In the beginning, he went over my head.
Let me explain. I had heard a song on some morning radio comedy program. The song was called “Woody Hayes.” I liked the tune. Thought it was great. I specifically remember asking a librarian to help me find that song. I went above and beyond to find it and failed. Of course, there was no such song. It was, I learned some time later (for the sake of my own ego, pretend it wasn’t that much later), a parody of “Glory Days.” It’s distressing to admit, but my adoration for Bruce Springsteen has, at its core, a story that sums up my awkward adolescence.
I was reintroduced to The Boss at other moments while growing up, and fortunately got better, more thoughtful exposure, at the hands of Jim and Laura, my parents’ closest friends, who followed his tours all over the U.S.
In 2002 I saw my first concert. It was “The Rising” tour. The album was released post 9-11, and several of the songs were actually healing. We needed it. The concert was amazing, but Springsteen acknowledged a Cincinnati boycott that was hurting the city I love. He played an incredible song—American Skin—as an acknowledgment of the boycott. I was angry at the time, probably too angry, but I was. I was too close to the situation, and it stung. But the music was still great and by the end, I was yelling “Bruuuuuce” with everyone else.
Then, campaigns. During the 2004 presidential election, I worked for John Kerry. At every rally, and I mean EVERY rally, the song “No Surrender” played as soon as the candidate finished speaking. My dear friend Crystal will attest to this day it is impossible to hear the drum riff at the beginning of the song without thinking that it is time to move the press to the bus. Pavlov aside, that song was our anthem. At the end of the campaign, it had become a war cry.
Another moment in 2004 showed me something special. Chilly night in Zanesville, post-convention. I was with my friend and mentor as “Land of Hope and Dreams” played. For her, it was an emotional moment, much more than it was for me. But it was still powerful, etched into my memory. Later, that same friend played “Trapped” for me for the first time. More than anyone, she taught me how to appreciate Bruce. He played the lawn at Ohio State at the end of the campaign, and I stood 10 yards from Springsteen. I was hooked.
I can go on about specific songs and associations. If I’m in the car with my wife and “Born to Run” comes on, I’m absolutely going to sing to her, loudly, certain lyrics (I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul). We danced at our wedding to “If I Should Fall Behind.” A concert in Pittsburgh with my old buddy Chris—front row, touching Nils’ guitar. A concert with my friend Paul in Nashville—the boss playing “Ring of Fire” and the entire “Born to Run” album. That was released before I was born. But 35 years later, I finally could understand just how damn important “Born to Run” was. Somewhere along the way, I learned to spit fire and pump your fist when singing “Badlands” and I learned that the lyrics of “Thunder Road” could actually be considered poetry. Don’t get me started on Clarence or Steve or Patti.
Is there a book on this book blog, you ask? Sure. “Racing in the Street—The Springsteen Reader” is a collection of previous published essays about Springsteen’s influence. There are some solid essays here—album reviews, concert recaps, psychology, history, religion, analysis. Good stuff for a true devotee.
Hard-core fans will find some interesting tidbits and famous quotes, like this one from Jon Landau, writing about his first Springsteen concert:
“When his two-hour set ended I could only think, can anyone really be this good; can anyone say this much to me; can rock ‘n’ roll still speak with this kind of power and glory? And then I felt the sores on my thighs where I had been pounding my hands for the entire concert and knew that the answer was yes.”
That was 1974. It’s still true.
There’s plenty here about Springsteen’s literary influences (John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, Jack Kerouac), and his music influences (Elvis, Dylan, Sam Cooke). There’s some great critical analysis of his lyrics and characters within. There is much attention to Springsteen as a writer—he is notable for being much more than just an ordinary songwriter—he’s a poet and a storyteller, and that’s always been his thing.
But, look, don’t bother with this book. Instead, go download the new album (it’s incredible), as well as some old ones, and consider buying a ticket to one of the shows on the upcoming tour. The concerts are often described as astonishing, and that’s an understatement. They’ve been compared to revivals or religious experiences. I’ve never been to a revival, and rock and religion are dubious partners. Yet magic does happen at a Springsteen show, and if you’ve never been, you will regret it one day. You’ve already missed seeing Clarence, God rest his soul; don’t miss Bruuuuuce.
Springsteen often talks of a conversation he’s having with the fans. He repeatedly says he wants to continue that conversation—through recorded and live music. It’s more than a conversation. The editor of this collection gets it right: “In a very real sense, Springsteen’s body of work can also be viewed that way, as an ongoing exploration, via popular song, of the very heart of the American psyche.”
You don’t need a collection of essays to figure out why Springsteen is so relevant and important to American music and, indeed, American culture. What you need is a ticket to one of his shows.
Thanks for reading.