This is is Part One of SPIN’s November 1985 cover story, “The Meaning of Bruce,” wherein we asked seven writers to consider the Springsteen phenomenon. (Check out the other essays, by Glenn O’Brien, Richard Meltzer, Amiri Baraka, Rich Stim, Scott Cohen, and Eric King, respectively.)
In 1985, Bruce Springsteen was the biggest musical artist in the world. He defined the stadium concert, playing, for instance, ten nights at New Jersey’s Giants Stadium in front of 70,000-plus people a night. He played for hundreds of thousands of people a week, all over the country. He was the rock ‘n’ roll colossus, and no American artist since Elvis so dominated the country’s imagination.
A few months into the life of this magazine, while we were still finding our steps like an infant tripping over itself, we knew we had to acknowledge the Springsteen phenomenon. Although we had tentatively established ourselves as a magazine about new music, music distinctly different from mainstream rock and pop, we knew there was little point claiming we would cover the interests of our readership if we were going to ignore aspects that were also vastly popular. A lot of SPIN‘s readers were going to those concerts.
We did, however, wish to cover the most covered rock star in the world in a way that would be a little different and fresher. We hit on the idea of asking a group of writers, in the end seven, to write essays about “the meaning of Bruce.”
The result was one of the things I look back on with greatest fondness. Any one of the seven articles turned out to be a spectacular snapshot and different perspective of where Springsteen stood in the Pantheon of contemporary pop culture. There was, happily, no too-cool-for-school type dismissiveness. From Tama Janowitz’s pretending to give Bruce’s wife a lobotomy and replacing her, and Bruce not noticing, to Richard Meltzer’s clear disgust at our taking Bruce seriously, “next they’ll ask us to write about Garfield,” these pieces were all gems. Poet Amiri Baraka wrote a glorious appraisal, Glenn O’Brien a funny and insightful piece declaring that whatever anyone else thought about how hip it was or not, he was glad to join the millions-large throng enjoying the music.
A couple of years later Tama and I were in a tiny Italian restaurant in Harlem called Rao’s. While we were at the bar waiting for our table, a guy tapped Tama from behind on the shoulder and said he was in the Springsteen band. It was pianist Roy Bittan, and he said to her, “You’re right, Bruce does buy his furniture from Sears.”
— Bob Guccione Jr., founder of SPIN, July 9, 2015
[This story was originally published in the November 1985 issue of SPIN. In honor of SPIN’s 30th anniversary, we’ve republished this piece as part of our ongoing “30 Years, 30 Stories” series.]
First, you must dispose of his wife. You disguise yourself as a chambermaid and get a job at a hotel where Bruce is staying with his wife on the tour. You know you are doing the right thing. Bruce will be happier with you. You are educated. You have studied anthropology. You can help Bruce with his music, give him ideas about American culture. You are a real woman.
You go into Bruce’s room. His wife is lying on the bed wearing a T-shirt that says “Number 1 Groupie” and staring straight up at the ceiling. You tell Bruce’s wife that Bruce has arranged for you to give her a facial and a massage: it’s a surprise. “Isn’t he sweet?” she says with a giggle.
You whip out an ice pick hidden under your clothes and quickly give her a lobotomy: You’ve watched this technique in The Frances Farmer Story on TV. Bruce’s wife doesn’t even flinch. After the operation, you present her with a bottle of Valium and an airplane ticket to Hollywood; the taxi’s waiting outside. To your amazement, she does exactly what you tell her to do.
You’re a bit worried about how Bruce will adjust to her absence and your presence, but when he returns to the room at three in the morning he doesn’t even seem to notice the difference. You’re dressed in her nightie, lying bed, looking up at the ceiling. Bruce strips down to his jockey shorts and gets into bed with you. “Goodnight, honeybunch,” he says. In the morning he doesn’t seem to realize there’s been a change in personnel.
In real life, Bruce is larger than life. Though he appears small on television and on record covers, when you stand next to him for the first time you understand that Bruce is the size of a monster. His hands are as large as your head; his body might take up an entire billboard. This is why, you now know, he must have guitars made specially for him.
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At breakfast Bruce puts away a dozen eggs, meatballs, spaghetti, and pizza. He sings while he eats, American songs about food. He has plans, projects. He discusses it with his business manager: the Bruce Springsteen Amusement Park, the Bruce Springsteen Las Vegas Casino, a chain of Bruce Springsteen bowling alleys.
Bruce decides that today you will buy a new home.
You are very excited about this prospect. You imagine something along the lines of Graceland or an elegant Victorian mansion. “I’m surprised at you,” Bruce says. “We agreed not to let my success go to your head.”
He selects a small ranch-style house on a suburban street of an industrial New Jersey town. “You go rehearse, darling,” you say. “I’ll pick out the furnishings.”
But Bruce wants to help with the decoration. He insists on ordering everything from Sears: a brown-and-white plaid couch trimmed with wood; a vinyl Laz-Y-Boy recliner; orange wall-to-wall carpeting. The bedroom, Bruce decides, will have mirrors on the ceiling, a waterbed with purple satin sheets, white shag carpeting, and two pinball machines. Everything he has chosen, he tells you, was made in the U.S.A.
In the afternoon, Bruce has a barbecue in the backyard. “Everybody’s got to have a hobby, babe,” he tells you. He wears a chef’s hat and has his own special barbecue sauce — bottled Kraft’s, which he doctors with ketchup and mustard. Though he only knows how to make one thing — dried-out chicken — everyone tells him it is the best they’ve ever had. You think it’s a little strange that no one seems to notice that his wife is gone and you are there instead; but perhaps it’s just that everyone is so busy telling Bruce how talented he is that they don’t have time.
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Soon you have made the adjustment to life with Bruce. The only time Bruce ever feels like making love is when the four of you — you, Bruce, and his two bodyguards — are driving in his Mustang. He likes to park at various garbage dumps outside of Newark and, while the bodyguards wait outside, pull you into the backseat. He finds the atmosphere — rats, broken refrigerators, old mattresses, soup cans — stimulating. He prefers that you don’t remove your clothes; he likes you to pretend to fight him off. The sun, descending through the heavy pollution, sinks slowly, a brilliant red ball changing slowly into violet and then night.
When Bruce isn’t on tour, rehearsing with his band, recording an album, or writing new songs, his favorite pastime is visiting old-age homes, and hospitals, where he sings to senior citizens until they beg him stop. He explains that he finds it refreshing to be with real Americans, those who do not worship him, those who do not try to touch the edges of his clothing. But after a short time, even the sick old people discover that when Bruce plays to them they are cured.
The terminally ill recover after licking up just one drop of Bruce’s sweat. Soon Bruce is in such demand at the nursing homes that he is forced to give it up. There is nothing Bruce can do that doesn’t turn to gold. One day Bruce has a surprise for you. “I’m going to take you on a vacation, babe,” he says. “You know, we were born to run.” You are thrilled. At last you will get that trip to Europe, you will be pampered, you will visit the couture houses and select a fabulous wardrobe; you will go to Bulgari and grab a handful of jewels. You will be deferred to; everyone will want to be your friend in the hope of somehow getting close to Bruce.
“Oh Bruce, this is wonderful,” You say. “Where will we go?”
“I bought a camper,” Bruce says. “I thought we’d drive around, maybe even leave New Jersey.” You have always hated camping, but Bruce has yet another surprise — he’s stocked the camper with food. Dehydrated scrambled eggs, pancake mix, beef jerky. “No more fast food for us,” he says.
You travel all day; Bruce has decided he wants to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. While Bruce drives he plays tapes of his music and sings along. You tell him you’re impressed that he’s memorized all the words. “So what do you think?” he says. “You like the music?”
Though your feet hurt — Bruce has bought you a pair of hiking boots a size too small — you tell him you think the music is wonderful. Never has a greater genius walked the face of the earth.
Unfortunately, Bruce is irritated by this. The two of you have your first fight. “You’re just saying that.” Bruce says. “You’re just the same as all the rest. I thought you were different, but you’re just trying to get on my good side by telling me I’m brilliant.”
“What do you want from me?” you ask. Bruce starts to cry. “I’m not really any good,” he says.
“That’s not true, Bruce,” you say. “You mustn’t feel discouraged. Your fans love you. A small boy was cured of cancer when he saw you on TV. You’re up there with the greats: the Beatles, Christ, Gandhi, Lee Iacocca. You’ve totally restored New Jersey to its former glory. Once again, it’s a proud state.”
“Its not enough,” Bruce says. “I was happier in the old days, when I was just Bruce, playing in my garage.”
You’re beginning to feel unhappy in your life with Bruce. Since Bruce spends so much time rehearsing, there is little for you to do but shop. Armed with credit cards and six bodyguards (to protect you from Bruce’s angry women fans), you search the stores for some gift for Bruce that might please him. You buy foam coolers to hold beer, Smurf dolls, candy-flavored underwear, a television set he can wear on his wrist, a purebred Arabian colt. You hire three women to wrestle on his bed covered in mud.
Bruce thanks you politely but tells you, “I’m only interested in one thing.”
“Me?” you say.
Bruce looks startled. “My music,” he says.
To your surprise you learn you are pregnant, though you can’t figure out how this could have happened. You think about what to name the baby. “How about Benjamin Springsteen?” you say.
“Too Jewish immigrant,” Bruce says. “This kid is going to be an American, not some leftist from Paterson.”
“How about Sunny Von?” You say.
“Sunny von Springsteen?” Bruce says. “I don’t get it. No, there’s only one name for a kid of mine.”
“What?” you say, trying to consider the possibilities.
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Bruce is sitting on the couch, stroking his guitar. The phones are ringing nonstop, the press is banging on the door. You haven’t been out of the house in three days. The floor is littered with boxes from Roy Rogers, cartons of White Castle burgers, empty cans of Coke. You wonder how you’re going to fill up the rest of the day. You’ve already filed your nails, studied the Sears catalog, made a long-distance call to your mother.
At last Bruce speaks. “I’m going to call the kid Elvis,” he says.
“What if it’s a girl?” you say.
“Elvis.” Bruce says. “Elvis, either way.”
You fly to Hollywood to try and find his real wife. You finally track her down: she’s working as a tour guide at a wax museum. “Admission to the museum is $5,” she says at the door. “The museum will close in 15 minutes.”
“Don’t you remember me?” you say. “I’m the person who gave you a lobotomy and shipped you off to Hollywood.”
“If you say so,” Bruce’s wife says. “Thank you.”
“I made a mistake,” you say. “I did wrong. I have your ticket here. You go back to Bruce.”
His wife is willing, though she claims not to know what you’re talking about. “But what about my job here?” she says. “I can’t just leave.”
You tell her you’ll take over for her. Quickly, you rush her to the airport, push her onto the plane. You tell her to look after Bruce. “He can’t live without you, you know,” you say.
You wait to make sure her plane takes off on time. A sense of relief comes over you.
You have nowhere to go, nothing to do; you decide to return to the wax museum and make sure it’s locked up for the night.
You have the keys to the door. The place is empty, the lights are off. Now you wander through the main hall. Here are Michael Jackson, Jack the Ripper, President Reagan, Sylvester Stallone, Muhammad Ali, Adolf Hitler. You are alone with all these men, waxy-faced, unmoving, each one a superstar. Something violent starts to kick, then turns, in your stomach.