My sister Susan reminds me that today is the 60th birthday of the one and only Bruce Springsteen, American hero and prophet of the church of rock-and-roll. Bruce's 40-year career forms the soundtrack not only of a lot of my own life, but of the entire history of the United States over the past four decades. I genuinely do not understand people who don't get Bruce, and must fall back on the assumption that they're European, and it's probably equivalent to my not getting the appeal of soccer.
The Bruce Springsteen catalog is a big chunk of my iTunes library. But here are five of his songs that shaped and maybe even saved my life, in chronological order. Thank you, Bruce, happy birthday, and many more.
1. "For You," from Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., 1973. I was seven years old when this song came out, and didn't hear it for the first time until I was 14. The boy I had a crush on recited the lyrics to this song in a near-manic torrent from behind the wheel of his father's blue Datsun B210, and I thought he was a genius. (I still know him; he is a genius, though not in the way I thought when I was 14.) The song is a frenzied plea to an old girlfriend the singer's trying to win back: "You were born with the power of a locomotive/Able to laugh and cry in a single sound . . . I came for you, for you, I came for you/But your life was one long emergency . . ." I use that line almost every day.
2. "Rosalita," from The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, 1973. Think about this: Bruce released his first two albums within nine months of each other. They're equally great, and sound just as good 36 years later. This is a full-blown rave-up, featuring Clarence Clemons' immortal saxophone. It's a promise of freedom to sheltered teenaged girls everywhere, which at the same time makes no promises: "Windows are for cheaters, chimneys for the poor/Closets are for hangers, winners use the door/So use it Rosie, that's what it's there for." Some day we'll look back on this and it will all seem funny . . . I can't embed the video, but you can watch it here.
3. "Candy's Room," from Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978. I was only 13 or 14 when I first heard this song, and had no idea that it's about a man who's the boyfriend of a hooker. Even if I'd understood that, I wouldn't have cared. I cared about the rising, driving guitars on this track, which promised redemption and salvation. You can see a video of a contemporary performance of this song here -- the video is shaky and black-and-white, but it can't obstruct the sheer power of this song. "In that darkness there'll be hidden worlds that shine . . ."
4. "Bobby Jean," from Born in the U.S.A., 1984. This was Bruce's breakout album, but it's probably my least favorite -- except for this song, which I don't think was even a single. In the summer of 1984, I got to see Bruce live at what was then the Capital Centre in Landover, MD. The song is a farewell to an old friend. In the summer of 1984, I was trying to process losses beyond my capacity or control; Bruce showed me how to do it, and offered me the hope of reunion. It seemed at the time that this song saved my life, and even at a distance of 25 years I see no reason to reconsider that.
5. "Mary's Place," from The Rising, 2002. What he did for me in 1984, he did for the whole country in 2002. The Rising was an extended meditation on the events of September 11, 2001, and "Mary's Place" is about a wake. "Tell me, how do you live brokenhearted?" You get your friends and family together, and have a party. The weekend after September 11, my friends and I gathered at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles for karaoke, and we drank and danced and sang until we cried and we laughed and we knew that we would all wake up again the next morning, and probably the morning after that too. "Mary's Place," which didn't come out until the following year, brings that whole night back to me. Turn it up.