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Growing up Springsteen

When I was in high school if someone asked, “Who’s the Boss?” the answer was not Tony Danza. (Or Judith Light, which I think was the actual sitcom implication.)

It was Bruce Springsteen.

Springsteen was a hero in Philadelphia before the rest of the world laid claim, a legend of the magnitude of Rocky but with the added advantage of being a real person. As an icon he achieved one-name status without ever changing his name: Sting was born Gordon Sumner, and Madonna trimmed off “Louise Ciccone,” but when you just say “Bruce,” everyone knows exactly who you mean.

He grew up in central Jersey, which is a fictional place. I don’t mean it’s the creation of his rich, visceral storytelling – although it most certainly is – but rather that anyone who knows New Jersey knows there’s only really south Jersey, a Philadelphia suburb; and north Jersey, a New York suburb. The state capitol, Trenton, is actually right in the middle, a sort of demilitarized zone.

And he cut his performing teeth in and around our area: shore joints and little clubs in Philly and New York. He was a contemporary of other legends just getting their legs under them in the mid and late 1970s, like Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon. He made friends with local radio personalities, an all-but-forgotten generation of “boss jocks” who helped build his legacy, and he helped build theirs. Bruce was famous for many things: his big, often-raucous E-Street Band jams; the soulful, deeply personal character studies he would bring to life in his songs and his monologues; the ride-or-die loyalty he inspired among his closest colleagues and fans alike.

But nothing was more legendary than his live performances.

Once Bruce took the stage he would play for hours. Hours. A three hour concert wasn’t unusual; a four hour concert wasn’t unheard-of. When the lights came on, there was nothing left. It was impossible to tell if he did it out of passion, or desire, obligation or sheer joy. He was, simply, a transformative performer. I think it may be possible to listen to a Springsteen album without feeling converted but anyone who ever went to a live performance was touched by God and, therefore, never quite the same again.

This odd mixture of man and myth is powerfully, if not uniquely, Philadelphian. If you grew up here, you always dreamed bigger than you actually were, and you fought hard because, deep inside, you knew everyone around you had all but written you off. When one of us broke through, actually made it, we all won. It’s one of two reasons NFL teams have always hated to play the Eagles at home: our 12th man is bigger, meaner and deadly serious. (The other reason was the concrete floor of the old Veterans Stadium which, covered in cheap-ass astroturf, destroyed players’ knees like a loan shark doing collections.)

Bruce in the 70s was Everyman, finding survival in small wins because the big ones would always elude him. In the 80s he was a superstar, and you could occasionally find actual joy in his music. By the 90s Bruce had retreated to the stripped down basics of his craft: acoustic guitar and allegory. His themes matured right along with us; he got quieter and more introspective, and so did we. He married a woman who could put him in his place, and he stayed with her. He supported his closest friends in their growth as people and performers. And when he had an itch to scratch, no matter what else was going on, they always came back for one more show.

***

He even reluctantly waded into the political conversation in recent years, just like so many of us. Never wanting to “cross the streams” or do anything to dilute the purity of the music, he nonetheless saw things going sideways and singing about it didn’t seem to be enough anymore. So he became a spokesperson and a crusader and a patron of liberal candidates and causes. A few weeks ago he opened the fully-virtual inaugural celebration for President Joe Biden with these words: “Good evening, America. I’m proud to be here in cold Washington, D.C., tonight. I want to offer this small prayer for our country. This is ‘Land of Hope and Dreams.'”

When Bruce became a friend, supporter and confident of President Barack Obama – when Michelle and Patti began exchanging recipes – I confess I distanced myself. I held on to that “separation of work and state” ethic we both used to share and, more important, I was not an Obama fan. These were far more innocent times, despite being less than a decade ago. It didn’t feel that way in the moment, but I guess that’s why hindsight is 20-20. My appreciation of Obama as a man and as a president has evolved since then, with time, perspective and a harsh counterpoint with which to compare him. I explore that in an earlier post, if you’re interested.

I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but the piece of me that has always reacted with Springsteen’s art, like potassium to water,  was also deeply conservative. The beaten-down part, asking only for a level playing field and an American-made car, driven and self-determined – that was part of who I was at a molecular level, and nothing about it felt…liberal. I felt a small betrayal when “new Bruce” became a Democratic voice, but I didn’t renounce him. I just held onto our shared past, and kept it closer to my chest rather than out on my sleeve. 

That, itself, felt like part of growing up.

***


Springsteen and Obama have embarked on a podcast together, called Renegades: Born in the USA, on Spotify. In the first two episodes (it’s an 8-episode series with new content coming out Mondays) they talk about things ranging from racism to what it means to be a man in 2021. You know, the kind of stuff you talk about with your friends when you think no one is listening. And now, years later, when most of my piss and vinegar has quietly, gradually turned into diet iced tea and ranch dressing, I seem to be spiritually connected with the patron saint of rock and roll again.

That sense of hard-scrabble determination that characterized Bruce’s early songwriting seemed, “pretty alpha-male, which is a little ironic, because that was personally never exactly really me," Springsteen said. He claims to have channeled his father’s experience to help him build that early stage persona.

It makes sense; he was still in his 20s in the 1970s. Whether you’re in college or sleeping on a buddy’s couch playing gigs for $20 a night, you’re a lot closer to what made you in your 20s, than what you’ll become. It’s another example of how we can track the maturation process through an artist’s journey, through his work. Those who are successful, those who survive – who live long enough to enjoy the spoils of a successful career – are products of the journey whereas, in the beginning, they were products only of their roots.

The same process can be seen in other areas, not necessarily creative ones. "Racism historically in this society sends a message that you are 'less than,'" Barack Obama said in the podcast. "We feel we have to compensate by exaggerating stereotypical ways men are supposed to act. And that's a trap." 

He’s referring to the cycle of frustration, compartmentalization and, ultimately, outburst that has helped make it easier to find broad support to suppress blacks and other minorities in the US for generations. It’s a profound, thoughtful point. I’m sure he’s not the first person to make it, but I’m – again – impressed and moved by the insight.

Pulling from his unique experience, Springsteen talked about touring the Ivory Coast with the E Street Band. When the curtain rose, they "came out to a stadium of entirely black faces," Springsteen said. "And we stand there for a moment, and Clarence (Clemons, his late saxophonist and dear friend) comes over and he says, 'Well...now you know how it feels.’"

"It (was) 45 years," Springsteen said. "And the only thing we never kidded ourselves about was that race didn't matter. We lived together. We traveled throughout the United States, and we were probably as close as two people could be. Yet at the same time, I always had to recognize there was a part of Clarence that I wasn't ever really going to exactly know."

Funny. When I was in high school and college, I believed race didn’t matter. Hell, I might have even pointed to the E Street Band as proof: You got Bruce, and then Clarence, he’s black; and Little Steven Van Zandt; and Mighty Max Weinberg – he’s Jewish, for Christ’s sake! And they are as tight as can be. They are talented apart, but they are a goddamn nuclear bomb together. What does race have to do with anything? If you take any one of them out of the mix, the house of cards falls; it’s not the same.

I wonder if Bruce felt that way then, and – like me – has only become wiser with time and the occasional heartbreak. He says, “The only thing we never kidded ourselves about was that race didn’t matter,” but what I think he probably means is, “The only thing Clarence never forgot was that race matters.” 

And Bruce, because he’s an artist, and a good human being, and has put in the work – Bruce learned this to be true over time.

***

Now laying here in the dark, you're like an angel on my chest

Just another tramp of hearts crying tears of faithlessness

Remember all the movies, Terry, we'd go see

Trying to learn how to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be

Well after all this time to find we're just like all the rest

Stranded in the park and forced to confess to hiding on the backstreets

Where we swore forever friends, on the backstreets until the end

-Backstreets, 1975

When I was 17 those lyrics seemed gut-wrenchingly adult. When I was 17 that’s what I imagined growing up would be like, filled with disappointment and the freedom to fail, then sleep and, in the morning, the grim chance to try again. It’s what I imagined the future to be.

That’s not what my future has panned out to be. I’ve been way more successful than that, by every measure I can think of. And so has Bruce. I wonder if he knew, or if – like me – he used the art as fuel in the tank rather than a roadmap. I’m not sure what 17-year-old me would think of 58-year-old me. I hope he’d be mostly pleased, but I’m not sure.

I DO know one thing about 17-year-old Bruce Springsteen, though. I know when he was in high school, he was in a garage band with a bunch of guys. And – as typically happens – one by one each of the guys dropped out of the band to take real jobs, have real relationships, get married, have kids, pay mortgages. All except Bruce. He was the last man standing, the only band member who made the conscious decision to do what he needed to do, not what was expected of him.

Throughout my whole life, I always found that to be inspirational. I always wondered how he knew it would work; or if he knew.

Circa 2021, Bruce speaks softer and slower. He comes across more compassionate than revolutionary. But his words, and his work, are still oddly personal. And eminently relatable.

At least to me.

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