I heard scritchy-scratch guitar sounds in a brand-new song and now I feel old and sad. While “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is a Bruce Springsteen original, it is probably best known to the folks of my generation as performed by Rage Against the Machine. It was released in 1997, right around the time when rap and rock were each brought together, a subtraction through addition, as one last show of musical unity before the internet diffracted everyone’s tastes and associations. These were heady times, and by heady I mean shitty – the shittiest. But by having a political message, a competent rapper, and Tom Morello’s guitar solos that pretty effectively imitated a scratching vinyl record, Rage managed to perfect the rap-rock genre while distinguishing itself from the Family Values Tour morass that largely defined it.
The RATM version placed itself firmly in an era of alternative rock music that will not be getting the nostalgia treatment, ironic or otherwise. The original Bruce Springsteen version, though, was a fairly muted folk song not tied to any particular prevailing trend. That’s why I was so baffled by this re-recording. Why turn it into a bombastic studio rock anthem? And why set the clock back to 1997? Morello’s solo is actually pretty enjoyable and impressive until it devolves into throwback scratch sounds and helicopter noises. What bothers me most about it is not the cheesiness but rather the mirror that it forces me to hold up to myself, namely my dumpy high school self.
Late 90′s Jeff Bennet was pretty embarrassing. He frequented Sam Goody, which was already damning enough without consideration of the purchases made. He bought the Family Values Tour ’98 live tour CD, presumably on the virtues of Korn’s oeuvre to that point. He failed to note the laughable decline in quality on Offspring’s Americana. He rushed home from class to watch Carson Daly debut Limp Bizkit’s video for “Nookie” on TRL. He paid cash dollars for multiple 311 albums. I could go on. Really the only faint praise I can give my teenage self is that I had enough good sense not to become a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan.
Hopefully all of the above information makes it clear why I wrote that paragraph in the third person. I want nothing to do with that guy. And that’s why I don’t like the new version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. Seven decent but inferior minutes are done in by an unfortunate bit of dated soloing, sure, but what ultimately unsettles me about the song is this: in forcing me to confront a shittier version of his own song, Bruce forces me to confront a shittier version of myself.
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