A saint in the city

Bruce Springsteen is more than a rock legend; he's a god.

By Karen Croft
July 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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On Oct. 27, 1975, both Time and Newsweek put a scrawny kid named Bruce
Springsteen on their covers. And that was back when they let editors make those decisions.

Those New York publishing-world decision makers were on to something. But
Jon Landau was on to it first. In May 1974 the rock critic (who later
became Springsteen's producer) wrote in a small Boston paper what could be the
most famous sentence about a rock musician: "I saw rock and roll future and
its name is Bruce Springsteen." He wrote these words in a rambling essay
about his search for the "real thing" in music.

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He found it in Bruce and so have millions of others. Bruce fans are
special. Like Bob Dylan's, they are interested in his mind. Like Elvis', they
are interested in his sexuality and show-biz pizazz. Like Woody Guthrie's,
they love his common-man compassion. And he sings a romantic story in a way
that attracts not only gals who love his macho sensitivity, but guys who
want it. But Bruce's fans go one step further. They think he's a god. They
don't talk about it, most don't admit it, but for them he is a religion.
And there's good reason for this. He, alone among rock performers, has not
sold out. He is pure, heroic. He'd be uncomfortable talking
about how his fans worship him -- just another reason for them to do so.

Bruce wasn't born in a manger; he was born in Freehold, N.J., on
Sept. 23, 1949, son of a pool-playing job drifter/bus driver who gave
him a hard time and a secretary/housewife who gave him unconditional love
and his first guitar. He is Irish, Dutch and Italian, has two sisters and told Time in 1975, "I lived half of my first 13 years
in a trance or something." When he was a teenager his parents moved to
Northern California. Bruce stayed in Jersey, woke up from the trance, got a
guitar and started making hard history.

The career can be divided into at least four parts. The first is
Bruce the unknown, and that's the shortest. After playing hundreds
of gigs in Jersey and Manhattan bars throughout his teens he hooked up with
the aggressive Mike Appel as his manager. In 1972 Appel got Bruce in to see
Columbia Records ur-A&R man John Hammond (who had been astute enough to
sign people like Billie Holiday, Dylan and Benny Goodman). After
hearing Bruce, Hammond said, "The kid absolutely knocked me out. I only hear
somebody really good once every 10 years, and not only was Bruce the best,
he was a lot better than Dylan when I first heard him." Within a week, Columbia had signed Bruce to a contract. His first record, "Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.," hit the streets in the summer of 1973. Bruce was 24.

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The album didn't sell well, maybe because Bruce was promoted as the next
Dylan and that was a turn-off to DJs -- and not true. But Bruce, undaunted
and with lots of material he'd written while crashing at friends' after his
parents went west, came out with album No. 2 in the fall of 1974: "The
Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle." Like "Greetings," it got good
reviews but foundered without airplay.

But even without garnering huge sales the two albums gave the world what
were to become anthems. From "Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J." came "Blinded by the Light,"
"Growin' Up," "Spirit in the Night" and "It's Hard to be a Saint in the
City." And from "The
Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle" came "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),"
Incident on 57th Street" and "Rosalita." To this day any one of those can bring down
the house, and they were all produced in the first year of Bruce's professional career.

Meanwhile, Bruce was playing the clubs and gathering the following that is
his alone. Once you see him perform, you're either a fan for life or you don't
get it. Pretty soon, radio was forced to pay attention because those who
got it kept calling in requests, forcing him into fame.

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The second phase is all about that fame and "Born to Run." As classic as
the first two albums now seem, they are collections of wild short stories.
"Born to Run," released in 1975, is a novel. Is there an American rock song
more classic than "Born to Run" or "Thunder Road"? Is there a song more
indelibly linked to its composer? Bruce was a leather-jacketed Holden
Caulfield, roaring down the Jersey Turnpike in a burned-out Chevrolet. This
is the album that solidified his image and propelled him onto magazine
covers. It's about the struggle to be a man, to make it in this world
without compromise. It's about masculinity, finding a soul mate and
freedom. Like Fitzgerald's Gatsby, he is yearning for the orgiastic light
in the final, climactic "Jungleland":

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Beneath the city two hearts beat

Soul engines running through a night so tender

In a bedroom locked

In whispers of soft refusal

And then surrender

In the tunnels uptown

The Rat's own dream guns him down

As shots echo down them hallways in the night

No one watches when the ambulance pulls away

Or as the girl shuts out the bedroom light ...

Is it going too far to see this as an American tragic drama? Perhaps, but
the album is as important to Bruce's career as Gatsby was to Fitzgerald's.
And whether or not it's literary, it's powerful. When Bruce whispers,
"Tonight" in the last line of "Jungleland," it's a spine-tingling
expression of animal passion and human fragility.

Which brings us to the core of any rock god's appeal: Bruce is way sexy.
And it's not a tight pants, shake your hips, overt kind of sexy, but a
primal force he exudes that attracts both sexes equally. He is testosterone
and poetry. When he sings, in "Born to Run," "Wendy, let me in, I wanna be
your friend/I want to guard your dreams and visions," it's the most romantic
phrase one can imagine by a guy in black jeans singing. But then he
balances that tenderness with "Just wrap your legs round these velvet
rims/And strap your hands across my engines," and you know you're in the
hands of one tough dude.

One woman in her 40s, who's been a fan since the beginning of Bruce's
career, says, "I so do not want to be Bruce's girlfriend. I don't want to
meet him, either. The reason I love him is because he is so damned romantic
and deep and gives me faith that a man can be tender and loving and in
love."

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A man of about the same age, also a lifelong fan and now a father and husband,
echoes the passion. "What's important about Bruce, when I listen to his
records, but especially when I see him live, is not what I learn about him,
but what I learn about myself ... His ideas always seem to shed light on my
own struggles ... What does it really mean to 'be a man' in this fucked-up
society of ours? What does it mean to be 'tougher than the rest'? Bruce has
been struggling to come up with a definition of manhood that's all about
commitment, community, family and strength of the sort that makes everyone
better off, rather than the zero-sum definition that so much of our culture
worships. It's a definition of manhood that's tough-minded enough to be
soft-hearted -- from a guy who could kick Sly or Arnold's ass any day of
the week."

In this second, fame-laden phase, Bruce struggled with these what-is-a-man
issues but did so with the power of the record companies behind him. He
released "Darkness on the Edge of Town" (1978), produced by his new best
friend Jon Landau. Then came "The River" (1980), a sprawling two-record
set that looked to his childhood and the tests of manhood. After that, he
pulled back and did the spare, acoustic Hemingway-meets-Woody Guthrie "Nebraska,"
before launching into the huge "Born in the USA" album (1984) and a
marriage to model/aspiring actress Julianne Phillips (1985). Both "Born in
the USA" and the marriage were misunderstood. The first was co-opted by
Ronald Reagan, who used it as a hook in a campaign speech and brought out Bruce's only
negative political statement (No, President Reagan, said Bruce, the song is
not a call to patriotism; it's about how rough this country is on vets).

And the marriage -- well, both Bruce and the country went through some
growing pains in the 1980s, and die-hard fans still criticize him for
marrying "down." What can we say -- rock stars marry models because they
can. She was a gorgeous gal who came backstage one night and swept Bruce
off his feet; who can blame the guy for wanting it all? "Born in the USA"
gained him the devil's-pact popularity of the masses for the first time. Bruce even looked
different in this phase: He pumped up from hip Jersey waif to don't mess
with me front man.

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It also propelled him into his third phase: becoming an adult. He had to
deal with fans at concerts who knew him only from "Born in the USA" and
weren't familiar with the struggle days. He had to deal with a wife who
didn't want children right now (so we hear; he never said as much) and with
mainstream success (a Grammy in 1985 for "Dancing in the Dark" as well as
the mega-hit status of the album).

We hear his struggle on "Tunnel of Love" (1987), which he dedicated to
Julianne (in a line on the notes: "Thanks Juli") but which contained one of
the most devastating pieces of poetry about a struggling relationship ever
written. "Brilliant Disguise" builds slowly, almost in monotone, as he muses
(the black-and-white video shows him strumming a guitar in his kitchen as a
camera comes in for a close-up):

Well I've tried so hard baby

But I just can't see

What a woman like you

Is doing with me

So tell me who I see

When I look in your eyes

Is that you baby

Or just a brilliant disguise ...

Tonight our bed is cold

I'm lost in the darkness of our love

God have mercy on the man

Who doubts what he's sure of.

So, it was no surprise that in 1989 he split -- with wife and band -- and hunkered down to rediscover his reality.

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He found it with Patti Scialfa, a Jersey girl who'd been a backup
singer in the band since '84. There may have been some overlap in the
marriage and the love with Patti, and that's a sore point for those who
think Bruce has to be perfect. But Bruce, more than anyone, has always sung
about taking risks for love. In his 1992 double release, "Human Touch" and
"Lucky Town," put out after he'd had a son with (1990) and married (1991) Patti, we
hear him dealing with the harshness of life and love but making that leap
of faith that it will all work out.

These albums are often overlooked or demoted to also-rans, but they contain two of his tenderest love songs -- "If I Should Fall Behind" ("I'll
wait for you/And should I fall behind/Wait for me") from "Lucky Town," and the lullaby "Pony
Boy," the last cut on "Human Touch," written for his child. Bruce has come through his need to jump on some wheels and
peel out. He's staying home now and singing to his wife and kids -- knowing
all the while that this, like everything else, will not be easy.

As he raised a family (he has three children), won three Grammys and an
Oscar ("Streets of Philadelphia") and released a career-summarizing
"Greatest Hits" album (1995), he also worked on the sparest of all of his
albums, "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (1995). Filled with
compassionate laments to Depression-era and immigrant pain, this album -- together with the wrenching song from the AIDS-themed "Philadelphia" -- was
a public offering of the love and compassion Bruce was nurturing at home.
With another Grammy in 1997 for "Tom Joad" for best folk album, Bruce had
come full circle. He was rich, with a family and homes on both sides of
the country.

But -- and this goes back to why he's a spiritual presence for his fans --
he's the same guy he was more than 20 years ago. The two albums end on a
similar note: the beautiful tragedy of being human.
"The Ghost of Tom Joad" ends with "My Best Was Never Good Enough":

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If God gives you nothin' but lemons then you make some lemonade

The early bird catches the fuckin' worm

Rome wasn't built in a day

Now life's like a box of chocolates

You never know what you're going to get

Stupid is as stupid does and all the rest of that

shit

Come on pretty baby call my bluff

'Cause for you my best was never good enough.

The words are blunter now. He uses the f-word for the first time. Back in
'73 his imagery was lusher:

I had skin like leather and the

diamond-hard look of a cobra

I was born blue and weathered

but I burst just like a supernova

I could walk like Brando right

into the sun

Then dance just like a Casanova

With my blackjack and jacket

and hair slicked sweet

silver star studs on my duds

just like a Harley in heat ...

Them gasoline boys downtown

sure talk gritty

It's so hard to be a saint in

the city.

But the sentiment is similar: Life beats you down, but you gotta be tougher
than the rest. A middle-aged die-hard Bruce fan from Jersey sums up his
hero's enduring attraction. "He is a spiritual force. He inspires you. He
makes you realize there's beauty in just going on."

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One might react cynically to such a thought. After all, Bruce isn't just
existing. He is a supernova of success. This is his fourth phase, marked by
a reunion tour with the E Street Band (Roy Bittan, Clarence Clemons, Danny
Federici, Nils Lofgren, Patti Scialfa, Garry Tallent, Steve Van Zandt and
Max Weinberg). It started in April in Barcelona and hit the States this
week in New Jersey. Success isn't an issue (15 shows in Jersey -- more than
300,000 tickets sold in 13 hours). But it's a special kind of success
that isn't in the raw numbers of albums or tickets sold. Bruce has stayed
who he is through the musical phases that swirled around him: disco, punk,
grunge, house, retro-folk and girl-diary confessional. That was there, but
it influenced him less than his demons, his soul searching and his
obsession with telling the truth did.

Bruce has never been one to wax eloquent in interviews. He recently spent
an hour with Charlie Rose that was a waste -- both because Bruce was on
his best, formal behavior and because Rose obviously didn't know the music.
But it doesn't matter. We don't need any answers that aren't in the music.
We know that, whatever happens in his career, Bruce will never be in a beer
commercial, he will never act in a Bruce Willis movie and he will never dye
his hair blond.

In 1975 he sang, "Someday girl, I don't know when/we're gonna get to that
place/Where we really want to go/And we'll walk in the sun/But till then
tramps like us/Baby we were born to run."

The sun is shining, and Bruce is still that tramp. Thank God.


Karen Croft

Karen Croft is the editor of Salon Sex.

MORE FROM Karen Croft


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Bruce Springsteen