I started really listening to Bruce Springsteen in 1981, when I was a senior in high school. That spring The River was released and I devoured it. I had been around his music before that and I’m sure heard singles played on the radio and listened to eight tracks and cassettes with friends. But it was The River that really hooked me as I listened on my own, again and again, reading along with the lyrics and entering into this narrative world he has spent four decades now creating. From there I worked backward to Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born to Run, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, and finally Greetings From Asbury Park.
I began listening with the same care that I read the poets I was encountering in the classroom, and I really did learn at least as much from those three-minute records than I ever learned in school. These words, it seemed, were crafted by a poet who refused to stand back and let it all be. While I was too young and inexperienced to have the words to say it myself, when I finally heard them they rang true to what I knew in my bones: I was listening to the future of rock and roll.
I was hooked and have been a fan ever since. Nebraska was released during my sophomore year of college and I was living with a bunch of New Yorkers who had been listening to Bruce a lot longer than I had; for a while I think it's all we played. I didn’t see Springsteen in concert until two years later, on the Born in the USA tour. Since then I’ve not missed a tour and often been privileged to see him in two or even three different venues on a few of those tours. Recently I was present at Gillette Stadium, the third “Boston” show after two at Fenway. The man just keeps getting better.
A friend of mine says that what makes Bruce great is that he keeps on “growin’ up.” Unlike so many rock stars, who become parodies of themselves and then go out and sing the same songs as if they are trying to recapture a little of the glory days, Bruce keeps evolving, keeps growing, keeps learning. He takes musical risks. While he may have been born to run, the truth is that he has settled down into married life, and parenthood. A more political vision has emerged and he's been vocal about that; yet never an ideologue. He seems wise, or at least on the path toward wisdom. While he may not look 62 dancing around on stage for three and a half hours, he has continued to mature, and the man just seems pretty comfortable in his own skin.
I’ve given a lot of thought over the years to his theology and someday maybe I’ll even try to write it all down. Clearly, Springsteen doesn’t think of himself as a Christian musician, but he has said on more than one occasion that you can’t take the (Roman) Catholic imagery out of the boy. But my sense is that even when he is not overt about religious imagery (and sometimes he is) the basic shape of his albums and the liturgical flow of his concerts takes one to the core of the Christian message of hope.
Perhaps the language of Paul Tillich is helpful here, who once said that there is a correlation between “the questions raised by existence and the answer of the gospel.” Springsteen keeps wrestling with the questions of existence. The answers he comes up with seem (to my ear at least) to ring very close to the gospel that I preach every week from a pulpit. He affirms the goodness of creation, yet knows that Adam raised a Cain. Signs of what Christians call “original sin” are all around us in spare parts and broken hearts, in cities that lie in ruins, and in the death that has come to so many hometowns.
Yet Bruce never leaves you depressed. While brutally honest about all of that pain in the world (no one could ever say his music is an escape from reality; it's a diving deeper into reality), he never stops there. Death never gets the last word. Again and again, Bruce finds some reason to believe. Always there is a promised land to seek and a train that is bound for it on which one needs no ticket, and there is room enough for everyone. Always we are invited to come along; literally to "come on up for the rising.”
He has faith and in his presence you have faith too. You leave his concerts feeling that anything is possible if only we can hold that vision and work together. It is admittedly, "just music." Just poetry. But as Springsteen keeps on dancing in the dark, you feel like joining in, because you know that in spite of it all, these are better days.
There is a line in “Badlands” that has always struck me but it really hit me between the eyes this past weekend in Foxborough. Echoing St. Paul, Bruce sings about faith, hope, and love—starting with the greatest of these:
Now I believe in the love that you gave me.
I believe in the faith that could save me.
I believe in the hope and I pray that some day it
Will raise me above these
And then, after the chorus, the next verse begins with these words:
For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside
That it aint no sin to be glad you're alive... (emph mine)
It dawned on me that this last line in many ways takes us to the very heart of Bruce's theological vision, if one wishes to call it that. (I wish to call it that!) I feel better, happier, and more hopeful after three and a half hours with Bruce. He embodies these words, every time. In spite of it all, it's no sin to be glad you're alive and to live like you mean it.
Keep preaching the good word, Bruce!