In Defense of Bruce Springsteen

Doug Hood / USA TODAY NETWORK

I would like to begin with an apology to the good people of the Delaware Valley and the wonderful readers of this site. The music takes that certain representatives of Crossing Broad have issued over the past few days have no doubt been challenging, bewildering, and perhaps triggering, to adopt the parlance of the times. I am sorry for the trouble their misguided opinions have caused you.

The slander began on Tuesday morning, when resident curmudgeon and proud iconoclast Kevin Kinkead decided to rain on Kevin Cooney’s parade. Cooney’s crime? He was happy to hear the news that Bruce Springsteen was heading back on tour.

The parade of outrages continued on Wednesday, when Bob Wankel declared Pearl Jam “overrated” during his appearance on the WIP Morning Show. Et tu, Bob?

I served with Wankel during the Gabe Kapler Wars, so I’m going to give him a pass for this egregious assessment. It’s clear the hazards of covering Phillies baseball have taken a toll on the man’s soul. After continually witnessing the bullpen comically implode for three seasons and counting as the Phils play defense like a bad beer league softball team, who wouldn’t go mad? The wretched experience has robbed poor Bob of the ability to enjoy good music, and that’s a travesty.

So I will train my sights instead on Kevin, who continued to throw rhetorical haymakers at the Boss like an unhinged boxer who keeps punching after the bell has rung:

Thankfully, the Dean of Philly sports talk weighed in and put The Machine in his place:

I thought this brushback from Glen Macnow would snap Kevin back to his senses, help him recognize the error of his ways, and lead to an hour of quiet reflection with the doleful tones of Nebraska playing in the background, guiding him back to the path of salvation.

But Kevin was undeterred. He has proceeded with a misguided attempt to explain to the thousands of us in the Philadelphia area who enjoy Bruce Springsteen’s music why we are completely wrong. But that’s not quite right. The legions of Springsteen fans extend well beyond the city limits. The Boss has been selling out shows in North America and Europe for decades. The Wrecking Ball World Tour, which Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band launched in 2012-13, took the troupe to Australia and South America in addition to their more established haunts. The man has sold millions of records, collected all sorts of awards, and earned his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But that’s not enough for Kevin, who walked to the edge of the deep pool that is Bruce Springsteen’s catalogue, dipped his toes in the shallows, and imperiously declared that the water sucks. There was no attempt to swim, much less jump off the diving board into the deep end.

Why is the Boss overrated? Because Kevin couldn’t quite connect with “Born to Run,” thought “Streets of Philadelphia” was meandering, and determined “Glory Days” didn’t quite reach its potential. Kevin makes a compelling case against these songs, and that’s just like his opinion, man. Kevin is a pretty solid musician in his own right, and he can speak to jumbled arrangements and poor structures in a way I can’t.

Most people in the world aren’t musically inclined. We don’t get in the weeds of the songwriting process. Our judge is our ear. Does it sound good to us? Does the music resonate?

For me, and for the international audience that has fed the multimillion dollar industry that is Bruce Springsteen, the answer is a resounding “yes!”

If you want a stripped down version of Bruce Springsteen, move away from the hits and start exploring Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska, the latter a critically acclaimed solo album and a radical departure from the louder tracks of the Born to Run era. For me, especially when I’m writing and I want a decent tune in the background, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., hits the mark. I also like Springsteen’s second album, The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. Just enjoy the storytelling and the music backing “Incident on 57th Street” and tell me if there’s anything else quite like this on the music scene today:

 

Springsteen’s music doesn’t transcend its time and place? Come on. Read the lyrics to “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” and tell me that the song can’t just as easily apply to someone growing up today.

Bruce has been writing songs for half a century. He’s written about cars and girls, young men down on their luck, towns struggling to find their footing in a post-industrial economy, love and loss, depression, and redemption. He’s taken chances, made mistakes, and evolved over time. All the while, he’s shared what he’s learned with an audience that has only grown.

Go to a concert and you’ll see a fair share of aging Baby Boomers, sure. But you’ll also notice a large number of younger people whose parents introduced them to Bruce Springsteen and who, over the years, came to appreciate the music he plays in their own way.

That’s because we have all felt alone at one time or another, forced to make peace with our arrested ambitions as we wander down to “The River” and ponder the eternal question: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true? Or is it something worse?” We all know what it’s like to “get up in the morning at the sound of the bell,” just waiting for the chance to “lock up the house, turn out the lights, and step out into the night.” Maybe you have even looked at your significant other, and then within yourself, and wondered if either of you are wearing a “brilliant disguise.”

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If Bruce Springsteen didn’t take chances as a musician, he wouldn’t have radically departed from the sound on Born to Run that made him an international sensation when it came time to produce Darkness on the Edge of Town. He wouldn’t have released “American Skin,” a protest song in response to the police shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999 that presaged the unrest our country would experience more than twenty years later. I remember my dad telling me of people walking out of the venue when Bruce started singing “American Skin.” It was controversial and divisive within his fan base, but Springsteen played it anyway. He still plays it.

The long-misinterpreted “Born in the USA” is not a blindly patriotic anthem, but the story of a Vietnam veteran who returned home without a job and damaged by his country’s broken promises. The jingoism of the soaring chorus was cold comfort to the man trapped in the verses with “nowhere to run” and “nowhere to go.”

Included in Kevin’s piece is an excerpt of a column from Drew Magary, a talented writer but a serial axe-grinder who enjoys ripping anything that Bill Simmons likes. Magary calls Bruce the “musical David Eckstein” because “he comes from humble roots and is self-made. He’s blue collar. He’s the first guy to get to the stadium and the last guy to leave.”

No, Bruce is not the last guy on the roster playing the role of scrappy underdog. He’s Michael Jordan, pushing his teammates and himself to the edge in their quest to make one more trip to the mountaintop. He’s Kobe Bryant, returning home from a playoff failure and immediately heading to a gym in the dead of night to refine his shot.

Bruce Springsteen is great because he’s relentlessly focused on getting better. If you’re skeptical, just take some time and take in excerpts from The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Watch a tortured artist at the height of his fame and nothing to prove devote himself to shaping a great record from a collection of 70 songs. Seventy! Springsteen gave one of the tracks that didn’t make the cut, “Because the Night,” to Patti Smith, who reworked the lyrics and created a hit single.

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Ultimately, I wish someone else had taken on the mantle of defending Bruce Springsteen. I’m not a dedicated Bruceologist. I’ve gone to exactly one show, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The man puts on a great concert, which, as Kevin concedes in his post, likely explains the devotion he’s cultivated over the years.

There is so much you could say in Springsteen’s defense. There are much better arguments than the one I laid out here. All I can say is I like the man’s music. When a tune from The River or Born to Run comes on the radio, I’m transported back in time to a crowded minivan, my dad in the front seat and my mom riding shotgun, Bruce blaring through the speakers, and the rest of us piled up in the back on our way to Sea Isle.

We would take the “back roads,” my mom in constant search of corn and tomatoes, stopping once at a retro McDonald’s in Berlin on Route 73 along the way. Those were fun times, and I look back on them with appreciation for the parents who gave them to me and the man who provided the soundtrack for so many of those experiences.

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