Sometime about eight years ago, I discovered that I was a Springsteen fan. I didn’t become a fan, mind you, I simply found out that I was one. I never really paid much attention to him during my formative musical years in the 80’s. I saw the “Born in the USA.” video on MTV plenty of times and remember watching it in something like morbid fascination. Who the heck was that scruffy, gravelly-voiced, apparent red-neck and why did he sing about being born in the USA when he clearly didn’t sound like he was enjoying the experience? Not my kind of thing at all, I’d think, as I waited for the next video and hoped it would be Def Leppard or Whitesnake.
A decade or so went by to the tune of more Springsteen anthems than I could count. They always stuck on the back wall of my subconscious but never really connected, due in large part to that fact that I was suspicious of anything that seemed too popular and this guy they called “The Boss”, well, he fit that bill. I didn’t want anything to do with him. Def Leppard, now there was some healthy counter-cultural rebellion. Not popular at all, those guys. It’s thoughts like that that make me so very glad to have finally grown up.
I think it must have been while watching Jerry Maguire and hearing “Secret Garden” that I realized that this Springsteen guy might be a genius. It took me years to plumb the depths of that realization. First with the Grammy winning folk album The Ghost of Tom Joad and then, going back into the past, I discovered and rediscovered those old anthems I’d always heard and never known: “Jungleland“, “Badlands“, “Born to Run“, “Better Days“. Songs about perseverance, and hope, and finding beauty in places I’d never thought to look for it like American backstreets and alleyways and the working class people that build them, walk them, live and die on them. I realized that all those songs I’d taken in over the years were much more than a redneck and a rousing chorus. I still can’t get enough of them.
Then I found the other songs. Fiery, slow-burners about hopelessness and broken dreams and despair that somehow managed to capture the struggles of my own life. Songs about people whose lives didn’t turn out the way they dreamed they would. Songs like “The River“, “Atlantic City“, and “The Promise” are memorials to lost and broken people that’ve come to their wit’s end. People who, by virtue of having lived, deserve to be remembered but aren’t.
All those songs about being lost aren’t the end, though. Answering those shattered dreams, darkened roads, and lonesome days are songs like “Land of Hope and Dreams“, “The Promised Land“, and “The Rising“. Songs that acknowledge that there is more than just the struggle, more than all the pain, and despair, songs that remind us that for those that have faith, there is reward. That is why I am a Bruce Springsteen fan. I don’t know what his religious beliefs are, but I know enough to tell you that he brushes up against Truth when he writes lyrics like “I believe in the love that you gave me. I believe in the faith that can save me. I believe in the hope and I pray that some day it may raise me above these Badlands.” That’s good stuff.
After years of coming to love such a massive collection of work, I finally got to see Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band live last week in Nashville. Watching him perform is something that you have to see to understand. Even at the age of 58 (59 as of Saturday) he is a wellspring of contagious energy and conviction that’s enough to ignite passion in the thousands come to watch. The Boss came on stage and asked the audience, “Are you ready to be transformed? Are you ready to be reborn? Let’s get to it.” That’s a beautiful thing, an invitation to transformation. What followed was three hours I’ll remember for the rest of my life. There is something epic about Springsteen’s music. Something elemental that thunders across the arena, shaking things loose inside me. Whether it’s the volcanic intensity of Nils Lofgren’s solo in “Youngstown” or the anthemic cry of the thousands of souls of the audience, each feeling they are born to run, the music transports you to a country that is wholly Springsteen.
During one song, he tells the story of how as a boy he saw an electric guitar in a store window and sold his pool table to buy it. He set himself to learning how to play and got used to his father, tired of the noise, shouting up to his room, “Turn down that God-damned guitar!” He heard those words again and again over the years but eventually, through perseverance, practice, and faith, that shout one day became, “Turn down that God-blessed guitar!” Transformation.
Later he quiets the screams of the crowd, a finger to his lips, “Shhhh. I’ve got to tell you something,” he says and a lady down the aisle from me is answering, “Tell us, Bruce.” “Sshhhh,” he says until the arena is calm. “I have to tell you something. There’s a river out there. A River of Life, and I’m gonna to go down to that river, and build me a house, and I’m going to get me some life!” He goes into full tent-revival mode. “There’s a River of Faith, and I’m gonna go down, and build me a house on that river, and get me some faith! And I want you to come with me because I can’t get there on my own.”
That’s the gospel of Bruce Springsteen. It’s good stuff and I love his conviction. As I said before, it brushes right up against the truth, but it’s not the whole story. The real Truth is that he’s right, there is a River of Life, I’m going down to it and I hope he goes with me, but I can’t build me a house there. It’s already been built. I want Life out of that River and he’s right, I’ll never get it on my own but the fact is, I don’t have to go get it and I couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. It’s already been given, all I’ve got to do is accept it. That’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I love me some Springsteen even if I disagree with his works-based philosophy. At least he’s pointing people in the right general direction. I wish more singers on the world stage asked as many questions as he does and gave as many good answers. On the drive home, my brother and I wondered where the Springsteens of this generation are. We couldn’t really come up with any candidates and that’s a sad thing. I don’t hear popular music these days inviting people to make adventures of their simple lives, I don’t hear any new voices on the radio calling out for a transformation of government, or of thought, or of soul. When the management changes, who’s going to be the new Boss? I don’t know but until then we could do a lot worse than Bruce Springsteen and his message of hope and dreams.
If you’re interested, click here for the set list and lyrics of the Nashville show.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.