Listening to Bruce Springsteen for the first time…at age 32

by david

This is not a post about Bruce Springsteen. At least, not entirely.

I’ve listened to a lot of classic rock radio over the years. Moreover, I’m a sentient, English-speaking human being who has never been alive at a time when Bruce Springsteen wasn’t a rock star and a cultural icon. Nonetheless, for whatever reason, I had never really listened to the guy’s music. I’d heard plenty: he’s a radio staple. He’s played halftime shows and campaign rallies and TV specials. It’s probably not possible to be a functioning member of society and to have not at least heard Bruce Springsteen.

And on top of that, I even knew a thing or two about the guy. You absorb stuff. And I knew his sound. I’m basically an indie rock creature, and every once in awhile, I find myself really liking a band that is “Springsteenesque.” I know the sound and I guess, since I like some of his imitators and descendents, I like the sound. But nonetheless…

There’s something corny about Bruce Springsteen. I know I’m not alone in thinking this. “Bruce Springsteen” is a shorthand for a lot of different things: Jersey, blue collar, Jersey, rich-man’s Mellencamp, Jersey, old man’s Bon Jovi, Jersey, bandanas and union patches and Jersey, Jersey, Jersey. But more than anything, it seemed so earnest. And yeah, you liked the sound. When his songs came on the radio, you nodded your head and you liked the song, but you also kind of said, “yeah, heh. Springsteen. Heh.” And that sax. Oh, jesus. All that saxophone. It doesn’t matter if some of it is the evidence that saxophone and rock music can successfully shack up, it’s such an easy out. The saxophone is the rip cord built into the E Street Band. Just grab hold of that saxophone, express your disdain, and your ejector seat will carry you safely back to the Talking Heads.

It’s not that I disliked Bruce Springsteen. I have a friend named Emily who really dislikes Bruce Springsteen. One of my favorite quips of all time was Emily’s. “No Surrender” was playing on the radio and I said, “You’ve got to admit, this is a pretty good song.” She said, “Springsteen? No.” And I said, “Yeah, the Boss.” And she said, “No way he’s the Boss. He might have been Employee of the Month… once.”

But I digress.

So a couple months ago, I was desperately seeking distraction from the process of memorizing lines for a new show (a post on this forthcoming) and I was listening to a band I’d picked up after hearing them on Pandora: Jesse Malin and the St. Marks Social. Springsteenesque. I’d also been listening to The Hold Steady’s cover of “Atlantic City” and was pretty curious to hear the original. This seemed urgent. I set aside the script and grabbed my laptop. Not to download an album, but to email my friend Kevin, who is probably one of the world’s most diehard Springsteen fans. I asked him for a recommendation. Where’s a guy start? Kevin responded quickly with a lengthy, thoughtful, and excited recommendation. He named three albums, and gave a thumbnail description of each. He even gave a recommended listening order. Now, like I said, I knew a thing or two about Bruce Springsteen, and the albums Kevin recommended were not the ones I expected. But who am I to argue with the guy? You ask for expert advice, you take the expert’s advice.

I won’t go into all the details, but the first album on his list was Darkness at the Edge of Town. Nothing against Kevin’s other two recommendations, but they don’t matter. Darkness at the Edge of Town is one hell of an album. I won’t bother here with the details (although I’ll point out that “Adam Raised a Cain” sounds like the earliest vocal performance of Glenn Danzig, and “Racing in the Streets” is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard). A couple months go by, and I pick up another Springsteen album here and there. Not all of them, no way, but enough of them to make a dent, to form a sort of informed opinion. Nebraska‘s the one that did it. After listening to Nebraska a dozen or so times, I can say without the slightest hesitation: I’m a Bruce Springsteen fan.

I could write an essay on Springsteen, but like I said, this isn’t a post about Bruce Springsteen. One thing I will say: whatever his intentions were, writing songs in the first person is ESSENTIAL to what he does. If Bruce Springsteen wrote “Living on a Prayer”, it wouldn’t have been “Tommy used to work on the docks” but “I used to work on the docks” – maybe with another syllable in there. There’s a sincerity in all this first-person singing, and it’s a huge part of the corniness I detected before: there’s no distance from the lives of the people he’s singing about. None. It’s not symbol, it’s not allusion, it’s not even “he” and “she.” They’re stories, and you have to pay attention. And paying attention is hard (maybe a post on this some time).

And I hadn’t even listened to Born in the U.S.A. yet. That was a funny experience: it turns out I knew EVERY song but one on that album (“Working on the Highway” was the only song I didn’t know). I knew these songs already, and yet, I never figured out they were on one album. Collectively, they make for a really dark, really upbeat, really depressing, really kickass rock record. There’s no saccharine sweetness or naive exuberance in these lyrics. But the line that ties the whole album together isn’t even on Born in the U.S.A., it’s on an earlier album, one that’s a lot more joyous: Born to Run. In “Thunder Road”, he sings “I got this guitar, and I learned how to make it talk.”

Without even having listened to the rest of his albums I’m gonna bet that line’s the story of Bruce Springsteen’s life. The thing that makes him stand out from all the other blue collar guys in late-60s/early-70s Jersey is that guitar. That guitar is what separates Bruce Springsteen from his characters and its what allows him to be them convincingly: the characters in his songs vary, but each of them might say, “they don’t write songs about guys like me.” And they’re wrong and they’re right. Whatever his sympathies are, he knows that they are in pretty much inescapable lives and the best they could do is to do that thing that intrigues them and do it relentlessly, and for him that’s making the guitar talk. So some of them are street racers and some of them are killers and some of them are gamblers. Not everybody plays guitar, but everybody plays guitar.

Born in the U.S.A.? This is basically a flawless album. This is a Revolver or Pet Sounds or American Beauty or Remain in Light or Dark Side of the Moon or Repeater or Pearl or Night Beat or My Aim Is True or Daydream Nation. And despite having heard almost every song on the album, I’d never heard the album. I thought these songs were scattered over a decade or something. They were scattered over a recording session.

It’s an album full of songs that marry the exuberance of youth to the hard realities of adulthood, that tells stories of futility and failure and disgrace and regret and hopelessness, but does it without the slightest bit of navel gazing or whining. It’s rooted in alienation and idiosyncrasy, but it’s also universal. All the world’s emo bands could learn a thing or two about how to express a sincere dissatisfaction and gloom by picking up a copy. Born in the U.S.A., for all its gloom, seems brighter than Born to Run. Probably because it’s written by an adult. Darkness at the Edge of Town and Nebraska were albums that transitioned Bruce Springsteen into Born In the U.S.A.. He was going into his mid-30s. He’d made something of a name for himself, had established that he could make the guitar talk. And now with these three albums, he had something to say.

Maybe if I’d listened at 19, Born to Run would have resonated and Born in the U.S.A. would have been corny. But that’s not how it worked out.

Hey. This isn’t a post about Springsteen. I’m starting a blog again. And I’m not starting it because of the Springsteen odyssey, but that seemed a pretty good handle to grab to get this thing started.

I spent my 20s saying – repeatedly, to anybody who would listen – that my 20s were for squandering and experimenting, and that my 30s were the years where I expected to start making something of myself. And I’m making steps in that direction. I don’t play guitar, but there’s some stuff I know how to do. And my hope is to start doing it.  This is an unbelievably corny thing to write: I can live with that. The blog is a tool for playing with ideas. For keeping myself writing and in contact with the world. If that sounds less than Springsteenesque ambition, well, I’m working on it. I’m only 32.