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Essay

LATE AT NIGHT I walk the streets of my hometown, my hands stuffed deep in the pockets of my leather jacket to ward off the winter chill, and dream of superstardom. By this time I figured I’d have written the great American novel, worked on the Hollywood screenplay, and consulted with DeNiro and Streep on how to play the lead roles. Perhaps I’d have settled down to a life of public adulation and reverence, bestirring myself for rare interviews on NPR and cameos as the erudite talking head on the occasional PBS series. I had my dreams. Instead, I wear the increasingly ridiculous fashions of youthful rebellion, set aside time for an evening stroll, and retire early, preparing for another day in the cubicles of America.

I blame it on Bruce Springsteen, or Bruuuuce, as we used to shout out to him midway through those triumphant concerts with the E Street Band. Springsteen wore a leather jacket, too, and played the part of the iconic rock star to the hilt. He sang about getting out while one was young, making the big escape from the soul-sucking routine—and he was right to view it with disdain. What rock star works nine to five? I, on the other hand, am not a rock star. I am a balding, paunchy journalist who, by day, writes about database capacity planning and, by night, writes about rock and roll. I’m thankful for the day job. It pays the bills. But I live for the night. And Bruce Springsteen had that right as well:

Hell, all day they’re busting you up on the outside
But tonight you’re gonna break on through
To the inside
And it’ll be right, it’ll be right
And it’ll be tonight

That was from a song from the best album I’ve ever heard, the one that convinced me that there was more to this rock and roll business than strutting, preening egotists and throwaway tunes about cars and girls. I was twenty years old when I discovered Bruce Springsteen. He was on the cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week in October, 1975, and I read about how his music would reenergize a flagging rock industry. His new album, Born to Run, was supposed to change my life. That sounded good to me, because my life needed changing. I was pondering what to do with my impending, nearly useless creative writing degree, and I was clueless about what to do with my next fifty years. I was full of passion and energy and general piss and malaise. Nixon was a crook and Ford wasn’t much better; progressive rockers and sixties hippie dinosaurs were ruining everything I cared about in music. I was scared to death about the future, my girlfriend had dumped me, and the radio played nothing but lousy songs.

So I bought the album. And into that swirling vortex strode Bruce Springsteen, a scruffy kid from the Jersey Shore who sang about chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected hotrods and gang warfare and redemption. I was a middle-class Midwestern kid from the suburbs with a rusting ’68 Ford Fairlane, but it still made perfect sense to me. I knew nothing about the mean streets of Jersey, but I already knew more than I wanted to about towns that rip the bones from your back and life as a deathtrap and a suicide rap, and I understood all too well the longing to be somebody, to make my mark, to push through the mediocrity and the spoken and unspoken expectations and live life to the fullest, like I was born to run, ready to head off down the highway with Bruce at the wheel and never look back.

He had me at “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves,” the opening line of the opening song. Springsteen understands the power of myth, and that some myths are archetypically American. In that song, “Thunder Road,” he taps one of the great ones: the power of the open highway, horsepower harnessed beneath a hood, Woody Guthrie riding the rails and Jack Kerouac careening across the countryside, James Dean and Marlon Brando in their leather jackets, barreling down the interstate. It’s a myth fostered by Detroit and Madison Avenue, but one fashioned deep within human souls. It calls out to anyone who has ever been stuck in a dead-end town, working a dead-end job, who has ever experienced that insistent longing for something new, something different, something better. It’s a big country, so get in the car and go.

It is a myth that has been handled badly in countless rock songs, but not on “Thunder Road.” I loved the lyrics, loved the slow camera pan that opened the song. Springsteen set the scene cinematically, focusing in on a young woman, or perhaps a not-so-young woman, slow dancing to the radio. A young man in a car watches her. Maybe he is James Dean, but probably he is someone more prosaic. And the car is no hotrod, just a car, a beat-up Ford or Chevy with a dirty hood. It is a scene out of a mundane American landscape. What is not normal is the way two lives come into sharp focus; all the commonplace moments funneling down to a white-hot point, the interchangeable days and weeks building to this choice on which everything hinges: get in the car, or stay behind; stay on the porch and lead a dull, safe life, or climb in the front seat and risk it all for love. It touched something deep inside me, and I wanted to tell Bruce Springsteen about it.

Within a few months, I had my chance. In the spring of 1976, he came to my alma mater, Ohio University, and played a gritty, sweaty, three-and-a-half hour concert that just about convinced me that I was not alone in the universe, and that if rock and roll was not a substitute for divine revelation, then it was at least the product of ministering angels. After the concert, ears still ringing and heart pounding, I wandered to the Bagel Buggy, a popular late-night haunt near the university. Somebody jostled me from behind. I turned around, saw Bruce Springsteen, and knew that my shining moment was at hand.

“Great show, Bruce,” I stammered.

“Thanks, man,” he said. And then he was gone. I’ve never spoken to him since. It doesn’t matter much. He’s spoken to me on quite a few occasions.

Born to Run was the album that launched Springsteen’s career. And in this age of MP3 singles and downloadable cell phone ring tones, it is worth noting that it was intended to be heard as an album, a cycle of songs. The idealistic narrator of the opening track is back in Jersey at the end of the album. The kid who vowed to “get out while he was young” in “Born to Run” is back where he started. The road has run out; the promise of an easy escape has been thwarted by the realities of the mean streets, the irresistible pull of home, even when home means a life of endless struggle and deferred and eventually forgotten dreams. The album’s final track, “Jungleland,” is an elegy to hope and hopelessness, a romantic rocker that both celebrates the dreams that came to naught and rages against the dying of the light. Springsteen’s wordless vocal at the end is a howl of pain, of disbelief, of what the apostle Paul calls “groanings too deep for words.” His characters have traveled every conceivable byway, have followed every sign, real or imagined, that pointed the way out of town. And they could not escape from themselves.

I became a Christian midway between the release of Born to Run and Springsteen’s nearly miraculous appearance at Ohio University. All my new evangelical friends told me to abandon my secular record collection and listen to contemporary Christian music. I didn’t. I listened to Born to Run instead. Bruce Springsteen never intended to write a gospel album. It just worked out that way for me. I listened to it, and I heard my life, and I heard God’s mercy and warning, the mystic strings of hope and supplication and lament tuned to the key of real life. These were psalms for kids with electric guitars and Bibles and the nagging feeling that life was somehow meant to be different. They had a good beat, and you could pray along with them.

Bruce Springsteen got out while he was young. He was a struggling musician at twenty-five and a superstar at thirty, and he did what superstars are supposed to do. He married an actress, moved to LA, and set about the task of living in the rarefied air of the rich and famous. The marriage didn’t last four years, and by 1990 he was back in Jersey, living with a Jersey girl, having Jersey kids.

In the interim I married an Ohio girl and started having Ohio kids. I worked a corporate job, stayed close to home, and traveled to exotic California only for occasional business trips and vacations. But I kept buying Bruce Springsteen albums, kept listening for the echoes of my life. And they weren’t hard to find. The albums that followed—the heartland rockers Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River, the brooding, pensive, and all-acoustic Nebraska, the triumphant arena-shaker Born in the USA—established Springsteen’s reputation as the preeminent songwriter of his generation. For me, they were merely the soundtrack to my life. Bruce Springsteen sang about blue-collar guys who worked on the factory assembly line, who wondered if their jobs would be there on Monday morning. I worked the high-tech assembly line, churning out software reference manuals and technical training courses on deadline, and watched my work and the work of my co-workers and friends being shipped overseas. “At the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe,” Springsteen sang. He was right about that one, too.

The reasons to believe, it turned out, were far more complicated than either of us could have imagined. Bruce Springsteen has never affiliated himself with orthodox Christianity, and has gone on record (vinyl and otherwise) to repudiate the harsh and often demeaning education he received in the Catholic schools of Freehold, New Jersey. Nevertheless, his songs are rife with Christian and Catholic imagery—Adam and Cain, faith, hope, and love, sacred hearts, precious blood buying redemption, the Stations of the Cross, saints and sinners, death and resurrection. Like Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s darkly comic novel Wise Blood, Bruce Springsteen is obsessed with asserting his own autonomy, and he can’t stop talking about God.

But the talk can be unnerving. The spiritual language—and there is a lot of it—is as far removed from the ethereal realms of abstract theology as can be. Springsteen’s iconography is idiosyncratic, earthy, and always intensely personal and incarnational. The wall between the sacred and the profane is obliterated at every turn. God shows up through the tangible means of redemptive human connections, through commitment and faithfulness, through the miracle of new life. The clarity of the divine light is clouded by the murkiness of messy relationships—and those complex relationships are suffused with the divine:

Now all that’s sure on the boulevard
Is that life is just a house of cards
As fragile as each and every breath
Of this boy sleepin’ in our bed
Tonight let’s lie beneath the eaves
Just a close band of happy thieves
And when that train comes we’ll get on board
And steal what we can from the treasures of the Lord
It’s been a long long drought, baby
Tonight the rain’s pourin’ down on our roof
Looking for a little bit of God’s mercy
I found living proof

It was a little drama enacted in my own life a couple of times during the eighties: the shock of recognizing the hand of God in the helplessness and delicate beauty of an infant, of witnessing the unexpected blessings that come from an insistently disruptive life. And, like Bruce Springsteen, I found that it wasn’t hard to see the living proof. I just had to keep my eyes open.

Springsteen has always celebrated the virtues of those small, interpersonal connections, the tiny but infinitely rich moments that have nothing to do with material success. Ironically, he was extolled in the press, and by at least one president, as the bard of capitalism, the songwriter who best exemplified the American dream, who celebrated the merits of hard work and the can-do spirit of the land. Apparently they missed the songs about desperate Vietnam veterans who couldn’t find employment, who wandered the streets where the gas fires of the oil refineries lit up the lurid night. And the songs where cops had to weigh the uneasy choices between upholding the law and protecting their loved ones. And the songs where illegal immigrants were blown up in their makeshift shacks when the methamphetamine batch exploded. For all too many of Springsteen’s characters, “Born in the USA” wasn’t the overture to a glorious dream. It was the prelude to a nightmare.

But the nightmare could be held at bay, at least partially, through those small acts of service and self-sacrifice. Springsteen’s songs are populated by characters with names—Joe, Mary, Sandy, Wendy, Johnny, Marie, Frankie, Miguel, Rosalita, Terry, Billy. They are, for the most part, nondescript American names, but there is nothing nondescript about the lives described in the songs. The names provide a distinctiveness and a context that goes beyond the euphemistic sobriquet “the common man.” Springsteen’s songs are not about the common man. They are about people named Joe and Mary, Miguel and Rosalita. And these characters give the lie to the Entertainment Tonight/Hollywood Access whopper that only the rich and famous have stories worth hearing. In Springsteen’s songs, those characters go to work and come home, lie awake in the early hours of the morning and wonder how to make the mortgage payment, make love and fight, dream about a new life in some exotic locale, and come to terms with the old life in the same hometown, a little chastened, a little wiser. All of it, Springsteen insists, is worth telling. All of it, in all its gritty mundaneness, is sacred.

I live in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, about five miles from where I spent my childhood. I’ve moved a few times in between: to a suburb of Chicago, to a couple Midwestern communities that were home for a few years as I pursued more education, to a small town where I chased the silly, romantic Norman Rockwell idyll, where I imagined that all the children would be rosy-cheeked and all the neighbors would smile and doff their caps and say, “Mornin’, Andy,” as I passed by on the immaculate sidewalks. It didn’t work out the way I had envisioned. I finally figured out that people are pretty much the same wherever you go, and that I couldn’t escape from myself. Now I’ve circled back to my earliest days, dragging my wife and daughters along, as I try to find whatever it is I’m looking for, seeking out God only knows what: life outside the deathtrap, maybe, something that looks at least a little bit like heaven. Occasionally I drive through my childhood neighborhood, imagine the patch of woods that used to loom up like the primordial wilderness at the end of our street, where my friends and I built our forts and picked blackberries and looked for arrowheads. There’s an apartment complex there now, a 7-Eleven convenience store, a BP gas station.

It doesn’t matter all that much. What I’m looking for can’t be found on a map, and it can’t be reconstructed by retreating to some imagined past. It has to do with being at home in your own skin, with connecting all the inchoate longings with a particular time and place, with living fully right here, right now, in an imperfect world, and embracing it anyway. T.S. Eliot, in his great cycle of poems Four Quartets, describes the process:

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

This is what Bruce Springsteen’s characters do. Like their creator, firmly ensconced in New Jersey, they end up back where they started. They set off on impossibly romantic excursions, pull out of their dead-end towns, life beats them down, and they end up back in their hometowns as different people. But not defeated people. Wiser people, yes. More committed people, certainly. More in touch with the people who make life important. More cognizant of what really matters. They look around, and they know the place in ways they could have never imagined.

I love Bruce Springsteen for that. I think about him many days when I hunker down in my cubicle and set out to write about database capacity planning. The night still matters, those times when I can focus on what I love best, on pursuing those things that provide joy in my life. But the day matters, too. There are no unimportant lives, and there are no unimportant moments. My Christian worldview informs that understanding. So does Bruce Springsteen.

Bruce Springsteen turned sixty a few months ago. It’s a precarious age at which to attempt the frenzied rock and roll high-wire act, and the risks of appearing unseemly are great. And so he has toned down the rock-star moves just a bit, and some of those bombastic, iconic songs—“Thunder Road,” “Born to Run,” “Born in the USA”—have been retooled in pensive, meditative, and frequently acoustic directions. The last twenty years have found him in folkie social protest mode more often than not, Woody Guthrie reincarnate, and only two albums—2002’s The Rising and 2007’s Magic—have attempted to recapture the grandeur and majesty of those early-career rock classics. His writing has grown increasingly political, increasingly barbed, and the story songs, the character songs, have sometimes given way to more generic screeds.

But on Magic—a latter-day resuscitation of the old E Street Band swagger—Springsteen again finds his authentic voice, and sounds the themes that have echoed throughout his music for thirty-five years:

My father said, “Son, we’re lucky in this town,
It’s a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps its arms around you,
Nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone
You know that flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t”
It’s gonna be a long walk home

He’s done this several times throughout his career, used this old image of a father and son surveying the land, offering a state of the union address by way of a simple familial conversation. He probably intends it as a not-so-subtle commentary on the Bush administration, on Abu Ghraib and a country that spies on its own citizens. But I hear it, as I hear so many of his songs, as a commentary on my life.

The song, “Long Walk Home,” hit me in ways I wasn’t expecting. Maybe it was because my own father had died recently, and because we’ll never have those kinds of conversations again. I heard the song and thought about Westerville, Ohio, my hometown, and for once, maybe for the first time, I realized that I wasn’t running away. I realized that this town, this sprawling suburb full of tract homes and chain stores and roads built atop old cornfields, was a beautiful place to make a stand, to be a husband and father, an American, a man, a child of God.

Like most people, I suppose, I’ve sometimes smudged the line between what I’ll do and what I won’t. I’ve lost sight of the things that are set in stone, and I’ve tried to move the boundary markers and pretend that it was up to me to define the contours of a moral life. It was good to be reminded, again, that words have meaning, that symbols are powerful and freighted with history, and that things like flags and crosses stand for a set of values that cannot be casually redefined. And so Bruce’s song came as a pointed reminder that some attitudes need to be adjusted. In Christian terms, this is called repentance.

There is, of course, a visceral thrill in listening to that song, and to almost all of Springsteen’s music. Bruce Springsteen isn’t merely making philosophical and political and spiritual statements; he’s making rock and roll. But when he is at his best—as he is most of the time—Springsteen’s music reminds me of basic truths. It reminds me to stay awake, to stay alive, not merely in the physical sense, but by keeping my eyes open to beauty, to pain, to suffering, to the thousands of everyday lives of Joes and Marys whose stories are always, always extraordinary. That is the thread woven through thirty-five years of his music. It’s the thread I hold onto during the seemingly interchangeable days in my corporate cubicle. It reminds me that it is possible to wander the same familiar territory and see it transformed. It reminds me that it is possible to look around this place, to name it home, and to know the place for the first time.

Occasionally I fantasize about what I would say to Bruce Springsteen if I ever bumped into him again, these many decades down the line, walking the streets of Westerville, Ohio (yes, this is one of the more astonishing parts of the fantasy). His hands would be stuffed deep into the pockets of his leather jacket. Maybe he’d have played Columbus the night before, and decided that he needed a taste of middle-class, Midwestern suburban life as an inspiration for future songs. Maybe he’d be wandering, not quite sure why his footsteps drew him to my neighborhood, perhaps vaguely looking for a collaborator. (Look, I told you this was fantasy.)

In any event, I’ve rehearsed various laudatory speeches in my mind through the years, but I’ve usually realized fairly quickly that I’d feel awkward saying any of them. They’re all wrong. Here’s what I think I would really say: “Thanks, man.” Just that. Then I would stroll through my hometown, take the long way home past the ordinary houses hiding extraordinary lives, and I would walk in my front door and greet three Americans with nondescript names: Kate, Emily, and Rachel. My family. I wish you could meet them. I’ve been on the lookout for God’s mercy as well, and I’ve seen living proof.


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