Originally posted January 20, 2017.
Along the New Jersey coastline, hugging the inland spine of a confederation of plodding, marshy islands, the southern stretch of the Garden State Parkway feels like the most liberating road in the world. Birthed from the narrow two lanes that spit you out of Cape May, the state’s southern-most point, the highway begins without prelude, other than a hulking green sign that only changes when the governor does. You take your place in the line of cars, and then you’re off. One stretch of highway is what’s keeping you between the land and the ocean, between your work week and your summer night, between what’s flesh, essentially, and what’s fantasy. Sometimes it even feels like you’re driving along the edge of your own young life, like you’re escaping the world and its responsibilities giving chase just one exit back.
When the slanting sunlight sprinkles across the reeds and the bay to your right, especially on an endless summer day, when you have nowhere else to be and nothing else to live for, it produces a certain sound. It’s not the hum of wheels on asphalt. It’s a soft but assertive thing, a combination of two distinct noises coming together perfectly to hold you in, like a seatbelt clicking into place. Bringing you along for the ride. And I first successfully identified it when I listened to the opening track of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.
Oh, oh, oh, oh Thunder Road. It’s all there, in the duet of a crooning piano and a whining harmonica. He did it. He put that feeling in a song.
Looking back on my life thus far, and trying to lift the lid on my future, it is very clear to me that Bruce Springsteen was, is, and always will be one of my life’s most important prophets. I have had his music since I was a teenager, and now I have his life in his own, carefully chosen words, in a language that appeals directly to my heart’s craft, with the gift of his autobiography, bearing the same title as that album that blew open my tiny little world. He came before me and let his voice ring out so that I, almost forty years later, could hear it and finally begin to understand who I am. He is the Jersey-shaped mold into which I have poured myself in order to make sense of my place in the world. I might as well have been dancing across a porch as the radio played, so suddenly and certainly did Bruce come and pick me up and drive me away from the listless, aching confusion of adolescence. It’s a ride that has taken me so many incredible destinations, put some amazing people in the passenger seat, and it just keeps going.
At fifteen or sixteen, I believed I had already found my musical footing. I was most assuredly a “classic rock girl” – with my messenger back covered in pins and patches – desperate to carve out an identity as I entered a high school where we literally wore uniforms. I had spent middle school shirking my old childhood pop icons for newer, “edgier” models, like Avril Lavigne and Good Charlotte, but then, right before high school, I saw the movie School of Rock AND got an iPod, one that I needed to fill with the infinite amount of music it could seemingly store, and so into the open arms of my parents’ music I fell. Not only did I love the music, but it helped me continue to draw up am us/them understanding of the world that my fragile self-esteem clung to, wanting always to both stand out and be accepted. Plus, it helped with the boys. The guy who I would end up “dating” for one week of freshman year once looked across our lockers at my messenger bag and asked me if I liked Bruce Springsteen. I grimaced and assured him that I did not. He was relieved by my answer, and my mystique was preserved for another day.
Despite having never really ever listened to Springsteen, I understood, somehow, that he was “dad rock”, perennially uncool, of vaguely the same era as revered acts like the Who and Pink Floyd and Guns n Roses (any rock music from before 1995 – and whose merchandise you could purchase at Hot Topic – belonged under the same basic categorical umbrella for a kid in the mid-2000s), but unquestionably lamer. Looking back, this may be because Springsteen eludes firm categorization, unlike a lot of other acts: he is both part of a prolific band and a solo act, with music spanning many decades without ever being sonically beholden to one, and touting a discography full of songs that ranging from moody and piano-driven to synthesized stadium rock, with almost everything in between. At the time, it was probably because he had the gall to kind of look like our dads, and because he was so synonymous with our very own state. We knew that he was the king of New Jersey, and, to our young ears, he hadn’t earned it. He was as much of an annoying, embarrassing inheritance as Bon Jovi. Perhaps that assumption that all New Jerseyans bled for the Boss was something we inherently understood and rebelled against, because I barely met anyone else around my age who liked Bruce until I left the state for college (hell, I even knew people my dad’s age – a half-generation younger than Springsteen himself – who discounted Bruce entirely from their nostalgic repertoire).
My conversion began with a brief exposure. My mother’s car had long been the place where my audible tastes came to be. She was only thirty when Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill came out, and I remember her turning down the volume and shouting “KISS” over Alanis’s seething “fuck” on “You Oughta Know”. My dad and I bonded a lot over music, too, but my mom, in my opinion, had cooler taste, and she dropped her knowledge sparingly and memorably, which worked towards stealthily indoctrinating her young daughter . During a period of time, she played the song “Rosalita” a lot in the car, and it was crowdpleaser among her three kids. Flash forward to some time later, I found myself sitting at our family’s shared PC, scrolling through my dad’s iTunes library. I came across The Essential Bruce Springsteen. In a shocking display of patience with a new musical artist (a virtue I lack to this day), I started clicking and listening. Thus entered my two true gateway songs: “Spirit in the Night” and “Atlantic City”. Wildly different from one another, and from “Rosalita”, they had me transfixed right away. “Spirit in the Night”, with its spark-plug sax and rambling, decontextualized narrative, was a low-key simmer of sound and energy, with Bruce’s scratchy voice inviting me into a crazy world that was foreign and completely appealing. “Atlantic City” was as dark and cold and bare, but threaded through with the thinnest strain of hope, as an actual night in Atlantic City. I knew this, because Atlantic City and all its ugly appeal was less than an hour’s ride away. It wasn’t a story within which I could personally place myself, but I understood the setting on an aesthetic and corporeal level – “put on your stockings ‘cause the night’s getting cold,” and the harmonica and guitar joined in like a whistling wind over the lightless beach. I knew what he was describing in such minimal but potent detail. And he was tapping into something bone-deep and dark, something inside just being awakened, hidden in your genes, finally revealing itself.
I had never heard anything like it before.
Discovering Springsteen was like having someone finally turn on the lights after I had been rooting around in the dark for something I could recognize. Not just something I could enjoy, but something that I could claim, that spoke to where I had come from and what I had the potential to be. I devoured his first four albums and savored all the tastes they left in my mouth. I opened my otherwise-purist heart to some later songs of the 80s and 90s that the Essential dropped in my ear. I listened to a man almost half-a-century older than me, older than my parents, and felt as completely and utterly understood as if he and I knew each other, like we had sat together on a sandy beach towel and discussed anything and everything, like him and Bobby Jean.
I continually ask myself whether or not Bruce would be my favorite artist of all-time if I wasn’t from New Jersey, and I can’t ever really know the answer, but I have my suspicions. I know lots of people who aren’t from New Jersey who adore and connect with his music on just as fundamental a level as I do, and I know I’d love him regardless; that’s what he has achieved with his music, after all: a universality mined from the particulars, making his hometown everyone’s hometown, his woes your woes, his jubilation at the end of a long day yours. But even when he paints the setting in broad strokes, I recognize them. His winding roads match the topography of mine. The abandoned beach houses and the boardwalk and that direct line from “the coastline to the city” are the stage setting of my entire life. But it was more than that, more than just name-dropping shore towns and hallmarks – it was everything else. Bruce Springsteen shook my teenaged soul not just because he sang about New Jersey, but because he was singing with the very fuel of the state in his belly and in his guitar, and that is… the desire to get the hell out.
I had always imagined myself leaving my hometown, but never more so than during those early high-school years. I was just four years away from breaking out – from “busting out of class” – and picking up the mantle of my destiny elsewhere, but when I was a newly minted freshman those few years seemed like they would last an eternity. I knew with a stomach-weighting dread that they would be challenging years, wherein I would have to try to fit in or end up strangling myself with self-hatred and doubt and regret over letting my Very Important Teenage Years pass me by. I knew it all was a byway, but I wanted it to be, a la Dazed and Confused philosophy, fun along the way. If I didn’t attempt that, the self-loathing always on the brink of coming up my throat would choke me. But I knew as I shuffled along the few corridors of my (at-turns oppressively and comfortingly) tiny school that this might be near-impossible. Those first few months were spent in a depressed fog. I had one physical refuge in the whole world, and that was down the shore, where everything was, for me, all right. I longed for the one place remotely in the vicinity where I could both feel at home, with all the comforts of my happy childhood, and still teeter on the brink of the rest of the world. The very edge of New Jersey was the only place I could stand to be.
Bruce got that. Bruce got all of that. His music has always been both about leaving and staying. He was born to run, but dammit, he always came back. He was a weird kid with a big dream he made come true, but his roots were too permanent to ever hack away completely. Just getting in the car and driving, seeking out friends, romance, escape… growing up in New Jersey, that was all we had. And sure, that is undoubtedly true of countless other towns and states and places in the world, but that is where the particulars always called out to me and pulled me in that much deeper. His car was hitting Route 9 when he traded in his wings for some wheels. He was riding to the sea I have craved my entire life when he and his baby washed their sins off their hands. His voice and music captured the exhilarating and yet utterly earthbound feeling of driving up the Parkway, like he just knew the alchemical secrets of turning a drive on a soft, infested summer’s day into high art.
Obviously there are many, many stark differences between his life and mine, but I have found our funny little parallels a great comfort to me, especially after reading his book. His Freehold is my Vineland, our little inland towns populated with all our ancestors and empty factories and directions we didn’t take; his Asbury Park is my Sea Isle City, our nearby seaside escapes, at the end of a promise-filled car ride. He dreamed of making sense of the world through his need to express himself musically, while I have, for years, smoldered day-in and day-out with a burning desire to write myself into multiple existences through fiction. I listen to the progression of his early albums and recognize that transition from word-heavy, metaphorical cyclones to sparser, heavier punches, details compressed without losing any of their power; I know that that’s in my own writing, the shift from more to less, as I have continued to learn how to best hone my voice. The vast majority of his music has not dealt with Catholicism or God head-on, while mine has, but both of our writing styles are inextricably linked to the liturgy we inherited. His songs, and his account of his own life, are decorated like a church interior with language that can only come from the sacramental coloring that is the Catholic worldview, where the everyday and ordinary are clearly vessels of redemption and symbols of sacrifice, where guilt is genetic and inextricable. And he has lived his life caged in by an anxiety and occasionally bogged down by a depression that I wish was a foreign concept to me but I know isn’t; I can only hope I can make something out of myself and my craft by wielding these impediments even half as well as he has.
The lifelong disciple of his own pantheon of heroes, Bruce Springsteen is my prophet, the one who stands under a shore bar light and prepares the way for me, and he has taken the many ordinary elements of my life and turned them into an eternal truth that will outlive us. His songs bring me to places to which I can never really return and give me back people who are most present only in memories. He has tied me a little tighter to moments and friends that might have slipped away otherwise. Like prayers, they potently invoke my loved ones. “Streets of Fire” and “Drive All Night” are Bryant. “Incident on 57th Street” and “Sherry Darling” are Laura. “Backstreets” and “Born to Run” are Alanna. “Thundercrack” is Jordan. “My Love Will Not Let You Down” is my mom. “The Rising” is my dad, and “Racing in the Street” and “No Surrender” are myself reflected back to me through the proud mirror of his eyes. Even “Glory Days”, my honest-to-God least favorite song on earth (that’s how much I love you, Bruce), is now Chris and Jacqui, who danced all their friends into their new marriage to the cheesiest lyrics of all time.
I go through periods of time when I don’t listen to Bruce at all, when his music isn’t what I need to power me through or mellow me out, but when it is time, I am Saint Sebastian tied to the column, allowing myself to be pierced by a slew of arrows deftly hitting their marks. I am game for the exquisite torture. His music goes subterranean in a way no one else’s really does.
I don’t write this because I believe my experience with Springsteen is unique in any way, shape, or form, just like my adolescence wasn’t. Underneath the layers of exhilaration, calm, and connectivity I feel when I sit alone in my room or my car and start up “Thunder Road” or “Dancing in the Dark” or “My City of Ruins”, I know that he is so incredible at what he does because he can make the thousands upon thousands of fans who flock to his shows feel like they have an individual relationship with him. People talk up Springsteen’s blue-collar appeal (which the artist himself is well aware is somewhat illusionary, based more on his upbringing than his professional life and achievements), but that’s really just a fraction of a more complex algorithm. Anyone can sing the working man’s blues (I’m looking at you, Commander-in-Chief). His music has to sound like your life, echo your experiences, reveal a truth in your everyday existence. The stories he tells don’t exactly match mine, and they don’t exactly match his own, but that’s why he is an artist. He sets a mood and then some. I don’t know anything about the Chicken Man, but that doesn’t matter, because Bruce’s voice captures a raw nerve ending on “Atlantic City” when he asks his love to meet him there, when he admits that “our luck may have died and our love may be cold.” He penetrates, like the frosty ocean seeping through your clothes and into your skin should you dare to tread out into the blackness of the Atlantic off-season. It’s the rebellious spirit of “Badlands” that comes through in small, energetic bursts that feel like starting up your car or getting out of work or flipping off the shittiness of life while still grabbing its freedoms when they come flying past you, when you “have a notion deep inside that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” “The River” tells such a specific tale (that Bruce actually modeled on his brother-in-law) but whether you identify with the narrator or you inhabit the spirit of the “mister” you can easily imagine is on the barstool next to him, or even Mary “who acts like she don’t care”, or the story means nothing to you at all… that defeatedness, that sorrow, that slightly unhinged reminiscence, comes from a purely primal place embedded in all human hearts. My favorite piece of music in the entire world happens when the band plays and Bruce sings, “But I remember us riding in my brother’s car, her body tan and wet down at the reservoir.” What does that have to do with my life? It’s about what it evokes. That line changes the whole tone of the song. His delivery begins to shift; now a man isn’t just telling an abysmal story long-bereft of any feeling, but admitting (probably to a total stranger, or to you, the detached listener) that he does remember. He remembers details, ones that, in just a few simple but perfectly rhymed words, conjure the most transient and poignant parts of youth. When the music picks up right at that line, I feel like someone is pressing on a bruise I didn’t realize I had. I’m being reminded that that capacity for both carefree joy and a kind of regret that sometimes howls past the facade of acceptance is hauntingly universal, even when delivered in particulars. Everyone has a river, and some dark, unanswerable question that sends them down there, even though they know the river is dry.
Jon Landau famously credited seeing Springsteen live with making him feel young again, like he was hearing music for the very first time. That impulse to write about one of the greatest writers of our time has been felt by many since that 1974 review, and giving in to it now, breaking no new ground by doing so, I think it’s more than a kind of expression. Where were you when you first heard Springsteen? What tour did you catch him on? Top ten favorite songs? What would be your sign request? It’s more than just examining the feelings he brews in your soul, more than teasing out an explanation as to why you’ll go see him every single time he comes to town, from a place within that really can’t be put into words. Lyrics – words – are good, but sometimes what you’re experiencing is more akin to cascading piano or the blast of the saxophone. It’s an entire atmosphere, a permeation, a drawn-out note. So I think that these attempts, really, are acts of gratitude. An exercise in reciprocation. A man you’ve never met, who for most is just a voice, a face on an album cover, a distant figure on a stage, has made you feel both singular and a part of some greater, sweeping collective. It’s like Springsteen himself, the man who comes to you alone, with his own distinct vision, but who also throws himself into the magic of a band, and thus into the magic of his audience. That balance is also the balance of living. Of striking out on your own, hitting the road, but also never really leaving home. Of making connections and then letting them go, calling someone one last time, not to change their mind, but just to say, “I miss you, baby; good luck, goodbye.” Bruce divined these dual forces in the world and wrangled them into albums full of victory and heartache, and by doing so he allowed us to not just articulate our own victories and heartaches, but feel them. He gave us words that summed up, and music – feelings – that transcended. He not only called out to me, like an overconfident boy from a car in the driveway, that we were about to go “riding out tonight to case the Promised Land,” but he did so while his voice tripped down Roy Bittan’s sprightly piano like he was stumbling across the keys. It’s why Jon Landau’s infamous review of a young Springsteen is appropriately mostly dedicated to Landau’s own life and the context in which his future client fit, but simultaneously stretches his savior to fit the nebulous role of “rock n roll future.” Bruce makes us feel singled out and yet part of the human experience. He finds us in the depths we think we alone occupy, calls out in recognition, and then gives us a hand to haul us up into a crowd of people who feel exactly the same way. It’s why he’s an indulgent pleasure to listen to alone, and an indescribable thrill to watch live. He does the E Street Shuffle and wrecks on the highway. Everybody, form a line.