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Volume 3, Number 8
August, 1998

Stealth Punk-The Music of Bruce Springsteen

by Dean Shutt

So there I was, sitting at home, minding my own business as I often do. My roommate walked in and plopped down in his chair. We had the normal after work roommate chit chat for a little while and then he said to me, "I've finally figured out why YOU like Springsteen so much."

"Why is that?" I replied, not really interested but playing along.

"Because he is one depressing motherfucker," he said with just a hint of surprise in his voice.

"That he is." I answered, confused as to what the big discovery was.

"I just heard Born in the USA and those are some reeeally depressing lyrics." he said. I said, "You should try some of his darker stuff." and we let it go at that.

At least, HE let it go at that. I on the other hand, couldn't just let it go. I've been thinking about it off and on for a while now, trying to figure it out. Trying to piece something together from the data as it were. This is what I do, you see, I try to explain questions that I am the only one asking, it amuses me. You see one thing I always wondered was why Bruce doesn't seem to get the respect among the hip crowd that I think he is entitled to. Most folks will tell you that it's because his best stuff is too "regional" and that you need to be from Jersey to really appreciate him. I have never really bought that theory though. Springsteen received most of his critical acclaim after he broke of the whole "Jersey Boy" image, so the whole local theory just doesn't wash. Yet still there must be some reason that this singer/songwriter, one of the best of his generation by the way, is not on the top of most people's lists when they talk about the heavies in music. A man who is often the focus of derision amongst the hip crowd. The same crowd that loves Counting Crows and Melissa Etheridge, but dismisses Springsteen as though he was the Spice Girls.

After thinking on it some, I believe that I have finally figured it out. Springsteen IS on depressing motherfucker, not a dilettante like some of these folks, but a truly wounded bastard. You see when the Crows sing a depressing song, it usually involves not being loved or some such twaddle like that. We can all identify with that because we have all been in that situation. When Springsteen launches into "Born to Run" he is singing about being loved and STILL being miserable. He is singing about people so bereft of hope that love doesn't even begin to solve their problems. That is some heavy shit for a pop song to be dealing with and it's something that most bands won't touch with a ten foot pole. There is a really good reason they won't touch it, because nine bands out of ten would butcher that emotion beyond recognition. Most bands would come up with a plodding, ponderous dirge. Springsteen gives you hopelessness that you can dance to. It takes a little bit of talent to do that with regularity. Springsteen has been doing it consistently for nearly thirty years.
"When the man pulls
 That switch sir,
And snaps my
 Poor head back
Just make sure my
 Pretty baby
Is sitting right here
 On my lap..."

Bruce Springsteen on "Nebraska"

Here's a fun project for you to try when you are feeling especially upbeat. Sit in a dark room with a pack of cigarettes, some ice and a bottle of Wild Turkey and listen to "Nebraska" a few times. Please be sure to lock up all of the sharp objects before you try it though. I don't want to responsible for anyone's actions after they hear that for the third or the fourth time with Turkey in their system. "Nebraska" is the starkest album ever recorded, period. By listening to that disc you are plumbing the depths of the human experience. No matter how you feel going in, you will be depressed when you are finished listening. This is the record Bruce recorded after "The River" which broke him nationwide and made him an official Big Star. Listen to "Nebraska" and realize that you are hearing the work of a man who is on top of the world. This is a man, who, at the finest moment of his professional life up to that point, went into a studio with a harmonica and a guitar and recorded the darkest album ever made. Try that on for size, Morrisey.

Some time ago I wrote a piece about the Sex Pistols. I mentioned in that story that punks have something broken in them that will never be fixed. I still believe that to be true. I further think that Bruce Springsteen, throughout his career, has been constantly redefining the soul of punk rock without anyone noticing it. When you listen to "Born in the USA" (the song and the album) there is more hopelessness and anger on that disc than any half dozen of the classic punk bands were ever able to muster (Sex Pistols excepted of course). Bruce cleverly disguised it beneath the power chords and pop hooks, but it was definitely there.

The odd thing about all this is that Bruce Springsteen seems to be genuinely content with his life. He believes in things and helps people and he smiles a lot. He turned down six million dollars to keep his music out of a Chevy commercial, a very un-punk sort of thing to do. I suppose you could call Bruce Springsteen the world's first and only Happy Punk Rocker. It is amazing that such a contradiction is possible, yet there really is no other way to put it. He is somehow damaged, and he realizes it, and it comes out in everything he does. Here is the odd thing about it though, he seems to have made his peace with that damaged part of his soul that allows him to make such incredible music. That is a tough trick to pull off, one that would have been nice for Kurt to learn. One that would be nice for a lot of people to learn. No wonder no one gets him.
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