The Limits Of Loving The Boss

Oct 4, 2016

Fan fervor is one of the basic building blocks of rock and roll, but it's difficult to recall a rock star as tenderly beloved as is Bruce Springsteen in 2016. There are bigger legends who've evinced louder screams, like the baby boomer Boss's own early inspirations, Elvis and The Beatles. There are some who've earned stronger critical accolades, like Bob Dylan, whom Springsteen has called "the father of my country." There are those who own the current moment more dramatically, like Beyoncé, whose visual album Lemonade and Formation tour are the cultural touchstones within a crucial conversation about whose lives matter in America. These giants are revered, respected, adored.

But love, sweet love? Springsteen owns that. After nearly 40 years it still flows in great waves through the arena crowds who scream his name like a spell unlocking paradise (he's at nearly 2500 shows since 1968, with no slowdown in sight). It recently soaked social media via thousands of viral favorite-Bruce lists inspired by expert Caryn Rose's epic ranking of all of his songs. It drenches the reviews of Born To Run, the memoir Springsteen published last week: Astute and usually more restrained writers like Dwight Garner, Rebecca Traister and Richard Ford telegraph their own superfandom in reviews that read like thank you notes. (Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield mentions in his that he saw three Springsteen shows in a row in September, no casual fan's feat.) And it's pulling Springsteen along on his first-ever book tour, where fans lucky enough to lottery in are lining up to tell him how he's saved their lives.

Springsteen's nickname is The Boss, and allegedly he hates it, yet never has his public so craved him in the role. The natural masculine leadership he embodies so gracefully seems in peril. We are in the midst of a historically divisive presidential campaign in which a woman many find hard to trust (a woman is never just a boss, within the grammar of convention; always a boss lady) faces off against a man who inhabits his CEO role with a fury his supporters find compelling and his detractors terrifying. Each side's supporters believe the other's win will plunge America into chaos. Maybe chaos is already here: The news is full of police shootings and civic unrest, while every day a new threat brought by guns, viruses or the weather disrupts the order that arguably was always a myth. How can music provide even a fantasy of resolution, of better days? The stars who do invoke the greatest hope and loyalty in 2016, like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, are women questioning power structures that put men on top — inherently disruptive figures, for all of their mainstream success.

Enter, or really, re-enter, Springsteen. He, too, is a disruptor of sorts, a protest singer with strong progressive views and a commitment to the voices he hears speaking from society's margins. He's grown more committed to that stance over time. Yet the dissident Springsteen emerges from a highly ordered framework, one that still elevates the noble individualism at the heart of American self-perceptions. Nothing is more reliable than a Springsteen show, with its sturdy rocking parade of hits and its scripted yet somehow still absorbing intimacy, established within endorphin-releasing marathon sets structured, he reveals in his book, to stave off depression. "People don't come to rock shows to learn something," he writes. "They come to be reminded of something they already know and feel deep down in their gut." Key to Springsteen's appeal, especially within his triumphant concerts, is the idea that he and the audience are all working on a dream together; he foregrounds the effort that goes into this process, including the occasional need to idealistically put on blinders against disappointing facts and circumstances. (This is what songs like "Glory Days" are about.) One of Springsteen's great themes is the self-preserving determination with which people embrace unrealities; key to enjoying his music is the experience of doing so.

Which unrealities do you prefer? This question dominates public discussion in 2016. Why not Springsteen's? With the nation — and particularly, his mostly white, left-leaning fan base — out of sync with its gut, Springsteen's voice, in prose, on stage and in those hits that make up the bulk of his memoir's musical companion piece, Chapter and Verse, reassures and relieves. "There's a real life super hero whose legacy is playing out before our very eyes," wrote Alex Young in Consequence of Sound after Springsteen broke the record for longest rock show on September 8. Save us, Superman!

Springsteen does his best in his funny, humble memoir to calm this hyperbole. He is the kind of Boss everyone likes, nursing a beer (only one beer, though) at the bar after work on a Friday night, getting ribbed by his employees, though on Monday he'll reinforce a hierarchy he believes is fair and possibly inevitable. Like most classic rock stars, he's an outsider in his mind and an insider in his alluring, capable, charismatic body. In 1980 the critic Greil Marcus identified Springsteen's charisma as "a unique combination of authority and a prank," adding, "he appears at once as the anointed successor to Elvis Presley and as an imposter who expects to be asked for his stage pass." Born To Run identifies many convincing psychological reasons for Springsteen's highly mobile sense of entitlement: a distant and unstable father; a grandmother who worshiped and indulged him, then died when he was still a teen; disordered moods that would eventually prove diagnosable. It also chronicles an intellectual and political awakening that's helped Springsteen recognize the working class and non-white people who are truly America's outsiders. But as deeply as he empathizes with outsiders, and even identifies with them, Springsteen ultimately does stand proud at the center of a heroic narrative. The stance is what makes his ongoing career feel like more than just an old dog's endless victory lap.

His heroism crystallizes in the turn Springsteen executes in one of his most enduring songs (and still a live staple), "Badlands": In one breath he challenges the king who "ain't satisfied 'til he rules everything," and in the next he declares his intention to swagger toward that throne himself. This gesture is his birthright. The fiction Springsteen created about having to show that stage pass like some kind of interloper was always ironic; from his first days playing in bar bands too grandiose for a small stage, Springsteen understood the value of the rock star's privileges and the inevitability of his claiming them. Though he's known for a certain fatalism, the essence of Springsteen remains a belief that loser boys can pull out of their benighted circumstances to win: "I'm gonna mix you some magic," he sings to one such young buck on in the newly released version of the 1972 song "Henry Boy." You'll be spittin' sparks and ready for the invasion."

He wrote that song in one of his folkie phases, but the sparks he spits are still in the music. "Love, work, sex and fun," Springsteen lists, in Born To Run, as the main ingredients in the pre-counterculture rock and roll he turned back toward for the album that shares his memoir's name — the stuff of real wild innocence. He should have added "liberty," because that music was most of all a vehicle for claiming space and the right to move, devised by young men who felt marginalized and weren't going to take no for an answer any more. Many of those men were African-American; then, just a breath in time later, they were mostly white. The shift from black to singularly interracial to white is well documented by music historians like Jack Hamilton. It's also embedded in Springsteen's sound. The pre-E Street Bruce Springsteen Band, as Joel Dinerstein has written, was fully integrated and more of a soul-funk revue than a gang of rockers. More by design than by fate, the E Street Band evolved into a nearly all-white unit. Springsteen was still dedicated to playing interracial music, but only Clarence Clemons remained to provide blessings and (there's no other word for it) color via his accentuating saxophone.

As the sound coalesced, simultaneous with both punk's raw 1950s revivalism and the Hollywood sock-hop fixation that brought us Happy Days, Springsteen figured out how to fly. When his soon-to-be manager Jon Landau declared him him rock and roll's future in 1975, his sound was becoming more consciously grounded in the past. He also traded in his long-winded observational songwriting style for something both more personal and more abstract: first-person songs that cut from the same template as West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause. He invested himself in these myths so deeply, with such sweat equity and perfectionism, that they became profoundly personal. In an act worthy of his Catholic upbringing, he transubstantiated rock and roll, absorbing the lifeblood of his predecessors into his own imagination.

Without the African-American root in his sound, Springsteen couldn't rightfully stand for that history as it extends from Memphis to the Meadowlands. Yet being white is what makes it possible for him to do so as the music's Everyman. Springsteen's discomfort with this fact might be why he rejects that "Boss" title; as the late Amiri Baraka wrote in 2009, "He knows he's not Joe Turner, 'The Boss of the Blues.'" Others have written about the symbolic role Clemons played in Springsteen's theater of integration, as well as the musical one, and Springsteen acknowledges in Born To Run that this wasn't an easy role for his official black best friend to play. Equally important, though, is Springsteen's commitment to stand for both blackness and whiteness within his own performance, not acting black, but constantly dwelling upon the conviction that playing (or, for fans, simply loving) rock and roll is a way of fighting for an integrated America. As his music has become more explicitly political, directly addressing the country's racial divides, his sound still rests upon the conviction that simply playing (and, for fans, loving) rock and roll is a meaningful symbolic act that connects people — even absent people, like the black audience Springsteen doesn't have — across seemingly insurmountable barriers.

It goes without saying that rock and roll's Everyman is also always male. Springsteen is a good feminist egg by rock's historic standards, eschewing the music's more tasteless forms of female objectification and, in his book, owning up to the more subtle sexism that has seeped into his music and personal life. (Springsteen actually uses "misogyny" in reference to himself, a word that never comes up in either Dylan's Chronicles or Keith Richards' Life, for example.) In her Vulture review, Rebecca Traister notes that a huge number of Springsteen devotees are women who love the earthy appeal of his female characters — the waitresses, moms, and front-porch ingénues who ride shotgun throughout his oeuvre. She notes with appreciation that Springsteen acknowledges the primary role that women from his mother to his wife and bandmate Patti Scialfa have played in his life and art.

What really makes Springsteen's female characters special, though? Country and soul musicians, even punks, have always crafted odes to ordinary women. (Joey Ramone: "I just met a nurse that I could fall for!") Springsteen's well-wrought portraiture is also grounded in his literary style. He's a prose writer, not a poet; this is unusual in rock and roll, which favors metaphors and exhortations over linear narratives. Instead of the countless "babys" of The Beatles, Springsteen named his crushes: Sandy, Wendy, Mary, the same names that belonged to the women in his audience. Naming was another way Springsteen could realize his interracial vision — it's no accident that Rosalita and Maria were in there too. His use of specifics also recalls folk balladry, a legacy that's lent him gravitas.

Again, it's that sound, not so much the words, that makes Springsteen's odes to women enrapturing. Electrified by the band and his skillfully grandiose singing, the details that might feel academic or pretentious in more singer-songwriterly settings become vehicles of wonder. Springsteen pours his prose into surging rock choruses, enhancing it with inspirational flourishes he's borrowed from church homilies, movie posters, advertisements. The urge to stretch the ordinary makes him not only a great rocker but a great lover: He's the boyfriend who notices how the color of your shirt reflects your eyes, finding deeply mysterious fountains of meaning and connection in the most casual things.

What woman, what person, isn't drawn to someone whose gaze so intensely seeks out the minutiae of her potential? Yet this is also the dangerous kind of boyfriend, the one whose passion can turn into possessiveness. The lyrics "Born To Run" or "She's the One" or "I Wanna Marry You" — the latter essentially a rewrite of pop's most gorgeous song about inappropriate attention, the Temptations' "Just My Imagination" — combine with the drive of the music in ways that can actually be a bit uncomfortable. But women fans — me included — get caught up in the transfiguration, too.

When I was a Bruce-besotted teenager, "Candy's Room" was my favorite of his songs. I longed for someone to drive me deep into the night the way he did, to brave my interiors ("the darkness of Candy's hall," the corniest and most effective metaphor for female anatomy ever chanted over a piano line) and rescue me from what held me down. My darkness was more of the I-didn't-get-the-lead-in-the-school-musical variety, and my boyfriend, a sweet professor's son who once baked me a pastry for Valentine's Day, did not own a leather jacket. I didn't identify with Candy, really; I was an awkward New Wave girl who never felt as pretty as even the "hey, you're alright" types Springsteen's songs extolled. Rather, I found an aspirational paragon in the Candy constructed by Bruce's gaze. If I could only locate a sadness all my own, I could attract a rock and roll redeemer too.

There are many things I now understand about "Candy's Room" that I didn't grasp at 16. Though I was also infatuated with the eyeliner poetry of 1960s girl groups, I didn't recognize how directly Springsteen had borrowed from The Ronettes and the Shangri-Las: the spoken introduction, the echoing harmonies, and even the song's tale of good love solving bad problems were straight out of a girl group song. I also didn't know that Candy might be a drag queen. Though he doesn't talk much about the influence of Lou Reed on his songwriting, in the 1970s Springsteen shared live bills and studio space with that quintessential New York rocker, even appearing on Reed's album Street Hassle, which came out in February 1978, just months before Darkness on the Edge of Town. Reed's immortalizations of the transgender Warhol superstar Candy Darling in "Candy Says" and "Walk on the Wild Side" invoked subjects Springsteen wouldn't have openly addressed at that point, including expressions of gender dysphoria ("I've come to hate my body," says Reed's Candy) and the idea that sex work isn't necessarily a tragic fate (Bruce's songs are full of sad prostitutes). Springsteen, Candy's boy, is open to these new realities: "Baby if you wanna be wild, you've got a lot to learn," she tells him in one of their furtive encounters away from the rich men who keep her in jewelry and fancy cars. It's a relatively rare instance of a love object speaking back in a Springsteen song. Candy represents the wild side that Springsteen's male characters can never truly access: a psychic realm that's more mysteriously feminine and less normalized than the one his songs usually access.

In his memoir, Springsteen asks forgiveness of the many girlfriends (and the first wife) with whom he couldn't really engage because of his own psychological unrest. His failures as a lover and his success as a rock and roll sex symbol were linked: For decades, recording and especially live performance provided him with a way to keep his feelings organized within stories where clear roles — the questing man, the woman who accompanies and sometimes eludes him but doesn't direct things — offer comfortable catharsis. Is Candy not just an object of desire but a fully-fledged subject, with a will of her own? What...she..wants... is.... Springsteen growls in the song's thrilling climax, pausing long enough for a girl like me to imagine all kinds of thrilling predicates in that space. Freedom? Power? Her own '69 Chevy with a 396? Of course, what she wants is him. "I knew other girls like me in high school who saw their boyfriends as their saviors, turning to them for the nurturing and attention they couldn't get from home," Hope Edelman writes in her memoir of loving Springsteen's music and a troubled boy named Johnny T as a New Jersey teenager. Yet even though she always lets her boyfriend do the driving, she fights an impulse to slip her own foot over his and press the accelerator.

In the days leading up to his great fame, Springsteen hung around some with Patti Smith, who also recorded great songs about unforgettable women who were, in some ways, really just figures pulled from older rock and roll songs. These two youngest children of the classic rock explosion upheld tradition by accepting it into their own bodies, which were shaped by the time of flux, the early 1970s, in which they came of artistic age. That era shared some qualities with this one: It was the beginning of an age of fracture that continues to have ramifications on our communities, our political system, and our American sense of self. No one knew then that Springsteen, like Smith, would provide a through-line for his fans as things got worse, shifted in unimaginable ways, shifted again. Springsteen has himself changed with the times, becoming more sensitive to the issues his most-adored music still raises. Born To Run demonstrates that. The decency at the heart of his memoir is a balm. He's not only survived a life in rock and roll; he shows how a true believer doesn't have to get stuck within its illusions, no matter how much they also attract him. After all, to Springsteen, a worthwhile dream isn't an illusion; it's a form of work. Therefore, it's worthy of revision. Loving the Boss, it's important to remember that it's okay to question what he's given us, too.

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