Finding a Way Home - An Introduction to Bruce Springsteen
Greasy Lake, , by: Sandy Anderson
Rock and roll is not just a type of music. It can be a salvation. For Bruce Springsteen, music saved him. While Bruce Springsteen grew up hating his confining, working class surrounding, he ultimately relied on this for inspiration for his songwriting and career. From his early beginnings in Asbury Park, New Jersey to his life as a family man, Springsteen has always remained devoted to music. Springsteen's hometown in Asbury Park has helped him become the outstanding songwriter and performer that he is. Just as Liverpool will always be associated with the Beatles, Asbury Park will always be linked with the Boss.
"Its a town full of losers and I'm pulling out of here to win"
(Thunder Road, 1975)
Asbury Park is a place whose past is brighter than its future. Over the years it has become rundown with a high unemployment rate.Asbury Park remains the same place that Springsteen pinpointed in his music. However, it is a place full of the kinds of dark, gloomy images from which great works of art originate. Understanding the whole atmosphere of the Jersey Shore, such as the blue-collar seaside bars, the boardwalks, the bar bands, and the unique Jersey atmosphere helps one better appreciate Springsteen's art.
"The hungry and the hunted explode into rock and roll bands"
Asbury Park may not be pretty, but it is a Rock and Roll town if there ever was one. Original music bands fill the clubs, and famous bands also play the local shore clubs. One band Member says that "if you play in a shore band, you feel like you belong to something bigger. You feel like you're part of a legacy or tradition." Bands like Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Sonny and the Starfires, and Springsteen's first band the Castiles were local stars around Asbury in the late sixties and early seventies. When disco music was starting to get popular, the music heard in Asbury clubs, such as the Stone Pony, still relied heavily on blues and 50's rock and roll.
"Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk"
(Thunder Road, 1975)
Springsteen grew up right in the middle of that musical tradition. "One of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen in my life" was how Bruce remembered his first guitar. It was more than just an instrument to him, it clung to him like a life preserver. When other kids would be out playing, Bruce would lock himself in his room and play guitar. "When I was growing up, there were two things that were unpopular in my house one was me, the other was my guitar."
"There was just no way this house could hold the two of us,
I guess that we were just too much of the same kind."
(Independence Day, 1980)
To a concert audience, with his parents among the thousands of fans, Bruce recalls memories of his father I guess my father didn't know what kind of guitar I was playing-Gibson, Fender, or whatever. I always remember him sticking his head in the door and saying, "Turn down that goddamn guitar." He must've thought everything was the same make , because it always used to be "Turn down that goddamn radio," and "Get that goddamn record player off that goddamn stereo." God was damning a lot of stuff in my room. The friction between Bruce and his dad would be the inspiration for a lot of songs later on.
"We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school"
(No Surrender, 1985)
Bruce did not fit in at school or with his peers. The youngster became an outsider. He remembers his early years as miserable. He was punished often in school for being a troublemaker. On one occasion, a nun stuffed Bruce in a trash can. She told him that was where he belonged. Bruce quickly gained the reputation of the crazy guy in the class, but not the class clown. He remembers he had "nowhere near that amount of notoriety." It was like I didn't exist. It was the wall, then me."
"Well maybe we can cut someplace of our own with these drums and these guitars"
(No Surrender, 1985)
Being unpopular forced Bruce to find something that was his own. After seeing Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show, Bruce could not imagine anyone not wanting to be Elvis. Music provided self-esteem for Bruce, and rock and roll was everything. His guitar gave him a reason to believe. "The first day I can remember looking in the mirror and standing what I was seeing was the day I had a guitar in my hand." Being unpopular and alone had one advantage for Bruce It gave him a chance to practice his guitar and songwriting skills.
"Save my soul sweet rock and roll, 'cause I'm sinking fast. And then the band played"
(And the Band Played, 1978)
By the age of 16, Bruce along with his band played at clubs in New York City. They also played at a prison, trailer parks and even an insane asylum. Bruce's bands changed names and members quite often in his late teens and early twenties, but it was the five piece band that wore his name that would gain worldwide recognition. In the early seventies, Bruce and the boys were drawing two to three thousand people on any given night. In 1972 Bruce met Mike Appel who would later become his manager. Appel thought that Bruce was just what the public wanted.
Appel introduced Bruce to John Hammond, Vice President of Columbia records. The Boss had a record deal within 24 hours. Hammond was overwhelmed. It was clear that Bruce would last a generation.
"The kid absolutely knocked me out. I only hear somebody really good once every ten years, and not only was Bruce the best, he was a lot better than Dylan when I first heard him.In all my years in this business, he is the only person I've met who cares absolutely nothing about money. Springsteen was real. "
"The street life, our carnival life forever"
Springsteen made himself famous by glamorizing New Jersey. He writes about the things that are all around him. He writes about people from his hometown, and people stuck in tough situations, and rough relationships. He writes about living a fast, rough life on the boardwalks and streets of New Jersey. Bruce did not go for green grass, country air, and wide open spaces. He writes about getting away from it all because this is how he often felt when he was a miserable child.
"In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream"
(Born to Run, 1975)
Springsteen takes the American dream and the struggles that effect everyone and turns them into poetry. He takes the local heroes from the cheap bars and boardwalk lifestyle and turns them into characters in songs that symbolizes the struggle that comes with life.
Bruce has often said that the American Dream is not about two cars and a garage. It is about people working and living together without stepping on each other. Some people will take two hours to accomplish what Springsteen says in two minutes. His songs are authentic. Some of the Boss's songs can pack a punch as strong as a whole album. Other artists will try to do what Bruce does, but they are not Bruce. He does not write about America of the patriots, but the America, land of soil, blood and sweat.
"You spend your life waiting for a moment that just don't come
Well don't waste your time waiting"
What sets him apart from other artists who only deal in the negative aspects of life, without even trying to offer any solutions, is that Springsteen even in his most dark work, tries to inject a ray of hope. The characters in his songs are always taking the worst that life has to dish out, but somehow in the end remain optimistic. In his song "Reason to Believe," he tells a story about a man finding a dead dog and he finds himself just staring at it. "Like if he stood there long enough, that dog would get up and run." Later on in the song, he tells a story about a woman who gives all her money in support to her husband, but he ends up leaving her anyway. "Now she waits at the end of that dirt road for young Johnny to come back." His characters in his songs are forever hoping. "Strikes me kind of funny how at the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe."
"Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night with bruised arms and broken rhythm, and a beat up old buick, but dressed just like dynamite"
(Incident on 57th Street, 1974)
More often than not, the characters he uses in his songs are based upon people he saw on the Jersey Shore. Spanish Johnny, Crazy Janey, Wild Billy, Madame Marie, and Sandy are all characters in Springsteen's songs. Through his eyes they take on a romantic, mythic ideal. The inspiration in Springsteen's songs is the heroic things that happen in everyday life. The people in these songs could be the guy next door, the people living downstairs, or yourself. He is not singing about someone we might recognize. He is singing about everyone. Everybody has their own tales and adventures, and when listening to one of Springsteen's songs, he taps into them and makes them real again.
"Tonight I'll be on that hill, 'cause I can't stop. I'll be on that hill with everything I've got."
(Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)
Springsteen has created memories for thousands in his concerts. There, people feel as they are hearing music for the first time. Springsteen is renowned for performing incredible three hour long concerts. He could not be paid enough not to play for three hours. He always goes all the way, and then a little further. Growing up, he was always around people whose lives consisted of just compromising. "They knew no other way-that's where rock and roll was important because it said there could be." Through his outstanding concert performances, he makes people fall in love with rock and roll all over again. From the very first time he performed, he was instantly the best performer fronting the best performing band in the country. It was no question that things would never be the same again.
"For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside, that it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive"
Bruce feels most at home on stage. He treats his fans like his friends. He is not superior to them. He has a special relationship with the audience, and they love it. He talks to his fans frequently during shows. "Do you believe that if you die during the course of this show, due to the excitement, that you're going to heaven?" The audience hangs on to every word he says. It is obvious that Bruce would much rather be in those chairs than on stage.
There are things at Springsteen shows that you would never see at any other rock concert. At the Byrne Arena in New Jersey, the teenage audience rose to give Mr. and Mrs. Springsteen a standing ovation. There is not another performer in rock and roll who could inspire such heartfelt devotion. Springsteen wanted to bring back the inspiration rock and roll had brought to his life. "The greatest thing is going backstage after a show and seeing some kid, not someone screwed up on drugs, but someone whose face is all lit up. That's the whole idea-get excited, do something, and be your own hero." Springsteen has made himself a performing legend. Springsteen tickets sell out in minutes. His fan base increases with every new album. When people go to see Bruce, they hear a story no one else tells, and they love the teller as much as the tale.
In 1975, Bruce wrote what many consider to be one of his best and certainly most recognizable songs, "Born to Run." In many ways his songwriting here encapsulated everything he was trying to do through his craft up to that point. It touched on his romantic story themes along with the escapism that drove him in his early life. "We gotta get out while we're still young, 'cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run."
The guy and the girl in this song are fighting for something. They are fighting against running out of time before they find their place in the world. This feeling had haunted Bruce as he looked around him and saw his father and others leading a dead-end existence. He wanted more. Even after he was able to leave New Jersey behind, and become more established, this theme never entirely left Springsteen's work. However, over the years Springsteen had to figure out where the characters in his songs were running to, and what they were searching for. As Bruce grew older, he began to figure out what there really was to value in life.
In 1988, Bruce began to perform Born to Run as a somber, reflective ballad. In his on-stage introduction to the song Bruce says "When I wrote this song, I thought I wanted to a song about a guy and a girl who wanted to run and keep on running. But I realized in the end that individual freedom when it's not connected to any kind of community, or friends, or the world outside, it ends up feeling pretty meaningless. So I decided this song was really about a guy and a girl trying to find their way home."