The Boss Pays a Call to a Princeton Classroom

Chronicle of Higher Education, 2001-01-12, by: unknown
His parents couldn't make him go back to college, but Greil Marcus succeeded, if only for a day. Bruce Springsteen rode the backstreets from his home in Rumson, N.J., last month to Princeton University, where he caught the final day of Mr. Marcus's course, "Prophecy and the American Voice."

If the title -- which could practically be Springsteen's autobiography -- wasn't enough to draw him, there was Mr. Marcus, the rock historian and author of books on Elvis, Dylan, and the roots of punk rock. Of Mr. Marcus's 1975 book Mystery Train, the Boss once said it "gets as close to the heart and soul of America and American music as the best of rock 'n' roll." But that high praise wasn't enough to persuade the visiting professor to let Springsteen audit the course last fall. As The Daily Princetonian, the campus newspaper, noted, Mr. Marcus "insisted that if the rock icon was going to play, he had to pay -- and do all of the assigned reading."

That didn't stop Springsteen from dropping in for one three-hour seminar in December. An e-mail message that went out the day before warned students that a surprise guest would be joining them. No names were given.

When Chris McParland, a senior psychology major walked into the classroom the next day -- five minutes late - he noticed his classmates scanning him for a reaction. That's when he heard the Voice, excitedly discussing Allen Ginsberg's poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra." The class was discussing how the poet uses one city -- Wichita, Kan. -- to embody the hopes and failures of the nation. It could be anyplace, the Boss added. Like New Jersey.

"It was really surreal," says Mr. McParland. "We acted very professional. But at the break, we were all just like 'Wow.'" "My knees were buckling so bad," Sara Isani, a senior, told the student newspaper. Ms. Isani had the honor during the class break of escorting Springsteen to a campus store, where he bought a Power Bar and bottled water. Despite his taste in refreshments, he looked every bit the working-class hero, dressed in jeans, a thermal undershirt, and work boots.

When the class later turned its discussion to Bob Dylan, Springsteen talked passionately about the songwriter's influence on American life. Students had to listen to three Dylan CD's for the class, which was part of Mr. Marcus's semesterlong Anschutz Distinguished Fellowship in American Studies.

"I guess he'd never gone to college, and when it was over, he told us he really enjoyed intellectually sparring with us," says Mr. McParland. "He was really into it. And he was grateful that we let him come. We were like, 'What are you talking about?'"