Springsteen’s Promise (or how the music of Bruce Springsteen got me out of NJ)

Jon Burk, 2012

A couple of thirty-something friends are going to see Bruce Springsteen in LA for the very first time and asked me what it’s like.

Wow.

What it’s like is a journey. From there to here with an episodic soundtrack that can never be duplicated.

…because Bruce is more than just a concert.

So if you’ll please indulge me, let me pontificate about Bruce and what it means to be from New Jersey.

…to listen and decipher the music of Bruce Springsteen.

…to want to get out.

…to need a road map.

…and how that desire, fueled by music, became my teacher…my parent….my muse.

Oh, and my way out.

For me, growing up in Jersey, Bruce’s music was omnipresent. From the kids in the neighborhood that helped in my transition from top 40 AM radio (yes, they played music and yes, I am that old) to the mysterious new world of progressive FM radio, the desire to explore the music of this “New Dylan” started a journey for me, musically and personally, that has now come full circle.

Bruce has always represented the Promise. It is up to the listener to determine what that Promise is, but for me, and I’m sure for millions of others, it was the Promise of a better life. Of rising up against odds, sometimes insurmountable, in order to forge a better, more human and humane life. On a micro level, listening to the “Darkness” and “Born To Run” albums as a teenager, in bumfuck South Jersey, the youngest of 5 kids, with absolutely no direction and scared shitless about this weird thing called a “future,” Bruce’s music was both wonderfully uplifting and oddly cryptic. His characters played parts a lot of us felt. Some we could relate to, others we viewed from inside our safe, protected, teenage bubble….

…from the desperate and broken:
“But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold. Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode.”

…to the naively optimistic:
“Hey, Eddie, can you lend me a few bucks and tonight can you get us a ride. Gotta make it through the tunnel. Got a meeting with a man on the other side”

..to the wonder, mystery and exhilaration of new love:
“We kiss, my hearts pumping to my brain, the blood rushes in my veins, when I touch Candy’s lips, We go driving, driving deep into the night, I go driving deep into the light, in Candy’s eyes.”

Wow….what the fuck is going on here?

Just imagine…being a rather isolated teenager and stumbling upon these words during a tumultuous time of forging an identity, beginning to make that painful transition to adulthood, and fumbling around with girls…and love. This was my soundtrack. At last I knew I wasn’t alone.

My education really started in high school. But it didn’t come from books. It came from music. I took my cues from lyrics and the talented musicians that wrote and sang them. Forget teachers, it was Bruce who wrote “We learned more from a three minute record, than we ever learned in school,” and that certainly was the case with me. All these characters, veiled in subtlety, irony, and mini rock operas knew what they wanted. The nuance sometimes lost in the bombastic production of the E-Street Band, but still, you knew the story of the protagonist and cheered him on. You had too. That was you.

Bruce offered the Promise.

Through his first six albums (Greetings From Asbury Park, The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle, Born To Run, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, The River, and Nebraska), Bruce painted pictures of characters that could be anyone you know. The bonus for me was that almost everyone I knew in Jersey could fill the shoes of any of these personalities. Myself included.

Like a good parent, Bruce gave me the foundation of learning and living through these tough formative years. “Crazy Janey” was my first fuck. Thanks for the inspiration, Bruce.

I was at a Bruce concert the night my hero, John Lennon was gunned down in New York. I couldn’t understand why the Philly radio stations were all playing Beatles music as we left the Spectrum parking lot, until a teary Ed Sciaky came on the radio with the bad news. I grabbed a set list from the stage that night. Had it laminated. It’s still hard to look at it.

Bruce then accompanied me through college (in South Jersey), and we partied to “The River,” the best party album ever. As college concluded, it played loudly as I drove away, college and South Jersey in the rear view mirror. Welcome to the real world.

And then, we both changed.
As I went to find work, Bruce became larger than life. Iconic. It was almost painful to see him playing stadiums belting out “Born In The USA,” the irony of the lyrics lost on a new generation just looking to party. They missed the class. And I checked out.

Moving on.

Ironically for me, I went to work in the music industry, quickly hired by Capitol Records right out of college. It almost seemed pre-destined. Bruce showed me the Promise through song, and I felt compelled to show others. Only thing is, I became one of the characters from a Bruce song that he (and I) usually railed against, more interested in making money on the backs of marginal talents, than maintaining my integrity as a “fan.” I look back on these years as good times, if not slightly surreal. When it ended 18 years later, I never looked back. I felt grown up, finally. But as I was growing – changing, Bruce also changed. He also grew up. Gone were the tales of adolescent struggle, replaced by real world matters – life outside of ourselves but highly affected by our own choices.

Suddenly Bruce had a world view, and so did I. Bruce veered towards music more layered, with a broader vision, and he pushed himself to speak to new fans through music that invited a closer listen. Oh sure, he could still churn out a party anthem now and then, but that seemed so yesterday to me. So high school. I hated high school.

Moving on.

As I discovered new and varied music, so did Bruce. I paid little attention to his music, since like most things that impact me during different stages in my life, once I fill up, I’m gone.

Fast forward to 2001. 9-11 more specifically. I was on a plane about to leave Newark Airport when the planes hit the World Trade Center. I saw the buildings fall, and was sufficiently fucked up for at least a good year. I needed someone to tell me what happened. Hello Bruce? Yes, it was Springsteen who expertly answered the need for America to regain its confidence and rise from the ashes, which he did so perfectly on his aptly titled release, “The Rising.” Music has a way of galvanizing together people when they need it most, and Bruce answered that call in measured tones, allowing emotion to occasionally bubble up, but never allowing it to fully run the conversation. The Rising could have easily been a ponderous tome of grief and sorrow in less skillful hands. But Bruce mixed it up, and artfully segued to songs, that on first blush, seemed rather mindless, but in a way, showed an artist that truly new “Darkness” and could still find a way out of the abyss. He took us with him. No other artist could do this. But then again, no other artist has taken us on the sort of ride that Bruce has. Thanks, man.

Friday night’s show in Tampa showed elder statesmen on top of his game. That is, if this was indeed a game. But it isn’t. It’s just another stop along the way for a journeyman writer keeping tabs on his America. If anything, “Wrecking Ball” is Springsteen’s observations on a country that has been knocked down once again; the metaphors’ a little more obvious this time around. But deep within this tapestry are spiritual hope, redemption, and gravitas. This is an album for the Obama generation; “hope” the operative subject; and the common thread in this collection of tracks. But hope (ie – the Promise) has always been an overriding theme in Bruce’s music. Even with the recent death of E-Street mainstays Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, Bruce did what needed to be done. He took his band and embellished them with a horn section, added vocalists and new players, and by doing so, created a whole new dimension to his sound and vision. Heck, he even crowd surfed at the age of 62. He gave us hope. And by doing so, simply underlines the reason why I have been a fan off and on for over 30 years.

And for newbies? Of course it’s the live show. Gabe Echazabal described him best in his review of a Springsteen 2009 show: “All the myths and legends surrounding his reputation as a live performer are true. He does change his set list night to night. He does change his mind about what song to perform next at the drop of a hat (evidenced by his yelling out a song title to the band that just popped into his head). He does play a lot longer than most performers out there do. No, he’s not God…he’s a regular guy who is still hell bent on delivering a great show and inviting thousands to join his celebration of rock n’ roll. And his followers like it best that way.”

In other words, Bruce makes it real and lasting…every show, every night.

He fulfills his part of The Promise.

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