As Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen turns 70 years old, one finds it a daunting task to make an exhaustive list of his artistic accomplishments and the accolades he has received for them: Mr. Springsteen, who has been performing live for more than a half-century now, is the 15th highest-selling artist of all-time; his first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, released in 1973, has been followed by 18 other studio albums, six live albums, and dozens of live archive recordings available for download; he was the first living artist to have an entire Sirius XM channel (“E Street Radio”) dedicated exclusively to his music; dozens of books and biographies have been written about him; he is the recipient of an Academy Award, twenty Grammy Awards, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom; he and his E Street Band are members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, while—in a testament to his musical range—Country Music Television (CMT) rated him recently as the 17th-most-influential country music singer of all time.
More: His 2016 autobiography, which Mr. Springsteen called a “a long and noisy prayer,” received wide acclaim, including in a review by the present author (“a work of jarring honesty and critical self-awareness from a public man who has generally shunned discussion of his most private thoughts”); his one-man Broadway show, Springsteen on Broadway, ran for 58 weeks (with performances five days a week) between October 2017 and December 2018, and earned $106.8 million, with the average resale price for a ticket being around $1,800 (almost four times the resale price of a ticket to the popular musical, Hamilton); his newest album, Western Stars, debuted at number two on the US Billboard 200 list; a concert film of the album will be released by Warner Brothers on October 25; his music is at the center of a new hit film, Blinded by the Light (named after the first track of his first album), to which he contributed the previously-unreleased song “I’ll Stand by You“; he has already written most of the music for what will be his 20th studio album, a collaboration with his E Street Band, and he plans to promote the album on a tour in 2020.
Signed originally by Columbia Records as a solo act (he hauled his second-hand guitar across New York City to his audition without the benefit of a guitar case, which he couldn’t afford), Mr. Springsteen’s first two records, Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, had very modest sale numbers, though they received positive reviews. He earned a reputation in his native New Jersey and down the Eastern Shore, into Virginia, with his sizzling live performances. Yet by the mid-1970s, he was in danger of being dropped by Columbia if his next album was not a success. That album, released in 1975, was the legendary Born To Run, the title track being Mr. Springsteen’s modest attempt to write the greatest rock song of all time, one that would make all others superfluous. Columbia had the hit record it wanted. Mr. Springsteen’s next albums, Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) and The River (1980), were also successes—the latter featured his first top-10 hit, “Hungry Heart”—though already Mr. Springsteen was showing his desire to make his “next album” differ from the previous one. Still, fans were little prepared for the stark, dark solo album that Mr. Springsteen released in 1982: Nebraska was a collection of songs that Mr. Springsteen had recorded by himself on demo tapes, featuring only his voice, guitar, and harmonica.
The contrast of his next album, Born in the U.S.A. (1984), could not have been greater. Though the title track and “Downbound Train” were intended originally for inclusion on the acoustic Nebraska, here all the songs got the full pop treatment, heavy on the synthesizers. Born in the U.S.A. benefitted from a resurgence in American patriotism, promoted by President Ronald Reagan, who added to the misreading of the spirit of the song “Born in the U.S.A” by referring to it—much to Mr. Springsteen’s chagrin—on a re-election campaign stop. The controversy, however, barely registered with the American concert-going public at the time, and Mr. Springsteen was elevated to the status of Mega-Rock Star, routinely and easily filling large, outdoor stadiums, both in the United States and abroad. Born in the U.S.A. produced seven top-10 hit singles. He would never reach these heights of popularity again, though he would remain a success for the next thirty-five years, despite breaking up the E Street Band at the end of the 80s (he reunited with them a decade later), and despite often challenging his fans by his chameleon-like musical approach to album-making: from the love song-themed album Tunnel of Love (1988) to the edgier, E-Street-less sound of Lucky Town and Human Touch (both 1992), to the solo albums The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) and Devils and Dust (2005), to the 9/11-themed The Rising (2002), to that angry indictment of Wall Street, Wrecking Ball (2012), and finally to the wizened wistfulness of 2019’s Western Stars.
So, as he embarks on his eighth decade, Mr. Springsteen shows no signs of slowing down. Indeed, he is likely in better physical shape than all his contemporaries in the rock world, having never used recreational drugs and having focused on his physical conditioning for the last half of his life. Artistically, he is not resting on his laurels, having long ago vowed not to have his live performances reduced to a nostalgia act. His newest album, Western Stars, is one of his very best and proves two things about this older version of Mr. Springsteen: that he is still willing to explore a different style of music-making (the album’s sound is based on Southern California pop music of the 1960s and 1970s and incorporates such classical instruments as cellos, violins, trumpets, French horns, flutes, and oboes); and that he has lost none of his touch as songwriter. Take, for instance, the little gem, “Somewhere North of Nashville,” which lasts less than two minutes and consists of some 116 words (not including the twice-repeated refrain at its conclusion). Within the first few lines of the song, Mr. Springsteen has already told a story of a failed songwriter and reached what sounds like a convincing climax as he places the listener with the protagonist—who is so broken that he can’t quite center himself geographically—out on a cold, lonely road:
Came into town with a pocketful of songs
I made the rounds
But I didn’t last long
Now I’m out on this highway
With a bone-cold chill
Somewhere north of Nashville
The narrator next recalls with regret the mistakes he made with his former lover:
I lie awake in the middle of the night
Makin’ a list of things that I didn’t do right
With you at the top of a long page filled
Here, somewhere north of Nashville
And in the final stanza, Mr. Springsteen masterfully shifts back and forth between the narrator’s remorse and his pleasant memories of love, leaving the listener to share in the despair of the final repeated refrain.
For the deal I made, the price was strong
I traded you for this song
We woke each morning with hearts filled
Bluebird of love on the windowsill
Now the heart’s unsteady, and the night is still
All I’ve got’s this melody, and time to kill
Here, somewhere north of Nashville
Here, somewhere north of Nashville
Here, somewhere north of Nashville
It’s this kind of masterly storytelling, and his unrivaled gift for melody and supreme skill at songwriting, that undergird Mr. Springsteen’s artistic success and longevity. His gift is to express universals through particulars, to probe the depths of the human soul by examining the actions of human beings themselves. From his teenage years, Mr. Springsteen has had a keen interest in people, in what makes them tick. The first song on Western Stars is “Hitch Hikin’,” an activity that Mr. Springsteen enjoyed (out of necessity before he learned to drive in his twenties) because he got to meet all sorts of people. He discerned early the complexity of the human heart. He is no ideologue; instead, he takes men as he finds them, and he knows that there are no easy answers. In his songs, Mr. Springsteen ponders instead of preaches, whether the question is the rectitude of a character’s actions or the meaning of good and evil in a world that he clearly sees as fallen but also as capable of sanctification… at least in its corners, nooks, and crannies. “The spiritual life is going to be a life of mystery,” Mr. Springsteen says.
Why would you not be humble in the face of that mystery? Why would you assume that the answers can be handed down to you, A to Z, no room for doubt? That’s child-like, that desire for answers. Adult life is dealing with an enormous amount of questions that don’t have any answers. So I let the mystery settle into my music. I don’t deny anything. I don’t advocate anything. I just live with it. We live in a tragic world, but there’s grace all around you. That’s tangible. So you try to attend to the grace.
This is what makes Mr. Springsteen’s vision a conservative one, a humane one, in the deepest sense, despite his Leftist political leanings. It’s an Aristotelean approach to considering human existence, an approach at the heart of the work of other great creators of literary characters. It is the key to Mr. Springsteen’s greatness.
It’s said that the true worth of a work of art can only be evaluated after fifty years. Mr. Springsteen has been performing publicly for some time longer than that now, so perhaps we are at the moment when we can say that the judgment of time has indeed deemed him truly great. Novelist Walker Percy long ago called Mr. Springsteen “my favorite American philosopher,” and he approvingly suggested that at bottom his “songs are about America, without hyping the country up and without knocking the country down…. He sings of us while singing to us.” “My work has always been about judging the distance between American reality and the American dream,” Mr. Springsteen himself has said. “There is a real patriotism underneath the best of my music but it is a critical, questioning and often angry patriotism.” After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a passing motorist called out to Mr. Springsteen, “Bruce, we need you now!” In response, Mr. Springsteen penned the album, The Rising, “the definitive account of the feelings of those of us who lost friends and loved ones on that day,” as one reader of this journal remarked. Here in 2019, then, Mr. Springsteen has established himself not only as our American Gadfly but as our National Healer.
And Mr. Springsteen dedicated himself with a single-mindedness to achieving the goal of being great, and not merely famous, once he decide that he wanted to be a rock star—a moment that came soon after seeing Elvis Presley on TV for the first time… though unlike Elvis and so many famous rockers of Mr. Springsteen’s youth, he would avoid the temptation of drugs and hard living that could derail his career. Not for the young Springsteen was the romantic notion of the musical rebel dying young. “I was looking to play the long game, right from when I was young,” he recalls. “And I believed if I gave what I felt was my complete best, that things would work out. That there’d be an audience there eventually that would respond. And luckily—and there’s some element of luck along with the hard work and dedication that comes with it—that happened. And we never looked back.”*
Mr. Springsteen in his latter years especially has repeatedly expressed his appreciation for his audience’s loyalty. He continues to reward them with his legendarily long concert performances, usually lasting three-and-a-half to four hours. (Mr. Springsteen revealed in his autobiography that because performing live is a kind of therapy that wards off the depression that haunts him, he is always reluctant to bring his concerts to a conclusion.) But more than that, his fans are simply grateful that he has survived, thus keeping his implicit promise to them, as his newest song says, “to stand by you always,” so that his music remains the soundtrack of their lives as they grow old with him. One fan—the present author—has penned the poem below to express his gratitude.
“The Gift” (An Ode to Bruce Springsteen)
In a world of oaths forsaken,
In a time of prophets bought and sold,
To the faithful along the avenue
You offered a gift of the purest gold.
Politician declares, “So help me God,”
Priest proclaims, “Let no man put asunder.”
But your whispered sweet sounds,
Were a bond sealed with thunder.
At once a stranger and yet a friend,
At once young and always old,
Singing the silent song of our souls,
Like that between mute lovers in the cold.
Now years are dissolved into dust,
Into the wind, into the mist.
Meaning made deep by memory,
Like a lover long and tenderly kissed.
You might have gone forever home,
You might have instead quietly slept,
Leaving us alone, betrayed and broken.
But you proved the gift a promise kept.
You proved the gift a promise kept.
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*Interview with Sirius Radio, July 10, 2019.
The featured image of Bruce Springsteen comes from the official trailer for his movie, Western Stars.