John G. Rodwan, Jr.
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.
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
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
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
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.