too much energy to hate and I’m not going to waste that on anyone.  For those who I bore ill will towards, I absolve you of whatever sins I held against you.

I head off into the shadows of suburbia with my wife and my unborn child and my mortgage and my Faulkner collection and remember what Springsteen said just a couple of years ago:

“Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past.”

So imagine how I felt the other night, watching Jon Stewart signing off after 16 years. The night before he had joked about how he had actually left the world a worse place, that all the things he had been railing about were actually as strong as ever. But I don’t think he believed that. In these days when 9.5 million people now have health insurance thanks to the ACA, when gay marriage is now a law throughout the land, when we can actually sit in a room and negotiate with people who we have demonized and who have demonized us, we know things can look up. I think Stewart really believes that tomorrow there’ll be sunshine. And all this darkness past.

Because if he didn’t believe that, why would he have said to us “This is it. My moment of Zen.” and then taken us into this song? As Bruce says, this was a request from Jon. He wanted this particular song as his farewell. The same song I went out on. Twice.

I know someone who is extremely pessimistic. I constantly tell this person that things are not as bad as they seem, no matter how they look now. I remember saying to them “Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past” over a decade ago. I remind them of the ending of that greatest of all American plays, Angels in America: ““We won’t die secret deaths anymore.  The world only spins forward.  We will be citizens.  The time has come.  Bye now.  You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.  And I bless you: More Life.  The Great Work Begins.” The work goes on. Jon Stewart was right – we have a long way to go.  We still have things like Sandy Hook and the death penalty and basically anything that is highlighted in an episode of Last Week Tonight. But the world only spins forward.  Or, to carry forward Colbert’s metaphor in his heartfelt farewell to Jon, there are Sam’s words in the film version of Two Towers: “In the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even the darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.”

If, Veronica and Thomas aside, you were to ask me who is my favorite person from my life, I would say, without hesitation it was my grandfather William Wakefield. He would be 100 years old if he were alive today. When he was born, the third world was still colonized by imperialism, women could not vote in this country, blacks could legally vote but in most places were blocked from actually doing so, there was very little in this country that helped the poor and downtrodden, homosexuality was still criminal and most of the world was at war. That is where we have come in just 100 years. Think what the next 100 might bring.

So, watch Jon say farewell and remember what he chose for his moment of Zen.   It is also my moment of Zen. Watch the band sing with heartfelt passion (and finish off with a verse from the greatest song in rock and roll history) and remember those words:

Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past.

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