Explaining Springsteen.

[Reposted from June]

Poor man wanna be rich / Rich man wanna be king / And a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything.

Send the robber barons straight to hell / The greedy thieves that came around / And ate the flesh of everything they’ve found / Whose crimes have gone unpunished now / Walk the streets as free men now / And they brought death to our hometown.

Together Wendy we can live with the sadness / I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul.

I want to sleep beneath / Peaceful skies in my lover’s bed / With a wide open country in my eyes / And these romantic dreams in my head.

If there’s anything that the cliché about not being able to convey what you feel in words undoubtedly applies to, for me it’s the ineffability of the spiritual experience that is a Bruce Springsteen concert. Friday night was my third, and nothing makes me happier than to know I have at least two more to come in my lifetime, both in the next month. To bounce in the rain to the pounding riff of Badlands, to roar along in joy to Dancing In The Dark and to feel your heart drop and weep to the screeching harmonica of The River is to learn about everything that the best art can do: make you feel, for three and a half hours, immortal; untouchable; like nothing else matters in the world. Springsteen does that to you. I make no apologies for the lofty language.

The highlight on Friday was a song I had never felt strongly for: he played Prove It All Night, but opened it with the legendary guitar intro from the ’78 for only the second time this tour, and for one of a mere handful of occasions in the past three decades. I didn’t know about it until afterwards, but I knew as I heard it that I was witnessing something that wasn’t human. I could have died happy after these transcendent ten minutes:

The only thing that came close to topping that was the finale: he played Tenth Avenue, and when arriving at the line: Well the change was made up town / And the Big Man joined the band – the music stopped. A video tribute to Clarence Clemons, the recently departed saxophonist, came up on screen. Springsteen stood at the front of the crowd with his back facing, arms stiff each side, at this point stripped down through exhaustion to his 80s grey rag-shirt, exposing guns that definitely do not belong to a sixty-two year old. It felt so iconic. Like an album cover. And then the video faded out and the band kicked back in, soaking up the sadness and injecting new life and enjoyment into my favourite song.

In the four lyrics I posted above, you’ll see the two themes that dominate and power his music: on the one hand, a clear social conscience and concern for the gap between the American Dream and Reality; on the other, romanticism that allows you to escape that. Most of his songs offer both by mapping tragic lyrics over foot-stomping anthems. But both aspects, I guess, are central to my unparalleled love.

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic followed New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie at Springsteen concerts earlier this year. Read the whole piece. Christie has seen Bruce live over one hundred times, and knows the lyrics to whichever obscure song from the 70s Springsteen pulls out of the archives. But despite total devotion, there’s a fascinating tension made inevitable by their polar-opposite politics:

He feels guilty that he has so much money, and he thinks it’s all a zero-sum game: in order to get poor people more money, it has to be taken away from the rich… Christie criticized President Obama for “telling those who are scared and struggling that the only way their lives can get better is to diminish the success of others” and “insisting that we must tax and take and demonize those who have already achieved the American dream.”…

“I don’t think the fact that he’s successful and that he uses his wealth as he sees fit is a proof point of the fact that he’s lost touch with who he is,” Christie said. “I think the exact opposite. I think his success is proof that what he writes about in ‘Born to Run’ is absolutely achievable. He did it. He got out. I disagree with the people who say ‘Look at Bruce now, he doesn’t drive a beat-up car.’”…

“I think he’s the personification of the American dream: the kid from Freehold whose father had nothing but a bunch of very difficult and seemingly unsatisfying jobs, and a mother who was a working-class office worker, and now he’s one of the wealthiest people in music. He should enjoy it. What’s funny is that his progression is what Republicans believe can happen. That’s what Republicans believe—hard work, talent, ambition. We all know he’s the hardest-working man in show business. It’s a meritocracy.”

And when it comes to Bruce’s nightly lecture, the paradox in his worship peaks:

“He’s telling us that rich people like him are fucking over poor people like us in the audience, except that us in the audience aren’t poor, because we can afford to pay 98 bucks to him to see his show. That’s what he’s saying.”…

“There is some of his work that is dour and down,” he says, “but the thing that attracted me to his music is how aspirational it is—aspirational to success, to fun, to being a better person, to figuring out how to make your life better—and you can’t say that about most people’s music. They become successful and then they become self-consumed and then boring and narcissistic.”

The point about the aspiration is spot on, and it’s obvious how this can transcend all ideology. I do wonder, though, if your reverence is as genuinely categorical as you claim if you cannot connect to the content of so many of his speeches. If you don’t share the belief that your nation’s wealth inequality is obscene, and something should be done about it for the good of the unfortunate, rather than remaining committed to the view that individuals deserve every millionth cent they earn – how can you appreciate and get on board with the anger he hurls towards the status quo?

And the dig at his ticket prices is, I think, uninformed. One of Michael Sandel’s many examples in his new book, What Money Can’t Buy, is how Springsteen charges way below the economically optimum ticket price, forsaking profits so his message and atmosphere is not corrupted. And John A. Hammond once commented that in all his years in the business, ‘[Bruce] is the only person I’ve met who cares absolutely nothing about money.’ Not that we can’t tell this already. There’s only so long someone could sing about the themes that Springsteen does if their heart wasn’t really in it.

Joan Walsh, like me, swoons:

It wasn’t until I saw the show a second time – and from the legendary “pit,” where the blessed few gather and commune, literally at Springsteen’s feet right below the stage — that I understood what a thoroughgoing, transcendent exercise in communal grief and joy it has become… If there were a church like this, I’d be there every Sunday.

Stephen Metcalf strikes a similar tone:

Springsteen is no longer a musician. He’s a belief system. And, like any belief system worth its salt, he brooks no in-between … And so we’ve reached a strange juncture. About America’s last rock star, it’s either Pentecostal enthusiasm or total disdain.

Indeed. And I’ve found myself a church. As Jon Stewart put it, Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby. The poetry of one was fused with the funk and soul of the other, and rock and roll reached its full potential in one unbelievable mind. The child’s name was Bruce Springsteen.


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