The Gospel According to Bruce

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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.


25 Comments

  1. Nate

    Thanks Pete. I agree with you on Springsteen and the questions he asks. I haven’t completely gotten over him being called “The Boss” yet. I remember a few years ago when he was campaigning for Kerry I think (though it may have been Gore) a Nashville based radio talk show host began referring to him as “The Employee” which was mildly comical. I appreciate “Nebraska” Its like he locked himself away and this is what he got.

    Anyway, what you said about him pointing to truth reminded me of something Schaeffer said in “Escape from Reason,” a great little treatise on thought and philosophy:

    ‘The fact that man has fallen does not mean that he has ceased to bear God’s image. He can love, though he is fallen. It would be a mistake to say that only a Christian can love. Moreover, a non-Christian painter can still paint beauty. And it is because they can still do these things that they manifest that they are God’s image-bearers or, to put it another way, they assert their unique “manishness” as men.’

    There is a certain “manishness” that truth and beauty point toward.

  2. Tony Heringer

    Pete,

    Springsteen is “The Boss” in that he has a commanding stage presence and powerful lyrics. My roommate at Texas A&M pointed me to his music back in the early 80s. I listened, reluctantly at first (Nebraska…that was bleak), but the more I listened, the more he resonated. I saw him live in 1984 and there is no doubt about what you’ve noted here, it’s a big tent revival service.

    I’d not paid much attention to him in the 90s. But, I saw a video of “My City Of Ruins” (which he did for a Katrina relief concert) in church one Sunday a few years back and it push me back to “Born To Run” – probably my favorite album. Later on, after reading “102 Minutes” (a book about the fall of the World Trade Center towers) and watching Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center”, I thought of “The Boss” again. I picked up his 9/11 album “The Rising” and think it is amazing. He’s able to capture the pathos of a moment. Even if the songs originally were not written for 9/11, like most of his tunes, there is a transcendent quality to them. He speaks Truth whether he fully embraces it or not.

    As for the new “Boss” that’s a tough question. He’s a tough act to follow…especially live. When I saw him, it was 4 hours and prior to that time he was famous for putting on shows of at least that length if not longer. There will be someone, just can’t say he or she has arrived yet. Got to put in some time to replace “The Boss” and he doesn’t seem ready to retire yet.
    🙂

  3. Mike

    When my sister was killed my jr year in high school my buddies took me to the record store and bought me “Darkness on the Edge of Town” I have been a Springsteen fan ever since. Speaks to the heart sure nuff.

  4. Jeff Cope

    I confess when I saw the headline I had hoped this article would be “The Gospel According to Bruce (Campbell)”

    One could only imagine what THAT would be like!

  5. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    It shouldn’t go unnoticed here that Pete is “the Boss” when it come to hyperlinking to some pretty funny and informative stuff. If you have the time and were a product of the 80’s pop-culture, there is an embedded walk down memory lane in the links here. Make an evening of it. There’s nothing better on.

    For a band with nothing to say, Def Leppard sure could babble with flair.

  6. jacobt

    There are a lot of comparisons made (many not favorable) between some of the stuff put out by The Killers and The Boss. I would be interested to hear what some of you think about that. Do you think it “rings true” when the Killers do an impression of “Born to Run” on “This River Is Wild”, etc.?

  7. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    If not his picture, at least his name should change. Then the brothers would be the proprietor and the boss. All we’d need after that would be a bouncer (Ron Block-there exists video evidence he’d be good at this) and a bar-tender (Jonathan Rogers and Eric Peters in shifts– since telling a story is a must in that trade).

    Maybe Pete, you could work up a picture of yourself replicating the “Born to Run” cover. (Avoid the “Born in the USA” cover, if you would.

  8. Leigh McLeroy

    I don’t stand on my seat anymore like I did in ’84 – but I don’t miss Springsteen when he comes to town. Not if I can help it. I had an English prof in college who taught his lyrics from “Born to Run” in his poetry class. Poetry they were…and are. And The Boss live IS a kind of R&R tent revival. There’s something in his music that growls at you, and then might just sing you a lulluby a few seconds later. I don’t know if there’s another Springsteen out there. I hope there is. Good stuff, Pete. Thanks for the post…and the links.

  9. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    I’m so glad you wrote this, Pete. Springsteen is often written off, I think, on account of the sheer forcefulness of the “Springsteen” brand. I too used to dismiss him as a redneck who sang with a weird under bite and whose work lacked the sophistication and nuance of more cultured artists.

    But you don’t have to dig very deep into his repertoire at all to realize the man is an astonishing poet. Even his anthems! We just listened to “Born in the USA” on a recent road trip and fell in love again with the way he gave us a chest-thumping patriotic anthem that in really is a fiery & subversive indictment, and all done with a song that has a musical signature that repeats every two measures for the WHOLE song. How do you do that?!?!

    And for me, this is the most fascinating thing about the man, that Springsteen is such a compelling study in contradictions. He’s somehow fooled us into thinking he’s an everyman, but the truth is he’s one of the most intelligent, nimble minded, poets of his generation. He’s the champion of the redneck and the blue collar proletariat, but is capable of the most heartbreakingly beautiful and sensitive writing. He blesses his listeners and makes them better, calling them up, writing literate songs about poverty (The Ghost of Tom Joad), AIDs (Streets Of Philadelphia), mediocrity and living a half life (Radio Nowhere), Divorce (the whole Tunnel Of Love record), and what it takes to love a woman well (Secret Garden, I Will Work For Your Love). I could go on, but you get the idea. He’s the voice of the American experience (even though America may not be listening anymore)

    “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” by the way is one of my all time favorite songs. I cry nearly every time I hear it. And to see him do it live is magic.

    Perhaps brilliance and genius never dressed up so humble, or at least never wore such a “Brilliant Disguise” :- )

    Thanks again Pete, Springsteen definitely makes a case for the doctrine of “Common Grace.”

    JGray

  10. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Oh, I forgot something.

    I may be pessimistic, but I don’t know if we’ll have another Springsteen. Well we may have another Springsteen, but not a “Springsteen”.

    The music market just doesn’t support that kind of thing anymore. I remember when I was in highschool the records that all of my friends had were records like Sting’s “… Nothing Like The Sun”, and Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and Billy Joel, Peter Gabriel, U2 – these were the big records that everybody was talking about.

    You don’t really have a market that will support seasoned artists anymore I don’t think. Music is too disposable now and mostly consists of kids making music for their peers. There are exceptions of course, but by an large I don’t think the music buying culture is a nurturing environment to the kind of artistry that Springsteen and his peers came of age in.

    I often wonder about if the greats were just coming on the scene now, would they have a career? Even (and maybe especially!) in Christian music, would Rich Mullins have a chance to become “Rich Mullins”?

    I think there may be a Springsteen out there in terms of a cultural observer who is able to make compelling and articulate musical statements – but would he be able to galvanize a generation? I doubt it, because I think generations are too fragmented in our culture now.

    I could be wrong, though. I hope I’m wrong.

  11. Nate

    Jason, your talking about current music and the market… I wonder if anyone has ever read the first book of CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy – Out of the Silent Planet. There is an alien race there called the Hrossa that treats song and poetry in an amazing manner. Their songs and poems are their repositorys of their cultural identity – their history, their collective memory, their love, their people’s passion. Its almost creedal. I just think its a beautiful picture of what music may have been like without the fall, and what it may be like again in the fullness of time.

  12. whipple

    Boy, Jason, I hope you are being pessimistic. That the musical world can no longer support epic artistry that eschews the confines of custom without being shocking for money’s sake and transcends what is chic to speak to the listener on an organic level is a scary thought. I’m curious as to whether or not you think that the industry’s clout was part of the reason that Springsteen and others were able to do what they did. My friend Andy recently bought the 30th Anniversary 3-Disc set of “Born to Run” and told me about the 14-hour studio session that it took to get the sax solo for “Jungleland” (correct me if I’m wrong, you Boss connoisseurs). I couldn’t help but think of what it cost to do something like that. Not to say that the end result wasn’t worth every difficult moment and the agonizingly expensive use of reel-to-reel tape.

    Something tells me that the industry, at least in the pickle that it’s in now, wouldn’t cough up for that kind of studio bill nowadays, at least not for an up-and-coming or rookie artist, which Springsteen practically was, as far as industry sales go, before “Born to Run.” I still can’t believe he was my age when he did it.

  13. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    My favorite quote about Springsteen comes from Paste Magazine writer Andy Whitman, who is writing a book about Springsteen: “For me — for many of my friends, actually — Born to Run captured that feeling and that era perfectly. I loved it passionately; still do, in fact. I can’t truly say that about too many albums. Springsteen was a poet like Dylan, he put his soul into the music like nobody else at the time, and he played a 3.5 hour show at my university when he was right on the cusp of stardom that just about convinced me that I was not alone in the universe and that rock ‘n roll was no substitute for God, but that it was damn close.”

    And Whipple, about the story of the 14 hour session for the sax solo: I was in a studio here in Nashville with some guys today, one of whom worked in L.A. a couple years ago producing the Andy Griffith hymns record. And he mentioned that an L.A. studio player said that one difference between L.A. and Nashville is that more often in L.A. they’ll take as long as needed to get a guitar part or sax solo, or whatever, whereas in Nashville you’re more likely to have time to do three passes of the guitar solo and then pick the best of the three, but no more time.

  14. Tony Heringer

    Jason….The Boss is still around, but lest we forget, he languished away for many years before “Born In the U.S.A.” moved him from critical darling to pop star/mega star status. There will be another, like you said, its “common grace.” From what I’ve read that ain’t going away until Jesus gets back. 🙂

  15. Janna Barber

    Am I the only one who pictures Mother Teresa when they hear “Work for Your Love?” I know she’s not who the song’s really about, but it seems to fit with Bruce’s Catholic tinted, works based theology.

    My first date with my husband John was to see “Jerry Maguire.” After which, he made me a mix tape with “Secret Garden” and lots of other good stuff. He likes to brag that if it weren’t for him, I’d have no musical taste, and he might be right. I’m no good at picking fav. songs, but John’s is “Thunder Road.” It’s like his all time favorite song, up there with P. Simon’s “Late in the Evening.”

    Request for the next post by Pete: Eddie Vedder – are you a fan?

  16. Aaron Roughton

    I’m no Springsteen fan. But I sure did think the bit on the Ben Stiller show where he would dress up like The Boss and count was funny. And I think he did another bit as The Boss where he was “the hardest working man in showbiz” and would stay after the concert to mop up. Ahhhh, mocking The Boss. Good times.

  17. Tony Heringer

    Aaron…too funny. In the interest of being fair and imbalanced in The Room, here’s a clip of Ben doing a spot on impression of Bruce talking about song writing for movies:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=7880844279056253208&ei=eRe0SIL_B4ya-wH96NnYDA&q=ben+still+bruce+springsteen&vt=lf&hl=en

    The counting clip is also very funny:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6048618554608922243&ei=eRe0SIL_B4ya-wH96NnYDA&q=ben+still+bruce+springsteen&vt=lf&hl=en

  18. Jesse

    I think Sufjan Stevens is a current artist who has the epic vision and the artistic originality to become Springsteen-like. His current goal of creating an album for each of the fifty states, and the way in which he’s executed that goal, have been rather impressive. The question would be whether he would ever gain the popularity or large following that Springsteen has drawn.

  19. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Pete,

    I’ve told young people before, “If you really want to rebel against society, try playing banjo and being into bluegrass in southern California in 1980.”

    Springsteen is someone I’ve never delved into, probably because I’ve had that same attitude at times, “Suspicious of anything that seemed too popular.” Your post makes me want to check him out.

  20. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Jesse, I thought about Sufjan and naming him in my last post, but like you I wonder if his appeal is a little too limited or specific to think of him as Springsteen-esque. I LOVE Sufjan, but he’s pretty self-consciously quirky and left of center perhaps to be the voice of America like Springsteen has been, don’t you think? But who knows what shape Sufjan’s career will take in the future? It seems to me that Eddie Vedder might be a more likely candidate, but even that seems like a stretch.

    Anyone here ever listen to Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome” record of Pete Seeger songs? It’s a Gray family favorite. It’ recorded live in a house with minimal rehearsal, Bruce is calling out instructions during the songs! It’s a great little record full of life and some of the great American songs like “Old Dan Tucker,” “Eerie Canal,” “Shenandoah,” and “Mary Don’t You Weep No More.” Highly recommended as an interesting entry in the Springsteen Oeuvre – and as a record with just a ton of energy, fun, and love.

    And banjo, too, so I think you’d even like it Ron!

  21. c.Lates

    I have a confession to make: up until the end I thought you were going to stop at the idea that the Boss sings songs about hope and perseverance and faith and love and how that’s the same thing that Jesus was saying. But you took it further (or is that farther? I can never remember) to show that Springsteen does not take it farther. His river of life is a temporal river, while ours is eternal.

    Bless you for this insight. That’s not like ‘bless your heart.’ Truly, may you be blessed for such words of wisdom.

    PS. I love his music, and have since I was a little boy. This world needs for saxophone solos.

  22. whipple

    Ooh, I love the old traditional “Shenandoah”. I was in a men’s chorus in school, and we did a rendition of it that either gave me chills or brought me to the joyful edge of tears every time. And it’s been at least twelve years since I’ve heard “Erie Canal” (though I do love that you wrote Eerie Canal, and sometimes I’m sure it is, especially in the river-lapped essays of Edward Hoagland).

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