BOOKS AND ARTS DECEMBER 15, 2003
Bruce Springsteen's America: The People Listening, A Poet Singing
By Robert Coles
Thirty years ago this fall, Bruce Springsteen released his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey. I knew from whence he greeted, having grown up in the same state a few years behind him.One of Springsteen's teenage bands, the Castiles, had been the entertainment at my friend Doug's eighth-grade graduation party; so when Columbia Records sent the twenty-four-year-old and his new group, the E Street Band, on a tour of midsized Northeast colleges to promote his record debut, Doug and I decided to see him in concert at Seton Hall University, an event conducted for a couple of hundred people in the cafeteria of the student center. I still recall much of the show—the kaleidoscopic original tunes, the party-song oldies such as "Twenty-Flight Rock," a funked-up Dylan cover ("I Want You")—and one moment most vividly: About midway into "Spirits in the Night," one of the more soulful numbers on that first Springsteen album, he broke a guitar string. (Springsteen was the only guitarist in his band at the time.) He signaled the rhythm section to vamp on the tune's slow shuffle pattern, and he launched into a monologue, swaying in time as he told a sweet, funny tale about getting his first guitar and trying to learn how to play it while his father, who hated the instrument and everything it represented, tried to smoke the boy out of his bedroom through a heat vent in the floor—nonchalantly restringing the guitar as he talked. He finished the story and had the string tuned on beat, right on time for the band to kick in for the final chorus. The audience, small as it was, roared. Springsteen had simultaneously endeared himself to the crowd as a regular guy and thrilled them by proving that he was no such thing.
This past August, I went to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at another venue in northeast Jersey. This one was Giants Stadium. The show that I attended was the first of ten that he and his group (reunited in 1995 after eleven years apart) were doing in the same arena during their summer tour, a world record for stadium concerts. The stage seemed larger than the building in which they had played at Seton Hall, and Springsteen was using three additional guitarists (Nils Lofgren, Steve van Zandt, and Patti Scialfa, who is also his wife), each of whom was positioned farther from Bruce than I had been on that evening thirty years earlier. Several technicians scurried among them between songs, replacing their guitars with freshly strung and tuned instruments. Some fifty-five thousand people were there, but the atmosphere was oddly intimate. Springsteen, now fifty-four, carried on with his old boyish fire and neighborly charm, bouncing around during the rock-and-roll numbers and chatting up the audience between songs. Before one of his somber recent pieces, "My City of Ruins," he reminisced for a bit about Asbury Park and welcomed the audience to meet him there while they were in New Jersey. At the sound of the first note of each song, the crowd would start cheering. The person to my right, like most of the male half of the audience, was a white fellow of about forty, and he was keeping an account of the show in a spiral notebook, so he could later compare the set list with those of the four other concerts in Springsteen's run at Giants Stadium that he also had tickets to see.
What is it about Bruce Springsteen that inspires devotion on such a scale three decades after he made his national debut? In 1973, Seton Hall also staged several major concerts in its main auditorium (a leap above the student center), featuring the thenestimable likes of Mott the Hoople, Graham Nash, John Lee Hooker, Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt—every act since disbanded, forgotten, deceased, or largely inconsequential. The question of Springsteen's sustaining power is a good one for social scientists as well as music critics, and at least two of the former have done some work on it. In 1998, Daniel Cavicchi, a professor of American Studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, published his Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans, a serious-minded study of Bruce fandom; and now Robert Coles, the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard, has produced Bruce Springsteen's America: The People Listening, A Poet Singing, a look at Springsteen's impact on the general public. Both of the books come to the same fairly obvious conclusion, which the evidence of any recent Springsteen concert would bear out: he is acutely attuned to the attitudes and everyday concerns of working people (working white people, at least) and, in his public image as well as his music, he echoes those views and these interests in accessible, appealing terms. He has built a relationship with a substantial portion of the American population that, like many successful long-term relationships, is mutually reinforcing. Coles quotes his late Harvard colleague Erik H. Erikson as saying of Springsteen, "There's an American who knows Americans so well that their voices become his own!"
Coles, much the same, sees Springsteen as "a poet, performer, music maker who has come to the people as their gratefully embraced spokesperson—their morally introspective teacher, whose writing mind, singing voice, traveling appearances prompt people to stop and think about the lives they are living in contemporary America. His songs give public expression to the yearnings, doubts, memories, worries of American lives, and render them in verse...." Bruce Springsteen's America is comprised mostly of first person accounts by Springsteen's listeners of how his songs reflect and touch upon their lives: a truck driver who sees virtue in the responsibilities of "Growin' Up" (a song from Springsteen's Asbury Park album); the wife of a traveling businessman who hears her husband's dual nature expressed in Springsteen's tunes "Glory Days" (one of the hit singles from his heyday in the 1980s) and "Tunnel of Love" (the title song from his ruminative mid-career album about romance); a grandmother compelled to hold her old husband's hand when she hears "If I Should Fall Behind" (a country ballad from Lucky Town in 1992).
"He's the Best!" the grandmother gushes about Springsteen in the concluding passage of Coles's book. "Why? Because he's one of us plain, ordinary folks, trying to keep ourselves standing honest and clean, and loving each other, and loving our America, and hoping our country will be the good one it's been for so many, and be a better one, even, by being a good one for as many as are here, with us, our fellow citizens." Many of the people Coles quotes in this book—and in his other books, come to think of it—talk like this, in folksy bromides that gain veracity when imagined in the voice of Jimmy Stewart. Personally, I have never met anyone who thinks or speaks this way, and I grew up among truckers (such as my brother-in-law) and diner waitresses (such as my mother) in suburban Jersey. My own grandmother was an irascible skeptic, her patriotism corroded from hard living. I suppose that Coles has a gift for finding the prototypical sort of everyday people that one does not meet every day.
As intellectual ballast, Coles prefaces his ten chapters of testimony from ordinary folks with a pair of introductory sections dense with the testimony of exceptional types: the poet William Carlos Williams (on the subject of his home state, New Jersey, and its native pre-Springsteen pop idol, Frank Sinatra) and the novelist and essayist Walker Percy (on Springsteen), predominantly, along with contributions from Erikson (on Springsteen, as well) and William Shawn, the former editor of The New Yorker (on Joseph Mitchell, the master of journalistic portraiture). Being a social scientist, Coles is skilled at employing oral testimony as evidence of social phenomena; here he presents long quotations from Williams and Percy that tie into Coles's thesis on Springsteen. Williams talks of Sinatra as Coles thinks of Springsteen: "Sinatra's voice rouses up the youngsters these days [1950s], and why not!... People loved hearing him, and they loved looking at this kid who was giving them all he had—working his voice over and over to tunes they knew but couldn't sing on their own.... Sinatra—his voice goes all over, and it's in the lives of those who hear it, and play it to themselves in their minds."
Similarly, Percy, as Coles quotes him, goes on at startling length about the Boss. It is well known that Percy once wrote a letter to Springsteen. The novelist's nephew Will Percy had shown his uncle an article noting Springsteen's Catholicism in America, the Jesuit weekly, and the elder Percy sent Springsteen a note expressing his admiration and inquiring about Bruce's "spiritual journey." (Springsteen did not attend to the letter until Percy had died, but then wrote to his widow.) Coles gives us pages of commentary related to Springsteen and his milieu from Percy, among them: "This guy is his own boss—he's earned the title [the Boss] every inch of the way: he sings of us while singing to us, and what you hear (the one you're hearing) is a plain, ordinary guy soaring way above himself and everyone around him through his voice, and through the songs he's written.... It sure would be great if some of us, who talk to ourselves, hearing a singer talking to himself, then to us, with his own words that he uses to make music—if some of us heard each other doing our talking with our talking buddy, I call him." Therein is the ("great") idea for Bruce Springsteen's America.
The fact that William Carlos Williams and Walker Percy had such extensive conversations with Robert Coles on the subjects of the New Jersey pop singers Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen, and that those discussions yielded insights so parallel and neatly suited to Coles's own take on Springsteen is incredible—utterly incredible. I was not there to overhear them, of course, and it is impossible to check with Williams and Percy, or with the late Erikson and Shawn, whom Coles's other deceased sources quotes in his book's opening sections. But I did ask Will Percy about the comments on Springsteen that Coles attributes to his uncle, and he called them "outrageous." Walker Percy "definitely didn't talk like that," according to his nephew.
It seems pertinent to note that Coles and Springsteen are friends, and that the Boss did "the Doc" (his nickname for Coles) a sizable favor early this year, although Coles mentions neither fact in his book. In February, Springsteen gave a solo concert in Somerville, Massachusetts to benefit DoubleTake magazine, which Coles founded and ran. ("It is completely accurate to say that Bruce Springsteen saved this magazine," the publisher, Hugo Barreca, announced prematurely; the journal subsequently suspended publication.) From the stage that night, Springsteen praised Coles's book The Secular Mind for its treatment of the "moment during everybody's day when things stop" and "you're connected to other things, larger things ... the birth of a child, death of somebody that you love ... listening to `Louie Louie.' I guess that that idea is sort of what songs and music and art are for."
The songs of Bruce Springsteen have long teetered on the axis of the transcendent and the mundane. I refer mainly to the lyrics; Springsteen's music, with notable exceptions (in his early work especially), has tended to serve as a textured backdrop to the words. He has spoken in his concert monologues of having dreamed, in his boyhood, of becoming a writer—"a author," he has said, diffusing any taint of uppitiness in the notion with good-ol'-boy bad grammar—and his songs have been writerly since Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey (and before that, as bootleg recordings of his youthful demo tapes demonstrate). At first he pursued a kind of scattershot street poeticism (hence the inevitable comparisons to Dylan) but soon he calmed down; somewhere between his third record (Born to Run) and its subdued follow-up (Darkness at the Edge of Town), Springsteen developed an interest in narrative concision. He started writing rock and roll like a author of short fiction, drawing characters through nicely observed detail ("The screen door slams, Mary's dress waves...") and spinning drama, instead of whipping up melodrama ("I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company/But lately there ain't been no work on account of the economy").
"I figured out what I wanted to write about, the people that mattered to me, and who I wanted to be," he wrote in the liner notes to his Greatest Hits. "I saw friends and family struggling to lead decent, productive lives and I felt an everyday kind of heroism in this." Yet Springsteen's treatment of this subject matter was never as simplistic as the three or four chords that he played under his lyrics.He did not become a polemical social realist like Woody Guthrie or John Steinbeck, any more than he had been a fabulist like Dylan. He ended up a creature of the realm in between, like Flannery O'Connor (a southern Catholic, as Walker Percy was). For the past couple of decades, his central interests have been the forces of mystery that drive ordinary people to inexplicable actions such as killing, betrayal, and watching television all night.
It is telling that Springsteen sought inspiration for his music in the struggles of his "friends and family"—from the people around him, rather than himself—and that he connected their experience not to the person he was at the time of his writing, nor to who he had been earlier in life, but to who he "wanted to be." A mercurial sense of self is the birthright of New Jerseyians. In the postwar years when Springsteen was growing up in Freehold, a gray square on the grid of suburbs that fills much of the state map, there was little to instill a sense of native identity—no network television stations, no professional sport teams, no university named for the state. To those growing up there then, Jersey often seemed like empty space between Philadelphia and New York, which were the places in the morning papers, where the evening news happened and our parents drove for a night out on their wedding anniversary. You can feel the poles of both cities pulling on Springsteen's early music—the warm, Philly-soul romanticism of "Spirits in the Night," "For You," and "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)"; the swanked-up Manhattan cool of "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City," "New York City Serenade," and "Jungleland."
Seeking his own musical identity, Springsteen came to discover the hometown of his youth and the quiet, hard lives that adults were leading while he was dreaming of rock stardom. By the time he started writing about that world, however, he had left it, having succeeded at becoming rich and famous; so he was still not writing about himself. Much of Springsteen's work, as evocative as it is at its best, has an under layer of detachment, a feeling of posing and, on occasion, of pandering. You can hear it in the mannered stoicism of "The Working Life," the stylized Dust Bowl grit of Nebraska, and, most discomfortingly, in the artful but incongruous songs about Mexican migrant workers and drug traffickers on The Ghost of Tom Joad. (There is a rich Latino tradition of folk music about colorful bad men, called narcocorrido, but it is not Springsteen's own.)
The great exception among Springsteen albums is Tunnel of Love, the wrenching diary of his first marriage and romantic disillusionment recorded (without the E Street Band) in 1987. It is subtle, complex music for adult consumption. For some reason, Springsteen performs none of its songs in concert these days, as far as I know. In recent years he has returned to his old role-playing, to his habit of writing almost exclusively about others, people much like the members of his audience. I once had a conversation about this with an old friend of mine, another longtime Springsteen fan. "I love Springsteen, because he's so down to earth—he's so real," my friend said. "I don't care if he has a fake Southern accent or if he doesn't sing about his own life. Who wants to hear about his kids and his art collection and how much fun he has traveling around the world? He reminds me of me, or how I wish I were, and I love that, because I don't really know myself, anyway." Then again, perhaps my friend didn't say that, exactly. He is deceased now, so who knows? The point is that we agree with each other, whatever we say—even if we're dead, literally or otherwise—because this is America, or so says Robert Coles.
David Hajdu is the music critic of The New Republic.