I come here to praise Bruce Springsteen, but first: there are several things
about his songwriting that annoy me: specifically I dislike his overreliance on
a few familiar phrases and concepts, among them:
• “Little girl,” usually not meant to mean “female child,” but instead “girlfriend or person I would like to be my girlfriend.” When you start paying attention to this, it takes on the quality of a weird
verbal tic. This phrase is used more than 100 times in his songs.
• “Night.” Think of just some of his song titles: “Spirit in the Night,” “Prove it All Night,” “Because the Night,” “Drive All Night,” “Open All Night,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),“ “Something in the Night,” “Restless Nights,” and, uh, what was that song on side one of Born to Run? Oh, yeah: “Night.” Some of these are great songs, but still. That’s an awful lot of night.
• “Day.” Possibly for equal time reasons, he has also written “Glory Days,” “Better Days,” “Independence Day,” “Lonesome Day,” “Light of Day,” “Kingdom of Days,” “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” and “My Lucky Day.”
• “Rivers.” They may be muddy, black, clear or cold, but he stocks his songs liberally with
them. Lots and lots of rivers being crossed, flowing by, being used as a
meeting place, and generally filling in lyrical holes in songs.
• And, as my colleague and fellow Springsteenophile Kathy Whitney noted when I
got off on this rant one day with her: “Roads.” Here’s Kathy’s list: “Backstreets,”
“Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?” “Further On (Up The Road),” “Highway 29,”
”Highway Patrolman,” “Incident On 57th Street,” ”Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” The E Street Shuffle,” “Thunder Road,” “Two For The Road,” “Working On The Highway” and “Wreck On The Highway.”
Please note what I said above. Bruce Springsteen is one of my favorites, and I’m grateful for the company his music has provided me through the last 35 years
or so of my life. Really, when I was 16 I was running around my high school
telling people how great he was, when he was unknown—possibly the only time in my life I’ve been ahead of a major trend. Unless you count that unfortunate haircut from
the fourth grade, which, in its own way, set the stage for the punk movement.
I bought his first two albums and drove my parents crazy playing
them over and over on the Capehart console stereo in the living room. I
couldn’t wait to buy Born to Run when it was released, and the night I got it home I
played it all the way through, from start to finish, twice, reading the lyric
sheet as it went. I decided my favorite was “Jungleland.” I was a kid with good taste.
The first time he came to my hometown, Knoxville, I was there. I went with my
girlfriend, Sharon. Coincidentally, Sharon has been with me every other time I’ve seen Springsteen over the years. Funny how that worked out.
Anyway, when he played Nashville a few weeks ago, we were in the audience again.
It’s a good thing, because I had trouble believing what I was seeing.
Fact one: Bruce Springsteen is 60 years old.
Fact two: The first time I saw him he was in his 20s.
Incredible fact three: He seems to have more energy now than he did then.
I’m not kidding. The music was great, the E Street Band was somehow tight and
loose at the same time, and the energy in the Sommet Center was such that a
to-remain-nameless middle-aged white guy was loudly singing along to “Thunder Road” and didn’t care who knew.
And then there was the moment we were all talking about the next day. During the
song “Darlington County,” a group of young women on the front row, most of whom were sporting pink cowboy
hats, were invited up on stage to dance. And I had this moment of instant
recognition: I knew one of them. It was my Division of Public Affairs colleague
Beth Fox (who happens to be Kathy Whitney’s sister—love of the Boss is a family trait). And, after dancing, as Beth was about to
leave the stage, she realized she had been standing right beside Bruce
Springsteen and had not, of all the ridiculous oversights, kissed him. So she
ran back and did.
The entire concert, even to those of us who did not get to share the stage with
the band, was, to borrow the title of a recent Springsteen album, magic.
Springsteen produces music that matters to me, music that could seem both
profound and joyful when I first experienced it as a teenager. We’re all older now, but that cold night at the Sommet Center was proof that the joy still remains.
I’ll forgive him, even if he writes a song about taking the highway down to the
river to meet his little girl one night. If he hasn’t already.