When most people think of the boss they think of tight jeans, dated American patriotism and their drunk nostalgic parents. In fact Springsteen’s nuanced, poetic socio-philosophical meditations are as universal and relevant to today’s young people as they were to Reagan’s broken America.
Even ‘Born in the USA’, his most well know composition, is far from the fervent foot-stamping anthem of American patriotism that it seems, but more a damning anti war indictment of America’s catastrophic involvement in Vietnam. Bruce himself called the song ‘the most misunderstood song since Louie, Louie’ setting a precedent from which to view the rest of his work.
Springsteen paints a portrait of the mundanity of adult life and unexpectedly exposes the beauty of hope. He writes from the point of view of characters like the disenfranchised, the bored, the restless, the mad and the scared. Through this lens, he taps into a modern consciousness of disillusionment and frustration with the daily grind that pervades societies far beyond the confines of small town New Jersey. Whether you are a middle aged factory worker in Ohio struggling to provide for your family, or a stifled teenager yearning for to escape the confines of your small town, lyrics like
‘I’ve done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start’
articulate the universal search for that ‘something’ more that is prompted by the dullness of daily life.
His bleak portrayal of the state of life is made all the more poignant by the similar tones expressed by his marginalised characters. He writes unsettlingly beautiful first person narratives; the armed robber sentenced to life imprisonment, the well meaning kid caught up in organised crime, the spree killer welcoming his death sentence, the guy driving all night to see his love. Springsteen suggests the common denominator of a wide cross section of society is frustration and despair. He emphasises the innate need for escape, annihilation or release at some point when life feels like this;
‘I get up in the evening / And I ain’t got nothing to say
I come home in the morning / I go to bed feeling the same way
I ain’t nothing but tired / Man I’m just tired and bored with myself’ (Dancing in the Dark)
This is a universal frustration, a search for greater existence and a crisis of meaning that is felt as urgently now in the offices, streets, schools and lecture halls of modern Britain as it was in the factories and penitentiaries of rural New Jersey in the 1970s.
However, Springsteen offers a ‘complete rejection of despair’ and paints a picture of ‘the kind of life that deserves survival’ (Dave Marsh, Rolling Stone 1978). In earlier albums this is evident in the dichotomy of imagery that contrasts the wretched and dull portrayals of his characters’ daily lives with the anthemic celebrations of the hedonism and escape of the night. Anthems like Thunder Road run like a lightning bolt of hope through their respective records, lifting the experience of the whole album. This contrast seems to suggest a simple problem-solution proposal; if the daily grind crushes your soul, escape.
“In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dreamAt night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines’ ( Born To Run)
It is easy to see Springsteen paint a portrait of almost inevitable desolation, bringing his characters, self, and audience to the brink of despair but at the last moment providing an escape route. This is often metaphorically embodied in a road, and an urge to ‘get out while we’re young’. It seems that when the darkness comes, Bruce urges you to dance out of town.
However, to stop there is to misunderstand Springsteen, just as Reagan did in 1985 by using Born in the USA for his political campaign theme. Although songs like Born to Run and Thunder Road, through their poetic romanticism of the road and triumphant use of brass instruments
‘You can hide ‘neath your covers and study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers, throw roses in the rain….
Well now, I ain’t no hero, that’s understood
All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood’ (Thunder Road)
‘H-Oh, Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young’ (Born to Run)
celebrate an exuberant and apocalyptic escapism as a contrast to the acoustic despair of life, this is not a simple problem/solution suggestion.
Bruce separates humanity into two types of people in Racing in the Street; those who ‘just give up living, start dying little by little, piece by piece’ and those who ‘come home from work and wash up, then go racing in the street’. Although he clearly disapproves of the so-called settlers, there is a shift here to an image of domesticity alongside destructive escapism, an important emblem of his change in focus away from pure hedonism. It is easy to cast Springsteen, particularly in early albums, as yet another Jack Kerouac figure, obsessed by ‘the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time’ (On the Road), the influence of the Beat generation on Springsteen’s writing is stark and self evident after all. However there is a fundamental distinction. Rather than glorifying the escape route, the hedonism and the road for the sake of the road, the question that plagues his masterpiece albums is, what is means to live a good life, to honour where you came from and enrich your soul as best you can. After Born to Run, Bruce realised ‘it was clear, you couldn’t run’. Quite intentionally Darkness on the Edge of town became the first anti ‘Bruce Springsteen’ album that Bruce Springsteen would write. Rather than an ode to running, it is a meditation on ‘where you are going to stand’ (Springsteen) and how to grapple an adult life full of compromise. With a youth culture today largely suffering from a generational identity crisis, it is easy to see how Springsteen’s continual questioning of who, how and when to live is enormously relevant.
Perhaps more fundamentally Springsteen spends much of his writing dealing with larger philosophical themes concerning sin, redemption and atonement. These themes are so essential to our understanding of who we are as humans it would be impossible to dismiss them. ‘Adam Raised a Cain’ questions the inherited nature of human sin; ‘You’re born into this life paying for the sins of someone else’s past’. He delves head first into a profound theological debate on the nature of sin that rings true as much to St Augustine as to Nietzsche. I am not saying Springsteen is a philosopher of Augustinian standards; he is a musician after all. The genius of Springsteen, however, is that he ‘recasts’ philosophical motifs, ‘biblical figures and stories into the American landscape’, forcing listeners to confront their own values and assumptions. The success and relevance of this feat can be measured in the fact that he is now the subject of a Theology module at Rutger’s University and a sociology module at Princeton. In a world where religious symbols and ideology is so woven into our cultural fabric despite global secularisation, it is impossible not to see the relevance.
Springsteen is a master story-teller whose poetic imagery ranks alongside the likes of Dylan and Van Zandt. However time after time he refuses to succumb to the temptation of glorifying and sentimentalising hedonism. In Thunder Road, Mary’s graduation gown may ‘lie in rags at her feet’ as the ‘boys with ghosts in their eyes’ are ‘sent away screaming her name’ but she still ‘ain’t a beauty’, shes just ‘hey.. alright’. The refusal to glorify hedonism is a refusal to glorify the fear of life and it becomes the vehicle for the most fundamental of Springsteen’s messages; there is beauty and hope found in the mundane, not from romanticising it, nor running from it but in embracing it and living a good life the best you can. He follows as his ‘heroes and heroines face terror and survive it, face delight and die by its hand, and then watch as the process is reversed, understanding finally that they are paying the price of romanticizing their own fear.’ (Greil Marcus, Rolling Stone 1975).
‘Something in the Night’s poetic sentiment may have a touch of the linguistic romanticism of Thunder road
‘You can ride this road ‘till dawn,
without another human being in sight,
Just kids wasted on something in the night.’ (Something in the Night)
But rather than rather than ending up in ‘mansions of glory’ his characters now scream that
‘When we found the things we loved,
They were crushed and dying in the dirt… And left us running burned and blind,
Chasing something in the night.’ (Something in the Night)
It seems the escape has failed, the road has come to an end, and the kids are forever left chasing this indefinable ‘something’. By refusing to glorify the escape, Springsteen refuses to define or condone the ‘something’ that gives them release. He taps into a universal consciousness of longing and rips it open. He leaves the listener desperate for an answer and when the glimmer of the hope at the end of the thunderous road is proved fatal, he points the finger back at the listener’s own self and makes them question everything they stand for. He asks us rather than answers us, what is this ‘something’ in the night that makes our lives worthwhile.
“And when you walk on stage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it’s all we have… and then remember, it’s only rock and roll.”