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While many bands have legions of fans, few (if any) have garnered the type of following that Bruce Springsteen has. Long before he became famous, those who knew his work were already nothing less than devotees. Decades later, those numbers have skyrocketed but, for many, the devotion has not waned. That was true of me…until now.
I don’t in any way repudiate Springsteen’s greatness. He is, in fact, the greatest poet of my lifetime and, I would enjoy arguing perhaps the best since Shakespeare. I don’t have room here to defend that statement – nor is it the purpose of this paper – but I am far from the only one who has taken Springsteen’s works so seriously. There are two Harvard professors, a leading theologian and one of the nation’s premiere social and political journalists (to name just a very few) who have written books on Springsteen – the artist, not the man – and his literary and moral contributions. I, too, have considered writing one along the lines of The Leadership Lessons of George Washington and The Tao of Pooh – the often simple but essential lessons that I have taken from Springsteen’s lyrics and incorporated into my own life for the better.
Through the years I have been a fan – in many cases a big fan – of other acts as well. I think Paul Simon is a brilliant lyricist and musician and Bernie Taupin who, along with Elton John, has created some of the greatest songs in the soundtrack of my life are, too. Billy Joel has been unparalleled at catching and throwing back the zeitgeist of the times and so on. But only Springsteen has been a moral guide and to this day I have no doubt that he is, outside my closest family and friends, one of the two people who has most helped me to be the man I wish to be. The other, you may find of significance, is Dennis Prager.
Unlike any of the others, Springsteen has always seen his career as a body of work and he saw that body of work as a mission to offer people exactly what he, in fact, offered me, a blueprint for navigating the difficulties of life. These lessons were often simple – but aren’t the best always that way? – and what made them great was that they were accessible and could be replicated by any and all. Springsteen’s characters live in the real world with real world problems, problems that Springsteen would address with calls to action.
Much of Springsteen’s works – especially through the first third of his career – were centered around the automobile. Everything changed depending on who (if anyone) was in the passenger seat, what was on the radio, whether the windows were open or closed, the condition of the road, the condition of the tires and so forth. Like old-style Westerns, the locale didn’t change much, but thousands of different stories could be told.
It was not a coincidence that Springsteen’s characters spent so much time in and around cars for, while it’s not a novel conceit, life is a journey, and the car, for Springsteen, was the means for getting from here to there in your life. In “Thunder Road,” then, Springsteen’s car is not all supped up and gleaming telling us he’s just average guy. The losers, meanwhile – those stuck in their perpetual rut “Haunt these dusty beach roads in the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets.” Even the number of lanes and their composition serve as another clue in the telling of the tale. Springsteen’s on a two-lane highway. Not bad, but just one accident – by anyone – and things get backed up.
Nor is it coincidental that another word for car is “automobile” – quite literally self (auto) moving (mobile.) This, more than anything, brought Springsteen his legion of fans: the idea that the individual has the power to make choices that will affect his life. It came offered independence and opportunity.
The flip side of this is that choices have costs and consequences and there is no single concept that appears in Springsteen’s canon more than one iteration or another of “If you want it, you take it and you pay the price.” It’s a promise…and a warning.
But, just as actions have consequences, so, too does inaction. It’s not enough to dream, you have to act. (And, since there’s a cost to action you have to act wisely.) It’s not always that hard. In “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” Springsteen says “Where life’s on the line, where dreams are found and lost, I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost.” He reiterates this message in “Badlands” (“Talk about a dream, try to make it real”) and, again, in “Prove It All Night:”
“Everybody’s got a hunger, a hunger they can’t resist/There’s so much that you want, you deserve much more than this/well if dreams came true, ah, wouldn’t that be nice/but this ain’t no dream we’re living on through tonight, so, girl, you want it, you take it and you pay the price.”
In the song many consider Springsteen’s masterpiece – and which I believe is the greatest poem ever written (made only that much greater by musical turns that Robert McKee could use as an example of “integration” in his story — structure class) — “Thunder Road,” Springsteen is imploring a women he knows to join him in his trip down life’s highway. He – in themes that repeat throughout his body of work – knows that life’s better (and one’s chances for success, however one defines it, improved) with a pal, a confidant, a coconspirator, a lover and a friend beside you (in another song he’d say it point blank: “Two hearts are better than one. Two hearts, girl, get the job done.”)
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