I can’t get away from Bruce.
Everywhere I turn, every time I look at TV, every publication I read, Bruce’s brooding face beckons me.
It’s so odd, since I’ve never liked New Jersey, hated the “Jersey Boys “ musical, and detested the stereotype of Italians created by “The Sopranos” — generic jerks from Jersey. Yet, I cannot escape the most famous son of New Jersey since Frank Sinatra, whose velvety voice my mother adored.
I never adored Bruce’s raspy voice, but his words and his writing have taken my breath away, now, for the first time, when both of us are 69 years old. After decades of listening to Springsteen’s songs, it’s his words, thoughts and actions that have turned me into a geriatric groupie.
It happened unexpectedly, while researching the official biography I’m writing about the singer/songwriter/humanitarian Harry Chapin. Sure, like many others, I was struck by Bruce’s break-out hits in the 1980s — ”Born in the USA” and “Glory Days.” Both dominated the airwaves while I worked for an old ballplayer turned politician. Mario M. Cuomo, who articulated Springsteen’s working class anger in a less aggressive way.
It was Harry Chapin, six years after his death, who first brought me in close contact with Bruce at a Carnegie Hall memorial benefit concert on the 45th anniversary of Harry’s birth. I sat with my 12-year-old son, and his mother, my partner of 15 years, less than 10 feet away from Springsteen. He came out on the big stage, and talked about how Chapin would never stop bugging him about giving more of his earnings to people less fortunate — the poor, the hungry.
“Harry would stand outside my hotel window, and tell me that when he performed, he’d give one dollar for the other guy, and keep one for himself, “ Bruce said, “and I’d nod my head, just to get rid of him and get some sleep.”
Then, Springsteen, holding his electric guitar and wearing a harmonica around his neck, stepped up to the microphone and in his haunting voice sang “Remember When the Music,” and left all of us in the audience gasping for air.
I hadn’t thought much about Bruce Springsteen for a few decades, until I learned that he had quietly picked up the humanitarian mantle worn by Harry Chapin, raising millions of dollars for non-profit organizations like World Hunger Year (WHYHunger), which Chapin founded with former Catholic priest and DJ, Bill Ayres. Harry’s hectoring had hit home with the working class hero from Freehold, New Jersey.
Then, earlier this year, while carefully sifting through articles about celebrities using their gifts to improve the world, I came across a 20-year old interview done with Springsteen by writer Will Percy, the nephew of the great writer Walker Percy. The “Springsteen Interview,” appeared in the Summer/Fall 1998 issue of the publication of WHYHunger, in a special edition devoted to Artists Against Hunger and Poverty. In it, Springsteen didn’t just talk about his burgeoning humanitarian work, which he came to later in his career, but about the artist’s obligation to reach the public’s conscience.
“What’s interested me since I was young, “ Bruce told Will Percy, “ was how we live in the world and how we ought to live in the world. I think politics is implicit. I’m not interested in writing rhetoric or ideology. I think it was Walt Whitman who said ‘the poet’s job is to know the soul.’ You strive for that, assist your audience in finding and knowing theirs. That’s always at the core of your writing, of what drives your music.”
“What a writer or artist does, “Springsteen continued, “is to raise fundamental questions about the way we behave toward one another, and then move these questions from the aesthetic into the practical, into some sort of action; whether it be action in the community or action in the way you treat your wife or your kid…”
“The way all those things intersect,” he said, “is what interests me. The way the social issues and the personal issues cross over one another; to me, that’s how people live. In some fashion that’s my intent to establish a commonality by revealing our inner common humanity, by telling good stories about a lot of different kinds of people.”
This past month, as his incredibly successful show “Springsteen on Broadway,” is winding down its year-long run before being aired on Netflix, Dec. 15, Esquire Magazine published another remarkable interview with Springsteen (“Beneath the Surface with Bruce Springsteen”, by Michael Hainey, Nov. 27, 2018) in which he underscored that he was still striving to create a place where “the political and personal came together, to spill clear water into the muddy river of history.”
In his beautifully written autobiography “Born to Run” (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016), Springsteen is both more introspective then he’s ever been, and more outspoken about the political and social life of the USA of today, a country different from the one in which he was born, worried that “the moral high ground has been swept away from underneath us.”
Yet somehow, despite the “crimes against humanity” that Bruce believes Trump commits each day by intentionally dividing and hurting people, the honesty of Springsteen’s life and his writing uplift me, and his voice is more clear and true to me than it has ever been.
Steve Villano is a Napa-based blogger. He was a director of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo’s New York City press office, and is the author of “Tightrope: Balancing a Life Between Mario Cuomo and My Brother.” This originally appeared on his blog.
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