You know I sat down to write this, thinking it would be easy to put into words someone who is such a force in my life. But then when it wasn’t I realized how naive I was being. How do you ever categorize Bruce Springsteen? I hope this does him a glimmer of justice, as I now wonder how any of us can do much more than share our own stories in the hopes that others, through similar experiences and/or mutual appreciation will pick up what we’re putting down. I’m gonna give it a shot.
For a lot of people, Bruce Springsteen means different things. A prolific musician, a literary genius, a politician’s most influential supporter or most mighty foe. But he is something to everyone. And if you’re fortunate enough to really “get it,” it’s possible to let his music take you to any number of places. I wanted to take a post and explain to everyone why it is that he’s such a large component of my listening, because it’s not just his music. He is perhaps the only artist whose work for me is consistently greater than the sum of its parts. It’s simultaneous therapy and inspiration.
When I was very young, my dad would put on vinyl records in the living room and my sisters and my brother and I would come out and dance. His go to favorite records were The Contours, Wilson Pickett, Elvis and of course, Bruce Springsteen. By the time I was in first grade, I knew the words to basically every Elvis song, and every Springsteen record had etched itself on my brain. It was visceral. I remember the cool kids in school were listening to the Backstreet Boys and ‘NSYNC, so I would, too. But then I would get picked up from school by my dad and we would listen to Born in the U.S.A. on repeat. I was always quizzed on what songs were playing on the radio to ensure my musical knowledge would prosper and grow along with my more normalized education.
When I was in high school two things happened for me that altered the way I understood how and why we always listened to Bruce. Up until that time, I hadn’t questioned it in the same way that you don’t question why your mom’s unidentified German dinner is your favorite meal. It just is. I just really liked his music and I liked that my dad and I had that and could talk about it every day.
But I had an English teacher named John Manear who I hope gets a chance to read this, I really do. His class changed the way my brain works. And he loved Springsteen. But he loved him not just as a musician but as a poet- as a poet, why had I never made the association to that point? It was then I started to understand why it is that Springsteen is not only appreciated in the world of music but why his lyrics are also appreciated in the literary community. Every kid should try to break one of his songs apart. They’re (often brilliant) poetry, and anyone telling you different doesn’t read enough, I’m telling you this now. The day we broke down “Human Touch” stanza by stanza it all started to make sense, and I credit his work as a huge influence on my writing.
That same year Springsteen came to Pittsburgh with The Rising tour and my sister Gretchen and I got a chance to see him. My dad was going to go, but my mom’s father was very sick and my dad felt it would be better to stay home in case she needed him. He’d already seen Bruce 3 times, and insisted that whether he go or not, we had to go. So Gretchen and I went for the 3+ hour show where no one sat unless they couldn’t stand anymore. The show that taught anyone in attendance what the word “concert” actually meant. I think if you don’t go to one of his shows, it’s possible to convince yourself you’ve seen a “great” show. I know I had. Sure, there are really good concerts, make no mistake. But I have to tell you there’s no comparison. It’s an energy that you don’t get a lot, because most artists reach a point where they don’t give back more than what they’re given. They get tired, and they run out of inspiration. And he never did. He never has.
My dad passed away last Christmas, and for me one of the most fascinating parts of my life since continues to be the role that Springsteen’s music plays in his absence. It’s incredible how comforting the songs are because they represent something bigger than the original intention. And I think they do that for a lot of different people. They each have a memory and are a return to a time when what was troubling you, you’d trade anything to be bothered with now. They make you feel something because they’re representative of a part of your life your memory can still touch. How many artists can you still say that about? My dad worked really hard his whole life, and I think he and a lot of the Pittsburgh he grew up in not just understood but felt Springsteen’s lyrics. It was real for them. And I remember him always enjoying telling me how Bruce would give a donation to the Pittsburgh Food Bank when he came through. I think he saw a friend as well as a remarkable artist, and I think for a whole lot of people that same theory applies.
I saw a picture of Springsteen holding a sign a fan handed him that said “You’re my real dad.” And while he’s not my real dad, he’s certainly a channel to my own. It seems generally known he didn’t have the best relationship with his own father, which I think makes the capabilities of his music in my situation profound. And I know he’s got a lot to feel good about, but I think if he ever read this that’s really something to feel good about, too.
Sometimes people that are my age or younger ask why he comprises so much of my playlist, those silly fools. And after having to gently remind myself that it’s ok if they don’t always “get it,” I respond with the more basic truth that my dad explained when we’d dance in the living room:
He is, quite simply, the best.