Funny thing, I’m pretty sure I had never heard of Bruce Springsteen before “Born in the USA” came out. In fact, I think the first time I became aware of Springsteen was when he did the “Dancing in the Dark” video, and pulled the oh-so-excellent-looking Courtney Cox on the stage. And then next time I noticed him was was when he did the “Glory Days” video, and I still cannot stand that song. Speedball, indeed.
Hey, there was no Springsteen where I lived. I grew up in a sheltered AM Radio home with Connie Francis and Bobby Vinton records playing — to me, as a kid, the epicenter of music hip was the Leif Garrett record that I got for free at Burger King (“Everybody go surfin’!”) and the Vickie Sue Robinson appearance on Bandstand. Turn the beat around. Love to hear percussion.
I think it was my ghastly musical upbringing that shaped my philosophy about music, which is this: You just like what you like. I am, as is probably apparent from this blog, an unbearable pop-culture snob about most things. I cannot imagine a scenario where I could be friends with anyone who loves the movie “Patch Adams” or religiously watches “According to Jim” (no offense to Jim Belushi, if you are reading) or holds a monthly poker game that tilts towards deuces, sevens and one-eyed jacks. I really am a jerk, actually.
But that snobbishness ends with music. I think music (as Elvis said during the Sun Sessions) either moves you or it doesn’t. And that comes from someplace beyond choices, something involuntary, the color of your eyes. I might prefer not to like George Michael. I might feel embarrassed that “Voulez Vous” makes me so happy. But this is what I am.
Put in a negative way way: I may personally think that Billy Joel music sucks, but this does not prevent me from being best friends with a guy who can sing every song, word for word, off the Streetlife Serenade album (it also does not make me think any less of the cool and hot Sarah Silverman that she has the gruesome “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” on her iTunes playlist. Hey, Bottle of Red, Bottle of White, whatever makes you happy Sarah). I may personally rather listen to passing garbage trucks than Jethro Tull, but when a friend of mine went to see them in concert recently (yeah, recently), I did not stop returning her calls.
(I will admit that going to a Jethro Tull concert in 2007 does push my liberal music sensibilities to the edge. Seriously, how old are those guys by now? Jethro Tull recorded “Locomotive Breath” when locomotives were America’s No. 1 transportation option. And that song sucked then too.)
All of this is a way to offer my theory that while you may learn to appreciate music, loving it comes from someplace else. I appreciate Charlie Parker. I love Prince. I appreciate Mozart. I love Madonna. I appreciate the Beatles. I love Feist. I have Wilco and Arcade Fire on my iPod. I listen to Keane and David Gray instead. I suspect old Nirvana is better than old Pearl Jam, but I like Pearl Jam more. I appreciate young Sinatra and skinny Elvis, but I love cuckoo old Frank Sinatra and cape-wearing In the Ghetto Elvis. These aren’t choices I would necessarily make, if they were choices.
And I love Bruce Springsteen. I know a lot has been written about Springsteen, good and bad, about his politics and his growth and depth as a musician and his place in American music and a whole lot of other things that frankly are way beyond me. But what I’m trying to get across here is that none of that means much to me. I appreciate that Springsteen. But I love the Springsteen whose music has made me feel stuff at different times in my life, stuff that, technically, is nowhere to be found in any of of the songs.
I didn’t hear “Born to Run” — the album — until I was in college. And, like countless other kids, I listened to it over and over and over again, even though none of the songs really spoke to me, not literally. I don’t know anything about cars or the backstreets of the big city, and I haven’t really been around too many people like Eddie or the Magic Rat or the barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge (drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain). I still have absolutely no idea what Tenth Avenue Freeze Out is supposed to be about. I guess Bad Scooter was searching for his groove.
But it doesn’t matter, not to me. There was something electric in the music, something I NEEDED to hear at that moment in my life, something I still love to hear, something about wanting to bust out and make a name for yourself and just be heard, man. I was like most of my friends, I had this nameless ambition to do something, be something, but also this overriding suspicion that I was going to live a half life with a dead-end, John Cusack, “I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought or processed, or repair anything …” kind of job. Bruce shouted down that fear. We’re gonna get to the place where we really wanna go and then we’ll walk in the sun.
Other Bruce albums and songs through the years have had that sort of impact on me — from my college days to my Dad days — they helped me wallow in self pity some days and kicked me out of bed on others and made me believe on other days. Again, I don’t think that it was the words and music. It was something more than that, something that Nick Hornby described once as “God walking into the song.” I just listened to those Bruce songs so much that they triggered something in me. They brought me closer to what lies underneath.
Even now, I don’t consider myself a Springsteen fanatic. My wife thinks I am one, but I know those people. They are my friends. They listen to imports. They travel around the country to see him. They can tell you which version of “Badlands” is better — the one he recorded in Philly or the one he did in Boston — and they know Springsteen songs I’ve never heard of, and they know everything about Springsteen himself. I don’t really know much about that. I don’t even remember the lyrics to some of his songs I’ve heard 150 times. I just know how his music makes me feel.
The other night, in a hotel room in Nagoya, I woke up at 5 a.m. with my back shooting sparks of pain. I have never really had any back pain before, certainly nothing like this, and I’m not going to lie to you — it scared the living hell out of me. I’m here in Japan, alone, I don’t know anybody, I don’t speak the language, I had no earthly idea what to do. I thought maybe I threw out my back. I thought maybe I was having kidney stones (I have since talked to people who have had kidney stones — they assured me that I would have known without any doubt, so that, oddly enough, made me feel better). I thought a lot of bad things actually. The pain would not subside no matter where I went, no matter how I sat or walked or laid down. It was pretty bad.
And then, finally, the pain eased. I still don’t know where it came from or where it went — I’m not looking for theories either, I’m just glad it’s gone — and I stretched out on the bed (because here the beds are harder than the floors — that could have something to do with it) and I put on my iPod and closed my eyes. I listened to my new favorite Springsteen song, “Girls in Their Summer Clothes.”
A kid’s rubber ball smacks
Off the gutter ‘neath the lamp light
Big bank clock chimes
Off got the sleepy front porch lights
Downtown the stores alight as the evening’s underway
Things’ been a little tight
But I know they’re gonna turn my way
And in an instant, I was back in America, back where everything feels familiar, where the street lights shine down on Blessing Avenue, and, I don’t know, everything felt all right again.
I don’t know if “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” is a “good” song as far as that goes. Critics may hate it. Springsteen fans may think it’s the worst song on the album. Music snobs may read this and realize that they could never been my friend because this is the song I listened to in a dark and lonely Japanese hotel room when I could barely move — I mean, I really don’t know, hell, it may be the musical equivalent of “According to Jim.” It doesn’t really matter though. I don’t think you choose what music saves you. I think you just listen and feel lucky that you found it.7