I have never been a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen. For one in all honesty, I didn’t discover him therefore to me, a blatant music snob, he didn’t exist. Secondly, I often found him to be hypocritical. Third, his early success was in part due to a calculated propaganda campaign by his manager. And finally, with the exception of “Candy’s Room,” nothing ever really moved me.
I cannot say that has changed, nor that I am a converted zealot but I am slowly coming around. For me it started with “Nebraska.” Leading up to that 1982 release everything Springsteen had done to that moment was well planned and meticulously executed. Legendary studio sessions to achieve perfection followed by well-orchestrated PR campaigns to insure maximum exposure were the order of the day. He had just run off three albums that critics were claiming as the best ever (“Born To Run,” “Darkness On the Edge Of Town,” “The River”) and his live shows were getting their due respect. He was on the top of the rock and roll world and both Time and Newsweek (read more calculated PR) put him on their covers. On the same week!
How did he respond to this adulation? By releasing a home cassette recorded set of demo quality songs about despair and wanting with blue character sketches of murderers and outsiders. There was no redemption here. No salvation on the highway. Just tales of gritty losers encased in a gruffy textured recording that sounded like you or I could have made on our home recorders. But we couldn’t. That was the point. This album was beautiful in its grimness. It was an artist taking a chance. Springsteen succeeded and I began to see the artist emerge over the media darling.
Then what did he do? The exact opposite direction-so it seemed. He followed the dire “Nebraska” with “Brn In The USA.” Back again were the high hopes (pun intended) of the American Dream. An album of anthems that spawned seven Top 10 hits. This wasn’t grungy guitar and down and out vocals. This was synthesized pleasure, back beats, and pop friendly choruses in spite of their rampant misinterpretation. The title song is not a positive number about America. But nobody cared. You could shout along with the Boss. Just more fodder to knock me off the bandwagon.
After that I kind of stop trying. His future albums contained radio highlights “Human Touch” and a failed attempt to reignite the passionate flame of “Nebraska” with “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” but it just become too brooding. His live shows continued to be legendary in length but become almost robotic in their consistency. His songs of poor people struggles came off to me as hypocritical from one of the world’s richest rock stars. Unlike his idol Pete Seeger who disdained the fame, Springsteen seemed to wallow in it for a period. He tried to get himself back to the garden as they say with a tribute to Seeger- “We Shall Overcome.” It was at times joyous and a hearty take on classic folk music that garnered Springsteen a Grammy but to me it paled in comparison to the earlier release by Wilco and Billy Bragg and their “Mermaid Avenue” sessions hailing the like minded Woody Guthrie.
Then came the speech.
March 2012. The Boss explained it all. As the keynote speaker at SXSW music conference, Springsteen took 15 minutes to teach me more about creativity, music and the vital-ness of rock and roll than all my years of reading and listening. To me it’s the best thing he has ever recorded and I strongly encourage you to take the time to watch.
So with eyes and ears reopened, I have revisited Springsteen the artist and his place in rock and roll. There is no denying his impact and with his 18th album (that we celebrate this weekend on KZYR) he does what he does best. He brings attention to those who deserve it-the forgotten members of society. So whether it is the lost bands from the past like The Saints (the Australian Ramones) that he recognizes with a brilliant cover of “Just Like Fire Would” or the disregarded Amadou Diallo a victim of an overzealous NYC police department, Springsteen remembers these characters and demands you do the same. It’s art that moves you to discover more. And that my friends is the gift of an artist.