Occasionally in life, a song comes along and makes an imprint on your soul. You remember where you were and what you were doing the first time you heard it. Something stands out; something turns your head. Your ears indulge in a singular aural experience. You've never heard anything quite like it. A song like Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" comes to mind. I was at a crowded party back in my college days; the whole world seemed to stop when that song came on. Or maybe Dire Strait's "Sultans of Swing." I had never heard that style of guitar playing on a rock record before. I remember thinking "Wow, Bob Dylan's got an amazing new guitar player!" And who could forget where they were the first time they heard "Bohemian Rhapsody"?
I could name more tunes that produced that initial giddy rush, but only a few maintained their old magic as the years rolled by. And only one song still makes me feel the same way I felt the very first time I heard it. It took me by storm and never released its hold on me.
I was a sophomore in high school--newly liberated by a driver's license and a seriously cool 1972 Buick Grand Sport muscle car with an excellent stereo system. I was driving down down a country road east of Denton, coming back from seeing a friend who lived in a trailer park out in the country when a song exploded from the radio. I didn't recognize the voice of the singer. It was Dylanesque in the verses, but something entirely different on the refrain. The band didn't sound like any rock band I had ever heard before. The music was big, kinetic, operatic, anthemic, and punctuated with an amazing, fat saxophone solo. The song was exultant; it captured the very essence of who I was at that moment--a kid with few worries and mostly girls on the brain, driving through a beautiful Texas spring day, looking for a reason to step on the gas. It all came together in that moment. I experienced the rapture as the bluebonnets flew by. I listened intently at the end of the song, hoping the DJ would say the name of the artist. Bruce Springsteen?? I had never heard of him, but I bought Born to Run that very day.
Thirty three years later and I still can't hear "Born to Run" without feeling that same emotion. For me, it is the essence of the spirit of rock and roll. My long affection and appreciation for Springsteen was reawakened this past weekend while reading the extensive New Yorker article "We Are Alive: Bruce Springsteen at Sixty-Two" by David Remnick. More than just an entertaining exploration of his incredible career, the article looks at Springsteen's uncompromising ethic as an entertainer. He plays this role with a studied yet passionate determination, from carefully planning the set lists to expending every ounce of energy in his 3 hour long concerts. Springsteen has never mailed it in:
“Once people have bought those tickets, I don’t have that option...there is a commercial exchange, and that ticket is my handshake. That ticket is me promising you that it’s gonna be all the way every chance I get. That’s my contract. And ever since I was a young guy I took that seriously.”
I was witness to Springsteen's work ethic in 1984 during the Born in the USA tour. He sold out 4 consecutive nights at the Dallas Convention Center. I got lucky and landed excellent floor seats on the 5th row for the 2nd night. My date Cheryl was short, so she stood on her seat most of the evening. In fact, no one sat down the entire 3 1/2 hours. Springsteen never flagged and never stopped exhorting the audience. He had us at "Hello Dallas!" During "Dancing in the Dark", Springsteen--in an imitation of the hugely popular video for the song--extended his muscle toned arm, sweeping the crowd with his index finger, looking for a girl to bring on stage. His search seemed to come to an end when he locked eyes with my date Cheryl. Roadies turned and looked our direction. Had the Boss made his choice? Was I about to lose my girlfriend to Bruce friggin' Springsteen? Hell, she was already gone. Cheryl's legs buckled in a precursor to a faint and I had to hold her up to keep her from collapsing. Her face flushed deep red. Then, just as fast as it had come, the moment passed and the roadies brought another woman up on stage to dance with Bruce. It took a long time for Cheryl to recover.
Remnick details other aspects of Springsteen's life--his troubled relationship with his dad, his bouts with depression, his close relationship with long time manager Jon Landau, and the ironic fact that the champion of the working class never punched a clock himself. That last point left me to ponder: How does a writer express empathy authentically without ever experiencing the particular hardship he or she is addressing? And what is it about "Born to Run"--a bombastic celebration of New Jersey angst, rebellion, and freedom--that resonated with a boy growing up in a quiet college town in Texas?
I may be over-thinking things just a bit. To quote the Glimmer Twins: "It's only rock-n-roll but I like it." Mostly, I was just glad to read that all is well with Everyman's superstar; that he remains a vibrant artist and a transcendent performer, that he loves his work and still carries an exceptional sense of responsibilty toward his audience, and that he continues to be a man on a mission. To slow down is to die. Born to entertain. Born to run.
You can find Remnick's article here: