Editor’s Note: We’ve heard a lot in recent years about how much middle-aged sportswriters are infatuated with Bruce Springsteen, so when our own middle-aged sportswriter KVV (something of a Springsteen agnostic) joined Casey Landman and her husband Jon for one of Springsteen’s performances in Philadelphia, we sent him to the show with an assignment. Write about what Bruce means to you, and explain why so many weirdos of your generation (and so many Big-Js in your profession) adore this man, even if you’re not exactly one of them.
- Bruce has never been my guy.
I can’t say why, exactly, just that he’s never been a mythic figure to me. Yes, I’m familiar with the standards. I vaguely remember Ronald Reagan’s campaign misusing “Born In The USA,” thinking (like many who weren’t listening to the lyrics) that it was uplifting and patriotic instead of a broken man’s wail; a lament about feeling left behind. I laughed when The Sopranos slipped in a line from “Born to Run” and made Stevie Van Zandt sit there stone-faced. I have, when I was a cosmic kid in full costume dress, left a bar at 2 am with friends and walked the streets while belting out some mangled, not-sober version of “Thunder Road.” But I can’t name most of the albums. I have never pulled over to the side of the road and cried during the saxophone solo in “Jungleland.” I know sportswriters of a certain age are supposed to treat Springsteen’s songs the way orthodox scholars treat the study of the Talmud. It has become one of those cliches that is grounded in a lot of truth, but it has never fit in my case. I have friends who write (brilliantly) to his music, who would skip their kid’s birthday party to see him play in a football stadium. I’ve had bosses who have spent more time in the front row of Bruce’s shows than some of his roadies. It’s just never been my thing.
I am not indifferent — I enjoy The Boss for all the reasons you are supposed to enjoy him — but I have a theory that we only love the artists who find us at the right time, the right age, the midst of the right angst or heartbreak. For whatever reason, Bruce Springsteen missed me when I probably needed him the most.
I became a Jason Isbell person, which is a little like saying you prefer Max Homa to Tiger Woods. The whole world knows who Bruce and Tiger are. They are important pieces of Americana, icons to even casual observers of culture. Isbell and Homa are the artists you feel like you discovered when no one was there, and now you still feel a little protective of them, proud they climbed the ladder to find mainstream success, but deep down you’re a little annoyed you have to share them with the world. You were there when shit was bleak, but it still felt like they were speaking to you.
Some people may have that connection with Bruce, but I take a contrarian pride in the fact that I’m not one of them.
2. When my friend Jon texted me to say he had an extra ticket to Bruce’s show in Philadelphia, I couldn’t resist saying yes, despite all the words I typed in the previous section.
It was not a cheap ticket, even with Jon acquiring it at face value through his work in the industry. But there is something to be said, I think, about choosing to spend your money on experiences instead of items. Someday Bruce Springsteen will be gone, much like Tom Petty. I never understood how much I missed Tom Petty until I no longer had the chance to have him in my life. In my basement, there are thousands of dollars worth of golf clubs I no longer play, and books I’ll never get around to reading. There are piles of things I once cherished but no longer remember why I purchased them, and one day my children will throw them in a dumpster when I’m gone, or give them to Goodwill if they don’t smell like mildew.
There is something about the perniciousness of STUFF that is slowly suffocating. I don’t have many philosophical tenets, but one I do try to remind myself of is that experiences require zero storage.
They are invaluable but weightless.
3. He looks like an incredibly fit grandfather.
This was what struck me most of all when he burst onto the stage to sing “No Surrender,” the opening number. It’s not that he doesn’t look 73. He does. In recent years, he’s grown less vain, apparently accepting that there is a dignity to letting (much of) his hair go gray. He jogs and fist pumps and zooms around stage like he’s trying to inhale every last bit of whatever time he has left, but you’re also left with the unshakeable truth. He doesn’t have many of these left. This is the winter of his performing life. A finite number of shows remain. How many? No one wants to speculate. Why ruin the illusion that it can go on forever?
When you’re a massive Springsteen fan, I suspect you see him so frequently — in interviews, concerts, political campaigns, album covers — that the gradually aging process that every last one of us is tethered to doesn’t shock you. He is a part of your life, always. The coolest uncle. He ages, sure, but he’s immortal.
But if you’re like me, and he’s this nebulous concept that you don’t obsess over but still appreciate, he was frozen in the amber of your mind at a younger age. He is forever That Dude, wearing jeans that look like they were painted on, a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up like he’s a Jet in West Side Story, yanking Courtney Cox (and her bob haircut) up on stage so he can sashay back and forth, two beautiful people radiating youth, possibility, energy.
It makes no sense, but I did not expect to see a man on the stage in Philadelphia who could benefit from scheduling regular colonoscopies. This is the curse of being beautiful once, of epitomizing youth and possibility. You are not allowed to be mortal. You’re supposed to be a photograph, a Greek god, eternal. Instead, he is the same age as my dad, I realize now. When each of them was born, Harry Truman was President.
How on earth do his hips not ache?
4. The people in the audience at the Wells Fargo Arena are not broken heroes on a last chance power drive.
They are not the working class characters that populate Springsteen’s songs. They are mostly white, mostly upper middle class, mostly in their 50s and 60s. They drive nice cars and have 401ks. I was, I can say this confidently, one of the younger members of the audience. (Not the youngest, but certainly in the youngest third.)
None of that is any kind of revelatory observation, nor is it a particularly new critique. It’s easy to poke fun at the tone-deaf privilege of Springsteen audiences these days, to point out the hypocrisy of paying thousands of dollars for a ticket to a show so you can cosplay in the lives of characters who exist on the fringe of society, who are one busted engine or factory layoff from permanent misery. A lot of fans in recent years have been understandably pissed that Springsteen gave in to the allure of Ticketmaster’s predatory dynamic pricing model, meaning you essentially have to fork over a mortgage payment to see him perform these days. (The fact that we allow Ticketmaster to operate like a mob boss remains one of the most baffling choices in American life.) Backstreets, the fan magazine that has been covering The Boss for 43 years, announced in February that it was shutting down, at least in part because so many hardcore Springsteen fans feel they’ve been priced out of his shows.
I have a hard time, however, blaming the fans who can afford to go to his shows, regardless of whether or not they’ve been gouged. To call them hypocritical kind of misses the mark. What is the dream, after all, of every working class stiff but to escape the gravitational pull of their broken hometowns, and will themselves into a better life somewhere else? These are the people who got out. (Or, just as likely, their parents got out.) A part of them never wants to forget that it could have gone another way.
They used to be cool and now they are not. But in the arena, they still get to feel cool. This is what Bruce reminds them of, a time when they weren’t rich and didn’t have to think about doing yard work on the weekends or saving up to make college tuition payments. They are IT managers and lawyers, dentists and software developers (and sportswriters!) and they have kids that roll their eyes when they sing along to “Hungry Heart” as they wipe down their fancy kitchen countertops.
(Those kids will understand one day, I promise, when they’re humming Taylor Swift songs or Kendrick Lamar songs in an underground climate-safe bunker, or in a colony on Mars, and their own kids feel a mixture of love and embarrassment.)
The people in the audience at Bruce shows used to be the kind of romantics who would tuck a cigarette behind their ear in a smoke-filled bar and make eyes at a person standing near the jukebox. They are the Marys and Wendys, the Bobbys and Eddies from Bruce’s songs who had the audacity to grow up. To keep living. It happens to a lot of us.
We ain’t a beauty — at least not anymore — but yeah we’re alright.
5. He has so many songs that truly whip.
To a Bruce fan, this must feel like one of the most obvious sentences ever written. Wait, you’re telling me one of the best-selling artists of all time has many, many songs that are great? What a brave take.
But I was struck, in the arena, by how many songs I have absorbed into my bloodstream over time and can hum along to, even if I don’t know the lyrics. How ridiculously good is your catalog if Promised Land is maybe your 10th best song? Why was I, someone who would previously have described his Bruce Springsteen fandom as residing somewhere between admiration and polite indifference, playing an imaginary air piano during Backstreets?
6. There are so many members of the E Street Band!
I know, technically, everyone on stage isn’t an official member. I will leave it to actual Springsteen fans — Bruce Tramps, I see they are sometimes called — to educate me on who is worthy of the designation and who is an interchangeable part. I’m not sure what I expected, other than Van Zandt dressing like an aging musketeer, but it wasn’t 18 people on stage. “I think E Street is more like an avenue or a parkway these days,” my friend Jon quipped. Between back-up singers, roadies, keyboard players, a drummer, horn players and his wife (also a singer and guitarist, but absent for the Philly show), he has to be close to the 50-employee threshold where the law requires you to offer health insurance. (Just kidding! I’m sure various loopholes and shell companies have been invented to prevent this very thing.)
I couldn’t help but feel a little mesmerized by Jake Clemmons, the saxophone player of the E Street Band and also the nephew of Clarence Clemmons, the man who had that role from 1972 until his death in 2011. What a blessing and a burden it must be to live with the ghost of a family member on your shoulder every night.
It’s like Hamlet, except every night you have to nail the solo in Thunder Road.
7. Speaking of Thunder Road, I think it’s bombastic, embarrassingly earnest, a bit too operatic and also goddamn perfect.
I know “Born To Run” is supposed to be the better song, the American anthem that Springsteen wrote as a young man when he was trying to change his fate and also go down in history. It’s going to be the first line of his obituary, and it deserves to be. Rolling Stone named it 21st on their list of all-time greatest songs. But I love “Thunder Road” more, and for all the reasons I listed above.
I love it because even though you shouldn’t use the word “redemption” in a song about redemption, Bruce does. It perfectly captures the angst and longing of wanting to be SOMEBODY and be loved by SOMEONE but having no idea how to get there other than driving your car very fast toward the edge of town, hoping there is adventure beyond the swamps of New Jersey. (Or in my case, the mountains of Montana.)
I can remember listening to “Thunder Road” late in college, getting ready to leave my hometown. I was going to drive across the country and make it in the big city. Unlike the main character in “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” the record company had not given me a big advance, but a newspaper in Baltimore had given me an internship, which in my eyes might as well have been the same thing. So I was going to roll down the window and let the wind blow back my hair. This is, I think, the enduring power of Springsteen. Most of us have these earnest, operatic moments at some point, moments where we’re trying to bust free of invisible chains we can feel but can’t properly describe. I didn’t feel like my town was full of losers but needed to escape to figure out who I was.
Twenty-three years have come and gone since that moment. There are lines in “Thunder Road” that hit differently now, like being scared and thinking that maybe I ain’t that young anymore. These days, I like the acoustic version of the song where it’s just Bruce and piano. The same lines that felt like a youthful howl of defiance can also read like a sad lament if you slow everything down and let your hair go a little gray, which is another reason the song rules.
But the operatic version is still magic. When Bruce sang “Thunder Road” late into his encore, nobody felt old. We were all belting out the lines of the song like idiot kids, trying to remind ourselves that, hey, we know it’s late, but we could still make it if we run.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.