Who's The Boss? Decades later, the power, passion of Bruce Springsteen perseveres
We were in a car, my daughter Claire and I, on a hot summer day, road tripping through West Virginia on an open stretch of highway, headed to Indiana to visit family.
A summer day. A road trip. A highway.
The holy trinity of ingredients for a Bruce Springsteen song.
One of the joys of parenting is introducing (some might say force-feeding) the great music of my youth — Prince, Fleetwood Mac, Pixies, The Cure — to my daughters.
Somewhere along the way, I slighted Bruce. An oversight for sure given the profound impact he had on me in the mid-1980s.
As we cut through the mountains of West Virginia, barreling toward the Kanawha River where the foothills soon give way to the flat lands, it was my turn to pick a song on Spotify.
Time to correct an egregious omission from my parenting playlist. I knew the perfect song.
It starts with a gorgeous minute-long piano intro that sort of lulls you into thinking you’re about to hear a ballad, before the organ, drum and guitar kick in — one of many emotional rides this song will take you on.
One soft infested summer me and Terry became friends/trying in vain to breathe the fire we was born in/catching rides to the outskirts/ tying faith between our teeth/sleeping in that old abandoned beach house/ getting wasted in the heat Bruce sings in a weary voice, setting the scene for an epic tale of a white-hot love that collapses under the weight of its own passion.
I believe they call it angst.
He was my very own soul whisperer, etching his words onto my heart, like a buck knife on the bark of a birch tree, his tortured wails giving voice to my perceived inadequacies.
Did I mention I was 20?
But this rollercoaster of a song, the one I turned to the most for comfort, was just beginning, and I was excited and curious to see if “Backstreets” would move Claire, who, at 24, was not much older than I was during the height of my Bruce mania.
How did this New Jersey poet, and his world of juke joints and boardwalks and hustlers, come to connect with this central Indiana girl and her world of silos and corn fields and farmers?
It started in 1984 with “Born in the USA,” released a few weeks after I graduated from high school. The 1980s were a rough period for my beloved behemoths of the rock world. The Who, The Rolling Stones and Neil Young among others struggled for relevancy in this new MTV-era that valued aesthetics more than music.
Bruce stepped into this void when I needed something authentic in those Aqua Net and shoulder-pad days. The bling could be blinding, but cracks were forming in the dreams of the American middle class.
While the rest of us were caught up in “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” Bruce sounded the alarm in “My Hometown” — the seventh single from “Born in the USA” — years before NAFTA devoured thousands of textile and furniture jobs.
His hometown of Freehold, N.J., was MY hometown of Anderson, Ind., some 700 miles away. White-washed windows and vacant stores? I knew them well.
Foreman says, ‘These jobs are going boys, and they ain’t coming back.’
The automobile jobs never came back to Anderson, either. But just like the narrator in the song, whenever I’m home, I can see what it once was; I can hear the echoes of its glory days. I can’t write it off, only take pride in its scrappy spirit. It was an honest-to-goodness real American hometown. It’s MY hometown.
And so began my Bruce phase.
In 1985, I waited in line overnight at the local college to get tickets for a show at the Hoosier Dome, my first Bruce show. The conversion was in full swing. I bought the books, the posters, the official albums and the bootlegs.
Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt perform with the E Street Band during the "Working on a Dream Tour" at the Greensboro Coliseum in May 2009. NELSON KEPLEY, News & Record
His songs reflected everyday life — the way work weighs you down, the yearning to break free, the joy of hitting the bars on a Friday night. The direct, seemingly simplicity of his lyrics spoke to me in a way that my other musical heroes of the day did not. REM lyrics? I couldn’t decipher them. Stevie Nicks? Way too ethereal and obtuse.
Back on U.S. 35, Claire and I follow the signs to Point Pleasant with “Backstreets” blasting from the car stereo. I know what’s coming, all the buildups, the false summits, the layering upon layering of open-wounded pain, at least two more guttural howls.
After Bruce repeats “Hidin’ in the backstreets,” about four times, Claire joins in. Bruce is going to sing this line 23 more times, and Claire has no idea, but she’s locked in.
Her head is bobbing like it does when she is immersed in song. I’m singing with her, of course, and I’m grateful there’s no traffic because I’m about to levitate. We’re in holy-roller territory now, with a looming ecstatic release that would have pilgrims slam dancing.
Bruce unleashes one last wail — a three-second lung-shredder that makes Claire’s eyes pop.
When the song is over, I ask the kind of obvious question that makes her roll eyes at me: “Did you like it?”
I was set to take Claire to see Bruce in 2016, a show he ultimately canceled in protest of the so-called Bathroom Bill. So, while we didn’t get the four-hour concert experience, we got six minutes and 30 seconds of “Backstreets.”
Bruce is 73, and I get the nagging feeling that this is his last go-round with the E Street Band. My guess is he’ll continue to perform live as a solo act, but his days of marathon rave-ups with the E Street Band are nearing an end.
I wasn’t going to see Bruce this time around, but a free ticket came my way, and I’m not going to turn it down.
I’ve heard this round of shows is great. But really, I just want to set eyes on him again.
He doesn’t have to wring himself of every ounce of energy. We’re all disciples.
But I know he will.
He’ll leave the whole damn city crying.