When it comes to religion and spirituality, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. The paint-by-numbers elements of most religious rituals leave me cold. I am not moved by scripture, nor am I frightened by hellfire and brimstone preachers – all fury, self-righteousness, and condemnation, their empty words matched by their outstretched empty palms.
In my darker and much more cynical moments, I wrestle with the notion of a human soul. Does a soul really exist, or is it something that we conjured up to serve as a salve?
And then I remember Bruce Springsteen.
I’ll hear “Born To Run” on the radio just as I hit 50 miles an hour on an open road, asphalt stretching endlessly into a cornflower blue sky. Or, if I’m really lucky, I’ll get to stand in a stadium with thousands of the faithful, screaming myself hoarse, clapping until my hands sting and grinning until my cheeks ache.
I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band shortly after the death of their saxophonist Clarence Clemons. As per usual, the band played “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” a staple of the E Street catalog and requisite barn burner which features the lyric When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band. This was the part of the show when Clemons kicked in with a sax solo, the entire audience broke out in goosebumps, and Bruce Springsteen’s face lit up with an almost child-like joy.
That night, however – the music dropped, Springsteen held out his mic and the audience launched into two whole minutes of the most raucous cheering and applause I have ever heard. (It looked and sounded something like this.)
Springsteen used the power and glory, the ministry and the magic of rock ‘n roll to make a joyous noise unto the Lord and punch a hole straight to heaven in the hopes of showing the Big Man just how much he was missed.
I hope he heard us. In fact, I’m willing to swear that he did.
And that is power of Bruce Springsteen. He makes apostles out of apostates.
This mythic son of New Jersey was born on September 23, 1949, and raised in the working class borough of Freehold, the oldest of three children. His parents had two very different approaches in regards to parenting. A taciturn disciplinarian, Douglas Springsteen had a contentious relationship with his only son. As Bruce wryly noted during his live performances, “When I was growing up, there were two things that were unpopular in my house: one was me, the other was my guitar.” However, his mother Adele encouraged Bruce’s musical dreams and was responsible for buying her son his first guitar – a momentous occasion memorialized in “The Wish”:
Little boy and his ma shivering outside a rundown music store window
That night on top of a Christmas tree shines one beautiful star
And lying underneath a brand-new Japanese guitar
“It was a very defining moment,” Springsteen said. “Standing in front of the music store with someone who’s going to do everything she can to give you what you needed that day and having the faith that you were going to make sense of it.”
Six months later, Bruce Springsteen was the lead guitarist and singer of his first band, the Castiles. He went on to perform with various Jersey Shore acts (meeting future E Street talent Vini Lopez, Danny Federici and Steven Van Zandt along the way) and became one of the proponents of the Jersey Shore sound – a romantic, rootsy fusion of pre-Beatles rock and pre-Motown R&B.
Springsteen’s first two albums were acclaimed by many, but sold few. His third album would be his do-or-die, and in 1975 he came through with his magnum opus, Born to Run. Bold, dramatic, romantic, lyrical and as expansive as the American frontier, Born To Run captures the optimism and determination of the American Dream with lush instrumentation – the crystalline tinkle of glockenspiel, the breathless insistence of piano keys, the warm, tight embrace of hot horns, fuel-injected drums and Bruce’s voice. Oh, that voice – a throaty, aching howl that lunges through the speakers and wrenches the listener into the promised land.
The prophecy and promise of Bruce Springsteen is as wholly American as manifest destiny itself. Just as in the argument for westward expansion, the virtues of the American people are front and center in Springsteen’s work. For example, the concept of ragged optimism and undying sense of hope – no matter how elegiac it might be – features heavily on the title track of 1980’s The River, in “Atlantic City” from 1982’s stark solo album Nebraska, and more recently in “Jack of All Trades,” off of 2012’s Wrecking Ball.
Politics and patriotism have been part of Springsteen’s lyrical legacy from the beginning, but the man is no jingoist (despite what conservative columnist George Will erroneously believed), and he’s much more inclined to rage against a machine of injustice than stick a boot up yer ass.
As he’s gotten older, Springsteen has gotten more political. His 1992 contribution to the Philadelphia soundtrack, “Streets of Philadelphia,” was one of the first instances of a prominent straight male musician adopting the voice of a gay man. Three years after that, Springsteen released The Ghost of Tom Joad, highlighting the plight of farm workers and the poverty stricken of the American West. Then came “41 Shots (American Skin),” 1999’s mournful elegy about Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant shot 41 times by four NYPD officers. Most recently, Bruce Springsteen has taken aim at corrupt financiers (“Death to My Hometown”), the abject failure of government during Hurricane Katrina (“We Take Care of Our Own”) and the atrocities committed in Abu Ghraib in 2014’s “Hey Blue Eyes,” his darkest political song to date, featuring the lyrics:
She says, “In this house we’ve abandoned history, in this house there are no laws
Just the false taste of paradise and then the fall
In this house the guilty go unpunished, blood and silence prevail
Here the dead remain nameless, the nameless remain jailed”
However, no one understands that the night is darkest before dawn better than Springsteen, who preaches that although things might seem dire now, faith will be rewarded and that tomorrow there will be sunshine and all this darkness will pass.
I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen live several times, and during each concert, my cynicism was washed away like sin dissolving after baptism. I came out born anew, as if my own human soul was yanked from my body and scrubbed clean of all skepticism, then thrust back into me – rejuvenated and restored.
In an uncertain world where faith is so easily shattered, Bruce Springsteen serves as continual reassurance. A silver sliver of hope reminding me that this is something to believe in. That this is real, and honest, and will always be here whenever I need it. When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band roll into town, they bring with them absolution — sanctifying a sea of thousands, tens of thousands. They do not, will not, cannot promise life everlasting, but they sure as hell deliver on the promise of life right now.
I don’t believe in much, and I am forever questioning what I do believe in – “Is this real? Why do I believe in this? Should I believe in this?” However, I have never wavered in my belief of the potency of music. A song can change your mood, change your day, change your life. A song can be a great unifying force which rallies the masses to action and a song can break down boundaries. Hell, all it took to knock down the Wall of Jericho was a couple of trumpets and some loud vocals.
So, hail hail rock ‘n roll. This music may never save my soul, but thanks to Bruce Springsteen, I know I have a soul, that it can be saved, and above all, that it’s worth saving.
To Bruce Springsteen, natural–born poetic genius off the streets of Monmouth County, hardest – hardest working – hardest working New Jerseyian in show business, voice of the common man, future of Rock and Roll or, more simply, the man who taught me more than I ever learned at school, and who helps me believe that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive – happy birthday.
First published at Cover Me.