Once, when I was a kid — maybe six or seven — I electrocuted myself. Unscrewed the lightbulb from my bedroom lamp and stuck my finger into the socket, just to see what would happen if I pressed that little button down there.
You’ve probably never done something so stupid, so let me tell you what it was like: Full-body uncomfortable, and scary as hell. I found myself suddenly connected to a force I instinctively understood to be completely beyond my control, and for what felt like a very long time — but was probably only a fraction of a second — I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull myself away. The current was stronger than I could have comprehended.
I did it, of course, and came away nursing some pain, a healthy amount of terror, and the giddy thrill that can come with narrowly averting a crisis. I had a better understanding of — and a deeper respect for — the power I’d carelessly played with. It wasn’t a lesson I’d forget.
I thought about this while listening to Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, Wrecking Ball — about how Bruce deliberately reached out for rock ‘n’ roll superstardom early in his career, and found himself wired into an elemental force beyond his control. When the kids of my generation really became aware of him, in the wake of Born in the U.S.A., he’d been elevated to demigod/circus clown status, a giant, denim-clad ass we wanted to shake for our amusement while assigning our own meaning to the sounds it made on the radio. Bruce’s music wasn’t his anymore, and he had to go through a series of occasionally inscrutable steps (bolo tie, new band, folk records) to get it back from us.
During one wild night in my misspent 20s, I talked my buddy Rodger into flying from San Diego to San Jose on a moment’s notice and serving as the surprise guest at a friend’s birthday party. (Hey, it was the ’90s — flying was still fun.) Rodger played the part enthusiastically, wearing a cape and getting so spectacularly drunk that he ended up spending the night kneeling, asleep, with his head propped on one arm as it rested on my toilet seat.
Before that went down (but after he must have known he’d had too much to drink, and boozy regret started to sour his mood), a friend dropped me and Rodger off at my house, and as she pulled up to the curb, he issued her a definitive compliment I’ve never forgotten: “Everyone is an asshole except for you.”
That’s kind of how I’ve grown to feel about Springsteen as I’ve gotten older — as his peers have tippled into semi-retirement or the casino circuit, lazily adrift from the once-potent power of their muse; as the record industry has imploded; as American culture has splintered into countless zealously defended niches, I started to finally understand why he’s the Boss.
There’s still a little distance in my appreciation. On some level, part of me is the same kid who spent fifth and sixth grade vainly trying to argue Billy Joel’s superiority to my Bruce-loving best friend. Not that I’d still make that argument, mind you; it’s just that when it counted, I didn’t develop Springsteen fluency. I didn’t pore over Born to Run or Nebraska, I didn’t own Born in the U.S.A. or The River, I didn’t even listen to Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.. When I started my own label and one of my artists slipped a “Rosalita” joke into a song, he had to point it out to me.
But as we get older and the institutions that frame our childhood start to fall away, we develop a deeper appreciation for the ones that remain. And the ones who stand strongest, who fight hardest, who show us it means something to really be here — their voices hit closest to home. Like a lot of people, I’d imagine, that feeling really clicked for me when I heard Springsteen was releasing The Rising. That particular aspect of that album, and that moment in his career, have been picked over so cleanly that I don’t need to go too deeply into it here; suffice it to say that we needed someone to speak for us, to offer up an echo of our grief, and the Boss shouldered that burden. Thank goodness he did, because I’m not sure anyone else could have.
Like Springsteen, I had a troubled relationship with the man who raised me. He came into my life when I was too young to truly be my own person, but too old to easily manage, and that created a whole lot of resentment for both of us. I don’t think he knew what he was doing any more than I did; we were both plugged into the same wild current, trying to crush it in our grip and failing to learn the right lessons from our pain.
He seemed like he was a hundred feet tall then, but he was really just a kid himself, and as I’ve grown older and learned lessons about myself, I’ve learned from watching him, too. A lot of us — a lot of men, surely, but also many women, I imagine — lean into life with chipped shoulders first, fighting because that’s what we were taught, and that’s all we know, or maybe just because we don’t know how to stand still. I did it. He did it. We weren’t alone.
There’s a line from Randy Newman’s “Shame” that goes: “Now, my father was an angry man / You cross him, he’d make you pay / I myself am no longer an angry man.” It doesn’t rhyme and it isn’t particularly profound, I guess, but I’m reminded of it as I think of the formerly ramrod-straight men I’ve had the good fortune of watching as they settle slowly into grace. The weight of expectation leaves them and there they suddenly are, peaceful and a little bemused, wiser but far less eager to share that wisdom with those who aren’t asking for it.
Which brings me back to Springsteen, again, and how the young man who so audibly yearned for greatness — and who, in the process, sometimes lost the battle between making the perfect record and simply giving in to the redemptive power of rock and roll he so often sang about — seemed to settle into grace over the last decade, a shift I didn’t really pick up on until he released The Seeger Sessions in 2006.
If you approach Springsteen as a songwriter first, it’s tempting to try and pretend The Seeger Sessions doesn’t count; on that level, it’s just a collection of covers from the catalog of a guy who was often already covering the songs himself. But as a Seeger fan, I appreciated the sentiment behind the album and purchased it eagerly, and when I listened to it, I heard the sound of an artist finally learning how to get out of his own way. Springsteen’s folk records are raw, and plenty of his earlier rock sides sound loose and spontaneous, but his relentless tinkering and thirst for perfection couldn’t help but slow him down.
Learning how to refine your work is a part of becoming a successful artist, of course, but there’s also a real tension between cutting away the bullshit to get at the heart of your message and simply futzing with your art until you’ve taken yourself out of the moment, and I think Springsteen often erred toward the latter. It usually worked out for him anyway, because he understands how to play to his own strengths as a writer, but it wasn’t until Seeger Sessions that I heard him letting go and giving in to joy. That record is a celebration on any number of levels, and I like to imagine that it acted as a creative turning point for Springsteen, helping reconnect him to the reasons he wanted to be a musician in the first place. Helping him draw power from that wild current without being consumed.
This is borne out, I think, by Springsteen’s output since Sessions was released; he’s put out three albums of original material in five years, which is quick for any major recording artist these days, but a positively torrid pace for a 62-year-old with a hefty musical legacy and a tendency to leave a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor. He seems to be creating music for its own sake now. The results aren’t always perfect, but that’s precisely the point of rock and roll.
Most musicians don’t make this kind of change at Springsteen’s level, or at this stage in their careers. They’re too entrenched, too insulated from outside influences, too far removed from the basic creative equation of an artist plus his instrument. How do you get out of your own way when you’re the Boss? How do you manage to hear anything new through the racket of your most successful (and, as so many complain, your best) older work? How do you manage to find meaning in any of it?
I can’t pretend to know the answers to any of those questions, but Springsteen clearly does, which is a big part of why I love Wrecking Ball so much. Like the other artists of his generation, Springsteen’s biggest hits are rooted in tangible things — records, tapes, boom boxes — and for a lot of those acts (for a lot of people, period), it’s been a struggle to hang onto meaning as our culture has steadily divested itself of physical products. It’s undeniably comforting to hear a voice from the past that still sounds so vital; it stands as a beacon of hope and a challenge for the rest of us. Some things don’t change. Some bonds never break. Trading power for grace is a bargain forced on us by time and age, but it can also be a gift.
I’m not here to argue that these songs represent Springsteen’s best work, or even, perhaps, the best work he’s capable of doing right now. I’m not qualified to make those arguments, but that isn’t what I think is important anyway. In fact, like his last couple of records, I think it’s messy and a little breathless, and that’s a crucial component of its beauty — it sounds like the work of an artist who has a lot to say and understands he’s been given time to say it and a forum to deliver the message, and doesn’t want to waste either of them.
There’s a beauty in that that, for me, transcends the album’s flaws, and enhances its many strengths. Its recurring themes are fodder for critics who accuse Springsteen of being a pandering one-percenter, and tracks like “Death to My Hometown” look like Bruce parodies on a lyric sheet, but there’s such a vibrant — and often deliriously chaotic — beauty to these songs that I think it’s nitpicking to complain. I can understand E Street Band fans’ frustration with Springsteen’s patchwork approach to picking personnel for these songs, but I think it works, and I think Ron Aniello’s production complements it while adding a sonic depth and breadth that I felt was sorely lacking during the Brendan O’Brien years.
Electricity and grace. That’s what I hear in these songs; they’re why I keep playing Wrecking Ball over and over again, drawing comfort from the sound of a familiar voice and inspiration from its continued strength. Further reminders that even when everyone else is an asshole, we still have the Boss.