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John G. Rodwan, Jr.

Radio Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen was unavoidable. Born to run he may have been, but there was no escaping him. You could not help but hear Springsteen, whether you wanted to or not, especially in the 1980s after Born in the USA arrived and took over everything. At the time I had no use for him. Misunderstanding what Springsteen was trying to express, many people associated him with ideas he did not hold. My gripe with him was not with what he said, or not entirely. Rather, the problem with Springsteen had to do with what he was -- the embodiment of the rock superstar, the heroic figure for whom radio itself seemed to exist, the man everyone was supposed to like precisely when such awesome popularity itself made his work immediately suspicious.

"No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones," the Clash announced in "1977," and if they had made the song a few years later, they might have included Springsteen in the list of rock stars whose moment was past, or should be. Indeed, writing in 1980, music critic Greil Marcus declared Springsteen Elvis Presley's successor. By the mid-1980s, no one would have questioned Springsteen's claim to the crown. The coronation had occurred and he was recognized as the new king. Or, as he was insufferably dubbed by disk jockeys, The Boss.

Punk rock, the music that mattered to me then, did not encourage fealty to performers, which is what Springsteen managed to inspire. Marcus says "a joyful loathing of such elitism is part of what kicked off" punk, which rejected the entire rock star image associated with commercial radio and corporate-sponsored tours. When throngs filled arenas to hear about Bruce's hometown and its residents' glory days, I very much wanted the antithesis of the Springsteen phenomenon. In the 1970s, when I was first developing musical interests, but was too young to have much control over the radio dial in the family sedan, I was happy enough with hearing AC/DC, Cheap Trick, Alice Cooper and Bob Seger on Detroit's rock stations. I even remember "Blinded by the Light" playing regularly on WRIF 101.1 FM -- "The Riff" -- and being surprised when I learned later on that it is on Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., Springsteen's first album. I heard it all the time, but had never associated it with what I took to be his sound. Born to Run came out in the middle of the decade, but for someone born late in the preceding one, it seems like that distinctively Springsteen record was always there -- and always being played where I could hear it.

By the time I became a teenager in the 1980s, I preferred listening to the Clash, Discharge, the Subhumans, and the Dead Kennedys -- bands that did not get played on the radio. Springsteen, in a November 2007 Rolling Stone interview, calls himself "a pop kid" who "grew up on Top Forty" -- exactly what I did not want to be. As a young Maximum Rock n Roll reader, I did not have any use for magazines like Rolling Stone either. Springsteen may have composed sturdy songs about the urge to hit the road in search of freedom, but by the time I got my driver's license, I had no interest in hearing about slamming screen doors and swaying dresses. The cassette tapes I played in my rusty Datsun were not coming from major labels like the ones delivering Springsteen's releases. Instead, they were likely to come from outfits like Dischord, whose Minor Threat captured many a punk rocker's sentiment toward commercial radio: "I don't want to hear it/Know you're full of shit."

Even then I knew Springsteen was singing about Vietnam War veterans and the unemployed. He was not the my-country-right-or-wrong nationalist many erroneously took him to be. In his America, people could experience life "like a dog that's been beat too much." His songs' politics do not differ that much from the rawer protest music punk rockers preferred. Rebellious he might have been, but he did not meet my musical needs. He also sang about cars and high school athletes and nostalgia. Besides, no one was going to mistake tracks from Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables or Never Again for a potential campaign song for a Republican president seeking reelection.

Even when he did sing about the disappointed and dispossessed, Springsteen frequently did so in a way that sounded upbeat, not angry. The juxtaposition between the sometimes sunny sound and desperate sentiments in his lyrics results from both the lasting influence of the popular music of his youth and his desire to make what he describes as "multidimensional" work. In the Rolling Stone interview he talks about 2007's Magic and its title track about misleading appearances, but he could be describing several of his records when he says the songs could be taken as comments on current events "or just as relationship songs." While he needs to express both personal and political concerns, and to have them combined in his songs, he knows his listeners may not pick up on or even want all the dimensions. My initial resistance to Springsteen, especially in the 1980s, related to this aspect of his style, I think. In another comment about Magic that could apply to earlier work, he says, "I wanted to take the perfect pop universes and then subvert them with the lyrics -- fill them with the hollowness and the fear, the uneasiness of these very uneasy times." The longing to overcome loneliness permeates his work, but his coupling the theme with a pop sound caused me to dismiss his music as frivolous. Eventually I would realize the defiance implicit in his tone, its celebration of people's ability to endure life's inevitable disasters and somehow still find moments of joy.

It was not necessarily only his detractors who got Springsteen wrong; sometimes it was his most ardent fans, the ones who latched onto only certain dimensions of his efforts, the ones who could twist a song about out-of-work vets into a battle-cry for unthinking patriots. If I had to try to define the typical Springsteen fan where I was in the 1980s, it would be the white suburbanite who might venture south of Eight Mile Road to attend a Tigers or Red Wings game, but who would never consider living in the city and who would forbid his daughter from going there. It would be the member of the football team whose father never contemplated the possibility of there being boys with no desire to go out for the team. Indeed, he may have been the coach of the team.

Springsteen's fans, or so it seemed to me, were oblivious to the possibility of music other than the Top Forty, and would not have been able to comprehend why anyone would want to listen to that shit anyway. Perhaps he attracted different types of fans in other areas, but in Detroit, it did not seem like he was playing for us city kids. He has plenty of songs about gritty city life, of course, but in the 1980s, it was his hometown that we heard about, and that place sounded small and its residents narrow-minded -- like those I imagined his listeners were. Unfair and unreasonable though it may have been, liking Springsteen then amounted to making a statement about one's identity, one that entailed an embrace of complacency and a willingness to accept rather than fight injustice. A lot of those who pledged their allegiance to Springsteen obviously did not listen closely to his songs, responding to the happy sounds and ignoring the fear. Nevertheless, these people were his people. Whatever his blue-collar bona fides, his liberal views and his willingness to explore the darkness, not only on the edge of town but throughout the country, his fans seem strictly middle-class, shallow, and intolerant.

The prevailing perspective among punks in the Reagan era held that the president was a sinister idiot, an evil clown, someone untrustworthy and dangerous. It is a perverse irony that Springsteen got ensnared in the period's myth-making machinery. (The Annie Leibovitz photographs of him in front of gigantic flags did send mixed messages.) It seemed like the same major media outlets that were trying to sell us Ronald Reagan were trying to sell The Boss, too. We were not buying.

My attitude toward Springsteen did change, though, and I can identify the catalyst. I may no longer have found much music that resonated with me on the radio, but I had not given up on the medium entirely. WRIF broadcast a call-in talk show that started late on Sunday nights and often had thoughtful, clever guests. It was not the sort of show with hosts trying to be shocking or outrageous or offering predictable, tendentious political rants. Political, social, and cultural topics were discussed, but in an engaging and intelligent way - or so it seemed to a high school student staying up late on a school night listening to his clock radio in his darkened bedroom. (I never heard the show again after leaving for college and was surprised to find out decades later that it was still on the air.)

The show's host, Peter Werbe, was affiliated with the anarchist newspaper The Fifth Estate and had ties to the Layabouts, a local band with an explicitly anti-authoritarian outlook. I saw at least one great show in Detroit's Cass Corridor neighborhood at a space I am fairly certain was run by the paper's collective, and I met Werbe once among the protesters who assembled outside the Cobo Hall convention center when Reagan came there to speak. He frequently invited Jan Harold Brunvard, author of books like The Choking Doberman, to talk about urban legends. The folklorist would not only relay the plausible, if improbable, tales of events experienced by a friend of a friend of a friend, but also interpret them, elucidating what they reveal about the society in which they circulate and are taken as true. Brunvard illustrated how tales not grounded in fact can still reveal something about those who believe them.

Though the misrepresentation of Springsteen as some sort of red, white and blue megaphone for establishment values may reveal a lot about the confused time of the Reagan era, it was not Brunvard who prompted me to reconsider Springsteen. I do not recall who that guest was; it was probably some music critic (Creem magazine was published in the Detroit area). I do know that it had to have been sometime after the 1986 release of live material recorded from 1975 to 1985. The on-air conversation turned to the unsettling sight of thousands of people gathered together with raised fists moving in unison and mouthing the words of their glorious leader. I do not think host or guest seriously likened a rock show to a fascist rally, but there was real discomfort with the Springsteen scene, which seemed to involve an unappealing conformity. However, during that same episode of Night Call a live version of "The River," with a lengthy spoken introduction, was played, and from that point on I started to develop an appreciation for Springsteen.

Before singing another song about things going wrong, Springsteen describes his tense relationship with his father, who openly disapproved of his long-haired son. The performer relates experiences he had around the time I was born. He thought his father hated him, and he found the man unbearable. They fought frequently. His father said he looked forward to the Army taking Bruce and making a man out of him. Yet when it turned out that the younger man would not be sent to fight in Vietnam, the older man was pleased, which caused the teenager to reconsider what he thought about his father and their strained but not completely broken bond. In a characteristic move, Springsteen pairs a song about teenage pregnancy, a loveless marriage and brief moments of happiness long in the past with a painful story that he ends on an optimistic note.

In many ways my relationship with my father could not have been more different than Springsteen's was with his. Of course, like any teenager, I did not understand my parents and felt certain that they did not understand me. Hair became an issue. When I shaved the sides of my head, I brought my mother to tears. She even resorted to the wait-until-your-father-gets-home line of anger and maternal frustration. She was especially upset that I had got my offending haircut soon before my sister's graduation ceremony. ( She completed high school the same year Born in the USA appeared.) When my father finally did see those revealed portions of my scalp, he said something like: "You want to walk around looking like that?" He made it clear that while he thought I looked ridiculous, he recognized that it was really my problem, not his. Unlike Springsteen's dad, he was not going to enlist a barber to give his son a forced haircut. I think my mother became more upset with him than me after that. Despite standard issue parent-teenager tension and occasional fights over elements of my punk-rock attire -- a T-shirt with a Raymond Pettibon drawing of hands cleaning a gun next to the words "I've been good too long," especially aggravated my gun-control-favoring family - I never felt the need to stay away from home for days at a time the way Springsteen once did. My folks were not the type to say, either seriously or in jest, that they looked forward to my having a character-building stint in the military. I never doubted that my father loved me, even if he never actually said the words.

Still, Springsteen talked about rebellion and intergenerational conflict as well as protest (he makes it clear he opposed the war in Vietnam, just as he would speak out against subsequent ones) in a way the made me realize that he was not so removed as my friends and I thought from how we looked at the world, even if he did play enormous venues (that take of "The River," for instance, was recorded at the Los Angeles Coliseum) and sell huge quantities of records and dominate the airwaves. Perhaps he was worth paying attention to after all. One could argue that the Iran-Contra swindle, among other events, confirmed that the punks perceived Reagan right. We got Springsteen wrong.

Even after I realized this, a fair amount of time passed before I actively sought out his work, however. I did not actually buy one of his records until the next decade, when The Ghost of Tom Joad came out. As it happened, I first heard the title track on the radio when driving to my job, which was some distance from where I lived at the time. This might seem an appropriate way to discover work by an artist who has sang many songs about both listening to music on the radio and getting in your car and driving. Both activities occur in the first song on Magic, which was also the first song Springsteen played when I finally went to him live a dozen years after the release of Tom Joad, an album very different from Born in the USA and more like the haunting Nebraska. There's no confusing it for party music. Even if his work in the 1970s and 1980s did deal with weighty issues, it frequently did not sound like it. He might have filled his lyrics with despair, but the music burst with exuberance. The 1995 album, however, sounds spare, intense but without exhilaration, appropriate for the desperation of ex-convicts, veterans, homeless people, and outcasts about which he sings.

Not long after this, relocation resulted in my neither driving nor listening to the radio (since, as Springsteen well knows, the two do go together). I realized that I missed some of those songs that once were unavoidable. I started buying Springsteen CDs. I never became a Springsteen completist; I do not own everything he has issued. But at some point I realized that I had acquired quite a few of his records -- including Born in the USA.

A few days after seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert, I purchased their Live/1975-85 box set and listened to "The River" and its introduction for the first time in more than 20 years. Sometimes such a move can be unsettling, as you discover that you got something entirely wrong or distorted it in your memory to such an extent that checking out the actual thing invariably disappoints. This was not one of those letdowns. I was startled by how much I had retained and what an impression it had made. It confirmed what Springsteen has been saying all along. A song heard on the radio can have a meaningful impact on your life. The connection between musician and listener can be real, whatever the physical distance between them. That is what all those fist-pumping fans respond to, and doing that together in a big room with thousands of others can make you fell less alone or disappointed, if only for a little while. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Springsteen at Madison Square Garden, but I might never have gone there if, years before, I had not heard the right song at the right time on the radio somewhere.

©2008 by John G. Rodwan, Jr.

John G. Rodwan, Jr.'s writing has been published by The Mailer Review, Spot Literary Magazine, Open Letters, The Brooklyn Rail, California Literary Review, American Writer, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, and previously in Slow Trains.

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