Bruce Springsteen was signed by Columbia Records at the age of 24. He was born into a Catholic working class New Jersey family living in the shadow of a depressive and violent father.
As a boy it was television that offered a window into a wider world. In 1956, at the age of nine, seeing Elvis Presley perform for the first time, on The Ed Sullivan Show, sent a jolt of electric excitement into his body. The following year his mother took a loan to buy him his first guitar. A few years later watching John Ford’s film version of John Steinbeck’s novel “Grapes of Wrath” opened him to the political possibilities of art, and began a life long connection to the history of popular American radicalism.
By the time Springsteen was signed to Columbia he was a veteran of the music scene in the bars along the Jersey Shore. Since he was in high school he had worked on his craft with extraordinary dedication. At 24 he could weave blues, rock, soul, pop and R’n’B together in a way that commanded critical and popular attention.
When “Born to Run” was released in 1975 it was immediately recognised as a major event in the history of rock. It’s rushing wall of sound, and lyrics that presented everyday working class life in dramatic terms, were explosive. This time extraordinary critical acclaim was matched with real commercial success. In the coming years Springsteen released three more albums that each took an instant and enduring place in the rock pantheon – “Darkness on the Edge of Town” (1978), “The River” (1980) and “Nebraska” (1982).
In 1984 “Born in the USA”, his most accessible record so far, became a massive commercial success. It was the second or third best selling album (depending on who you ask) of the ‘80s after Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.
After the extraordinary success of “Born in the USA”, the last of a set of albums often featuring songs about young men out on the street or on the road – and in flight from teachers, fathers, bosses and judges – Springsteen released three albums – “Tunnel of Love” (1987), “Human Touch” (1992) and “Lucky Town” (1992) – that often featured songs scripted around older characters, husbands and fathers.
At the time this work wasn’t always as well received as the previous four or five albums that had come to be considered as his major contribution to rock. But many of these songs have endured and, over the years, critical assessment has steadily become more generous.
In 1995 he recorded a stark and critically celebrated solo acoustic album, “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, that reprised the themes in “The Grapes of Wrath”, the Steinbeck novel that Springsteen had first encountered via John Ford’s cinematic adaption. It’s an undeniably great record that began a period of more explicit political commitment in Springsteen’s work in the set of albums to come.
This political commitment was most directly tied to the tradition of popular American radicalism in 2006 in “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions”, a collection of popular radical songs played with loose-limbed joy. The set of more explicitly political albums was interrupted with a couple of more lighthearted offerings but, in 2012 in “Wrecking Ball”, a well honed response to the financial crisis, Springsteen offered his most direct political statement ever. It’s a damn fine record.
Why is he still influential?
Springsteen is not just a musician with an extraordinary body of work – including an abundance of individual songs recorded for soundtracks and other projects, as well as large and growing body of outtakes and live recordings. He is also a remarkably generous performer – playing for up to four hours and often happy to take requests from the audience. He usually plays a song, generally with a political bent, from or relating to the country where he is performing. There is a sense of an artist that has a genuine respect for his audience.
Why is Springsteen still relevant?
Since at least 1984, when he made a large anonymous donation to striking miners in England and Wales, Springsteen has also offered consistent support to poor and working class people taking direct action to challenge the systems that sustain oppressive social relations. In recent years he has begun to speak about his longstanding battles with depression.
The really great figures in popular music have often burnt bright and died young. When musicians who found themselves in the pantheon of the great at a young age have continued composing and performing into middle age and beyond they have often seemed to become caricatures of themselves. But Springsteen has been able to sing about the school, the factory, the court, racing in the street, friendship, marriage, fatherhood and politics with a consistent integrity.
Me and Bruce
Like millions of others I first heard Springsteen in 1984. I was 13 when “Born in the USA” became a global sensation and I heard “Dancing in the Dark”, the first of seven singles off the album. From there I worked backwards, starting with “Born to Run”. I have listened to every new album since. I remember with the bright clarity that comes with the experience of art as event the thrilling commitment to life that rushed off the record the first time I dropped the needle on “Born to Run”.
Today my wife is most likely to ask me to put on Springsteen – perhaps something like his 1990’s Christic Institute shows, which were one-off acoustic sets in support of a public interest law firm – while she’s cooking, I’m being her sous chef and our son is telling us about his day. My boy is now quite partial to Irish punk-rockers The Pogues but the first song he ever liked was “High Hopes”, off Springsteen’s 2014 album with the same name.
When we’re driving from the university town of Grahamstown to Durban on South Africa’s east coast where our families live, we generally leave early, around three in the morning. I might listen to something like Nina Simone, Philip Tabane, Lee Perry or The Radio Rats when my wife and son are asleep. But as they start to wake up it’s just a matter of time before we turn to Springsteen to get us through the ten or eleven hours on the road.
My phone has space for just over 3 000 songs. Each one is very carefully chosen. With just over 300 songs by Springsteen he clocks in at around 10% of the mobile music collection that’s always with me in the banality of airports, doctors’ waiting rooms and supermarkets. It’s been more than 30 years and Springsteen is still a part of everyday life, still bringing meaning and passion into the now.
Springsteen played tremendously successful, and typically generous, shows in Harare in 1988, and Cape Town and Johannesburg in 2014. His autobiography, “Born to Run”, will be a significant publishing event in this part of the world.