One tale that never grows tired of the telling is the one about 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 of everywhere, with a story that suited every situation. His identity was fluid and, in that fluidity, he 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 people had 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.
They wanted a classic. He gave them Born to Run.
And, suffice to say, Born to Run was not a dud.
My first experience with Springsteen was like most people from my generation’s: his butt. 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 Mary’s. 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 me until my recent years to realize what Bruce Springsteen did. My first hint came from Nebraska — his first solo album, and one that’s enjoyed a nice renaissance in recent years. 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, I recognize, 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 opening your back door. 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’s as American a song as has ever been written.
But the title track might just do it one better: an incredible call to adventure, roaring down Route 66 with your girl in the passenger seat, waving your middle finger to the 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 an 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.
Now, I admit, I don’t look like much of a Springsteen fan. Springsteen fans are very Springsteen-y, and I don’t fit many of the qualifiers. I’m not a blue collar or redneck, I don’t know how to work on my car, and I’ve never been to Jersey. But when he whispers “the highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive” it gets me every. Single. Time.
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 these days. I daresay this man wouldn’t know what to do with you if you said the word “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 had nothing else to talk about. 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.
I drove off, and left my new friend sitting outside the gas station, for whatever next adventure came for him. I doubt I’ll ever see him again, but if I do, I know it’ll be as a friend. And that’s more for me than Dylan’s ever done.