The Year of the Boss

By

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” —Jesus of Nazareth

Several years ago I decided that I was going to give Paul Simon my undivided attention. For reasons I cannot explain, I had never really listened to him beyond what I heard on the radio and MTV back when MTV played music videos.

Since so many of my friends regarded Simon as one of their favorite songwriters, I decided I would download the iTunes Essential Paul Simon playlist and listen to nothing else for at least a month.

I was immediately taken in by the brilliance, complexity, and originality not just of the music, but of the artist himself. Paul Simon has been a consistent treasure in American songwriting for over five decades. I find that amazing.

Early this year, I decided I would do for Bruce Springsteen what I had done for Paul Simon. This would be The Year of the Boss.

As it was with Simon, many of my friends considered Springsteen to be one of the great American artists. So I asked them where I should begin. I already had his Greatest Hits and Nebraska. I added The Ghost of Tom Joad, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Tunnel of Love, and Human Touch. These have been my soundtrack for the better part of this year, and I have been thinking a lot about where this musical journey has taken me.

Here are two things I’ve learned during The Year of the Boss.

First, I have learned that I am not blown away by Bruce Springsteen in the way that I was with Paul Simon. I thought pretty much every Paul Simon song I heard was brilliant. Springsteen’s catalog, on the other hand, contains many songs, and even some entire records that do nothing for me. I can’t seem to connect. Some of his music doesn’t age gracefully. Some of his songs just don’t land. I could go on, and I know I’m being unfair, but you get the point. Springsteen is, to me, hit or miss.

The second thing I’ve learned during The Year of the Boss is that I have trouble extending and, as a result, receiving mercy. There were a number of times when I almost wrote Springsteen off for not connecting—I, the grumpy muppet in the balcony, and he, the struggling troubadour trying to win me over. Never mind that millions of people around the world, including most of my musically savvy friends, were saying I should pay attention.

There’s an anecdote about an art student who went to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. He stood before her for a while as a frown formed at the corners of his mouth. The docent came over and asked the art student if he had any questions about DaVinci’s masterpiece. The art student said, “Not really. I just don’t see what the big deal is, that’s all.” The docent looked down on the poor art student and said, “Son, this is the Mona Lisa. The critic does not judge the Mona Lisa; the Mona Lisa judges her critics.”

Springsteen’s greatness does not require my validation. Had I, in my initial ambivalence, become the poor art student frowning at the Mona Lisa? I decided to give him more time and here’s where it has taken me. Bruce Springsteen is a genius. Some of the best songs I’ve ever heard come from him. The Ghost of Tom Joad, Dancin’ In The Dark, Glory Days, Highway Patrolman, If I Should Fall Behind, and Devils and Dust, to name a few, are simply incredible.

There is a world Springsteen wants to tell me about, and it is up to me to decide if I want to pay attention. Do I sit coolly in the arena as he shouts above the din, “Are you not entertained?” What should he expect of me? Should I require an artist to feed my preferences one hundred percent of the time? Is it fair to dismiss him if he doesn’t? The truth is I often do dismiss, and in the process I forget what it means to live the life of an artist.

The artist puts himself or herself out there, risking their creative ideas in the hopes of connecting meaningful truths to a willing audience. This is an act of mercy. They endeavor to convey the complexity of romantic love or the pain of a broken heart or the nuanced fear of growing older or the carnage of war into a three-minute song, a window-sized canvas, a chapter in a book, or twenty lines of poetry. It is an impossible task, and yet they work, they risk, they suffer, they edit, they scrap, they refine, and then eventually they go public. Sometimes they hit their mark. Other times they miss. Either way, before long they’re back at it. And that, in some measure, warrants my respect.

Springsteen’s power as an artist comes to us through the world he creates and then populates. His characters live a dusty, blue-collar existence where you can almost hear the slap of the screen door against the clapboard house as they head off for another day at the mill. You get to know these men and women as they wile away their time working for the union, riding their border patrols, rekindling old flames at the bar, sitting in their prison cells, or wondering about the wrath of God. How they spend their days matters because, as Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

As a student of humanity, Bruce Springsteen has put words to many of the joys and sorrows we all experience. His catalog, like anyone’s, has its share of hits and misses. But some of his hits have brought greater clarity to how I see the world and my own place in it, and I want to receive that as an act of mercy from him to me. Had I withheld the mercy to listen a little more patiently and carefully, I would not have received the mercy he offers through his art.

I am grateful for the life and music of Bruce Springsteen.

Bob Dylan, you’re next.

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003).

Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


17 Comments

  1. Mark Geil

    I love the idea of spending a year with an artist. It’s a delight to hear such a notion in our hyper-saturated musical environment. It’s also a big investment of attention that could be spent on so many other objects, so I like your choice of the wise counsel of friends to steer you toward Paul Simon and the Boss.

    Also, please tell me you’ve included Born to Run in your collection. For me it sits alongside Joshua Tree and Graceland as the greatest albums in history.

  2. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I’ll also say that I’m not a fan of everything Springsteen. I think he’s easily got more songs that I dislike than songs I like. But when he hits, he hits big. When one of his songs connects with me, it doesn’t let go. “Jungleland,” “Badlands,” “Born to Run,” “Land of Hope and Dreams,” “Better Days,” “The Promise,” “Atlantic City,” “The River,” “The Rising”—those are songs for the ages.

  3. Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    I went to see Bruce Springsteen in concert a few years ago. He is more generous and loves his audience more than any other performer I’ve ever seen. Even when I’m not a huge fan of his music, I’m a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen.

  4. BONNIE BUCKINGHAM

    Heard Simon’s counterpart in June : Art Garfunkel. He is 73 and walking across Europe in the last 3 years, lost his voice and tuned it back to a lower key, has read over 1000 books since the 1960’s ( on his website) and had a Q&A during this solo concert with Tab Laban from Franklin, Tenn on guitar. Art writes poetry too . He talked about Paul and how they wrote songs .

  5. John Covil

    I have very mixed feelings about this. No doubt you have to make yourself vulnerable and uncomfortable to expand your tastes on any kind of art (or your literal taste, for that matter). Open-mindedness and adventurism can be very rewarding, and I can’t imagine a fulfilling life without some measure of them.

    But time is our most precious asset. And while I think you can learn to appreciate and respect the work of the artist you don’t prefer, and try to understand the truth they’re trying to impart, simple preference is an inescapable component of taste. It’s almost like romantic compatibility. How long do you try to make things work with someone you think you might be compatible with until you decide it’s best to move on and search for someone you click more with? I don’t know the answer to that question (fortunately I haven’t had to make that decision), but I think I understand it.

    In our time budget for music, that year we spend focusing on one artist that we want to get over the hump with has the opportunity cost of a year we could spend branching off on artists that are less of a… risk?

    I’m not saying one extreme or the other is better. I really admire your decision to commit to that. Indeed, like I said, if you’re not willing to challenge your tastes, you’ll never grow out of kiddie songs.

    I think I just said a lot that doesn’t really add up to much of anything.

  6. Manders

    I was introduced to Springsteen through the back door–his album of folk songs, called “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions”. As the title suggests, it owes a great debt to Pete Seeger’s catalog of American folklore, but he also works in some New Orleans jazz, 1920s string band, and bluegrass. If most of The Boss’s catalog is about the late twentieth and early twenty-first century working class, then “We Shall Overcome” is the music of their grandpas and grandmas during the Depression.

    And that is the thing about Bruce Springsteen. He’s a folk singer in the sense that he speaks for the common man, the people who don’t get sung about except in their own communities until someone else takes notice. He has deep roots. He’s like an urban New Jersey Wendell Berry.

    This is a great post. Thanks for this.

  7. Yankee Gospel Girl

    What a coincidence, I did the same thing a couple years ago with Paul and came to the same conclusion. And I’ve felt the same way about Bruce for a while! To me, Marc Cohn is everything Bruce isn’t. However, also like you, I was kind of blown away by the song “Highway Patrolman,” and “Glory Days” is like my ultimate car song. “Well ALL RIGHT….. OOO YEAH…. ALL RIGHT…. OOOO YEAH… (etc., etc., etc.–did I mention this my “alone” car song?)

    Speaking of “Highway Patrolman,” have you ever seen Sean Penn’s movie Indian Runner, which is based on the plot of the song? It’s got some issues, but I found it compelling. It stars a young Viggo Mortensen as “Frankie.” I was especially impressed with David Morse as the main character.

  8. Matthew

    I like this idea, I have not followed Bruce or Paul and it takes me a while to soak in music, took me years to finally like Wilco. I tend to run after that which pops out at me, but I do tend to hold onto my favorites for a long time and I’m not a fan of a bunch of singles from a bunch of people. Right now I’m back to Aim and Ignite by Fun. back before they became crazy popular with their last album and man I love this album. It’s like throw back music with all the flare of modern tastes crammed into one. Certain headphones help, too many instruments for them cheapo earbud types.

  9. Jen Rose

    @

    This is great. It’s been a long time since I invested in understanding an artist on this level (probably Paul Simon actually…) but this kind of makes me want to do it again.

    And I feel a little better now, because he’s been hit and miss for me too. I have this theory that sometimes the best art is the kind that takes time to connect, like when the albums you have to listen to over and over to get it turn out to become your favorites one day. Some things really are an investment.

    Born to Run though. Man, what an incredible album.

  10. Jason Link

    One of this summer’s movies, “The Chef,” looks at the relationship between artist and critic. The critic, who risks little when judging food, is the antagonist but is also the agent of change, forcing the protagonist (the chef/artist) to break from his old menu and try new things–to be his true self. This in turn brings the chef great success.
    The critic in the film is motivated by a desire to maintain his fame and selective palette, so I would say he is certainly not exhibiting mercy. But I would also argue that mercy does at times include critique. When someone desires for us to be our best and sees that we are doing less, it is merciful of them to alert us of that.

  11. Laura Peterson

    This post gets extra points from me for linking to a video of Statler and Waldorf. And I’ll be picking up some Bruce Springsteen CDs next time I’m at the library.

  12. Glenn

    First, SO glad to see the wisdom of Russ Ramsey back on the Rabbit Room. Always appreciated!

    Re: Boss, The: I drove across Ontario with a teaching buddy of mine in February, and we listened to the entirety of Bruce’s Live in Dublin double-album, recorded, I believe, as part of the Seeger Sessions tour. It was mind-blowing stuff, and to hear it from this friend of mine, who saw the accompanying DVD, the stage for that show was a mad laboratory of instrumentation, all jammed up together, the usual E-Streeters right alongside fiddle, horns, accordion, etc., all improvising their way through both the folk stuff AND Bruce’s stuff. A really memorable disc.

    And, I’d agree with Jonathan about Bruce loving his audience. Many performers give off the “I’m-doing-this-for-you” vibe, but none more than Bruce. His concerts are given, in the truest sense of the word.

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