Sunday, June 9, 2019

He's the Boss

I’ve been a Springsteen fan since 1984 — the same year Born in the U.S.A. was released. That monster of an album just turned 35 last week. That means I’m old. It also means I’ve been listening to The Boss for a long, long time. 

As I get older, his music keeps getting better. To me, that’s the sign of a true artist. The guy doesn’t slow down and he’s always working on his craft. He’s not afraid to try new things and go in different directions. I’m grateful for that. 

I was too young to get into his early stuff when it first came out, but I grew up to appreciate the genius of those records — Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska — classics, every one of them. 

But at the ripe old age of 13, it was Born in the U.S.A. that changed things forever.

The 12 songs on that billion-selling album took over the world. There was the title track that didn’t mean anything close to what so many “patriotic” Americans thought it meant. “Dancing in the Dark” ruled MTV and made Bruce a pop star. “I’m on Fire” is the best song under three minutes ever written. Everybody I knew, knew every word to “Glory Days.” “My Hometown,” “Darlington County,” “Working on the Highway” — hit after hit after hit. It’s one of those albums where you’re already singing the next song in your head before it even starts. Happy 35th birthday to you, one of the best albums ever. 

His next release, Tunnel of Love, holds a firm spot in my top five albums of all time. There was no E Street this time, but it didn’t matter. This is, in my humble opinion, The Boss’s best work. These were songs about heartbreak and loss, a huge come down from just three years earlier. But I guess a lot can happen in three years. He was dealing with some shit, the end of an uncertain marriage, and you could feel that in every song. “Ain’t Got You,” “Tougher Than the Rest,” “Spare Parts,” “Two Faces,” “Brilliant Disguise,” “One Step Up,” — not a bad song in sight. Pure songwriting brilliance, top to bottom.

Human Touch and Lucky Town were released together in the early 90’s. Solid, but not groundbreaking. I stood in line at Sam Goody for these two. Man, I used to love standing in line for new releases. I miss those days. Anyway… maybe it was the grunge state of mind I was in at the time, but those two albums didn’t burn themselves into my soul like so many of his others. But I still played the crap out of them. 

Then in ’95 Bruce hit us with the stark, desperate, angry but hopeful, acoustic treasure, The Ghost of Tom Joad. I remember road trips across the state with my brother on our way to visit a friend, listening to this one from first track to last. So many of these songs felt like a punch in the gut that you felt grateful for because they taught you a lesson you needed to learn the hard way. The guitar was simple and subtle so the lyrics could carry the weight. And some of them were a heavy load. The title song, “Youngstown,” “Highway 29,”Dry Lightning,” “Across the Border”   hard-life stories told in 4-minute increments. 

There was a little break. Actually a pretty long break. But in 2002 Bruce got the band back together, and the masterpiece known as The Rising was gifted to us. This was the post 9/11 record we all needed at the time. Again, probably in my top-five of all time. (That’s two out of five if you’re counting along.) From the opener, “Lonesome Day,” to the perfect closer, “My City of Ruins,” these were fifteen songs written as a response to the worst day in our country’s history, but their message is timeless: perseverance through pain and hope in the face of total devastation. I never get tired of this album. And never will. 

Then Devils and Dust, which was very good. The Seeger Sessions, meh. Magic, almost great. Working on a Dream, Wrecking Ball, High Hopes — just ok, for Springsteen. But his ok is still top-shelf stuff compared to so many other songwriter wannabes. 

Even his never-released songs were brilliant. Disc 4 from Tracks included Gave it a Name, Sad Eyes, Loose Change, Over the Rise, and Happy – these were some of the best songs ever written that no one had ever heard.

But it’s not just his music that makes me a lifelong fan.

He’s the best storyteller to ever take the stage. (Sorry, Dylan fans.) I mean, Springsteen on Broadway made me cry like a baby. The dude can tell a goddamn story!

He speaks his mind and stays true to his beliefs. Even though these days that might mean losing fans. I don’t typically like politics mixed in with my music, but when Bruce does it, it feels right, because it usually is right. At least in my mind. 

His battles with depression, and his willingness to talk about those battles, makes him relatable and real. Been there, done that. It’s reassuring to know one of my heroes has been there, too.

As a writer, or at least someone who tries to be a writer now and then, I’m in awe of his lyrical talents. The man has penned some of the most brutally affecting words ever put to song. The list is endless, but some of my favorites:
  • From “Brilliant Disguise”: “God have mercy on a man who doubts what he’s sure of.” Boom.
  • A simple little line from “Tunnel of Love” has given me the strength to get through many a shitty situation: “You’ve got to learn to live with what you can't rise above."
  • From “Loose Change,” quite possibly my favorite Springsteen song: “Now I'm sittin' at a red light, I feel somethin' tickin' way down. The night's moving like a slow train crawling through this shithole town. Got my bags packed in the back and I'm tryin' to get going again. But red just goes to green and green goes red and then. Then all I hear's the clock on the dash tick-tocking.” Jesus, that’s good stuff. 
  • “The River”: “Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse.” Ouch.
  • “Human Touch”: “In the end what you don't surrender, well the world just strips away.” Yep. 
I could list a thousand more instances of lyrics that say so much in so few words, but this blog post is already getting too long. 

Bruce never lived the lives of the characters in his songs. He never claims to have. He admits as much on stage in his Broadway show: “I’ve never done any hard labor. I’ve never worked 9-5. I’ve never worked five days a week until right now. I don’t like it. I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about. Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which he has had absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up. That’s how good I am.” Yep, that’s how good he is. 

So maybe he didn’t literally live those lives, but he knows what goes on inside of those who have. Because it goes on inside all of us, somewhere. He just knows how to write a really good fucking song about it. And his songs give those who have lived those lives a voice. 

To me, he’s a relentless force. A legend for sure, but more than that. He’s essential. I can’t imagine a world without him or his songs in it. 

Our heroes get old and Bruce is pushing 70, but I hope he lives forever. Because the day he’s no longer on this earth will be a very sad day. The great thing about musicians and songwriters — their songs will still be here even when they’re gone. 

His next release, Western Stars, is just days away, and I can’t wait. Once again he’s taking things down a different road. It’s a whole new sound emulating some of his own heroes. I’ll be in line for that one, too. Even though there are no more lines to wait in. 

Thanks for everything, Boss. Keep doing you. Even if “you” means something different every time. 

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