THE TIES THAT BIND: The Timeless River That Runs Through Bruce Springsteen’s America

bruce-springsteenPhotJoelBernstein

Bruce Springsteen, circa “The River.” Photograph by Joel Bernstein

It may not exactly be breaking news that the indomitable Bruce Springsteen and his (nearly as) indomitable E Street Band are currently on the road again. After all, going out and playing music for months on end is pretty much the life Springsteen has lived for more than 40 years.

But this time, embracing the trend that has in recent years swept up so many other rock artists and bands — and not just of the so-called ‘Classic Rock’ era either — Bruce is bringing a career-defining album (and in his case, a double LP) to life in a live setting: 1980’s “The River,” which is among his finest and most sweeping works. “The River Tour,” as it’s being called, quite literally runs through a good chunk of the country through this coming April (in fact, Springsteen’s next show is Feb. 10 at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut).bruce

The tour coincides with a behemoth of a box set fittingly entitled, “The Ties That Bind, ” which chronicles the recording sessions for that sprawling double LP. Of course, as anyone even remotely familiar with Springsteen and his long-running E Street Band knows (so long-running, in fact, that it has outlasted some of its members including founding saxophonist Clarence Clemens, who died in 2011; Clarence’s nephew Jake has now assumed sax duties in the lineup), Bruce concerts are more like marathons than shows. And it’s a virtual lock that besides playing tracks from “The River,”  Bruce and Co. will unleash a slew of other selections culled from more than 15 albums dating back to his 1973 debut, “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.” (which, by the way, reportedly sold a mere 25,000  copies upon release). Bruce-Springsteen-The-River-FR-650x650

To mark the latest chapter in a highly distinguished career, and also give a nod to a singer-songwriter who has always been a highly literate (and literary), eloquent speaker and thinker, here’s a book review I wrote for “Born In The U.S.A.: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition,” a provocative meditation and fine biography of  the man from Freehold, NJ. written by author Jim Cullen. Both the book and my review of it were published toward the end of the 1990s. In revisiting my words after all these years, I came to the conclusion that my thoughts about the man, his music, and the mythos around him (that extends far beyond the simple facts of his songs), have remained essentially unchanged.

bruce1Much of this has to do with the core essence, musical constancy, and enduring appeal of Springsteen and his legacy. He’s always been a traditionalist at heart, grounded in the American roots music of folk, R&B, and early rock & roll. His earliest, lyrically imagistic work conveyed the poetic soul of a Beatnik free spirit and adolescent-eyed romantic. I remember the first time I heard “Greetings From Asbury Park”  come tumbling out of the speakers. The words, the music, the sensibility instantly evoked an excited, exuberant jumble of so much good stuff:  Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, Phil Spector’s Girl Groups, and of course, Dylan. 

There have been different stylistic building blocks of sound, production, and temperament that have ornamented the foundation of his music over the years. But that ground-level foundation, cemented by the protean catalogs of Sun, Stax, and Chess Records, remains.  And like all of his influences and inspirations, the man and his music are institutions at this point, and making a strong bid for timelessness.

Without further ado, here was — and is — my (and, wherever I quote him, biographer Jim Cullen’s) take on Bruce Springsteen in 1997. This review essay was originally written for The Trenton Times, a daily newspaper located in Springsteen’s home state of New Jersey, where I worked for six years (under an editor named Peter Callas– a fellow New Jersey native and “Boss” in his own right — who, though sadly no longer with us,  was a devoted and die-hard Springsteen fan. It was an obsession that annoyed me a helluva lot less than his allegiance to the New York Yankees; this post is dedicated to his memory).

My review below opens with an anecdote –an indelible memory of having seen Springsteen for the first time during his surprisingly stripped-down solo tour he undertook in support of his understated and excellent album, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” released in November 1995. No E Street Band was to be on hand. No backup singers or embellishers. Just Bruce Springsteen, his voice, and his guitar. That sounded damn good to me, never having been a huge fan of the  glitzy, occasionally bombastic E Street party-cum-variety revue rave-up. So when he arrived in Columbia, South Carolina, where I was living at the time, to play a glorified banquet hall about ten times smaller than the stadiums Bruce used to hold court in, I decided to pay a visit to The Boss. bruce3the-ghost-of-tom-joad

 

The moment came late last year in a renovated auditorium in Columbia, South Carolina. Bruce Springsteen had just finished playing a starkly moving concert accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and his own frayed, denim-and-rust voice. Now, as most of the audience drifted toward the exits, a handful stayed behind, loitering around the simple stage, where only a few scattered pieces of musical equipment remained.
The scene was a far cry from the years of Springsteen’s commercial peak, when he routinely packed enormous stadiums filled with tens of thousands of people screaming “Born In The U.S.A.!” as if it were the new “Star Spangled Banner.” But here were two dozen lingering fans who, clearly, had been listening to Springsteen long before those household-name years and would in all likelihood be listening to him for the rest of their days.

Suddenly, without fanfare, without bodyguards or tour personnel shooing the crowd away, there he appeared, smiling warmly as he walked across the modest stage to retrieve a piece of gear.
“Hey, how you guys doin’?” Springsteen said with a grin as he reached down from the stage to shake a few hands. Then, without a trace of rock star narcissism, the man who was once hailed as the next Bob Dylan spent the next 20 minutes chatting with fans, signing autographs, and politely fielding questions like “remember that show you played in Phoenix in 1978?” At that moment, Springsteen completely embodied the spirit, romance, and essential humanity of his music — a feat few artists manage to accomplish with their own.
The best way to understand why Bruce Springsteen matters to his audience, and the American cultural landscape in general, is to turn to the man himself. Throughout his 25-year career, it has been virtually impossible to separate the rock star from the hippie kid who grew up in Freehold, New Jersey and the populist songwriter whose lyrics owe as much to John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie as Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry (in fact, Springsteen’s most recent album, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” is named after the character in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”).

This is precisely the point author Jim Cullen makes so convincingly in “Born In The U.S.A.: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition,” his superb analysis of Springsteen’s work — work that, Cullen claims, makes Springsteen a rightful inheritor to the legacies of other American historical figures such as as Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln.
Cullen, a Harvard professor whose previous books include “The Art of Democracy” and “The Civil War in Popular Culture,” makes a compelling, painstakingly researched case for Springsteen’s place among the major thinkers, politicians, and writers of our time and offers insight into why the man has resonated so deeply in our collective consciousness.

Cullen sets his subject in sharp relief of topics ranging from Postwar leisure activities and Vietnam to American Catholicism and stereotypes of what it means to be masculine. But the overarching theme of identity — Springsteen’s and our own — is what ultimately lends power and clarity to this book.
“The core of Springsteen’s achievements in American culture resides less in providing new visions of national identity (the way, say, the Founding Fathers did) than in his talent for rearticulating older ones,” Cullen writes. “There is a genuine originality in the way Springsteen revitalizes traditions by shifting (and in some cases, expanding) their parameters — in applying lessons of the Civil Rights movement to Asian immigrants … in rejecting hidebound conventions of his religious heritage but reaffirming the vitality of its core tenets. In his hands, history is not an inert mass that weighs us down. Rather, it becomes the raw material for making history anew.”

Throughout, Cullen spikes his scholarly observations with a fan’s anecdotes and memories (his own); dissects Springsteen’s catalogue with a rock-critic’s zest and knowledge of the music’s wonderfully intersecting history; and draws on the legacies of larger-than-life pop culture icons like James Dean and Elvis Presley for comparison. But as Cullen makes abundantly clear, Springsteen’s impact has never stemmed from his being larger-than-life. He has always remained firmly a part of it, and finally, a part of ourselves.

 

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