I don’t know what it is about Springsteen, man, but his music just destroys me. Granted, for a man whose storied career is now heading into its fifth decade, it is his early work that I hold up above all else—you just can’t beat the run from 1976’s ‘Born to Run’ to 1982’s ‘Nebraska’—but the fact is that Bruce Springsteen has put out material that consistently not just tugs but absolutely tears at my heartstrings for pretty much his entire career.
Sure it’s Young Springsteen songs like ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ and ‘Atlantic City’ that will probably always resonate with me the most. They are after all the ones I heard first. They’re the tunes of his that discovered the hidden passage that runs directly to the room that has access to a control panel that governs ALL OF MY EMOTIONS. Even in the more recent stages of his career, though, Old Springsteen just knows how to get to me like few musicians do. Songs like ‘We Take Care Of Our Own’ and ‘Death To My Hometown’ are testament to that. I guess it doesn’t hurt that as a songwriter—as well as a human—Springsteen has always concerned himself with the lost and the hopeless, the countless beautiful souls trampled underneath the bootheels of a cruel economic system that values working class lives about as much as battery farmed hens.
As an example: ‘Death To My Hometown’. A song about the rapacious vultures of hyper-financialised capitalism, whose greed and disregard for others led to the 2007-8 financial crash that decimated the wealth and the opportunities of the working and middle class. For an at the time 61-year old rock star to be addressing themes like that, and doing it with opening lines like this:
‘Well, no cannon ball did fly, no rifles cut us down
No bombs fell from the sky, no blood soaked the ground
No powder flash blinded the eye
No deathly thunder sounded
But just as sure as the hand of God
They brought death to my hometown
They brought death to my hometown’
—Well, how the hell can you not like the man? It helps too that Springsteen never, ever feels anything less than totally earnest. I usually have minimal time for wealthy artists who deign to talk on behalf of ‘the poor’, or who romanticise the struggles of the economically disadvantaged. With Springsteen—about as big and successful a rock star and icon as you get—it rarely bothers me. I’ve never been able to fully articulate why. I think it’s because he’s not pandering, and he’s not reducing the working class to a fashionable aesthetic or marketing tactic. He’s been talking about these topics for decades, and as removed as he might be from the reality of it all now by his wealth and new class position, it certainly doesn’t feel like he’s ever forgotten where he came from—or where so many millions remain. That may seem like an excuse or a cliché, but I can’t help it, it’s the way it feels to me.
Did you know that Bruce Springsteen donated $20,000 to the Durham miners support group? He gave this cheque while in our region in 1985, providing much-needed financial and moral support for striking miners and their families.— Durham Miners' Association (@DurhamMiners) September 23, 2018
Happy birthday Bruce. #TheOnlyBossWeListenTo pic.twitter.com/znM5M1sLih
At 71, Springsteen still puts on—or did, before Covid-19 put the live music scene into a deep sleep—3 hour plus shows, giving absolutely everything of himself on stage in a way that matches the mighty tour monsters Iron Maiden. I have massive respect for acts like that, who so clearly live to give so much to their fans, and who believe wholeheartedly in the symbiosis between the performer and the crowd. There’s no entitlement there, no sense that they are god’s gift to the crowd. They know which way is up: They are who they are because of the crowd. Each show is a chance to say thanks.
At 71, Springsteen has also just recorded and is about to release a new album, too. His 20th, it’s called ‘Letter to You’ and it’s the first time he’s worked with his fabled E-Street band since 2016’s ‘The River’ tour. Springsteen and the E-Street band are an example of another holy symbiosis in music: That connection that exists between the members of a band who have been on the road together for decades. That’s a bond that can rival blood ties. For a large outfit like the E-Street band, Springsteen’s shows can have the appearance and the feel of an extended and joyous family get together—and they always extend that aura outward to envelop the thousands of adoring fans in attendance at the shows. Just like a real family, however, the E-Street band has suffered its share of losses. Dearly departed souls whose talents and presence and laughter and hard work played a part in something truly beautiful, but who are no longer around to carry the torch along with the rest. ‘Ghosts’, the new single from ‘Letter to You’ addresses this, and it does so in a typically Springsteen-ian way. That is to say: It reaches directly into my chest and it wrings my heart until I’m a blubbering wreck on the floor.
‘Ghosts’, like the rest of the album, was recorded live in the studio. The electric energy of a band who have seen off decades together comes through in every note. As Springsteen said of the song: ‘Ghosts is about the beauty and joy of being in a band, and the pain of losing one another to illness and time.’ That pain is evident throughout, yet it’s shot through with that signature life-affirming power—that huge, absolutely massive yet totally organic big band sound—that the best Springsteen songs have. It’s heart-breaking yet rousing, melancholy yet wonderfully joyful and defiant. It’s a beautiful tribute to friends departed, shared memories keeping them alive, and the feeling of still being here while others have passed.
Here, enjoy. Every time Springsteen sings ‘I’m alive and I’m out here on my own’ I absolutely lose it.