Bruce Springsteen and David Lynch sit down together at Max’s Dump Diner in Janesville, Wisconsin to discuss the closing of the local GM plant, donuts, Roy Orbison, and tractors.
David Lynch (to waitress): Coffee, black. And what kind of donuts do you have in this joint? Never mind, I’ll have a cruller. Extra crully!
Bruce Springsteen (hearty laugh): Well, hell, David, that sounds damn fine. Just coffee for me, though, mam. Gotta watch the cholesterol.
Lynch: Watching your cholesterol is like watching the television. It’s bad, and the actors are clogged up like a bad artery—they’ve no room to breathe. Now, meditation’s where it’s at, Brucey—an umbrella for all our worries.
Springsteen: So what about this town, Dave? Janesville. Hard working, honest people! It’s a shame GM packed up its buggy and ditched this place. The people here ain’t got no hope no more.
Lynch: You know, Bruce, when General Motors first opened its doors here in Janesville in the twenties, they were producing Samson tractors. Not the kind ol’ Farny (Richard Farnsworth) was riding in The Straight Story (1999)—no, he was a John Deere man all the way—but tractors nonetheless. Can you believe that? Tractors here in middle-America (grins).
Springsteen: Hell of a story, Dave. But what about these people? This place? How do they pick themselves up from they’ boot-straps?
Lynch: Brucey, I always saw the world as a never-ending cycle of highs and lows. One day a tornado comes through a town—say a town in Kansas—and rips this town to shreds. A working-class town, its factory gets pancaked. Now there’s Johnny who works at the factory. Johnny’s your down-and-out kind of guy as it is. The next day he’s out there with his neighbors picking up the pieces of this thing, and he’s mad as hell—why here? Why me? But in all this, he sees a small boy or girl—let’s say this girl’s Laotian, one of the minorities in this working place, and he’s never seen this girl. Her clothes are tattered, her face smudged with dirt, and she’s holding a ripped-up teddy. Now, Brucey, here’s the point: maybe something happens in Johnny’s head. Maybe a flip switches. He’s finally seen this girl he’s never seen before, and he’ll never be the same.
Springsteen: Yeah, yeah. I hear what you’re saying, Davy. You’re a bit of a preacher; you know what I mean, man?
Lynch: See, Springy. This is where things get messy, when we start labeling things.
Springsteen: We all label things whether we like it or not. It helps us see the world more easily. Take, for example, your Johnny. Before Johnny ever saw this little girl, the Laotian one, she was in the periphery of his mind, right? Now he sees her, and he sees maybe she’s as bad-off as he is, prolly worse. Now Johnny’s seeing this girl, and she’s worse-off than his sorry ass—now that’s her label to Johnny, “Worse off than my sorry ass.” Without that understanding of their dynamic, how does Johnny change? You see what I’m saying here, Davy? It’s a natural thing.
Lynch: Sure, sure, sure, Sprucer! Of course, it’s something we all do. It’s an inner thing, though. It’s how ugly it can be, though, when it’s all put into words that gnaws at me. It’s like when you and Roy played that Black & White Night Live (1989) show. You and Roy are up there— damn, that Roy had a head of hair—singing “Sweet Dreams, Baby” and you’re moving and right in rhythym with one another. It’s that thing going on between you two, you know—an ineffable thing. Whatever it is: love, brotherhood, etc.
Springsteen: You know, Dave, you’re a weird one, right? Stoic, yet almost an open book. You wear that shirt buttoned up to your neck like some Victorian broad, but underneath, Davy, you’re like this festering thing . . .
Lynch: You’re a cool cat, Brucey. Now here’s a question for you: Candy? She interests me. Tell me more about this Candy character.
Springsteen: Well, you know, Dave, it’s like the song says, to get to her room you need to walk the darkness of Candy’s hall. When we’re kissing though, there’s this fire and this light. And she can’t ever quite be exactly something that’ll keep her happy in the long-run. You know what I mean?
Lynch: A need for lightness and darkness. Maybe too much dark . . .
Springsteen: Exactly, and you know, I’ve always had a weakness for the broken kind, Dave. I wish I could give more, but giving more means I’d be giving my whole self away, and I can’t do that. Took me a long time to figure that out, but I can’t do that no more.
Lynch: When I was a boy in Montana, I used to see this old woman crossing the street down by the gas-station. She didn’t have any teeth. She was gaunt as a skeleton. Hell, I don’t know where she came from or where she went to. She looked at me once and sort-of half smiled, much as she could get her face to move. I’ll tell ya, Brucey, it was beautiful and horrifying at the same time.
Springsteen: It’s something like that, ain’t it. Like your movie says, we’re wild at heart and weird on top, right? No center, no mean, no magnetized place to return to when we’re lost.
Lynch: Now, those were Barry’s words. He wrote them in the book. I just borrowed them, and now they’re both of ours in a way. You know, Brucey, I’ve never told anyone this before. But this is all in confidence, right, so here goes. Lost Highway (1997) is about a man who doesn’t understand that magnetized place. He has no sense of what it means to make a home. He’s all muted grays and blues. And in that muted place, he loses himself. He, in a way, doesn’t see lightness or darkness, only the hinted hues at such. And that’s where he loses himself. You can only be gray for so long if you want to get on with things, you know.
Springsteen: Davy, you and I, man, you and I. Weird souls. Let’s write a song together. What do you say?
Lynch: You and I, man / Weird souls over the blues / It’s the light and dark / Makes us the few
Springsteen: Hot doggy, Dave!
Lynch: Add a blues riff, and we’ll really be cooking with gas.
Springsteen: Some muscle cars hurling in the background . . .
Lynch: Tractors, Bruce! Tractors, we’re in Janesville!
Springsteen: Heh heh, oh yeah, Davy! Oh yeaaaaaaa.
Lynch: I’m getting a little excited. Time to put a burn on the end of this tobacco stick, if you know what I mean. What’ya say, Sprucey?
Springsteen: Hell, it’s hot as hell out there and we’re living. Why not?
While the two working-class philosophers never directly talk about the troubles facing the town of Janesville, no one can say they aren’t there at Max’s Dump Diner talking about tractors, pie, cigarettes, and the blues, all the while using dated euphemisms and making up new and clever names for one another. In the end, no work is accomplished, but it sure looks as if they might conjure a kernel of an idea that one day might be transformed into a pragmatic approach to solving the Janesville dilemma. So until these two working class philosophers meet again, we’ll just have to keep on keeping the beat.
The documentary, As Goes Janesville, which explores the aftermath of GM’s shutdown, is slated for release 18 June.