You’re Beautiful When You’re Angry

I hated Bruce Springsteen. I know it’s heresy to say that, especially in the pages of this magazine, but it’s finally out there.

I hated Bruce Springsteen. I know it’s heresy to say that, especially in the pages of this magazine, but it’s finally out there.

Growing up outside of Minneapolis in the early ’80s was paradise for this young music fan ready to step out of his Top-40 radio world. I remember going to a friend’s house and sitting in his sister’s room as she took out record after record (yes, vinyl) and played them for us. The angry, messy punk rock of the Replacements spoke to me as a teen in need of a soundtrack to mark my first taste of heartbreak, alienation, and depression. At the end of that session, my friend flicked on MTV. There was Bruce and that God-awful “Dancing in the Dark” video. We laughed until it hurt. Those dance moves. The cheesiness of Bruce pulling then-unknown Courteney Cox out of the audience and onto the stage. God, it was terrible. It still is. My friend put on his sister’s copy of Born in the U.S.A. It seemed so sloganeering, so self-indulgent, and so pretentious. In Minneapolis, we already had a self-indulgent, pretentious superstar. His name was Prince, and at least he was funky.

Springsteen to me was decidedly unfunky. And as I went through high school and college in Boston, my taste expanded from punk to grunge and my true love: house music. When you’re standing in a club at 4 am with the bass rattling your insides, Bruce is the farthest thing from your mind.

He still didn’t enter my consciousness even after I got a job writing for Rolling Stone, a magazine I had read since I was eight years old. Bruce was a favorite at Rolling Stone. Jon Landau, who later became his manager, wrote the infamous line, “I have seen the future of rock and roll and his name is Bruce Springsteen” in Boston’s Real Paper while also working at the magazine. Bruce was an “FOJ”—or Friend of Jann—meaning Rolling Stone owner Jann Wenner had a personal relationship with him and you were expressly forbidden to write anything bad about him. To me, in the mid ‘90s, Bruce was just another in the line of hoary old farts, Mick Jagger being the old fart patron saint—for whom coverage in the magazine was a necessary evil, one that would help you keep your job. In 1995, just after I started, Bruce released The Ghost of Tom Joad, a dark, brooding look at the broken dreams of people beaten down by the system. The magazine ran a rave review. I thought it was deathly boring.

But things began to change in 1999. I was raised in a Reagan Republican household, so I kept my punk-rock idealism suppressed. But living in Manhattan in the late 1990s, I was letting my liberal freak flag fly. I despised Rudy Giuliani and his fascist police tactics as exemplified by the Abner Louima beating and the Amadou Diallo shooting, where cops pumped 41 bullets into the immigrant from Guinea as he was reaching for his wallet.

I was outraged. The city was outraged. And as it turns out, Bruce was outraged. He has a long tradition of addressing political and social issues—neglect of Vietnam veterans, mistreatment of the poor, the AIDS epidemic—but had never waded into a storm as he did with his song, “American Skin (41 Shots).” He debuted the song in Atlanta in the summer of 2000, the precursor to a ten-night stand with the E Street Band at Madison Square Garden.

In the days leading up to the Garden shows, the head of the New York City police union called for a boycott of the concerts. Blue-collar workers and their hard-luck lives have always been at the core of Bruce’s lyrics—and it seemed like he was confronting them, and his broader audience, head-on. I had yet to see Bruce live (heresy, again, I know), but I remember thinking, “He’s got balls. I’ve got to see this for myself.”

I scored a pair of tickets for the first Garden show, which opened with the slamming one-two punch of “Code of Silence” and “Prove It All Night.” Five songs later the mood turned darker. Without any introduction, Bruce began chanting the line, “forty-one shots.” The crowd reaction was fierce: cheers mixed with boos. Some people stood up and turned their backs while two fans in front of me got into a heated argument and nearly came to blows before being separated. I was blown away. Returning home that evening, I trawled the Internet looking for the lyrics. What I found surprised me: the song is far from anti-cop. Rather, it’s an elegiac, measured analysis of racism in America, faulting the lack of communication between black and white, cops and citizen. It is masterful. Bruce had made his point while still respecting his audience. I, in turn, had a newfound respect for him and a new reverence for his music. He followed “American Skin” with “The Promised Land,” and then “Badlands,” the sheer power of which made my jaw hit the floor.

Band and audience were totally locked in, and as the house lights came alive during each chorus, 20,000 fists—including mine—shook the air. So by the time Bruce ordered us all to “testify to the power of rock & roll!” during an extended “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” I was converted.

And I testified: to the power of Bruce.

The next day I went to Tower Records in the Village and bought up every Bruce record I could find (except for Human Touch and Lucky Town, which the Bruce-obsessed friend I went to the show with warned me against). I sat on my living room floor listening, reading lyrics, marveling at his evolution as an artist while he remained true to the ideals he had set forth from the start. Some of my other New York friends, many of whom were also Midwesterners, occasionally tried to give me a hard time, but they knew it was a losing fight. As I got religion, Rolling Stone and seemingly the rest of the world went the other way, becoming obsessed with disposable pop stars, such as Britney, ‘N’Sync, and the Backstreet Boys.

I abhorred it. Even one of my favorite bands of all time, U2, had become a parody of themselves with their bloated Pop album and tour. (They later redeemed themselves in 2001 with the back-to-basics All That You Can’t Leave Behind). I was looking for authenticity, realness, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get mentality. Bruce satisfied that desire in spades. He brought it during my first show, and he continues to bring it year after year.

The most obvious reference point for Bruce is Bob Dylan, and to be sure, there are similarities. Each is a masterful storyteller with a love of folk music—but the most salient point of comparison is this: They have gotten better with age. Dylan’s last three records—Time Out of Mind, Love & Theft, and last year’s Modern Times—are, in my opinion, the best of his career.

And I would argue that Bruce’s output of the last five years is his strongest stretch of recording. His 2002 masterpiece, The Rising, is a deeply moving collection of mourning and hope, mostly written in the aftermath of 9/11. The sparse, tragic Devils and Dust is even more affecting than its older brother, 1982’s Nebraska. Bruce’s 2006 effort, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, is a fountain of joyful folk classics whose rollicking jubilation masks its protest against our country heading off the rails. His latest, Magic, is the most calculated of his career, but it sizzles with a crackling energy and contains his prettiest song to date (the gorgeous Wall of Sound homage, “Girls In Their Summer Clothes”).

What makes Magic worthy of its title is its thread of rage and discomfort at the direction our country has taken in recent years. There’s a new purpose for his stories. Like many of us who bore witness to the horror of 9/11, Bruce’s reaction on The Rising was a genuine love of country and the hope that better days lie ahead (an oft-visited theme for Bruce since day one).

But that love was betrayed, and Bruce stuck his neck out to voice displeasure when he spearheaded 2004’s “Vote For Change” tour. His disgust is palpable on Devils and Dust and The Seeger Sessions, and it boils over on Magic. “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?” he sings through clenched teeth on the stand-out track “Last to Die.” The Fox News talking heads like to make a stink about how Americans don’t care what celebrities think, but Bruce is bulletproof on this. They tried to take him down in 2004, but the fans have stayed with him, whether they agree with his progressive politics or not. Because deep down, they know he’s right.

So, I admit, I wasn’t right with my hatred of Bruce. Chalk it up to youthful piss and vinegar. After seeing my first show in 2000, I’ve been fortunate to go to six more shows and would pay top dollar just to see him and the E Streeters roar through “Badlands” again. He was the soundtrack to my life in post 9/11 New York, and while I’ve grown to appreciate his early records, I’ll still reach for The Rising before Born to Run.

I interviewed him in 2004 for a Rolling Stone retrospective on the best live shows of all time. (Bruce’s 1975 run at the Bottom Line in New York was the magazine’s choice.) I picked up the phone and heard him say, “Hey, it’s Bruce!” like he was just some guy down the street asking for directions. We talked for 45 minutes, and he seemed stoked to reminisce about those gigs, even recalling that everyone got food poisoning off a post-show meal of fried chicken. I didn’t have the courage to tell him how I’ve come full circle on him and how much his music means to me. So I’ll say now what you good people of New Jersey have known all along: Bruce, you’re the Boss.

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