In this occasional forum, Times contributors air their opinions on timely issues. What do you think about Bruce Springsteen? Write Popping Off, Los Angeles Times, Calendar, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.
I was listening to yet another Springsteen devotee sing the praises of the Jersey Devil. "Bruce is the kind of guy you could have a beer with," goes the rapturous litany. "I mean, you could talk to him about the linkage problems in your 1957 Mercury! Bruce loves old cars ya know," the fan joyfully concluded, as though no further proof of Bruce's qualifications for sainthood were required.
Springsteen fans frequently tout Bruce's "just-a-guy" approachability as one of his most winning traits, but it seems to me you could say the same thing about the mechanic at your local gas station. And while one hesitates to demean such simple pleasures as beer and a good lube job, great art should offer something more out of the ordinary than that. The fact that Springsteen offers so little--and enjoys such idolatry--does rock a disservice.
Which brings me to my opening salvo: namely, Springsteen's incredibly pedestrian thematic vocabulary. There's some serious Stone Age thinking going on in Bruce's songs, which basically begin and end with girls. There's the high school beauty queen who won't give you a tumble 'cause you're the town bad boy, then there's the shabby girl you'll never love, but hey, you wish her well 'cause she's got a heart o' gold. Then there's the angel you married only to watch her decay into a jailer. Girls from here to the Promised Land, all middle-class and vaguely depressed.
From there we segue to the highway that takes you to the girls, away from 'em, back to your hometown to visit your high school math teacher, down to the shore for a brew. Highways, man, they're universal, they're all over the place and they're symbolic as all get-out. Step right up for your dose of illusory freedom, flight from responsibility, chance, fate--adventure with a capital A is happening down at the interstate.
And what would a highway be without a car, that trusty pal you can kiss in, race like a man in, play your radio in, even cry in, ya big lug?
You and your wheels man, you've been through so much together that when the transmission blows, well, you gotta admit it--you enjoy those private hours alone in the garage together.
The ideas--and I use the term loosely--behind these symbols are so slight as to be nonexistent, but when Bruce stretches for more abstract concepts, things really get muddled. Springsteen's treatment of the themes of fate and destiny are particularly irksome. For a guy who slogged his way along the tour trail until he reached the heights of Mt. Olympus, Springsteen writes about life with an air of resignation that's not only odd, but is the very antithesis of the spirit of rebellion basic to great rock 'n' roll. Stuck in a soul-destroying job at the local factory? There's nobility in working-class misery, Bruce advises in a moody mumble, so fill that Thermos and get on with the grim job of living.
Grim is the key word in any discussion of Springsteen's music, where the central metaphor for life is a trap from which there is no escape. Bruce responds to the bad news he delivers by shrugging his shoulders and selling you another album to help you through the long, dark night.
Which brings up another major gripe: The man has no sense of humor whatsoever. This isn't surprising when one realizes that there's an element of wickedness in any display of wit, and Bruce, bless his goody-two-shoes soul, hides his wicked side all too well. I give him the benefit of the doubt in assuming that he has a streak of wickedness that he shares with friends and loved ones. It would be no picnic to live with a man as irreproachably virtuous as Bruce appears to be.
Bruce is touted as a great patriot and humanitarian, but there's something creepy about the zealous flag-waving and sweaty male bonding his music invokes.
Even more troubling is the unquestioning faith and devotion Bruce elicits in his followers. His fans respond to his music on a purely emotional level, never questioning what that music may be telling them. They camp out for days on the chance of purchasing tickets to his concerts, eyes glazed over, clad in standard-issue Bruce garb of well-worn denims, T-shirt and maybe a calico bandanna for the more flamboyant. (You certainly can't accuse Broocies of being fashion trendies). Of course, Bruce can't be held accountable for the lazy minds of the masses; if he didn't exist, they'd find another soothingly bland paregoric to lull them to sleep.
I might consider overlooking all of the above if Springsteen's music showed the slightest trace of charm, but Bruce sings like Joe Cocker on a bad night, and his hoarse, vein-popping bleatings are accompanied by a turgid wall of noise that sounds like the worst record Phil Spector never made.
There's not a groove to be found in Springsteen's music, and consequently there's no sex in it either. For all the wailing sax breaks, courtesy of Clarence (Big Man) Clemons, Springsteen's music has more in common with a Sousa march than it has with the '50s rhythm and blues Bruce so liberally plagiarizes.
Granted, Springsteen is an unusually responsible rock star who wears the mantle of messiah with touching solemnity. Too savvy to tamper with such a universally loved formula, he resolutely refuses to pollute the Holy Grail of his music with any new concepts lest he confuse the adoring flock he so tenderly shepherds.
Maybe I got it wrong, but I was under the impression that rock 'n' roll was about change; Bruce has been re-running the same morose movie since the big bucks started pouring in a decade ago.