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Between 1975 and 1978, one of the more unusual transformations in the history of rock and roll music took place. Bruce Springsteen, a successful and hugely popular singer and guitarist, changed the way his music sounded.
The reasons why reveal a fascinating focal point where leftist politics, depression, Catholicism, and American fiction collide. Springsteen, who recently released a biography called Born to Run, is a liberal elitist and social justice warrior who is worshiped by the Left as a savior. How he got to be that, and how American literature and his battle with depression influenced him, are much more fascinating than a simplistic political reading of the man born in Long Branch, New Jersey in 1949.
The milestone album Born to Run made Springsteen a star, selling millions of copies upon its release in 1975. It was the work of a deeply spiritual poet and artist who saw America as both a place offering transformative freedom, and as a “suicide trap” that captured people in failed jobs and lost dreams. Springsteen executed these themes under the influence of the “Wall of Sound,” a style developed by music producer Phil Spector in the 1960s. Spector wanted to create a dense aesthetic that came across well on AM radio and jukeboxes; even if the material was mediocre, the overall sound was supposed to impress.
Lyrically, Born to Run was more intricate and literate than the usual Spector product (“Da Doo Ron Ron,” say, or “Pretty Little Angel Eyes”) or indeed than anything most rock fans had ever heard. It contains “Backstreets,” the best song Springsteen ever wrote; and the opening lyrics to “Thunder Road” are some of the most famous in rock:
The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey, that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again, I just can’t face myself alone again
Don’t run back inside, darling, you know just what I’m here for
So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night
You ain’t a beauty but, hey, you’re alright
Oh, and that’s alright with me
The mixing on Born to Run is rich and deep, and the playing of the E Street Band, which has backed Springsteen for decades, exhilaratingly focused. There is despair and desperation in it, but also hope and joy. Springsteen refers to “the runaway American dream” but also sees redemption in love and in the country’s characters, cars, musical traditions, and visual beauty.
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” is a genuinely funny and funky song that documents how Springsteen put the E Street Band together.
Springsteen’s musical influences were Chuck Berry, jazz, Elvis, Motown, black rhythm and blues, Buddy Holly, and Van Morrison, among others. That is a list of musicians who, if not Republicans, celebrated the United States. In Springsteen’s records leading up to and including Born to Run can be heard not only Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie, but the African American tradition of, as music critic Stanley Crouch once put it, “dealing with adversity with grace.” American blues and soul music has always been about the translation of harsh reality into joy and humor through sensual release, religious aspiration, and elevating music performance. Motown, some of the happiest music ever made by Americans, was the product of black kids living under segregation in 1960s Detroit.
While retaining some songwriting elements of Born to Run, Springsteen’s 1978 follow-up, Darkness on the Edge of Town, is a major shift in sound and tone. Whereas Born to Run’s tales of stranded losers were leavened with possible avenues of escape like “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “Night,” and “She’s the One,” Darkness is aptly named—a lyrically bleak and nearly hopeless record. The sound is stripped down and even harsh. It sounds like a record the band made three years before Born to Run, not three years after.
So what changed? In my view, three things.
First is what Springsteen was reading. In an interview with the New York Times, he mentions his literary influences:
I skipped most of college, becoming a road musician, so I didn’t begin reading seriously until 28 or 29. Then it was Flannery O’Connor; James M. Cain; John Cheever; Sherwood Anderson; and Jim Thompson, the great noir writer. These authors contributed greatly to the turn my music took around 1978-82. They brought out a sense of geography and the dark strain in my writing, broadened my horizons about what might be accomplished with a pop song and are still the cornerstone literally for what I try to accomplish today.
His serious reading beginning at age 28 or 29 would have been around 1977, when he was working on Darkness at the Edge of Town. The influence of the crime writer Jim Thompson, whom he mentions twice in the interview, can be felt all over that album. It’s in the highly class-conscious title song, with its antagonist, a wealthy female socialite from the “right” side of the tracks, who could be a character out of Savage Night, A Hell of a Woman or other Thompson books. The pulsating song “Candy’s Room” describes a sexual encounter that seems to have been ripped directly from Thomson’s masterpiece, The Killer Inside Me. The album’s hopeless blue-collar losers evoke William “Kid” Collins, the damaged ex-boxer from Thompson’s After Dark, My Sweet.
As the mention of Flannery O’Connor would suggest, there is a huge Catholic influence in Springsteen’s music. Her stories “landed hard on me,” Springsteen told the Times. He went on:
You could feel within them the unknowability of God, the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters, and which I find by my side every day. They contained the dark Gothicness of my childhood and yet made me feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.
In Born to Run the book, Springsteen describes how Catholicism was central to his young life. The family lived right next to the church and Springsteen went to Catholic school. “This is the world where I found the beginnings of my song,” he writes. “In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a language of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward.”
After Darkness on the Edge of Town came 1980’s The River, a double album that continued the themes and the raw sound of Darkness. The River was followed in 1982 by Nebraska, a solo acoustic album featuring a cast of tragic characters. It was a mix of Sherwin Anderson’s failed small-town grotesques and Jim Thompson’s doomed loners. Liberals have praised Nebraska as a collage of the Americans whom liberals claimed were being left behind by the Reagan Revolution. Maybe. Or maybe not—to those who have researched Springsteen, Nebraska sounds more like the work of a man who is reading a lot of noir novels.
And suffering from clinical depression, as well. In fact it was around the time of Nebraska, if not earlier, that Springsteen did fall into a depression. In Born to Run the book he explains that this condition plagued his father. From an interview with Stephen Colbert, one picks up that the “Irish side” of Springsteen’s family (his father’s side) was “shot through” with depression. Springsteen describes his childhood, the son of a blue-collar Jersey family of tough Italian women and brooding Irish men.
His father is a dark presence in the autobiography, an angry man who called his son “outcast,” “misfit” and “sissy boy.” Douglas Springsteen drank beer alone in the dark at the kitchen table, episodes referred to by Springsteen the younger as “six-pack séances.” From Born to Run:
My mother would read romance novels and swoon to the latest hits on the radio. My dad would go so far as to explain to me that love songs on the radio were part of a government ploy to get you to marry and pay taxes.
While his father was working blue-collar jobs and spending nights in bars, Springsteen was finding hope in rock and roll. His chapter on seeing Elvis on television in the 1950s reads like a cross between a revival meeting and Tom Wolfe, an ecstatic explosion replete with jubilant punctuation. Almost as intense is the part where he talks about the arrival of the Beatles.
He had a bad relationship with his own father, so he found father figures in the music scene. Several of these men were lost in the Vietnam War, which explains why Springsteen is so bitter about that conflict. He considers it not just a foreign policy disaster but the thing that robbed him of men whom he loved. Vietnam is a major theme of 1984’s Born in the USA, the album that brought Springsteen global superstardom.
It was also around this time that Springsteen’s depression worsened. It “was spewing like an oil spill over the beautiful turquoise green gulf of my carefully planned existence,” he writes in Born to Run. His manager Jon Landau told him, “You need professional help.” Springsteen credits years in therapy and antidepressants, but also his wife, musician Patti Scialfa: “In my life, Patti is a singularity,” he writes. Also therapeutic have been Springsteen’s legendary live shows, which are three to four hours long. He calls these “life-giving, muscle-aching, mind-clearing, cathartic pleasure and privilege.”
Like so many baby boomers drifting along as the culture has moved further and further Left in recent decades, Springsteen has become more and more liberal. The tough yet sensitive poet who played the rock and roll clubs of Asbury Park in the 1960s and 1970s, sleeping with women and dealing with gangs and playing to blue-collar audiences, now supports transgender people using whatever bathroom they like, wrote big campaign checks to Hillary, and writes protest songs about Donald Trump.
His reading of Thomson, Anderson, and O’Connor taught him the valuable lesson that America can be a dark and primitive place that often does not live up to its values. What he has missed, however—and it is hilariously outlined in Thompson’s book Pop. 1280–is that politicians and authority figures are often out for themselves, and the less they do the better. This was one of the themes of Ronald Reagan, who once cited Springsteen as a pro-American role model, a speech that sent the Left, and Springsteen, into a rage. Reagan told a small-town audience in Hammond, New Jersey in 1984 that our nation’s future “rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire—New Jersey’s own, Bruce Springsteen.”
The rock and roll legend wasn’t impressed. “Well, the president was mentioning my name in his speech the other day,” Springsteen told an audience in Pittsburgh, “and I kind of got to wondering what his favorite album of mine must’ve been, you know? I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.”
Springsteen might have been wrong about that. After all, Reagan, like Springsteen, had grown up poor with a distant and alcoholic father, had taken welfare, and left a small town (in Reagan’s case, Dixon, Illinois) to go into show business. The difference of course is that Reagan never rejected the core values of that small town, or of the country. After Born to Run, the music of Bruce Springsteen preached that happiness was attainable only despite the racism, economic inequality, and conservatism of America. Now in his seventh decade he has become shrill and humorless—a contrast to Reagan, who believed he had become a star because of the USA, not despite her.