I just finished reading Bruce Springsteen's autobiography "Born to Run". It is not just a recitation of his personal history, it is a very introspective and philosophical book. More articulate people than me have reviewed it.
Before we started getting our music on iPods, satellite radio and oldies stations, music was the soundtrack of our lives. Often times now when I hear a song from the seventies or early eighties, even the sixties it will evoke a memory of a period in my life or even a specific event. It was simpler then, a song or and album was released, you listened to the song or the album on the radio, maybe you bought it and listened to it heavily, then another song or album came out.
I still remember where I was the first time I heard of Bruce Springsteen. It was in the lunch room at the Lake Cowichan Forest Service research station where I worked as a field hand. It was the summer between high school and university. I can't remember whether it was Time or Newsweek I was reading, he was on the cover of both. I remember not being that impressed. I hadn't heard any of his music, there was a lot of good music our there in the mid 70s. I had, a few months earlier bought Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks", an album that transformed my musical tastes permanently and I could not believe any artist could be better. Many of the artists of the 1970s like Paul McCartney and Elton John were still at the top of their games.
Notwithstanding the success of the album Born to Run, Springsteen got very little airplay in Vancouver either on the AM top 40 stations or on the "album oriented" FM station I listened to. He got very little play on the Seattle FM stations I occasionally listened to. In the subsequent years I read stories about him. He seemed a little different. He had a saxophone in his band; nobody had saxophones in their bands. In retrospect listening to Born to Run, it was so different from what passed for Rock and Roll in the 1970s that I can understand his lack of exposure.
I bought Bruce's album "Darkness on the Edge of Town" in 1978, the summer I got accepted to medical school. I don't remember why I bought it, I think somebody told me that it was a good album and so I picked it up. I think I bought Dylan's "Street Legal" around the same time. Never really listened to that one as much as I listened to "Darkness".
1978 was a dark time for music. Disco had taken over the dance floors and the radio stations. Rock and roll was heading down the toilet. Paul McCartney was releasing mediocre albums, soon to become bad albums, likewise Elton John. The Eagles had peaked with Hotel California. Fleetwood Mac followed up "Fleetwood Mac" and "Rumours" with "Tusk". Dylan was about to enter his Christian phase with the accompanying bad albums. The Band had just (temporarily) stopped touring and releasing new music. It was a dark time to be a rock and roll fan or for that matter a folkie. It was maybe for this reason I reached out and bought a Springsteen album.
I remember listening to "Darkness" as a life changing, least a musical life changing moment similar to what I experienced when I first heard "Blood on the Tracks". Darkness became the soundtrack of my first year in Medical School. I spread out, I bought "Born to Run". Later I bought "Asbury Park" and the "Wild, the Innocent...". Bruce still wasn't getting a lot of airplay in the late 1970s.
Then came "The River". Some have criticized it as too long, a double album that could have been edited down to a single album. No way. Every song was a great song, the album worked conceptually, when that was important in an album. Springsteen also moved into the mainstream with that album with a top 40 hit. I didn't mind sharing him with others, it made me feel cool thinking I had listened to him way back when. "The River" is the soundtrack of the second half of medical school for me.
Bruce Springsteen wrote about working in factories, unplanned pregnancies and New Jersey. He didn't write about growing up middle class in Victoria, going to good schools and going to medical school. There is no way his music should have appealed to me. It did though.
I finished Medical School, and went to Halifax to intern. One day I was browsing in a record store on Barrington street and there it was, another Bruce Springsteen Album. "Nebraska", so different from his other albums except possibly "Greetings...". I bought it and listened to it obsessively. It became the soundtrack of my internship. It was like the Bob Dylan album he should have been releasing at that time, except it was by Bruce Springsteen.
I finished my internship and bummed around doing locums in the Maritimes. I taped my Springsteen albums and listened to them on the tape deck in my in my car. When I wasn't working, I used to drive around the backroads of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick just exploring. Sometimes now when I hear a song off those albums I think about those drives. I met my future wife and starting making trips back to Halifax where she lived from where I was, usually with Springsteen on the tape deck.
I got engaged in 1984 and Springsteen released "Dancing in the Dark". Just a coincidence I'm sure. Suddenly he was a superstar with Top 40 hits and MTV videos. He started playing and selling out stadiums. If I had been in Vancouver when he sold out BC place, I would not have been able to get a ticket.
I got married, failed in general practice and went back east to Newfoundland to do a residency. Springsteen also got married, just coincidence. Mid-way through my residency he released "Tunnel of Love" a depressing if listenable album.
Musically I was evolving. I used to have a 30 minute commute to work, where I listened to the Rock FM station. One day, I decided I could not take the talk and the bad music and switched to CBC FM which played classical music back then. I pretty much exclusively listened to classical music for the next 5 years. A surgeon in the OR used to play the blues during his marathon cases. I acquired a taste for the blues.
I had my first child, finished my residency and got my first job in Fredericton. I had another child and moved to Edmonton. Somewhere around that time Springsteen released 'Lucky Town" and "Human Touch" simultaneously. I of course bought them just like I used to buy Paul McCartney and Elton John's album when they came out, but the bloom was off the rose. The first year I was in Edmonton, Springsteen came to Edmonton (without the E Street Band) and I didn't even try to go.
I went to the Edmonton Folk Festival because I wanted to see Elvis Costello but stayed for the whole weekend. I learned that folk music wasn't just a bunch of people singing Kumbaya, it was vibrant, interesting and it was the root behind the music I had loved in the past. I started buying CDs from the Folk Festival CD tent and listening to CKUA, our province's public radio station which played that kind of music.
Throughout the 90s Springsteen was a lesser part of my musical life. I figured it was the natural order of things. One can only be great for so long. I had grown, he had grown. I still bought the albums, I bought his box set "Tracks". My listening habits changed. I got an MP3 player and started playing my, by then, large collection on shuffle.
Along the way, I had never heard Springsteen play live. I interned with a fellow who had the fortune to see him play the El Mocambo club in Toronto in the mid 90s. Actually he had seen him there for 2 consecutive nights. His long shows were legendary. I was jealous.
There is only one thing that I am thankful to George W. Bush for. In 2002, I was going to Cannes on a Big Pharma junket when Bush Jr., decided to invade Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction. Because we all knew that Saddam controlled world terrorism I was afraid to fly and cancelled my flight. Bruce Springsteen just happened to be playing in Edmonton during the time I was supposed to be getting brainwashed in Cannes and he hadn't sold out so my wife and I bought tickets. They were just over $200 each, the most I had ever paid for a concert. The tickets were general admission on the floor what used to be called festival seating. (In his book Bruce notes that early on his band never allowed festival seating for fear of a stampede to the stage). We had to line up in cold sleet before being herded into the stadium where we were able to grab territory in front of the stage at about the blue line. It was a long wait for the concert to start made worse by not being able to leave the primo real estate we were standing on.
There is really no way to describe a Springsteen concert. You really have to be there. Being on floor relatively close to the stage, it felt like I was watching in the small club. The entire E Street band was there and the whole affair felt like a giant party. There were of course the 3 encores.
I had a few months prior to the concert bought "The Rising" but had never really connected with the album. When I heard the songs from the album performed, they suddenly made sense and the album was for a while an album I listened to a lot.
I left with my bond with Bruce restored. It was an amazing experience.
In the next few years, I reflexively bought the albums Bruce released regularity often at Starbucks. They are for sure not as good as his first 5 albums. Then again how many artists can claim to have 5 great albums. Did we expect Einstein to come with another theory of relativity.
Then as I mentioned above I read Bruce's biography over a couple of days after Christmas. I have satellite radio and decided to to listen for a few longer drives. The one thing that struck me which should have struck me earlier was what a good lyricist he is. Many of his songs tell a story in a rhyming but never forced fashion which few song writers including Nobel laureate Bob Dylan can boast of.
It has been an almost 40 year journey during which I have grown from Top 40 pop to more eclectic tastes in music. Bruce Springsteen has been an important part of that journey.