Singin’ for the Lonely

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen on his 2012 European tour / photo by Juan Ramon Rodrigeuz Sosa, courtesy Creative Commons

LET ME tell you about the Bruce Springsteen concert I went to in London this summer.

I first got fascinated with Springsteen the same way I learned to shave, in secret imitation of my father. I remember in junior high being so embarrassed by the very existence of facial hair, let alone its insidious campaign to spread itself all over my cheeks, that I routinely nicked my dad’s electric razor and ran the shower—sometimes both taps too—to cover up its high-pitched buzz. The idea of listening to Bruce Springsteen carried similar associations with the forbidden land of adulthood. When my dad entertained company, he often told stories about college, and sure enough every time there would be Bruce, flitting Puck-like through the shadows of those undergrad days. In that role Springsteen took on a kind of totemic power, signifying for my much younger self the alchemical process by which boys become men.

Dad’s always been an elusive storyteller, preferring to let his listeners’ imaginations fill in the gaps. But he gets especially elliptical when he revisits his college years. So all I knew about The Boss for a long time was that my dad’s freshman-year roommate—the one who, in another story, gets caught by Dad’s youth minister using the dorm to grow pot—started every weekend off right by blasting Born to Run out their window into the quad. In those simpler, pre-YouTube times, I grew up wondering what that Friday-afternoon beacon of misbehavior must have sounded like, and what I might feel shooting through my nervous system if I heard it now. When I finally listened to the album myself, toward the end of high school (and of course in absurd, unnecessary secrecy, as if it were a product of my dad’s roommate’s ‘greenhouse’), I thought I caught in Bruce’s growl the same hints of a wider, wilder world I’d heard teasing at the edges of Dad’s stories for years. They both whispered to me, coyly, of my own early twenties yet to come.

And it was in college—liberated, on my own, and 500 miles from home—that I really got turned on to The Boss. I had this one senior friend whom I idolized, who embodied all the worldly cool I expected from campus life. (It didn’t hurt that he dated the girl across the hallway from me, who was of course my biggest crush.) And he was a raging Springsteen fanatic. So not only did I adopt the soft strains of Nebraska as afternoon study music, and the newly-released “Radio Nowhere” as my driving anthem on the back roads of Ohio the summer before sophomore year, but Born to Run fittingly laid down the rhythm line for my first drunken hookup, achingly melodic camouflage for our awkward-sounding struggle to connect. Springsteen’s raw bellow this time, not running water from the shower, but still a smokescreen to cover up my embarrassing desire for adulthood.

AFTER GRADUATION, I worked for a year in the same suburb where I went to college, a semi-conscious refusal to abandon the more expansive world I’d discovered there and just move on with my life. Then I spent the summer getting ready for grad school in England. And that was when, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, music stopped speaking to me. It happened gradually, as if my taste for music slipped away in the rearview mirror at the same pace as my undergrad self. Despite years ferreting out underground hipster bands, I stopped anticipating new music, or even caring about new releases from my favorite artists. Then I lost interest in my old standbys too, the very people who’d first swept me up into the unbridled joy of racing across the long open Ohio roads with the convertible top down and the speakers turned up to their max. The final blow came in grad school, far away from home, alone under dark gray English skies. A lifelong introvert, I simply failed to make a rich new world for myself, and I kept wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. Simultaneously, I found that I couldn’t concentrate on anything, even as banal an activity as doing the dishes, with any kind of music on in the background. In a renunciation that felt all too poignantly like cutting loose my own life story, I simply stopped listening to music. Except, predictably, for Bruce Springsteen.

On the worst afternoons, when the sun set before four, I had a hard time envisioning the ambitious plans that drove me to grad school to begin with. And it wasn’t just ambition that drained out of me. Hell, I couldn’t remember what it was like to feel anything as intensely as the joys and sorrows I shared with college friends back when I was making those plans for my future self. On those days I’d put on Darkness on the Edge of Town and relax into its ruminations. “When the night’s quiet and you don’t care anymore,” The Boss would croon (I pretended this part was just for me), “I walk streets of fire.” Even the softest Springsteen songs blaze with passion, rebelling against the limitations of fate and poverty and small-town life in America. As my own world seemed like it was narrowing down around me, I struggled to reignite myself in Bruce’s music, maybe even to rediscover my lost passion for songs in general. It’s probably for the best that I didn’t manage to recover my old hipster self that way, but The Boss’s apparently boundless emotion did help me limp through that first year abroad.

THE ONE nice thing about fighting depression in England by listening to Bruce Springsteen is that The Boss’s European tours are legendary. So this summer I picked up tickets for Springsteen at Wembley Stadium. I don’t know how big a role my feelings of loneliness and dislocation have played in eroding my love of music, but I figured the roar of 70,000 hardcore fans singing their hearts out about America should solve all my problems. In “Radio Nowhere,” Bruce practically shouts that he’s just “trying to make a connection to you.” As I stood in the nosebleed section of Wembley on a rosy June evening, I hoped for just such a connection, desperate for musical and emotional salvation up in the cheap seats.

Instead I got the hollow liberal platitudes of Wrecking Ball, Bruce’s latest album. Back on The River, especially the title track, Springsteen’s stories fairly quiver with their characters’ suffering and ecstasy; the euphoria paradoxically enhances the pain. But as I watched the well-off forty-somethings at Wembley clap happily along, I realized Springsteen’s newest songs offer only the warm fuzzy feeling that “we take care of our own.” “Death to My Hometown,” admittedly, orders us to “send the robber barons straight to hell.” But the song itself seems unscarred by America’s recent crises, more of a raucous romp than a furious call to rebellion. The concert was about as passion-filled as a political rally supporting Dodd-Frank. I found myself unable to connect with Bruce’s singing, because he’s not singing about anything anymore, and I was too world-weary even to be disappointed.

Then Bruce came back onstage for the encore, with just his harmonica and an acoustic guitar, for all the world like his 70’s self had been resurrected. Rocking gently back and forth before the microphone as “Mary’s dress sways,” shutting his eyes as if he could see her right there, “a vision she dances across the porch,” as The Boss softly plays, we got “Thunder Road” in all its hope and all its tortured nostalgia. A tingling ran up the backs of my legs, and for the first time that night I acted involuntarily, inspired and rhapsodic, released again into the wide-open world around me. I belted out the lyrics in one voice with everyone else in the stadium, screaming like a sixteen-year-old racing down the road or my dad’s roommate calling the campus to party. Seventy thousand of us linked up with each other and the soul baring itself onstage. How can you not know life matters with such raw emotion expressing itself?

It lasted maybe five minutes, and then I deflated back into myself. But it’s enough, I thought, riding the escalator down to the ground floor. It’s enough to remind me that ecstasy exists, and the memory’s enough for now.