So it’s mid-afternoon and I’m tired. As much as I hate it, the recliner is still the most comfortable seat for my post-op arm. Down I go and on goes the television. The opening credits of a documentary called Springsteen & I hit the screen. I wasn’t thrilled with the movie, but there was enough of his music to keep my attention. And to keep it long after the movie ended and had me on my knees rummaging through cds trying find anything Springsteen.
You lived on another planet to be unaware of Bruce Springsteen during the past forty plus years, but my only real connection with him was an album called The Rising. I played that sucker over and over until everyone in the house screamed whenever I got near the player. Inexplicably my love of that album didn’t push me into his other music. I’m a jazz guy who left rock and roll right around the time Led Zeppelin blew up the charts.
Maybe it was Springsteen’s “fast” songs whose words I couldn’t decipher and was reluctant to google the lyrics. Or perhaps I’d caught the musical elitism that jazz can generate. And though I knew he “brought it” to every single performance, so did the Rolling Stones. Basically I considered Springsteen just another back-beat rock and roller with an energetic band.
Well, after two weeks burying my days in his music, watching documentaries about the making of his albums (Born To Run, Darkness At The Edge Of Town, The Seeger Sessions) and concert films, I’m here to tell you I’ve been a cement head. What I heard is a musical poet who uses rock to frame most of his work. And, many times, a songwriting novelist.
There’s really nothing new about narrative songwriting. I’d guess it’s been around since people penned words to music. But to believe—as I did—Springsteen simply wrote songs that tell a superficial straightforward story was to miss the depth of his art.
Racing In The Street, a track from Darkness At The Edge Of Town, is a six-minute novel. Beginning, middle, conclusion, character arcs, movement—with lines of major league poetry within. This song-novel is special in its multiple levels of meaning. A rippling effect that goes beyond the song itself. The ability to touch people who never even imagined owning a car with a hemi still walk away moved by the song’s effect.
Moreover, the song has the ability to shade meanings in the way it’s played. On the original album the overwhelming emotion is poignancy. But, his 1999 Oakland E-Street Band concert, as he finishes singing, the band virtually replays the entire song, only a driving piano leads the rest of the group to create a sense of hope and optimism underneath that poignancy. By the end, your foot is tapping rather than your eyes watering.
I don’t have to stop with Racing In The Street. Damn near every Springsteen album creates a mood in which one or more of its songs transcend the song’s surface story. A discussion in one of the movies revolved around Springsteen’s desire to create different moods with each album, which, after careful listening, he actually does. (I was told by a Bruce mavin that he also wants his albums to leave the listener wanting more; an invitation, so to speak, to attend his concerts.)
It’s interesting. Springsteen and I are just about the same age. It’s easy to see how a Dylan, Elton John, or Paul Simon can keep on keeping on the way they perform, but how do you keep a firecracker lit and exploding concert after concert? There’s no sleepwalking through this rocker’s greatest hits. I’m beginning to believe the Springsteens and Jaggers will just keep rocking until they keel over. Definitely worse ways to go.
So much has been written about Springsteen’s connection to the working class and his politics over the years, there’s no need to rehash. So I’ll stick with his art. One of the learning experiences that really impressed during my Bruce Fest is the breadth of his work, the different styles in which he chooses to work, his constant growth without losing his history or roots. That willingness and sensibility to stay ‘now’ and look back simultaneously demanded that I eyeball the limits of my own thinking and openness. Springsteen has the ability to stretch his mind and vision along with a commitment to pay homage to those who came before (The Seeger Sessions: We Shall Overcome) and turn those old-time songs into modern, breathing, living music. Special is, indeed, special.
Then there’s the undercurrent to much of his work. He brings a genuine belief in the American Dream, all the while seeing damn near everything that stands in its way. Our wars, our racism, our alienation, our despair that anything can turn this country around makes Springsteen’s unyielding, often unspoken belief, a breath of fresh air. A present day echo of “keep hope alive.”
But most of all I’ve come to respect the humanity that rides shotgun with his art. And that humanity has been there since Greetings From Asbury Park (1973) right though High Hopes (2014).
All of this just goes to show you that:
”Some guys just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece. Some guys come home from work and wash up, and go racing in the street.”~ Bruce Springsteen
A very special note of gratitude to Andrei Joseph who took hours of his time to school me in the ways of Bruce and provided virtually all my listening and watching material. Learning something new is like racing in that street. Thank you, Chico.