Monday, July 14, 2008

It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive- The promise of Bruce Springsteen

Long car trips are often times for me to enjoy a good book and listen to some good music.
Doing both is great, but only when I'm not driving! My wife and I drove to Milwaukee, WI a few days ago to see our son, who has started his internship year in medicine. I got to read and listen to music; my wife got to drive. And we were both happy.

No one has sung better songs about the road as a journey of exploration and search for identity than Bruce Springsteen. Seeing him in concert this past May in Omaha with my son was one of life's great thrills. I had introduced my son to the "Boss" years ago, and then we heard him live.

While on my car trip to Milwaukee, I read Eric Alterman's book on Springsteen: "It ain't no sin to be alive: the promise of Bruce Springsteen." The book was written in 1998, just as the E Street Band was coming back on the road with Springsteen after a 10 year hiatus, after Springsteen got married and had 3 children and had taken time to explore new musical possibilities. It was a time when Springsteen, according to Alterman, was growing deeply as a human being, and not just as an artist. Becoming a parent can do that to you.

In a November 2007 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Springsteen speaks about the meaning of his songs:

"they're all about the American identity and your own identity and the masks
behind the masks behind the masks, both for the country and for yourself. And trying to hold onto what's worthwhile, what makes it a place that's special, because I still believe it is. The American idea still has enormous power in its best manifestation. And ten George Bushes cannot bring that idea down--a hundred cannot bring that idea down."

"What's the social side" of the identity question has inspired some of Springsteen's most powerful song writing. He isn't afraid to address political questions in his music and art; in fact, he's been fearless in that regard. The "Boss" has united the prophetic side of faith with the priestly and pastoral/healing side of faith in his spirituality. That's what I find so compelling about him.

I think no one offered a more compelling pastoral/healing contribution to the American psyche than Bruce Springsteen did post 9/11 in "The Rising". In "The Rising", Springsteen imagines one of those courageous fire/rescue workers entering the World Trade Tower buildings: "May your faith give us faith. May your love give us love. May your hope give us hope." That was healing song at its best. The sadness of the past years has been the political calculus that turned the American people away from that affirmation, and traded it in for a politics of fear. Since when did that define the American spirit, Springsteen asks.

'Is there anybody alive out there?" Springsteen keeps asking in this society that seeks to anesthetize us and render us passive to the massive forces of consumerism, redemptive violence, and narcissistic individualism. And yet Springsteen also knows the power of love, the magical quality of attraction between two human beings, as stated so appealingly on the "Magic" album song "Girls in their Summer Clothes".

Back to Alterman's treatment of Springsteen. Alterman is one of our best political commentators right now. See his blog on

Alterman speaks of Springsteen as "the mythos of rock'n'roll sprung to life". A painful home life growing up, a father who refused his blessing and heaped scorn on Springsteen's musical aspirations, an Italian ethnic heritage, a sense of marginalization, rebellion against a strict Catholic school education; all this and more fueled the inner fire to hit the open road to explore identity and to create a sense of self.

Springsteen expresses this search in the song lyric:

Now every man has the right to live
The right to a chance to give what he has to give
The right to fight for the things that he believes
For the things that come to him in dreams.

As I read Alterman's book about Springsteen's life and music, I came away with a renewed appreciation for what the Boss has been doing in his music. While he has certainly been a popular artist in many ways, Springsteen has also examined the political and religious concerns of "being alive". As someone once commented, there are really only 3 issues worth sustained conversation: Religion, Sex, and Politics. After that, what else is there? Springsteen fearlessly and hopefully sings about all three dimensions of our existence. Take away any of those three themes and life is pitifully reduced in scale and passion.

In a blog spot invitation, Alterman once invited fans of Springsteen to share what he has meant to them. Here are a few of those responses:

  • "He makes me feel like I belong in this world."
  • "Bruce Springsteen's art keeps my conscience alive."
  • "He matters to me because he is like my backup heartbeat."
  • "He has opened places in my mind, provided me with music to live my life, given me solace in my grief, provided me with joy for celebrations, introduced me to lifelong friends, raised my blood pressure, increased my heart rate, added smile lines to my face, and made me dance on a a folding chair and scream, 'Gooba, gooba, gooba."
As a person of faith and a pastor, I ask myself. "Has my experience of church and faith offered that much passion and joy?" Is that a description of what the church at its best should offer?
Personally, I think so.

At the end of Alterman's exploration of Springsteen's life and music, he offers up this wonderful
piece of philosophy from the Boss. The "greatest challenge of adulthood," Springsteen once explained, "is holding on to your idealism after you lose your innocence."

On his recent "Magic" tour with the E Street Band, I heard that evocative question:
"Is there anyone alive out there?" And I screamed, standing beside my son:
"Yes, we're alive!"


At 12:36 PM, Blogger Lynette said...

I came here from Altercation. I agree with you about the joy of Springsteen. It is wonderful when our religious life echoes that. Thanks for writing this.


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