When Bruce played in Barcelona in 2012, a group of Spanish kids held up a sign that read “Bruce, Thanks for Making Our Lives Better.” I’ve spoken to Bruce exactly four times in my life, if you include handing him his guitar in the green room of the Charlie Rose show in 1998 and posing for a photo with him at Barnes & Noble in 2017. Otherwise it was only twice. (Well, I also gave him directions once, in college.) I have strong feelings, naturally, about what I said and what I wished I had said. But I actually feel pretty powerfully that Bruce, the person, does not really matter to me. He could be just as dickish as any famous rock star and it wouldn’t matter. The music is what matters. And though I’ve written a great deal about Bruce the musician and public figure, I’ve never gone to a lot of trouble trying to interview him, nor imagining him coming to dinner or renting a movie theater so he could show me The Searchers the way John Ford meant it to be seen. I just go to the concerts and listen to the CDs. I do admit that I sometimes try to think about what my life would be like had there been no Bruce in it. To be honest, I can’t do it. It sounds ridiculous, but it is literally too terrible to contemplate. There have been greater and more admirable men and women in public life than Bruce Springsteen, but none have ever meant so much to me. That sign did a pretty good job of saying it all.
To be honest, I don’t know how to sum up the role Springsteen has played in my life so far or even give it a coherent structure. Part of the problem is that I discovered Bruce when I was fifteen and I’m now fifty-nine. My understanding of the world and my relationship to music and the artists who make it have naturally changed quite a bit over that time. But I have to say a big problem with summing up Bruce is Bruce himself. Both the man and the artist — and I distinguish between them whenever possible — present a package of frightful contradictions. I’ll leave the complicated questions about the effect of his extremely bizarre upbringing on both his psyche and his artistry to his therapist(s). I’m interested in the music. But that too is impossible to generalize about. Think about all the different artists you’ve heard (or seen) Bruce channel. Way back when he was the “New Dylan,” he was already fourteen other things. Remember, he was fronting a kind of jazz band and had already been through at least six musical incarnations before that. Pick a moment in Bruce’s professional career — after, I would argue, the dreadful Steel Mill heavy metal mush — and you hear someone repeatedly challenging any number of iconic musicians in a remarkable array of genres. There’s the Dylan/Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger Bruce, of course. But there is also Elvis Bruce. There’s Hank Williams Bruce. There’s the Ronettes/Swingin’ Medallions Bruce. There’s the Sam and Dave Bruce. And there’s definitely the James Brown Bruce. What am I missing? Well, there’s supposedly a hip-hop Bruce in an album he decided against releasing. There’s that Suicide, “Dream Baby Dream” Bruce and even a Clash Bruce. I could go on, but my point here is that, dammit, they all work. I recently read heartfelt appreciations about Bruce from Emmylou Harris and Joe Strummer. Can you even imagine two more different artists? Yet both saw Bruce as important influences; inspirations, even. The apparent contradictions between Bruce’s various musical personas somehow remain within a zone of authenticity. And each speaks to different parts of us in different ways with an honesty and power that eludes mere language; at least they have to me. I taught a class last year on Springsteen and Dylan. What I found most interesting was how different they were. Dylan repeatedly assumed new identities throughout his life, beginning with the character “Bob Dylan.” Bruce just spoke with different parts of himself.
Anyway, what follows are some personal notes about what it’s been like to “grow up” with Bruce. I wouldn’t be the man I am without him.
I was in ninth grade. I had missed Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle somehow, even though I loyally read the record reviews in Rolling Stone beginning — I swear this is true — with the David-Cassidy-smoking-a-joint-and-showing-pubic-hair issue, which I still recall bringing to summer camp. I hated disco, there was no punk yet, and I was stuck in what I still think of as the “Life- Sucks-So-Who-Gives-a-Shit” decade. I smoked a lot of pot in those days, but my parents didn’t sweat it too much because my mom worked in a school system where kids sometimes shot one another. What’s more, I got good grades, so, really, what was the big deal? The Allman Brothers were awesome, and so were the Grateful Dead. And hey, Pink Floyd still holds up. But those bands were largely passive experiences. Everyone at their shows was stoned to the point of nearly passing out. That’s what it was; music to pass out to.
I still remember walking around those garbage-strewn streets of about-to-almost-default New York City that summer and seeing Springsteen on posters hung up on the sides of dumpsters and at abandoned construction sites like he was a modern-day Russian icon, except in sneakers and a leather jacket with a guitar on his back. WNEW-FM — the station that, loser that I was, actually provided me with a serviceable substitute for friendship — had gotten the Bruce bug before Born to Run was released and was playing the first two albums all the time. They were fucking great, as I would have said then, but were difficult to understand (“Cat long sighs holding Kitty’s black tooth”? What the hell was that?). When the Bottom Line gigs finally arrived, I tried to get in but my fake ID got me nowhere. (Years later, the owner’s wife advised me that in 1974, when nobody cared about Bruce, the fake ID would have been fine.) But when WNEW broadcast the August 15 show on the radio, I was betting on Bruce to deliver something I could never have defined. And damned if he didn’t do it. Listen to the bootleg of Bruce singing “And Then She Kissed Me” if you doubt my word. It’s as great a three minutes of rock and roll as you will ever hear. And Bruce stopped playing it for thirty-three years because, well, he had about a million of those up his sleeve and didn’t even need that one.
I bought the album ten days later, August 25, 1975, the day it came out. I got my sister, Marcia, to drive me to E. J. Korvette’s on Central Avenue in Yonkers, a chain of discount department stores named after eight Jewish Korean War veterans. I don’t remember what I bribed her with, but it remains the best $3.33 I ever spent. I later wrote that Born to Run “exploded in my home, my mind and changed my life,” just as Elvis and the Beatles had done for Bruce a decade earlier. Springsteen’s music pierced this misplaced teenage soul exactly where he was aiming. I could never have articulated it at the time, but Born to Run offered me an alternative context for my life, one in which it was okay to try and fail, rather than just to appear too cool to care. What had previously felt ridiculous was endowed with dignity and, no less important, solidarity. Most of my life was beyond my control, but my own reaction in the face of it would be my own. Fuck Scarsdale, ripping the bones off my metaphorical back like a metaphorical death trap. One day I would pull out of there to win.
Every Thursday during my sophomore and junior years of high school I would head to the school library at lunchtime and grab that week’s Village Voice to see if Bruce was playing somewhere where they would finally let me in. I didn’t know about the lawsuit. I didn’t know what was holding him up. I devoured the cover stories in Time and Newsweek and fought back, in my head, against the backlash. (Peter Frampton? Billy Joel? Give me a break.) But I felt like a fraud because I had never seen him live. And with Bruce, that was the thing. See the guy live. There was no substitute. I heard he had been offered a million bucks to do a TV special and had turned it down. Goddam artistic integrity.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but the library got the Voice a day late. So when the ad finally showed up for six nights at the Palladium, most of it was already sold out. I had a girlfriend at the time who was always in and out of the hospital. It turned out later that she had been given some bad medicine or something and this gave her all kinds of terrible reactions that nobody could diagnose. So it wasn’t as psychosomatic as everyone assumed, but still, it was a pain in the ass for her boyfriend. Half of our relationship took place in hospitals; a not terribly convenient place for a sixteen-year-old kid, if you get my drift. I remember that morning, she was being tested for cancer. Thing was, she had a car and I didn’t. I needed that car to drive to Macy’s in White Plains and get those tickets. She was like, “Don’t you want to hear about my cancer tests?” And I was like, “Not now, goddammit, this is serious.” (“At least as serious as cancer,” I might have added, but I didn’t.) That relationship didn’t last much longer — surprise, surprise — but I brought two other girls to the three shows I saw (in nosebleed seats) and I married one of them and had my daughter with the other. (I think I’ll save the story of my marriages for my memoirs.) Anyway, the band came out and broke into “Night.” I was worried that nothing could possibly live up to the hype and yet one more supposedly great thing was going to suck. I put my worries away. It was like an electric bolt traveled from Bruce’s guitar into my teenage heart. There was magic in those nights.
This essay is adapted from Eric Alterman, “Growing Up with Bruce Springsteen,” Jonathan D. Cohen and June Skinner Sawyers, eds. Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2019.)
Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and media columnist for The Nation. @Eric_Alterman.