Growin’ Up

In the summer of 1979, a few months after the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) staged the “No Nukes” concerts in New York City.

One of the acts, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, took the stage to a tremendous roar from the audience. Many interpreted the noise as Bruce’s bridge-and-tunnel followers calling his name. Others heard boos.

Among activist-rockers like Jackson Browne, Graham Nash and Bonnie Raitt, Bruce and the E Streeters were the odd band out. In four albums of songs about cars, girls and summer nights there hadn’t been a word about politics or the environment or social issues. Bruce declined to release a statement for the event’s program, saying the music was its own statement. Most damning to cynical was the fact Bruce hadn’t performed publicly in many months because of a lawsuit. He was accused of taking advantage of an easy opportunity to get his on-stage chops back without making a commitment to the issue.

Twenty-eight years later, Bruce is releasing albums all about politics and issues with just a dusting of summer nights, girls… er, women and the occasional motorcycle.

Maybe it’s about growing old. Rock and roll has long sold the illusion of eternal youth, regardless of how we cringe watching Mick and Keith grind away, still feigning dissatisfaction 40 years later.

Bruce, for all the solace he provided anxious teens in the ‘70s, seemed for a time to justify the MUSE critics. By the mid-‘80s he’d veered into corporate commercialism, and by the ‘90s he issued a series of surprisingly inarticulate records.

Reading between the lyrics, his social conscience was emerging but he couldn’t seem to put the thoughts into words or marry the words to music. Instead of trying to freeze his early success in amber, Bruce seemed to be growing old (and up) with the rest of us. Despite what we were told, we weren’t grown up at 21 or even 30. We learned that clinging too tightly to the things that once worked seemed to make them work less and less and maturity, rather than mere age, requires deliberation. Unlike most of us, Bruce was deliberating behind a microphone.

By 2000, Bruce and a reconvened E Street Band looked to have come to terms with middle age and were resigned to playing aging songs for aging crowds. Then came the combination punch of September 11th – right in the metro New York area Bruce calls home – and the Bush/Cheney wreckage that followed in its wake. Anguish, the teen fuel of the best rock music, was back, only this anguish was the real, adult version and it’s had the world on a precipice. His muse (lower case) reawakened, Bruce has been able to combine songs of experience and innocence – and older man’s perspective with a young man’s loud guitar.

This week, he released Magic, an album (okay, CD) washed in pop and politics. It speaks to the apprehension of the ear-hair set the way his music did when we hoped for chin stubble. I’m not a music reviewer, my (now-hairy) ears aren’t that good, but I hear lyrics and I hear Bruce saying the largest of American values are found in the daily decisions and sacrifices of average people – and how deeply the betrayal of those values cuts.

I’ve heard evidence of the authenticity of Bruce’s re-found voice with “The Rising” playing from a loudspeaker at every firefighters’ carnival I’ve attended in the past five years. I imagine “Gypsy Biker” – a song from the new CD about a soldier who didn’t make it home – will soon be a similar ritual at post-funeral roadhouse ceremonies as long as this war lasts and is remembered.

A body of work is a dangerous thing. Hacks will beat their successes to death. A mature artist revisits old themes and finds new meaning. I hear Bruce the songwriter rounding out a line now with “dear” instead of “babe. When fathers appear in his songs now, I hear Bruce – and myself – speaking, not listening. A car and a girl can get a 20-year-old through a July evening, but they can’t sustain families, communities or nations, so we grow and seek broader horizons.

Three decades on, Bruce still hasn’t written about the environment, but I don’t put it past him. Maybe the next album will be a recompense for all the fossil fuel burning he’s inspired over the years. Where there’s growth, there’s hope.

© Mark Floegel 2007

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