He's the Boss

Why Bruce Springsteen makes great rock and roll
By  |  May 23, 2006

I have seen the not-too-distant past of rock and roll, and its name is Bruce Springsteen. With the release of Human Touch and Lucky Town, the days of Springsteen as larger-than-life rock star are over. And with very few exceptions (including recent Graham Parker and the population of Little Village), it's hard to think of any big-time rockers making music as warmhearted, down-to-earth, and unashamedly adult as Springsteen is doing these days. It's hard to call him the Boss when he takes such a convincing case for himself as a regular guy.

Odds are that the new albums will slip quietly into his fans' collections without leaving a big mark on pop culture, much as Tunnel of Love did four years ago. And the more you listen to his recorded output, the more surprising it is that Springsteen didn't wind up as a highly respected cult figure. True, his live shows have always been big-gesture rock and roll at its finest. But the only studio album that really captured that sound was Born To Run.

Elsewhere, his albums have been marked by risks, both in musical style and in lyrical content. It's an open question whether a major label would still take a chance on the hipster street poetry of his 1973 Columbia debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey -- not to mention the intense self-doubt of Darkness at the Edge of Town or the outright scariness of Nebraska. But Springsteen had the guts to make those albums at crucial points of his career. Just as he now has the guts to present himself as a grown-up -- no small feat when even a supposed grass-roots rocker like John Cougar Mellencamp is airbrushing his face on billboard ads and posing on his new LP with a babe half his age.

If good rock and roll is about escape, great rock and roll is about taking ordinary life and making something extraordinary out of it. Springsteen understood that on his first two albums, where "Spirit in the Night" was the most mythic song ever written about a Saturday-night beer blast (yeah, I know, they feel pretty mythic when you're 16) and "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" located both Heaven and Hell within the unlikely neighborhood of the Boardwalk. The notion of populist rock hardly existed when Greetings from Asbury Park came along; people who worked in gas stations (or had any other day job, for that matter) hadn't found their lives celebrated in rock songs since Chuck Berry's heyday. Still, his target audience wasn't ready to come aboard; it was mostly rock critics and other nerds who first took notice. The endless streams of rhymes in his early tunes didn't discourage the dreaded "new Dylan" tags. And his music was more modest then, more finger-popping swagger than rock-and-roll noise.

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