It was a dank, rainy day when I decided to watch the film Badlands. It follows Kit and Holly, a young couple on the run from the police across America. I stood in my misty garden afterwards to try and clear a headache while my mind was whirring, full of the tumbleweed scenery, unable to forget the voices of those two strange characters.
There was something else too. The Wikipedia on Charles Starkweather, on whom the film was based, read: “Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 song ‘Nebraska’ is a first-person narrative based on the Starkweather events.” I Googled “bruce springsteen nebraska” and found this:
The opening harmonica haunted me from the moment I heard it. I couldn’t shake it loose. It was beautiful beyond words; it was my Springsteen epiphany. The most affecting film I had watched had inadvertently introduced me to the music that would begin to affect me more than any before. And all on the same day. Doesn’t it just feel like music, films, and books choose you, rather than the other way ’round?
I was a 16-year-old girl living in a suburb of Birmingham, England. Sixteen was an age when I felt very insecure—maybe you wouldn’t think Bruce Springsteen would be the main contestant to suddenly become my musical hero and general life inspiration. His name can conjure a testosterone-heavy symbol of the “American dream,” a denim-clad butt shaking around with a young Courteney Cox, proud to be BORN! IN THE USA! The 1984 album of that name sounds like a collection of greatest hits, the songs are so memorable. And “Dancing in the Dark” is probably the best music video you will ever see:
I love that brash, confident ’80s American hero Bruce with all my heart. But he is a lot more than that.
This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to write, because what can I say to do him justice? How can I sum up my intensely personal feelings about a public legend? Bruce is at once a huge overwhelming icon and a whisper directed to the tiny corners of people’s ordinary lives. I think Joe Strummer summarized it better than I ever will:
HIS MUSIC IS GREAT ON A DARK & RAINY MORNING IN ENGLAND, JUST WHEN YOU NEED SOME SPIRIT & SOME PROOF THAT THE BIG WIDE WORLD EXISTS, THE D.J. PUTS ON ‘RACING IN THE STREETS’ & LIFE SEEMS WORTH LIVING AGAIN… LIFE SEEMS TO BE IN CINEMASCOPE AGAIN.
After my “Nebraska” experience, I began to collect and listen to Bruce’s early records. I propped them up on my desk so I could see them from my bed. The album artwork burned into my brain. Every morning I would start up my turntable and life was in CinemaScope again. For a few weeks, in that flush of discovery, I was able to forget most other feelings. It is a pattern that has repeated since with other albums and musicians. But Bruce was the first.
I suppose Bruce Springsteen was the first musician I heard who communicated in a way I could completely understand. As if he talks in my language. Being a musician is the only job Bruce has ever had—it doesn’t seem like a secondary thing to him, or a route to fame and fortune, but an instinct. It was only through his passion that I discovered how important music can be for myself. We clicked. Like a first love.
I started with his first two albums: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle were both released in 1973 and are both infused with youth and dreams, characters and adventures. My favorite songs from them are “Spirit in the Night” and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” I also love the outtake “Thundercrack” from E Street Shuffle:
That song is my personal anthem. I love everything about it, and the video of him singing it above. Bruce with his beard! Clarence Clemons playing saxophone! Bruce and Clarence’s duet! I hadn’t heard anything like this before; it’s mix of genres, constantly upbeat and weaved full of stories. His voice there is all youthful conviction—it seems to say, Look, being young is confusing, but it can also be fun. Plus, how much do you just want to throw yourself at young Bruce Springsteen? Or is that just me? (I think the girl doing just that in the “Rosalita” video is me in a former life).
Later I became captivated with 1975’s Born to Run, with its wall of sound. This album just rips out my heart and stomps on it. I think I’ll only make peace with it when I can drive down an open American highway with it playing full blast. It is the only way. (The other way is alone in your bedroom, lying on your bed with closed eyes, imagining those open roads.)
Bruce’s early albums gave me a chance to escape reality and to dream. To become excited by the possibilities of life. The next album he made, Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), was about what happens when your early dreams confront reality. This is my album, perhaps because I am constantly questioning myself and my own reality. It is the battle of life made into a perfect set of songs. It’s also one of the best examples of how visual Bruce’s music can be. The documentary about the making of Darkness is fascinating and love-deepening and tells of how Bruce described to mixer Chuck Plotkin the sounds he wanted by describing images—which totally makes sense to me. For my most played song ever, “Adam Raised a Cain,” Springsteen told Plotkin to think of a movie showing two lovers having a picnic, then the scene suddenly cuts to a dead body. Whoa!
Bruce’s concerts are legendarily great, and his songs are often best when he performs them onstage. I would (and still do) spend nights I couldn’t sleep on YouTube, compulsively watching his shows. He opened my eyes to the magic and art of live performance. My favorites are mostly on the 1978 Darkness Tour.
That piano opening! Bruce’s guitar solos! Clarence, Clarence, Clarence! It’s utter heaven. If you have no reaction to that video, I don’t think we can be friends. And this is just one example! Enter the YouTube black hole with me!
I am 18 now, and I’ve grown so much in the two years since I discovered Bruce, in both in confidence and in height—his music certainly helped with one of those. When my identity was lost, music help me find a backbone, and it has comforted me ever since. So when I say “Literally the Best Thing Ever: Bruce Springsteen,” what I also mean is “Literally the Best Thing Ever: Music.”
Now my only real goal in life is to see him live. And preferably be another one of those lucky girls who are pulled onstage for “Dancing in the Dark.” I will light candles in front of my records and pray for more U.K. tour dates, because to witness one of his three-hour sets would be the apotheosis of every which way his songs have ever made me feel.
I could write for 10 times longer about Bruce Springsteen, and it still wouldn’t be enough. This isn’t the end though. Some of his songs will grow in meaning, some will become nostalgic, some will always make me dance with joy. Most important, they will be a continued companion while I figure out where—and if—the Promised Land exists.