“Why is he ‘The Boss’?”, a young friend asked me about my musical hero, Bruce Springsteen. Good question. Why is he? Perhaps it’s because he is one of the most loved and well-respected musicians of his generation and has sold more than 120 million albums worldwide. Or perhaps it’s because his career spans more than four decades, includes seventeen hugely successful studio albums, numerous live albums, dozens of hit singles and is littered with countless awards and accolades.
He has won 20 Grammy awards, including best rock song, best solo vocal performance, best contemporary folk album, best traditional folk album, best rock album and song of the year. His songs have won two Golden Globes and an Oscar. In 1999 he was inducted into both the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame and he is No 23 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Ever Artists. Earlier this year he was awarded the prestigious MusiCares Person of the Year accolade and Rolling Stone named him Best Live Artist. He even has a planet named in his honour…
But this only goes some way to explaining why Bruce Springsteen is The Boss. When making a speech at his induction into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, Bono said of him, “We call him The Boss… He isn’t the boss, he works for us. He’s more than a boss, he is the owner. Because more than anyone else, Bruce Springsteen owns our hearts”. And I think that’s true; above and beyond the incredible music he produces, Bruce Springsteen also has an indefinable, unique quality which inspires in his fans the fiercest loyalty, respect and abiding love. Bono is also quite right that Bruce Springsteen works for us. He clearly has the utmost respect and love for his fans and is extremely grateful to them for everything their support has brought him. You need only see him play live to know that.
Of course, his lengthy and hugely energetic live performances have become legendary. What makes a Bruce Springsteen gig such an amazing experience, in addition to his energy, charisma and outstanding skill as a musician, is that he quite obviously LOVES playing live. He performs with such an incredible joy and passion. He has wonderful on-stage chemistry with The E-Street Band and seems genuinely to delight in the company of his fellow musicians and his fans. He makes a huge arena gig feel like an intimate party with old friends.
The joy of Bruce Springsteen’s recording work is that it can supply you with everything your mood, situation and musical needs require. Lots of energetic, up-beat songs with clever, witty lyrics (Reason to Believe, Darlington County, Glory Days…), huge soaring rock anthems (Born to Run, No Surrender, Born in the USA…) as well as some pure, unadulterated folk (Mrs McGrath, Old Dan Tucker, The Ghost of Tom Joad…). But he can also rip out your heart with some incredibly haunting and beautiful love songs (Thunder Road, Tougher than the Rest, Bobby Jean…) and gut-wrenching tales of human loss and sadness (The River, Johnny 99, Used Cars, My Father’s House..).
Some albums, like the The Ghost of Tom Joad and Nebraska, have a raw, stripped-down sound. Nebraska simply features Springsteen, his guitar and his harmonica and was recorded on a four-track cassette in his New Jersey bedroom. These albums include dark, poetic and evocative songs which tell stories of poverty, immigration, desperation… Other albums, such as Born in the USA and Born to Run have a huge, high-octane sound and are characterised by songs fuelled with energy and romance.
I can’t remember the first time I heard a Bruce Springsteen song. I was probably just a toddler, listening to Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ on an eight-track player in the back seat of my big brother’s Volvo. It seems Springsteen’s music has always been in my life. Then, as now, I devoured every song. It may seem odd that the music of this blue collar boy from New Jersey could paint such vivid pictures for an irredeemably middle class girl from a small provincial town on the English coast. But the achingly beautiful melodies and poetic lyrics of those early albums stole my heart and captivated my imagination. When he sang about “This Dusty beach road and the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets” or described the scene in the used car lot as “My mom she fingers her wedding band, watches the salesman stare at my old man’s hands”, I saw it all so clearly.
I first saw Bruce Springsteen live when I was teenager in the 1980’s. I was standing right at the front of the stage, four hours passed like minutes and I left walking on air. I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen him since then, but I do seem to have quite a few tour t-sheets in my wardrobe! At every Springsteen gig, I am struck by his vast and wide-ranging appeal. His gigs are populated by such a diversity of fans; crusty folkies, leather-clad rockers, the artisan, the reactionary, the conservative, the cool, the geeks and, perhaps most surprisingly to the uninitiated, the very young. Mere teenagers who weren’t even born when I was bouncing around my bedroom to “Dancing in the Dark”, are storming the front of the stage screaming, “Bruuuuce!” at the top of their lungs. I guess great music is great music, whatever your age or place in the world.
Most recently, I saw the Wrecking Ball Tour at the Ricoh Arena in June of this year. It was, as always, a brilliant gig and a truly joyful experience. Springsteen played solidly for almost four hours, performing a fantastic selection of songs from his repertoire, taking requests from the crowd to complete the set list. He is still full of fun, warmth and energy and he danced and leapt all over the stage. He isn’t afraid to get amongst the crowd and, as usual, he got quite a few fans up onstage with him to dance, sing, play his guitar or just have a hug. And there is a little boy called Joseph who now has a fantastic story to tell his school chums; “I sat on Bruce Springsteen’s shoulders, honestly, I really did…”
‘Icon’ is a much over-used word. So is ‘legend’. And ‘genius’. But I believe they can all be applied to Bruce Springsteen. His longevity, his body of work, the esteem in which he is held all over the world would suggest that to be the case. After all, he is The Boss.