This is Part Three 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, Glenn O’Brien, Amiri Baraka, Rich Stim, Scott Cohen, and Eric King, respectively.)
Bruce, uh, Springsteen? The youth-demographic Wayne Newton/Bette Midler? In this mag as opposed, you know, to that other one? Is he even an issue anymore? (Don’t tell me he’s on the cover — I’ll find out soon enough.)
I have never liked the youth-demographic Newton/Midler. I have nearly always loathed him. I’ve rarely been able to even look at the boring little prick without muttering expressions like “master of ersatz,” “the absolute voice of the status quo,” or ” the emperor’s new jeans and workshirt.” Pompous as knee-jerk responses go, maybe, but here’s this guy, see, the absolute non-irony of whose most prevalent guise (earnestness) has always struck me, on sheer scale alone, as more than a trifle pompous incarnate. But fuck me (right?) — whuddo I know?
Basically, I’ve just never gotten the point. Well, I have gotten the point of his appeal to consumers of the rampantly consumable. That much is obvious: boogie on down, not only without guilt but with social conscience — all bases, or let’s just say both bases, covered — three hours for the price of one.
It makes total sense, for inst, what my ladyfriend Irene sees in this shit. She’s a show fan, see, Broadway and whatnot, a somewhat late (but eager) arrival to the rock-roll shores. She finally takes to rock and what she takes to is Bruce — and l ain’t listening. Eventually she gets her way, sits me down perchance to educate me (lout that I am), plays me some Bruce and, lout that I am, I jump up (she forgot to tie me down), wave my arms (to the beat so she knows, at least, I am no crackpot), conduct the room to a round of “O…klahoma! Where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain!” and dang me if she does not chuckle (as opposed, y’know, to sending me home) (lout I forever will be) because (a) she is no fool and (b) I have got the sturm und drang of it not far from purt near correct. And I know — and she knows that I know — that Bruce is naught but her long-awaited Conrad Birdie, or whatever their names are from West Side Story, made flesh. Or at least made ongoing product.
Which is f—ksure cool but, um, note the connection. Just note it.
Or, for further inst, take my pal Scott Kempner. Scott’s basic rhythm-of-life shtick has always been The Rock ‘N’ Roll Fan Club Meets Here. Before Bruce was his boss boy it was Peter Townshend. But ever since that week in ‘75 when its Face made the covers of Time, Newsweek, and all three trades, the Bruce Gestalt has, for Scott, roleplayed one consistently grand advertisement for The Power And Glory Of Rock Rock Rock N’ Roll, as if by the mere fortuity of its scale n’ bombast (not to mention its benignity) we are assured that — this time around — they cannot and will not dare bust our music.” Somehow, in this picture a seminal (and terminal) wedding of creative lifeblood to marketplace/culture death is overlooked (or ignored). But, heck, thats cool too — there’s people, I’m told, who actually regard rock videos as gifts (as primary objects of experience!). And, hey, couldn’t the, y’know, fact of Reagan be regarded as glorious evidence of the persistence of electional demo… what’s the word… demogracy?? I.e., you want a ring implanted in your cultural nose, well someone (by golly) will implant it.
But, mea culpa, I digress. The specific side of the Kempner plug-in to Bruce — sorry, Scott, but use you I must for nefarious purpose — is… well, I’m not sure about now, but in ‘75 I asked him flat-out “Whuh?” and he says, “If the Fonz had a band it would be Springsteen.” Yes! The Fonz!! This, of course, was before we knew, or could know, that the incredible lovable li’l leather schmuck, the most palatably inaccurate (yet life-affirming) peer group archeTVtype since Maynard G. Krebs, was but an accident on the road to grown-actor oblivion for one Henry Winkler. Can’t knock actors as pump-primers for purported real thingers in principle, no sir, but when you’ve got your Ersatz Quotient up there in a supreme falsification-of-reality range… hey (weepy-eyed stick-in-the-mud humanist that I am), I’m knocking. But not mocking. It is sad what folks sometimes fall for. And remain fallen for ten fucking years down the chute… fuggit.
Or for final inst, cause I’m itching to get to what genuinely pisses me off, back at the dawn of the ‘80s I had this punk show on a Pacifica station that the Revolutionary Communist Party was bugging me to play their band Prairie Fire on. Finally I go see ‘em and they’re, well, they’re not Public Image (or the Fall) (or even the Clash). They’re just your basic formally reactionary get-down boogie band with largely implicit rad/topical “message” superadded. Structurally sound reiteraters of an already megatoldtale (American Music Revisits American Myth); one more entry in — and I don’t really mean to insult them — the Springsteen Sweepstakes. Far from being insulted, their spokesperson hears the Bruce reference and… like wow. Gee, she tells me, if only they could harness that familiar sound, Bruces or its ilk, which People and y’know Workers already relate to, and wow, like songs are so liberating and freeing and… and god am I one godless stick in the mud.
I hit her with (and she rejects) my whole entire rant re: the need to reject Prevailing Form (the “No Excuse for Bruce After Punk” routine). She winces at but stands up to my drivel re: Bruce as (a) Hubert Humphrey (if even that much) in contempo-softshoe drag; (b) nose-ring yanker of the palace guard; (c) learning-disabled child of the ‘60s to whom that decade never even registered. We’re bouncing all this one-dimensional quasi-political claptrap and then we start talking lyrics, poetics. Bruce’s, that is. We’re no longer talking Prairie Fire. We bounce “bourgeois” about. I ask (pray tell) what the non-bourgeois — shall we even maybe say revolutionary? — import might be of such Springsteenisms as wind blows through my hair (and yours) in my ‘56 Chevy and my wonderful new sneakers embrace bright lights of etc. And she says, “Bourgeois romantic or not, such lyrics give hope to so many.” And so be it.
And so be it all. I mean, yeah, I certainly can dig how among the teeming zillions various lames and non-lames alike have plugged into Bruce. It seems like the sum of the some-of-the-people you can fool all of the time has gotten a little unwieldy, but at heart I’m a pluralist. Not all mass delusions make me puke. I just cannot see, really I can’t, a single sight, sound, or accident within the delusion that is anything but monochromatic blah.
Is there anything grimmer and grayer than the Myth Of America? I am sick of the Myth Of America. Granted, Bruce’s America is at least fractionally different from Rambo’s — a good bad sitcom compared to a bad bad one — but since we’re talking belief systems and the goddam marketplace, how many billion consumers do you think have bought both? Bruce and Rambo. Without missing a beat.
None of which would mean s—t to a s—thook — and, really, lets not be so ad mass hominem — if it weren’t for what Bruce, or his shill Dave Marsh, did last October to avoid endangering any possible cross-constituency of consumers of the left and/or right. A couple weeks left till the election — remember? — and Reagan starts quoting Bruce. But instead of saddling his sturm und drang, riding out and yelling, “Vote for Walter! Our President wants us dead!” (and winning Walt Delaware and possibly Hawaii in the process), the little cocksucker passes it on to his publicist Barbara Carr, who passes it to her wonderful husband David. I don’t remember the exact words, I’ve looked and I just can’t find it, but “rock critic Dave Marsh” did an outstanding hem-haw on page one of the respected newssheet I happened to catch. Something to the effect that if the President would only look at such and such a Springsteen album cut, he would clearly see that au contraire blah blah bluh, Don’t say anything, don’t stir anything, don’t lose a single customer! F—k these people!!
And f—k me for getting so steamed. I’m an old grouch alright, but after punk, after Reagan — after everything and anything — why does this transparent dogshit remain an issue, for crying out loud? Next we’ll be asked to write about Garfield the Cat.