One tale that never grows tired of the telling is the one about how Bruce Springsteen—two albums into his career and with nothing but disappointing sales to show for it—was on his label’s chopping block. In him, they thought they’d found the next Dylan, and such an assumption might be excused.
He was a wandering troubadour with a gift for turning a phrase, a romantic gaze and an eccentric air. He came out of Jersey, but seemed to be from a little bit everywhere, with a story that suited every situation. His identity was fluid and, in that fluidity, had a True North that was, above all else, distinctly American. Everything about him screamed star. Everything except the sales.
Studio heads thought they’d struck gold. But Springsteen’s first two albums—though critically praised—weren’t turning in the sort of profits expected. So, the suits leveled with Springsteen. It wasn’t working. The investment wasn’t paying off. They needed a classic. They needed some big radio play. If his next album didn’t go big, he’d be going home. This is the final chance. No more duds.
He gave them Born to Run. And, suffice to say, Born to Run was not a dud.
My first impression of Springsteen was like most people from my generation’s: his derrière. There’s something striking about that Born in the USA cover. It’s a fearless photograph—the sort that not many rock stars today are brave enough to attempt. Nor should they be. In Springsteen’s era, brashness was expected. Far from the studied disdain so popular in today’s music, ’80s rock had a penchant for Hail Marys. It’s the reason so much of Springsteen’s music has fallen out of favor. Those synth chords on “Born in the USA” sound so bleeding heart earnest that it’s almost impossible to take them seriously.
Which is a shame, because it took many of us till our recent years to realize just what Bruce Springsteen did, and how special it is.
If you, like I used to, find him a little “much,” you might turn your attention to his quiet, masterful 1982 album, Nebraska. Legend has it he recorded it all in his bedroom, took the tape for his E Street Band to record in the studio and decided he liked his bedroom cassette tape better and just went with that. I stumbled upon it owing to its namesake, which is my home. It sounds the most contemporary of anything he’s ever done, all acoustic guitar, low-fi production and largely hopeless. It also contains some of his best writing. “Highway Patrolman,” which follows one policeman’s attempts to reform his lawless brother, is as stirring as folk music gets.
That’s what Springsteen does. Which doesn’t explain much.
It’s all difficult to describe with words, so let’s return to Born to Run. It opens with “Thunder Road,” a plaintive harmonica peal that sounds like an invitation whistled by Route 66. The song details Springsteen’s attempt to convince a young woman that (1) she should run away with him and (2) they’re still of an age where this sort of thing is excusable. “We got one last chance to be real,” he tells her, “to trade in these wings for some wheels.” The desperation for youth. The glory of the open road. The desperate clinging to your one chance at freedom. It’d be tempting to call it the most American song ever written, if it didn’t tap into such an obviously universal impulse.
But the title track might just do “Thunder Road” one better: an incredible call to adventure, roaring down desert highways with your girl in the passenger seat, waving your middle finger to middling hand life has dealt you, complete with the best “1-2-3-4!” in rock and roll history.
Like the best Springsteen songs, it’s a song about losers who are determined to win. What Springsteen has done—more than anyone, even the Dylan who he never quite succeeded in becoming—is make a myth out of our lives. Springsteen took America in as it was: dusty, dirty, poor and hopeless. And, somehow, he saw all that as opportunity. It’s not a stretch to say he’s our Dostoevsky: a man who loved his country enough to find beauty in its ugliest corners. Whether you’re scraping together money to make rent in your Brooklyn flat or you’re counting pennies for a loaf of bread from a grocery store in Western Texas, Springsteen has a song for you.
Many of us are desperate to transform our lives into one big adventure. Springsteen suggested that every life already is an adventure, if you can muster the pluck to see it that way. When he bellows “the highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive” it’ll get you. Every. Single. Time.
In essence, Springsteen’s entire career might well be a testament to the struggle for contentment. In that, it’s a distinctly spiritual catalog of music he’s put together, and it’s one just about everyone can relate to.
I was driving through Indiana en route to Chicago, and pulled over near Gary for gas. Out in front was a big man in blue jeans and a Springsteen shirt with the sleeves torn off. His beard was huge, but it wasn’t a fashion statement. This wasn’t one of those bearded hipsters so popular on fashion blogs of late. I daresay this man wouldn’t know what to do with you if you said the word “fashion” or “blog” to him. He was sitting outside the gas station with a giant cup of soda, looking like he hadn’t moved in ages, and may never move again. We had nothing in common.
Nevertheless, he had that shirt.
“Great shirt, man.” I said, as I walked in to pay.
“The Boss, brother,” he said.
And that was all it took. We probably have nothing else in common. But maybe that’s what Springsteen does. He brings out the loser in each of us and, in that, we find each other. We had a lot more than just Springsteen in common.
And I suppose, then and there, I realized that no matter who this guy had voted for in the last election, no matter where he thought Obama was born, no matter what he believes about the fossil record, global warming, transfats or God Almighty, we both liked Bruce Springsteen.
It’s not much, I guess. But in that moment, it sure seemed like plenty.
A few weeks back, RELEVANT reported on a new Bruce Springsteen Theology course being offered at Rutgers, and I surely wish I could attend it. Springsteen songs are long on biblical imagery, and have only gotten more so in his late-career resurgence. It promises to be an interesting course.
But one thing that can be lost in the sussing out of all the metaphors and word pictures is maybe the most plainly spiritual thing Springsteen does. In an age where a music is an increasingly divisive subject, Springsteen brings people together.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.