I know better than to say that I’m a Springsteen fan. It’s not because I don’t listen to Springsteen. I do. I have most of his catalog in my iTunes folder. Nebraska is one of my favorite albums, and thank goodness for The Rising and Devils and Dust, albums that did some justice to the experience of 9/11 and the second Gulf War. So, I’m plenty familiar with Springsteen and enjoy his music immensely.
I hesitate to call myself a fan, however, because I know a few, and I have nothing in comparison to their life-altering devotion. Springsteen is not an item on their bucket list. Springsteen is in the oxygen they breathe. So, for instance, they might drop all the details of their life and get on a plane and fly across the country to attend a concert, maybe even for the third or fourth time on a particular tour.
A dear friend of mine has been to countless Springsteen concerts. His boys are now old enough that they’ve been through the Springsteen catechism and attend concerts with their father. Recently, the boys went to a U2 concert and were disappointed at the weak effort of the lads from Dublin who could only manage to play for two hours, far below the Springsteen standard, who on his most recent tour played one night for four hours.
For my friend and others—you know who you are—Springsteen doesn’t just talk about life. He delivers it. It’s a through-your ears-to-your-heart, throughout-your-body kind of life.
Springsteen has a way of making me ache when I listen to him...the ache for escape, to run, the desperate need for there to be more. To follow the indeterminate destination of the road, or to be carried someplace by the river which makes us clean.Mark Love
Don’t get me wrong: there’s some church in his music. It’s not hard to scratch on a Springsteen lyric and find some sort of faith allusion. I don’t know if you saw Springsteen’s interview with Stephen Colbert on the Late Show upon the release of his memoir a few years ago, but they talked about the way their Catholicism shaped them. It can’t help but be present in his music. I saw an earlier interview with Springsteen in which he talked about how the themes of faith, of resurrection and hope, show up in his music. He didn’t write directly about these things. In other words, he wasn’t intentionally writing songs of faith or about faith. It was more that the rhythms and smells and dispositions of his early religious training got deep inside of him so that no expression was devoid of them.
In his memoir, a brilliant read, he writes:
In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward. It was a glorious and pathetic place I was either shaped for or fit right into. It has walked alongside me as a waking dream my whole life. So as a young adult I tried to make sense of it. I tried to meet its challenge for the very reasons that there are souls to lose and a kingdom of love to be gained. I laid what I’d absorbed across the hardscrabble lives of my family, friends and neighbors. I turned it into something I could grapple with, understand, something I could even find faith in. As funny as it sounds, I have a “personal” relationship with Jesus. He remains one of my fathers, though as with my own father, I no longer believe in his godly power. I believe deeply in his love, his ability to save . . . but not to damn . . . enough of that.
In his interview with Stephen Colbert, he actually talked about his songs in gospel terms. “The verses,” he said, “are the blues. The chorus is the gospel. It’s how I think of a song when I write.” The chorus, he says, is where he tries to bring some “transcendence.”
Maybe the themes are getting more explicit the deeper Springsteen goes into his career. The allusions seem more obvious in Devils and Dust and Radio Nowhere. The friend I spoke of earlier says he’s reconnecting with his Catholicism. Maybe. But this is not, I think, Springsteen’s primary appeal to my more spiritually sensitive friends.
His appeal comes more, I think, from his ability to name our common experience poetically, and in doing so, to make it transcendent. Our everyday experience is shot through with meaning, with a beat, with a turn of a phrase, and in performance with an embodied passion.
It’s this sensibility, I think, that you hear in his memoir when he writes about the neighborhood he grew up in:
There is a place here— you can hear it, smell it— where people make lives, suffer pain, enjoy small pleasures, play baseball, die, make love, have kids, drink themselves drunk on spring nights and do their best to hold off the demons that seek to destroy us, our homes, our families, our town. Here we live in the shadow of the steeple, where the holy rubber meets the road, all crookedly blessed in God’s mercy, in the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, race-riot-creating, oddball-hating, soul-shaking, love-and-fear-making, heartbreaking town of Freehold, New Jersey. Let the service begin.
Life as worship. Where the holy rubber meets the road. Blues and gospel. Laying it across the hardscrabble lives of friends and families. The truth.
Springsteen has a way of making me ache when I listen to him. He touches places I’ve been and feelings I’ve had. Some of it in sepia tones, home, glory days, regret and longing for home. But some of it is the ache for escape, to run, the desperate need for there to be more. To follow the indeterminate destination of the road, or to be carried someplace by the river which makes us clean.
He captures something of the beautiful and horrible ambiguity of life. Oh that our worship on Sundays could hold this beautiful and horrible ambiguity! Too often our worship “papers over” our reality. It’s too glib, too easily moves to happy or joyous. It’s all gospel and no blues. It scarcely notices injustice or hardscrabble lives, and in so doing, reduces the gospel.
One final thought about Springsteen. It’s rock and roll that carries all of this, that both holds the lyrics and creates the space for them. But it’s more than that. The words are embodied in the performance—in the sweat and the movement and the beat and the way the sound moves through your chest. At a Springsteen concert, we’re not “brains on sticks,” to use Jamie Smith’s memorable phrase. We’re bodies connected to light and sound and others and the world. It’s not escape. It’s just the opposite. It’s connection. One that we long for. One that we desire.