As of September 2019, it’s been ten years since I discovered Bruce Springsteen.
I’ve spoken before about my longstanding and passionate love for Jonathan Tropper’s novel The Book of Joe, which I read in high school and immediately connected to. The Book of Joe tells the story of a successful author who became famous for writing an unflattering book based on his hometown, who is then forced to return to said town after his estranged father has a stroke. It’s not a perfect novel – it’s overwritten with a few unnecessary narrative diversions – but it’s so deeply felt and nakedly emotional that, as a small-town kid with aspirations of a writing career, it was close to revelatory for my sixteen year old self.
It also is packed full of Springsteen references. The first time I read it, it was with a vague sense of ‘huh, maybe I should check that guy’s music out’. When I read it again a year later in 2009 I realised I would have to look up the songs to fully understand what the book was talking about. I started with Backstreets, a track that is a very particular motif in The Book of Joe. It was a pretty immediate sell; Backstreets is a passionate, mournful roar of a song – I remember at the time thinking it sounded like a voice on fire. I had to hear more.
At the time, I had been asked by a friend to take part in a play of hers out in Warburton. Given that I was about a month out from my Year Twelve exams the worst possible thing I could have done was say yes. I said yes. And without getting bogged down in specifics, it was one of the best decisions I ever made, something that led to lifelong friendships, my current relationship, my first plays being performed and piles of valuable life lessons. But more immediately, it led to one of those dreamlike phases of passionate, hedonistic perfection that you only really get when you’re a teenager; nights of drinking around campfires, writing songs together and swearing lifelong devotion to each other. It was, at the time, like I was living two different lives; during the week I fretted about exams and rigidly followed the rules of my old-fashioned private school, but on weekends I entered a whole other world, one where normal rules didn’t apply and everything might as well have been taken from a sweetly nostalgic coming of age film, except it was real and better than any of those films could ever be.
I remember one morning waking up on a couch outside, looking out over the misty hills and the trees. I sat there alone listening to Thunder Road and in that strange and magical way that music can sometimes achieve, my very particular emotional state was reflected back at me. From there the Born to Run album became the soundtrack to my life; all those songs of passion and escape, of getting out of your town full of losers, of locking up the house and stepping out into the night to see what was waiting for you, of soft infested summers and girls you agonised over.
Did the songs make the time or did the time make me susceptible to the songs? It’s hard to say. But Born to Run will always be synonymous with a phase of my life that I’ll always hold dear. That alone would be enough for me to forever love Bruce Springsteen. Except Bruce has a habit of giving you far more than you could have hoped for or expected.
In Wrecking Ball Springsteen tells us that ‘hard times come and hard times go; just to come again.’ And while I appreciate that in the context of his songs such messages tend to refer to the economic difficulties of the working class, it’s also reflective of something I’ve learnt more and more is true; that no matter who you are, happiness never lasts but nor does the darkness and that’s the way it should be. You need the bad to appreciate the good, and both will come and go.
The idyllic time in my life that I’ll forever link with Born to Run ended, because of course it did. Secret romances and perceived betrayals left the friendships we swore would last forever in tatters and while reconciliations came it was never the same. In retrospect, the fact that the songs on Born to Run so perfectly reflected that time stands to reason, because Born to Run is very much about the end of innocence, about the last gasp of childhood idealism before the realities of the world set in. And for that reason, I still can’t finish a full listen of Born to Run without diving straight into Darkness on the Edge of Town, the starkly different follow up album that, for my money, serves as one of the most perfect sequels ever.
2010 was a very different year to its predecessor. I was broke and alone in the world, at a uni I hated without any of my former friends, working shitty jobs to make exorbitant rent and trying to wrap my head around the fact that all of my beautiful shining dreams about what early adulthood would be would not come true. It’s not that I had it especially hard, but no matter your circumstances the realisation that your life is not going the way you expected will never not be a challenge. Darkness, then, became the soundtrack to a different portion of my life. I would walk around the streets at night listening to Badlands or The Promised Land as a kind of defiant middle finger to a world that wasn’t giving me what I wanted. It was like Bruce was telling me to get back up despite the disappointments and the traps I seemed to be surrounded by; ‘you wake up in the night with a fear so real, you spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come; well don’t waste your time waiting.’ Later that year, when I finally hatched a plan to change my circumstances, to get into a job, university and house that I would be happy with, I clung to a different, far later Springsteen song. I played Working on a Dream over and over again as a kind of mantra. Every time my unpleasant circumstances threatened to get me down I whispered the chorus to myself; ‘I’m working on a dream.’ By the end of that year, I’d achieved what I set out to. I worked at Dracula’s (at the time a dream come true), I lived in a cool apartment in the middle of the city, and I had transferred to the best uni in the country. With Bruce as my guide I fought to change my circumstances and while in the grand scheme of things the victory was minor, it was real and it was mine.
In The Book of Joe, the main character semi-jokingly says ‘there’s a Springsteen song for every occasion’. Over the years I learned the truth of that, in times both good and bad. In 2012, after my first serious breakup, We Are Alive became the anthem of hope and comfort that kept my head above water. As I entered a new period of creative and personal fruitfulness in 2013, I listened to the celebratory exuberance of Thundercrack on repeat day after day with a big smile on my face and spirits lifted every time. When I finished my Masters in 2015 and found myself with no clear path forward, personally or professionally, the mournful tracks on Tunnel of Love were like a gentle reminder that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. And while so many of those albums and songs will always be linked to particular times, places and people, none of them were ever just a reminder of something past. I came back to them again and again, seeing new layers on every visitation.
In 2016, as I entered a place in my life and career where I started to slowly shift out of the ‘aspiring’ category when it came to calling myself a writer, Springsteen’s autobiography became a kind of holy text for me, a beautifully written book that reminded me when I needed to hear it the most that while art and creative success are brilliant, they’re not everything. This sentiment led me to finally write a play about Bruce’s life, my own attempt at a kind of tribute to him, and a work I remain very proud of.
At a certain point my appreciation, love and respect grew to encompass the man as well as the music. Springsteen’s philosophies, his honesty, his decency and his never ending drive and passion to continue experimenting and taking risks while at a place in his career where he has nothing left to prove became a perpetual source of inspiration, the ideal of what an artist could, and perhaps should be.
Even as he nears seventy he keeps on giving. Next month two Springsteen films are hitting Australian screens. Western Stars, a sort of concert film/mood piece adaptation of his latest album, and Blinded By The Light, a movie that by all accounts captures exactly what it is to be seventeen and discovering Bruce Springsteen for the first time. In the trailer, we see the protagonist prowling the late-night streets, leaning against walls overcome with emotion as The Promised Land and Dancing in the Dark blare in his ears articulating all the things he struggles to say himself. Watching that hit me so hard because of the sheer specificity of that very familiar moment.
There are other musicians I love, other careers I’ve followed closely and other songs that have provided a way to express the inexpressible. But Bruce Springsteen, for a decade of my life now, has pulled off the same trick again and again, providing an ongoing collection of reminders that no matter how bad things might seem, you’re not alone. Joy, love, pain, regret, defiance and hope; Springsteen expresses them all with a power and honesty that is singular. Art, at its best, makes whatever loads we all might be carrying lighter; whether offering an escape or a necessary reflection, making everything just that little bit easier to digest and deal with.
Once I had a dream that I met Bruce. In fact I’m lying, I’ve had several of those dreams. But the one I’ll always remember is the one that rang the truest. I saw him, shook his hand, and said ‘thank you’. Then I left. Because after everything, what else could I ever say or do to convey how much his work has meant to me?
The past decade of my life, representing the slow construction of a career and the slower growth into an approximation of adulthood, has been a messy, bumpy, sometimes ugly time. I haven’t always been the person I wanted to be. I’ve hurt people and let them down. I’ve embarrassed myself and been a pathetic, childish failure; a mix of arrogance and insecurity that sometimes makes me marvel at the fact that anybody has stayed my friend for more than a day. But beside the darkness sits the light. The wonderful people I’ve shared the journey with, the times I’ve had that I’ll remember and love forever, and the hard-won successes that were all the sweeter because I know I earned them. But the consistent voice that guided me through all of it belongs to Bruce Springsteen. And I can say, without hyperbole or self-consciousness, that none of it would have been the same without him.
Thank you Boss. Here’s to the next ten.
Writing words about writing words.