Of all the performers in the first rank of American music, it is Bruce Springsteen that I listen to almost purely on the strength of public acclaim. While perennially good reviews of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and others have tended to incline my feelings towards appreciation of these musicians over the years, I believe I could also pin-point the moment or the album where I finally ‘got’ them. Not so the hero of Ashbury Park, New Jersey – though I often feel that I may be alone in this.
In many ways, it seems easier to list the things which I do not ‘get’ about the man they call The Boss. Wearing workman’s boots and espousing radical left-wing politics are not especially rare in popular music, yet I have never quite been able to take them seriously in Springsteen. This is peculiar, because it is hard to think of any musician or artist more serious than Springsteen. Ever since Born in the USA, The Boss has relentlessly critiqued the Republican Party, their conservative philosophy and the big politics which does not take into account the little man.
It was not always so. In my very earnest efforts over the past few days to get under the skin of Springsteen, I have gone back to his earliest records, most of which are celebrations, albeit very serious sounding celebrations, of urban youth, odd city scenes and breaking out of restrictive social settings. The Velvet Underground these are not (despite the common fixation on pimps and ho’s).
Perhaps it is the obsession with broken or compromised men and women, as opposed to the invincible arty types of Manhattan or Greenwich Village which populated so many of the songs written by Lou Reed or Dylan, that makes Springsteen’s vainglorious efforts to evoke freedom less than liberating. In truth, I think the voice, and the band – though it will undoubtedly shock some long time defenders of the E-Street Band to hear me say it – have some role in the matter.
I do not think it coincidental that the most popular singers tend to have quite high vocal ranges. There is something in a strong whine that appeals it reminds people of a more internal voice. Somehow, in contrast to Neil Young, Dylan, or either of the Beatles, I never quite feel that Springsteen is speaking for me, despite having a more ‘everyman’ voice. That is Springsteen on record, and then there is the live act. Somehow I recoil when the thought of a three and a half hour, workman-like concert and when I recently read that the current tour features a 17-piece incarnation of the E-Street Band I was not particularly swayed. On the other hand, I was quite impressed to hear of the Boss’ habit of taking requests from the audience leading to his playing nearly 200 songs on a single tour.
While I could dwell on the cacophonous sound that the E-Street Band have made their own, or pick up on examples of bland backing tracks, I do feel that this would take me down a road I do not wish to go. The fact is, I am not trying to prove Springsteen as a fraud. In fact, I am coming to like his music, especially his last few records. What I would love to understand is how and why Springsteen fills a particular niche in American music; having been called the saviour of rock and roll, but self-consciously adopting the folk mantle of Peter Seeger et al that Dylan equally consciously rejected.
These two contradictory factors I can somewhat reconcile myself to. There is undoubtedly a ‘Springsteen sound’ that is good for a party, good for running to and even occasionally complimentary to the message his lyrics try to convey. As for the message, I respect Springsteen’s consistency and his eloquence in describing American decline is unrivalled.
However, for that matter I do think that there is a tendency to apocalypticise the commonplace in Springsteen’s songs which rarely has the benefit of wit or subtelty. Thus, I would suggest, Springsteen has never written a lyric as cutting as Neil Young’s various takedowns of Richard Nixon (“even Richard Nixon has got soul” or “tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming/we’re finally on our own”) and George Bush Snr. (“we’ve got a thousand points of light/for the homeless man/a kinder, gentler machine gun hand”). I await correction on this, as I will surely be disproven on the merits of Springsteen’s lyrics.
More importantly – given my experience of American culture generally – I struggle to see how someone so angry can be such an icon in the good old USA. It seems to me that this point does need answering, since Springsteen’s greatest success came during the 1984 Reagan campaign. Commercial success corresponded with the limits of Springsteen’s political influence and yet being outspoken has never cost Springsteen musical success. Controversy over the meaning of Born in the USA and Springsteen’s anti-jingo attitude could have led to the sort of reactions Crosby Stills Nash & Young saw on their Living With War tour in 2004. Instead, Springsteen is a national institution in an increasingly partisan society, putting out albums of which no-one can be uncertain of the political subtext.
In this respect, I believe that it makes more sense to view Springsteen as a conservative Catholic, than as a radical leftie (each to their own, of course, but few things are above politics in America and religion is one of them). More to the point, Springsteen’s increased workload and critical success during the divisive Bush Jnr. years could arguably only have been achieved with the grain of the greater religiosity in American society.
Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop
I’ll be on that hill with everything I got
Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost
I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town
Springsteen is elliptical about religion at best but some have picked up on his distinctive traits on record and in concert (distinctive at least for a white musician, given the career paths of James Brown and Al Green). These have seen him dubbed him the ‘rock and roll preacher.’ The redemptive themes on Working on a Dream and the preacherly new album Wrecking Ball illustrate this nicely.
Fairness dictates that I should conclude this article by saying as many nice things about The Boss (such an ironic nickname, given the anti-capitalism inherent in pretty much every word he has ever sung), yet I cannot quite bring myself to go that far. I am an appreciative, yet unconverted listener. Wrecking Ball is a fine album and, like several of the more recent albums, improves with each listen.
Reading The Boss’ keynote speech to SXSW does not reveal a great thinker or music critic but at least one interesting thought. America has at once the most consistent and contradictory culture in the world. It has assimilated practically every thought, culture, style and value of its national icons, be they Presidents (very often) or musicians (Lester Bangs was only half right when he said that ‘after Elvis, we will never agree on anyone again’). Springsteen is an example, but not the prime example of this. The rebel who did not rebel against Woody’s memory as Bob did (note the appalling familiarity with which folk musicians describe Woody Guthrie), society’s chief critic and healer, Catholic and communist. As he put it:
It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn’t drive you crazy, it will make you strong. Stay hard, stay hungry and stay alive.
Think on that when you listen to that bitter, sardonic national anthem…