Recently I mentioned in my blog that one of my top six unfulfilled dreams on my bucket list is to be a front man for a rock-and-roll tribute band, and that playing Bruce Springsteen for one night only would fit the bill nicely – surprisingly I am still awaiting offers.
Actually, the truth is that my real dream is to understudy the Boss himself, standing out in front of his very own “Heart-Stoppin’ Hard-Rockin’ Earth-Quakin’ Love-Makin’ Vi-agra-Takin’, History-Makin’, le-gen-da-ry…East Street Band.”
My rock fantasy upgrade is a direct result of having recently read Springsteen’s story in his own words, “Born to Run” published last year. I have read numerous bios, autobios and schlock columns about the lives of R&B performers and this one beats the lot by a distance. I am still eking out the final pages of the book, like a good friend to whom one doesn’t want to say adieu.
Why have I found his story so compelling? For one reason, Springsteen’s most famous anthem “Born to Run”, with which he shot to universal fame in 1975, was released when I was in sixth form. At the time he was heralded as the saviour of rock-and-roll, charging on to the scene just as the raw R&B inspired pop culture of the Beatles, Stones and Bob Dylan was coagulating in the hands of the so-called super prog. rock groups such as Floyd, Zeppelin, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer and their interminable fifteen minute drum solos. Springsteen’s immediate impact came as a prelude to the punk rock era: The Clash, The Jam, Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello et al, all of whom have tugged their pink-rinsed forelocks towards the Boss.
Springsteen is undoubtedly a rock legend, worthy of mention in the company of those he regards as his own idols: Dylan, Lennon, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison and James Browne. He has won 20 Grammys, an Academy award (for “Streets of Philadelphia”) and has been inducted into every Hall of Fame that counts. But what marks him out from many of his contemporaries is neither his talent as a song-writer and performer, nor his longevity. What Bruce Springsteen has that is so special is his appreciation of his identity and heritage combined with a unique ability to put himself in the shoes of others and speak for them with ringing authenticity.
Bruce Springsteen is a son of Freehold in the blue-collar corner of New Jersey state. He spent ten years, night after night playing the bars up and down the Jersey shoreline and Highway 9 before hitting the big time with “Born to Run”. He still describes himself as a bar-band musician and although his hunger for success and innate restlessness drove him, literally, all over the USA, it was the ties that bound him to New Jersey that has forever dragged him homeward.
At 25, he had what many musicians of his era never achieved in their lifetime; ownership of his own material, complete authority over his own band (still tearing up the world’s top arenas more than forty years later), a record contract with Columbia and the hard-earned freedom from his bar-band years to discover his own voice, tell his story and ultimately inherit the mantle of America’s song-writer.
And how he has used that voice, starting with his first post-Born to Run album in 1978, “Darkness on the Edge of Town” which told his own somewhat tortured narrative of growing up in small town America. A patriot with a heart and soul, he has been an astute observer of his nation’s journey and neuroses for the past forty year; America’s writer and critic as Bono described Springsteen when inducting him into the Rock Hall of Fame in 1999.
Springsteen has certainly employed his energies and influence on behalf of the downtrodden and the dispossessed but his vocals truly belong to the marginalised and the overlooked such as the Vietnam Vets in “Born in the USA”, the Aids sufferers in “Streets of Philadelphia” and the hardships of struggling immigrants in “Land of Hopes and Dreams”. Above all the people who Springsteen has written about and performed for throughout his career have been his own; the hard-working and living souls of New Jersey to whom he is Elvis, De Maggio and Michael Jordan all in one package.
In his book, Springsteen describes how on the afternoon of September 11th, 2001 he drove to the shoreline near his home in Rumson, New Jersey and watched for hours as torrents of smoke rose from the tip of Manhattan Island, a mere fifteen mile boat ride away. The sky, which would normally be humming with planes on the busy flightpaths in and out of Kennedy, Newark and Atlantic City international airports, was eerily quiet. As he headed back to Rumson to pick up his children from school, a driver drew up alongside him wound down his window and yelled, “Bruce, we need you”. He knew precisely what that driver meant.
Springsteen’s homage to the dead and the living heroes of 9/11, “The Rising” which included “Into the Fire”, You’re Missing”, “Empty Sky” and “Waiting on a Sunny Day” will in years to come immortalise him as the man who spoke for the people of America in the aftermath of their darkest hour. He took the East Street Band, who he describes as being built well for difficult times, on a nationwide tour and in no small way contributed to the healing of the many individual and collective wounds of his compatriots.
Around the time Springsteen wrote “Born in the USA”, he says that a decade of silence greeted the end of the Vietnam War. It coincided with a period of personal introspection; a search for his own identity. He writes, “How could I know who I was if I didn’t have a clue as to where I’d personally and collectively come from?” In this respect, Bruce Springsteen speaks for everyone. He may have questioned himself along the road many times, but today there is no doubting today his understanding and appreciation of his identity, his heritage and his community. He is one-hundred times more than just one among the pantheon of rock-and-roll legends.
As Barack Obama wryly remarked to Springsteen when awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House in 2016, “I’m the President, you’re the Boss”.
© David Levenson, April 2017
David Levenson is the founder of Coaching Futures. For further information, please contact David: