I wasn’t always a fan of Bruce Springsteen.
Of course, I knew his music (or so I thought). Who didn’t? Every song on Born in the USA had been a single, and had been played to death, right? And then he did those mediocre movie soundtrack songs in the 90s, which, I was convinced, were actually the same song, reheated slightly. When a song is so dull that a DJ feels compelled to splice in groan-inducing dialogue from a maudlin, implausible romantic comedy, that song is pretty dull indeed. There
was also a Pop-Up Video sendup of “I’m on Fire” that mercilessly pointed out the parallels between the story depicted in the music video and the real-life story of Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco that took place a few years later. I was going to spend my pocket money on a disco compilation CD or worse yet, CREED, but not “the Boss.” And seriously, the Boss? How lame a nickname can you get?
Fast forward a few years and I’m working at Kohl’s, which was slightly better than a coal mine but a bit less hygienic. The store muzak had a few actual songs mixed in with all the dreck–one of which was “Brilliant Disguise.” In my pre-Internet days, I don’t even recall how I found out it was Bruce. After I got my sweet Sony Vaio and a dialup connection, I downloaded the song on WinMX. I burned it onto a CD labeled “Faves,” of which I had about 17 in my car. I rotated them until they were too scratched and sunbaked to play anymore. And that’s about where we stood, Bruce and I, for perhaps 4 years.
I rushed through 4 years of college in 3, first out of economic necessity, and then when the financial aid finally caught up with my circumstances (dad with cancer and little income), I continued at breakneck pace out of hubris, I suppose. Then, my senior year, I happened to take classes that gave me pause, made me reconsider the path down which I had been sprinting. There was the incredibly moving class I took about the women and children in the Balkan War (I would sit in my car and cry before driving home, it was so hard to hear the horrific stories), after which I reconsidered my major in Russian. There was the Information Science class with the late, great Bob Frost (yes, great-grandson of Robert), that changed my views on so many things, and made me feel for the first time that there are other nerdy people out there whose minds align and process information just like mine. Then there was Bruce Conforth’s American Culture class, “The History of American Popular Music,” which traced the folk and Tin Pan Alley roots of pop music through rock and roll and Motown, and into the present. Prof. Conforth, a musician who often brought a guitar to class to demonstrate what he was teaching, is a former director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and knows absolutely everyone. He told us a story about knowing Bruce Springsteen from the Stone Pony days, and joking with him how there had never been a famous Bruce and one of the two of them was sure to be the first. And then, one day in April, he brought in a guest lecturer, a journalist who was writing about the 30th anniversary of Born to Run. He began by playing “Thunder Road,” opening the lecture with the same wistful notes with which the album opens. He spoke for a few moments, then played “Born to Run.” After some more lecturing, he finally made his concluding comments, and played “Jungleland” in its entirety.
I was hooked.
Lyrics were forming in my mind as I went home that night, lyrics to songs that could say something important to my lost generation, more lost than Fitzgerald’s or Springsteen’s. I went to Best Buy that night and bought the CD. I listened, listened, listened, until I loved even the songs I hadn’t liked at first. When Media Play went out of business that summer, I bought a guitar and amp. I got the film Thunder Road from Netflix, and realized that Rebel Without a Cause was what I really needed to re-watch. I ordered Bruce’s first two albums, and tried to understand the evolution. I read the criticism, the fan articles, and finally went to a concert. I bought a domain name based on “Jungleland” lyrics, and opened an Etsy account as well. I fell in love with a man who loved Bruce too, in the same open-eyed way, understanding that some posturing was necessary, and that working-class life was not all that noble or beautiful and the “rich man in a poor man’s shirt” knows that better than anyone.
He’s a poet, you know, and the poets down here don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be.