In 1989, the year before his death, the great Southern novelist Walker Percy wrote a letter to rock-and-roll legend Bruce Springsteen, which reads, in part:
This is a fan letter—of sorts. I’ve always been an admirer of yours, for your musicianship, and for being one of the few sane guys in your field. Of particular interest is from learning that you are Catholic. If this is true, and I am too, it would appear that the two of us are rarities in our professions: you as a post-modern musician, I as a writer, a novelist and philosopher. That—and your admiration for Flannery O’Connor.
This is to say only that I am most interested in your spiritual journey, and if there is any other material about it, I’d be obliged if you will tell me.
Percy was battling cancer as he wrote, and Mr. Springsteen did not respond until 1993, after Percy had succumbed, writing back to his widow about the missive her husband had sent:
It was a passionate letter about the comforts and difficulties of reconciling the inner life of a sophisticated man, a writer’s life, with the Catholic faith. I recall Dr. Percy’s explaining how one had brought depth and meaning to the other for him. He was curious to know how I handled my issues of faith.
It is now one of my great regrets that we didn’t get to correspond. A while after receiving Dr. Percy’s letter, I picked up The Moviegoer, its toughness and beauty have stayed with me. The loss and search for faith and meaning have been at the core of my own work for most of my adult life. I’d like to think that perhaps that is what Dr. Percy heard and was what moved him to write me. Those issues are still what motivate me to sit down, pick up my guitar and write. Today, I would have had a lot to put in that letter.
If Walker Percy had lived long enough to get to know Mr. Springsteen better, he might have been disappointed to learn that the rocker had long before given up the formal practice of his faith. Though raised by two devoutly Catholic parents, Mr. Springsteen recalls that he “quit the stuff when I was in eighth grade.” To this day, he still harbors some degree of animosity toward the Catholic Church, its teachings, and the religious formation—“brainwashing” he derisively calls it—that it gave him.
But much of this rejection is not so much intellectual as personal. Mr. Springsteen’s animosity toward the Church seems to stem primarily from his rejection of its teachings on sexuality. Though known along the Jersey Shore in his teens and early twenties for his almost unique refusal to drink alcohol, do drugs, and curse, Mr. Springsteen nevertheless partook in the sexual freedom that the 1960s afforded Americans. Even as a boy of nine, he was fascinated by Elvis Presley’s sexually-charged appearances in the late 1950s on The Ed Sullivan Show. “Elvis screamed freedom. He was a precursor of the sexual revolution,” Mr. Springsteen told 60 Minutes Australia. “He was the first twentieth-century man in my mind. That read like the future. So, how do I get a piece of that freedom, of that sexual energy, of that much fun.”
Despite his misgivings about the Church in which he was reared, Mr. Springsteen’s opus is drenched in the theology and rituals of Catholicism. “Once you’re a Catholic you’re always a Catholic,” Mr. Springsteen has mused. “I lived next to a church. I saw every wedding, every funeral, every Mass. It’s given me a very active sense of spiritual life.” In recent years he has even taken to adorning himself with the outer symbols of Catholicism, such as the Miraculous and St. Christopher medals. More significantly, he has begun to acknowledge, and only half-grudgingly, the indelible mark imprinted upon his psyche and soul by his Catholic upbringing. “It’s like Al Pacino, I keep trying to get out, they keep pulling me back!” He recalls that the nuns and priests at St. Rose of Lima parish in Freehold, New Jersey gave him a vivid sense of the realities of Heaven and Hell—perhaps another example of “brainwashing,” but, Mr. Springsteen concludes, “because I ended up a writer and because I ended up this kind of writer, I wouldn’t trade it.”
One would hardly have predicted that the Springsteen family would produce a writer of any kind. Parents Douglas and Adele had only a rudimentary education, worked blue-collar jobs, and were uninterested in the life of the mind. “I didn’t grow up in a community of ideas,” Mr. Springsteen recalls, “a place where you can sit down and talk about books, and how you read through them, and how they affect you.” After high school, Mr. Springsteen attended only one year of community college before dedicating himself entirely to a career in music. “I’d missed out on the world of ideas that comes with a real college education,” Springsteen told biographer Peter Ames Carlin, “but I was really drawn to people who knew how to use words or knew how to express their ideas. I thought, ‘There’s a connection there with what I’m doing.’ The life of the mind is just as important as the life of the body.”
Despite the lack of a higher education, Mr. Springsteen’s vocabulary, breadth of knowledge about literature, politics, and the arts, and ability to discuss ideas are impressive. In conversation, he employs words like “Sisyphean,” references the work of Czech poet-president Vaclav Havel, and discusses sophisticated themes like the feelings of alienation fostered by modern society. This erudition can be attributed to the serious reading he began to do in the mid-1970s. “The really important reading that I did began in my late twenties,” Mr. Springsteen told Walker Percy’s nephew, Will, “with authors like Flannery O’Connor. There was something in those stories of hers that I felt captured a certain part of the American character that I was interested in writing about. They were a big, big revelation.”
Other revelations came from the novels of Percy and John Steinbeck, particularly the latter’s The Grapes of Wrath. Mr. Springsteen identified immediately with the themes of alienation, hardship, displacement, and the iniquities of capitalism in Steinbeck’s work. (I have written elsewhere on The Imaginative Conservative about Mr. Springsteen’s views of American capitalism.) A product of a working-class family, Mr. Springsteen has written about these themes easily and frequently. In “Downbound Train,” from the album Born in the U.S.A. (1984), for example, the narrator says:
I had a job, I had a girl
I had something going mister in this world
I got laid off down at the lumber yard
Our love went bad, times got hard
Now I work down at the carwash
Where all it ever does is rain
Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train
And in unused verse written for the hit song “Glory Days” on the same album, the speaker says:
My old man worked twenty years on the line,
and they let him go.
Now everywhere he goes out looking for work,
they just tell him that he’s too old.
I was nine years old and he was working at the Metuchen Ford plant assembly line,
Now he just sits down on a stool down at the Legion Hall,
But I can tell what’s on his mind.
But Springsteen’s writing goes deeper than the “I lost my job and my girl” theme so central to, say, country music (another influence on Mr. Springsteen). Mr. Springsteen shared with Walker Percy the idea that God and his purposes were at heart inscrutable. Sometimes, such themes are mistaken for nihilism in Springsteen’s music. In “Reason to Believe,” part of his dark and haunting solo acoustic album Nebraska (1982), the narrator speaks of lovers’ promises betrayed, the seeming finality of death, and the riddle of new life. “Lord won’t you tell us tell us what does it mean,” the narrator asks, but then observes: “Still at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.”
Mr. Springsteen identified with Percy’s protagonist in The Moviegoer in his quest for spiritual redemption and in his need to define himself in relation to the people and places around him. Like the young Mr. Springsteen, the protagonist is a loner, isolated from others, finding more meaning in movies (or music in Mr. Springsteen’s case) than in conversation with others. It is this tension between the communal bonds of home and the individualistic freedom of the road that kindles much of Mr. Springsteen’s writing, perhaps no more clearly than in the songs of his breakthrough album, Born to Run (1975). In “Thunder Road,” the protagonist orders his girlfriend to climb in his car: “It’s a town full of losers, and we’re pulling out of here to win.” In the album’s title song, the narrator similarly implores his girlfriend:
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
Its a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while were young
`cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run
Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims
And strap your hands across my engines
Together we could break this trap
Well run till we drop, baby well never go back
Yet less than a decade later, on the album that propelled him to superstardom, Born in the U.S.A., Mr. Springsteen speaks nostalgically of “My Hometown,” the speaker recalling his father driving him through the main street, trying to instill in his son a love for their modest working-class town. Now a father himself, the narrator takes part in the same ritual, even as he contemplates finding another job elsewhere because of the economic decay that has beset the city:
Last night me and Kate we laid in bed
Talking about getting out
Packing up our bags maybe heading south
I’m thirty-five we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel
And said son take a good look around
This is your hometown
In an interview accompanying the release of his latest album, Wrecking Ball (2012), Mr. Springsteen speaks of the importance of work to the individual’s sense of belonging. “People have to work. It’s the single thing that brings self and self-esteem and a sense of place, a sense of belonging.” In Wrecking Ball’s bitter “Death to My Hometown,” the narrator lashes out at the “robber barons” who “destroyed our families’ factories” and “took our homes.” This is Percy mixed with Steinbeck: The injustices of capitalism rob the individual not only of his economic security but also, by destroying his community, of his very ability to locate himself geographically and spiritually. His very identity is destroyed.
Flannery O’Connor’s influence pervades especially the albums Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) and Nebraska (1982), both of which Mr. Springsteen wrote in the wake of reading her short stories. These albums reflect the meditations on original sin that form the core of the Southern Gothic’s opus. As Mr. Springsteen put it to Will Percy:
She got to the heart of some part of meanness that she never spelled out, because if she spelled it out you wouldn’t be getting it. It was always at the core of every one of her stories–the way that she’d left that hole there, that hole that’s inside of everybody. There was some dark thing—a component of spirituality—that I sensed in her stories, and that set me off exploring characters of my own. She knew original sin—knew how to give it the flesh of a story. She had talent and she had ideas, and the one served the other.
In O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the character of the Misfit refers to evil/sin as “meanness,” a term that Mr. Springsteen uses several times in his oeuvre: in his own “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (the title obviously borrowed from O’Connor), in the unreleased “Child Bride,” and in the title track to the album Nebraska. The song “Nebraska” is based on the true crime story of eighteen-year-old Charles Starkweather, who, with a girlfriend four years his junior, went on a killing spree in the late 1950s in Nebraska and Wyoming. The speaker is caught and tried for his crimes, and judgment is handed down. The song concludes thusly:
They declared me unfit to live
Said into that great void my soul’d be hurled
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world
Mr. Springsteen’s characters often battle inner demons they cannot understand. In “Cautious Man” from The Tunnel of Love album (1987), the narrator struggles with the temptations of infidelity to his bride:
Now Billy was an honest man he wanted to do what was right
He worked hard to fill their lives with happy days and loving night
Alone on his knees in the darkness for steadiness he’d pray
For he knew in a restless heart the seed of betrayal lay
The issue of temptation permeates Mr. Springsteen’s songs, particularly those on Tunnel of Love and The River (1980). In “Stolen Car” from the latter album, the speaker tells of the something he cannot name that drove a wedge between him and his wife:
I met a little girl and I settled down
In a little house out on the edge of town
We got married, and swore we’d never part
Then little by little we drifted from each other’s heart
At first I thought it was just restlessness
That would fade as time went by and our love grew deep
In the end it was something more I guess
That tore us apart and made us weep
The “something more” is clearly original sin, a theme that reoccurs often in Mr. Springsteen’s work. “A lot of the songs deal with my obsession with the idea of sin,” Mr. Springsteen says, “and what is it in a good life. It plays an important place in a good life also. How do you deal with it? Because you don’t get rid of it. How do you carry your sins?’ In “Wages of Sin” from Tracks (1998), the narrator speaks of “the wages of sin, I keep paying/Wages of sin for some wrong that I’ve done.” On the same album, the protagonist of “Part Man, Part Monkey” asks, “Did God make man in a breath of holy fire/Or did he crawl on up out of the muck and mire.” The narrator of Nebraska’s “My Father’s House” tries to run to that house (Heaven) “with the Devil snappin ‘ at my heels,” but ends up leaving his sins “unatoned.” In “Adam Raised a Cain” from Darkness on the Edge of Town, the speaker cries out:
In the Bible Cain slew Abel
And East of Eden he was cast,
You’re born into this life paying,
for the sins of somebody else’s past,
Daddy worked his whole life, for nothing but the pain,
Now he walks these empty rooms, looking for something to blame,
You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames,
Adam raised a Cain
But if original sin lies at the heart of Mr. Springsteen’s work, redemption lurks out there somewhere too. It is this element—often veiled in his lyrics—that raises Mr. Springsteen’s work above mere nihilism. On The Rising (2002), the narrator of “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” is doing just that; in “Badlands” from Darkness on the Edge of Town, the protagonist proclaims that “Well keep pushin till it’s understood/And these badlands start treating us good”; on Lucky Town (1992), the speaker keeps “searching for his beautiful reward.”
If anything, Mr. Springsteen’s songs have become more overtly religious over the last decade (and his concerts have become even more like religious revivals with the preacher-like Mr. Springsteen donning mainly dark gray and black garments). Scriptural references, for example, fill Wrecking Ball’s “Rocky Ground”:
Forty days and nights of rain have washed this land
Jesus said the money changers in this temple will not stand
Find your flock, get them to higher ground
Flood waters rising and we’re Caanan bound
Tend to your flock or they will stray
We’ll be called for our service come Judgment Day
Before we cross that river wide
Blood on our hands will come back on us twice
Sometimes, Mr. Springsteen’s religious imagery is masked by a more sophisticated treatment. The reoccurrence of female characters named “Mary,” for instance, hardly seems coincidental in the Catholic Springsteen’s writing. Mary is the Queen of Arkansas on his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park (1973); she is the girl who is going to pull out of town to win in Born to Run’s “Thunder Road”; and she appears twice on The Rising, as a girlfriend in the title song and as the hostess of the party in “Mary’s Place.” It is in this last two songs that Mr. Springsteen draws on the Christian tradition of using the imagery of romantic/sexual love to express divine love—a practice that stretches from the Bible’s “Song of Songs” to the theological notion that conjugal love reflects the love of the Trinity to the Catholic interpretation that the Church is the Bride of Christ. In “The Rising,” Mary appears as the beloved girlfriend but also as the one who brings life to the narrator, a sort of new Eve:
I see you Mary in the garden
In the garden of a thousand sighs
There’s holy pictures of our children
Dancin’ in a sky filled with light
May I feel your arms around me
May I feel your blood mix with mine
A dream of life comes to me
Like a catfish dancin’ on the end of the line
Similarly, the Mary of “Mary’s Place” may actually be the hostess not only of a rock-and-roll party but also of a Heavenly banquet. One verse in particular seems to depict the locket that bears Mary’s image as the Miraculous Medal:
I got a picture of you in my locket
I keep it close to my heart
A light shining in my breast
Leading me through the dark
It should be noted that for all the dark songs that Mr. Springsteen has produced, he has also written many that are just pure fun rock songs and that have no deeper philosophical meaning: “The E Street Shuffle,” “Tenth-Avenue Freeze-Out,” “Sherry Darling,” and “Out in the Street” are just a few of these. Yet is hard to imagine that Mr. Springsteen could have penned songs that celebrate life’s joys without also chronicling so powerfully its many sorrows in his music. A Catholic at heart, he intuitively understands that there is no feast without the fast, no light without darkness, and no redemption without sin. In Springsteen’s Gothic imagination, for some on this earth, their sins will lie unatoned, but for others, a beautiful reward is in store.
The author wishes to thank fellow Springsteen fan and former St. Pius X Elementary School classmate, Jane J. Miller, for her insights about the deeper meaning of some of Mr. Springsteen’s lyrics.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image of Bruce Springsteen can be found on his Facebook page.