Why I still love Bruce Springsteen.
In his early live shows, Bruce Springsteen had a habit of rattling off, while the band vamped softly in the background, some thoroughly implausible story from his youth. This he punctuated with a shy, wheezing laugh that let you know he didn't for a second buy into his own bullshit. Back then, in the early 1970s, Bruce was still a regional act, touring the dive bars and dive colleges of the Atlantic coast, playing any venue that would have him. As a matter of routine, a Springsteen show would kick off with audience members throwing gifts onto the stage. Not bras and panties, mind you, but gifts—something thoughtful, not too expensive. Bruce was one of their own, after all, a scrawny little dirtbag from the shore, a minor celebrity of what the great George Trow once called "the disappearing middle distance." By 1978, and the release of Darkness on the Edge of Town, the endearing Jersey wharf rat in Springsteen had been refined away. In its place was a majestic American simpleton with a generic heartland twang, obsessed with cars, Mary, the Man, and the bitterness between fathers and sons. Springsteen has been augmenting and refining that persona for so long now that it's hard to recall its status, not only as an invention, but an invention whose origin wasn't even Bruce Springsteen. For all the po-faced mythic resonance that now accompanies Bruce's every move, we can thank Jon Landau, the ex-Rolling Stone critic who, after catching a typically seismic Springsteen set in 1974, famously wrote, "I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen."
Well, Bruce Springsteen was Jon Landau's future. Over the next couple of years, Landau insinuated himself into Bruce's artistic life and consciousness (while remaining on the Rolling Stone masthead) until he became Springsteen's producer, manager, and full-service Svengali. Unlike the down-on-their-luck Springsteens of Freehold, N.J., Landau hailed from the well-appointed suburbs of Boston and had earned an honors degree in history from Brandeis. He filled his new protégé's head with an American Studies syllabus heavy on John Ford, Steinbeck, and Flannery O'Connor. At the same time that he intellectualized Bruce, he anti-intellectualized him. Rock music was transcendent, Landau believed, because it was primitive, not because it could be avant-garde. The White Album and Hendrix and the Velvet Underground had robbed rock of its power, which lay buried in the pre-Beatles era with Del Shannon and the Ronettes. Bruce's musical vocabulary accordingly shrank. By Darkness on the Edge of Town, gone were the West Side Story-esque jazz suites of The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. In their place were tight, guitar-driven intro-verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus songs. Springsteen's image similarly transformed. On the cover of Darkness, he looks strangely like the sallower cousin of Pacino's Sonny Wortzik, the already quite sallow anti-hero of Dog Day Afternoon. The message was clear: Springsteen himself was one of the unbeautiful losers, flitting along the ghostly fringes of suburban respectability.
Thirty years later, and largely thanks to Landau, Springsteen is no longer a musician. He's a belief system. And, like any belief system worth its salt, he brooks no in-between. You're either in or you're out. This has solidified Bruce's standing with his base, for whom he remains a god of total rock authenticity. But it's killed him with everyone else. To a legion of devout nonbelievers—they're not saying Bruuuce, they're booing—Bruce is more a phenomenon akin to Dianetics or Tinkerbell than "the new Dylan," as the Columbia Records promotions machine once hyped him. And so we've reached a strange juncture. About America's last rock star, it's either Pentecostal enthusiasm or total disdain.
To walk back from this impasse, we need to see Springsteen's persona for what it really is: Jon Landau's middle-class fantasy of white, working-class authenticity. Does it derogate Springsteen to claim that he is, in essence, a white minstrel act? Not at all. Only by peeling back all the layers of awful heartland authenticity and rediscovering the old Jersey bullshitter underneath can we begin to grasp the actual charms of the man and his music. A glimpse of this old bullshitter was recently on display when Springsteen inducted U2 into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame on March 14. Springsteen had recently caught the new iPod commercial featuring the Irish rockers. "Now personally, I live an insanely expensive lifestyle that my wife barely tolerates," the old BSer confided to the audience of industry heavyweights, adding,
Now, I burn money, and that calls for huge amounts of cash flow. But, I also have a ludicrous image of myself that keeps me from truly cashing in. You can see my problem. Woe is me. So the next morning, I call up Jon Landau … and I say, "Did you see that iPod thing?" and he says, "Yes." And he says, "And I hear they didn't take any money." And I said, "They didn't take any money?" and he says, "No." I said, "Smart, wily Irish guys. Anybody—anybody—can do an ad and take the money. But to do the ad and not take the money … that's smart. That's wily." I say, "Jon, I want you to call up Bill Gates or whoever is behind this thing and float this: a red, white and blue iPod signed by Bruce 'The Boss' Springsteen. Now remember, no matter how much money he offers, don't take it!"
Every now and again, the majestic simpleton breaks character, and winks; and about as often, he works his way back to subtlety and a human scale and cuts a pretty great song or album. From the post-Landau period, the harrowing masterpiece Nebraska is the only record you can push on the nonbelievers, followed by the grossly underrated Tunnel of Love. The Oscar-winning "Streets of Philadelphia," an account of a man with AIDS slowly fading into his own living ghost, is the equal of any song he's written. In 1995 Springsteen produced The Ghost of Tom Joad, the culmination of a 15-year obsession with Woody Guthrie, whose biography he had been handed the night after Reagan defeated Carter, in 1980. The album is stronger than its popular reception might lead one to believe. "Across the Border" and "Galveston Bay" are lovely and understated and bring home the fact that Springsteen—a man who wrote monster hits for acts as diverse as Manfred Mann, the Pointer Sisters, and Patti Smith—remains a skilled melodist. Nonetheless, the record is a little distant in its sympathies, as if Springsteen had thumbed through back issues of The Utne Reader before sitting down to compose.
His new album, Devils & Dust, is a sequel to The Ghost of Tom Joad. It's mostly acoustic and intimate in scale; but Springsteen appears to have taken criticism of Tom Joad to heart, and Devils & Dust is warmer, and in patches, fully up-tempo. It's hard to describe how good the good songs are. The title song is classic Springsteen—"a dirty wind's blowing," and a young soldier may "kill the things he loves" to survive. And on "Black Cowboys," Springsteen unites a visionary concision of detail with long lines in a way that channels William Blake:
Come the fall the rain flooded these homes, here in Ezekiel's valley of dry bones, it fell hard and dark to the ground. It fell without a sound. Lynette took up with a man whose business was the boulevard, whose smile was fixed in a face that was never off guard.
Though initially signed as a folkie, Springsteen has never been much of a technician on the acoustic guitar, compared to, say, the infinitely nimble Richard Thompson. But on Devils & Dust there's a new comfort with the instrument; and he decorates many of the songs with a lovely, understated filigree. Ah, but how hard the lapses in taste! The strings and vocal choruses used to punch up the sound are—what other word is there?—corny. Next to, say, Iron and Wine, Devils & Dust too often sounds like a chain store selling faux Americana bric-a-brac. One always suspects with Springsteen that, in addition to a blonde Telecaster and "the Big Man," a focus group lies close at hand. The album is suspiciously tuned in to two recent trends, the exploding population of the Arizona and New Mexico exurbs; and the growing religiosity of the country as a whole. Devils & Dust is very South by Southwest—Mary is now Maria, there's a lot of mesquite and scrub pine, and one song even comes with a handy key to its regional terminology (Mustaneros: Mustangers; Pradera: Prairie; Riata: Rope). It's also crammed with Biblical imagery, from a modern re-telling of the story of Leah to Christ's final solacing of his mother. The first is a silly throwaway; the second is a fetching, Dylan-inspired hymn that ends with the teasing rumination, "Well Jesus kissed his mother's hands/ Whispered, 'Mother, still your tears,/ For remember the soul of the universe/ Willed a world and it appeared.' "
The high watermark for Springsteen commercially, of course, was 1984, when "Born in the USA" somehow caught both the feelings of social dislocation and the euphoric jingoism of the Reagan era. Landau's mythic creation, the blue-collar, rock 'n' roll naif, has never held such broad appeal since. In recent years, Springsteen has settled into a pattern of selling a couple million albums (Born in the USA sold 15 million) to the Bruce die-hards. A clue to who these people are can be found in Springsteen's evolving persona, which is no longer as structured around his own working-class roots. On a short DV film on the CD's flip side, Springsteen says he tries to "disappear" into the voices of the migrant workers and ghetto prisoners whose stories make up Devils & Dust: "What would they do, what wouldn't they do, how would they behave in this circumstance, the rhythm of their speech, that's sort of where the music comes in." With Landau nowhere in evidence (he's thanked, but excluded from the album's formal credits), it is up to Springsteen alone to impersonate the voices of the dispossessed. The pupil has finally surpassed the master.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Audio excerpts from Devils & Dust © 2005 Columbia Records. All rights reserved. Photograph of Bruce Springsteen courtesy Getty Images.