This is Part Two 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 Tama Janowitz, Richard Meltzer, Amiri Baraka, Rich Stim, Scott Cohen, and Eric King, respectively.)
Some of my best friends are people I used to dislike. And it is frequently those qualities that made them repellent in the first place that later make them seem so attractive. Today, when someone says of a friend: “How can you stand it?” I just smile and say “Give ‘em a little time.”
I think I’ve learned my lesson. Now I like people like that right off. It’s not so much a matter of suspending judgment as collating it. And I’ve learned not to go by anybody else’s opinion of anything. In fact, if they hate it, I’m intrigued. I didn’t see the movie Bonnie and Clyde for three years because everybody liked it. Later I would see it ten times.
It was like that with Bruce Springsteen. We’re still not best friends, but now I’m a real fan, a fan who used to sort of roll his eyes and say, “Oh Yeah, he’s the guy with all the bells in his songs, right?”
Just the fact that Rolling Stone writer Jon Landau said something like “I have seen the future of rock ‘n’ roll and it is Bruce Springsteen” was enough to keep me away for a couple of years.
Later that would be replaced by, like, any guy that Dave Marsh wrote a book about…
Also, it seemed like such a pose, with the jeans and the T-shirt and everything. But sometimes forget that if you hold a pose long enough it may take root.
And then I might have thought, “Man, if he’s hooked on that chick, he’s not playing with a full deck…”
A remark I might have successfully directed at myself any number of times.
I don’t know just what it was really. I guess I thought Bruce was opera. I thought he was overblown. I thought it was trumped-up romanticism. I thought it was a lie. But if you tell a lie long enough…
But now I don’t think Bruce lies. Bruce wouldn’t lie, man. Bruce has imagination. I think he always had it, but it wasn’t always so powerful. I think it got honed by the big beat.
I’m not sure how I figured it out. I think if you’ve got an ear and a radio you’re going to figure it out sooner or later. I know I had “Born to Run” going through my head at one point, but I was determined to resist. I think when I finally was ready to give up was around the time of The River. Maybe I heard “Cadillac Ranch” on the radio and there was just no way not to like it.
But I’m one of those masses that went Bruce-crazy with Born in the U.S.A. I got the promo in the mail and I played it and it was great, every song was great, and I kept playing it. A few days later I showed up at my favorite record store and I picked up all his albums and I went to the checkout counter and the cashier just couldn’t believe it. “Oh no! You too?”
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I guess I wasn’t the only old new-wave person into this Bruce thing. This clerk seemed to think that all of her friends were dropping like flies to it. Oh no! You too!?” She looked at me like “hadn’t the Ramones and the Dolls and Iggy and Lou taught me anything?”
Now you can go around pointing out facts like that Lou himself said “Hey man, Springsteen is OK” on his live Take No Prisoners album several years ago (the same album on which he refers to Robert Christgau as “some asshole in the Village Voice”). You might mention that Springsteen is friends with David Johansen; that they both used to play upstairs at Max’s around the same period. But you know it won’t do any good.
You know that some of your East Village friends will not be converted, not because of anything having to do with Bruce per se, but because they cannot bear the idea of liking anything so popular. You get the feeling that if Joey Ramone himself made the cover of Time and Newsweek simultaneously, they would be forced to drop him too and complain that he had sold out. It’s hard to accuse Bruce of selling out when he keeps his ticket prices low (like what? One third of the Jackson tour price?) and turned down the $12 million Chrysler offered him to do a three-second ad spot, but then they can always come back and say: “Hey, $12 million is nothing to him. He takes in over a million a show.”
No, all you can say to these people is, “Hey, thats exactly how I felt. But have you seen the show? Hey, you really have to see the show! It’s the greatest rock ‘n’ roll show I’ve ever seen.”
This always gets em, because they know I’ve seen the Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, P-Funk, Iggy, Cream, Who, L.Z., Talking Heads, Ted Nugent, what have you. So then they give you that look like you’ve got this ultra-premature form of Alzheimer’s that starts out in the so-called “pleasure pathways” of the brain. They look at you like you’re a rock ‘n’ roll form of Moonie. But, hey, it was the greatest show I’ve ever seen. It was like rock ‘n’ roll and a gospel meeting and a party and the World Series rolled into one. We did the wave. We danced. We sang. All the way back in the last stadium row you could see people singing and dancing and they knew all the words. Bruce and the band played for four hours, and at the end you were still ready to go.
What I really liked, and what some people really hate, was the sober ecstasy of the Bruce show. You hear that his band doesn’t drink or drug on the road. They say that you couldn’t do that stuff and keep up the pace. But that’s almost beside the point. The point seems to be that in this case imagination is enough. It’s enough to make you sing and dance all night. And the singing is better and the dancing is better, everybody drives home fine, and the next morning they wake up singing. That’s imagination.
Then there’s this thing where people have mixed up Bruce with Rambo. Rambo is the guy who posed with Reagan the same week his girlfriend’s nude pictures were running in Playboy and his nude pictures were running in Playgirl. Bruce hasn’t posed with any candidates, or as far as we know, nude. Bruce’s America is not a cartoon. If you think it is, then pick up a cassette of the Nebraska album and pop it in the car deck and drive some interstate and get back to us.
I don’t think Bruce is a goody-goody. I don’t think he’s holding back or reacting or faking it. The guy’s got heart and soul. I be he doesn’t jack off. I bet he never told a girl he loved her just to get into her pants. Of course, I didnt either. I always meant it.
I saw a picture in the paper of Bruce playing in a charity softball game. He has a beautiful swing. You can tell a lot about people by what kind of shoes they wear, but maybe even more (with men anyway?) by how they swing a bat. Bruce is a natural. He keeps his eye on the ball. He swings level. He follows through. Like in life.
I don’t think of Bruce as some flag-waver riding the crest of yuppie reaction. I think of him as the guy who is proving once and for all that you don’t have to be an asshole to be an artist.
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Springsteen is a poet. He writes great words. But he’s also a rocker. I listen to some of the older albums and like them OK. But you live and learn. And if you live and learn right, you get better. I think with Nebraska, Bruce really learned to write and with Born in the U.S.A., he really learned how to rock. So I don’t care that I just hopped on the bandwagon with the millions. It’s just great right now. And I’m happy to be a very avant-garde mainstream far-out regular guy.
Epilogue: I just read that there’s a bar in L.A. where all they play is Bruce and Bruce-related music. I don’t know if that means Little Steven and maybe Southside Johnny are played too, or it it’s like more sweeping and includes such Bruce-esque combos as John Cafferty and Beaver Brown (which has a Clarence Clemons lookalike) or such regular guys as John Cougar, who now seems to be threatening to be original. Anyway, I figure if I start out for that bar right now, maybe I’ll know a lot more by the next issue.
P.S. We all know that Bruce’s changing the world. I think it’s for the better. He’s already saving me money on clothing bills. But seriously, here’s something to be considered:
Early in the 21st century a great many of the young men you meet will be named Bruce, maybe even most of them. This will be the greatest popularity of the name Bruce ever. My brother is named Bruce, so I can tell you, not long ago it was not a fun name to have. It was not exactly like being a boy named Sue, but the other little guys didn’t treat a Bruce like a a Jim either. Bruces got sand kicked in their faces. The only heroic Bruce back then was publicly and only anonymously bold — he had to put on a bat costume to rock out. But in a new generation, Bruce will rule. Arnold will have made quite a comeback too. But Bruce will rule.