Had James Dean ventured into the realm of music instead of film, he might have been Bruce Springsteen. And had he lived through that fatal car crash, the actor might have evolved into the man that the Jersey boy would become.
Charismatic and deeply committed to their art, both men catapulted into the public’s consciousness as anti-heroes. Dean, of course, was the original anti-hero, the paradigm: the nightmare role model that post-war WWII Middle America had never seen coming. A restless soul who smoked too much, drove too fast, and whose emotions ran deep, James Dean’s mortal sin was his unvarnished honesty in questioning the status quo instead of simply going along with it as generations before him had. When Dean died, he did so as the “Rebel Without a Cause:” the character that had put him on the map. His legacy passed to an emerging generation that did have a cause — positive social change — and that rallied, in the ’60′s though to the present day, to accomplish that change.
Born into a working class family in Long Branch, New Jersey roughly nine years before James Dean met his fate on that California road, Bruce Springsteen appeared to have come into the world with a chip on his shoulder. Later tagged with the title “The Boss,” Springsteen despised the moniker due to his innate mistrust of authority figures and “fat cats.” In school, both Catholic and public, he was the odd man out, butting heads with nuns, lay teachers, and even his fellow students. The moment that Elvis Presley invaded his living room, at the tender age of seven, this rebel found his cause — music! Ed Sullivan’s film crew may have disguised the worst of Elvis’ gyrations, but they could not conceal the raw energy pumping through him, fueled by rock n’ roll. Little Bruce was hooked; at thirteen, he bought his first guitar and never looked back.
As an upcoming, butt-busting singer-songwriter-guitarist, Springsteen played clubs and college circuits, primarily in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and Philadelphia, in addition to some dates in California. He is, however, most closely linked to venues in his native New Jersey; particularly, the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. As omnipresent as saltwater taffy at the Jersey shore, rich and familiar imagery of the Garden State runs through Bruce’s music — as does his gripe with The Powers that Be.
Signed to Columbia Records in 1972, the hometown boy launched his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, to commercial disappointment; ditto, his second outing, The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle. Reviewers likened Springsteen’s brand of rock, which married blues, jazz, folk, soul, and a touch of church music, to Bob Dylan’s poetical lyrics, Van Morrison’s sound, and Robbie Robertson’s gravelly, everyman’s voice. While this most honored heritage should have left Springsteen in good standing, and while the music press applauded his energy and urgency, it also painted him as unoriginal. It was not until Springsteen launched his third album, the anthemic “Born to Run” that he became a true rock n’ roll icon. Ironically, Bruce hated the “wall of sound” that his manager/producer, Jon Landau, had pushed for. In typical Bruce fashion, once the record had been mastered, The Boss tossed it — the work of more than a year — into a trash bin, insisting to Landau that it would have sounded better had he cut it in a club. But even Bruce’s angst could not halt the steamroller of fame.
“Born to Run,” the album’s title cut, did for Springsteen what “Rebel Without a Cause” did for James Dean. The story of a young man desperate to escape his small town and convince his girlfriend to run off with him, the song steams with Bruce’s need to break free of middle class life in New Jersey, likening his flight to being “sprung from cages on Highway 9.” Almost orchestral and crescendo’ing to Springsteen’s screaming guitar, E-Street’s modern Big Band sound is the perfect counterpoint to Bruce’s admission that he’d rather “die on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss” than face a life of mediocrity ruled by The Establishment and accepted by his peers. Upon its release to FM progressive-rock radio, the song’s urgency touched the hearts of America’s youth, who embraced it as their anthem. More than three decades later, its energy and universal theme continue to uplift, anger, and haunt audiences of all ages.
As Bruce matured, so did his music. Reflecting his growing political awareness and later, his activism, it retained its “rage against the machine” perspective as well as its images of New Jersey. “Atlantic City”‘s stark and relentless opening drum underpins scenes of violence in Philly and a gang war brewing on the boardwalk. Onto this landscape steals the singer: a man under siege by a rotten economy, clinging fast to the hope that “everything that dies one day comes back.” Riddled with “debts no honest man can pay,” he takes the ultimate gamble, earning a little money by doing a favor for a man dealing on the wrong side of the law. It’s enough to take him and his woman to Atlantic City, where he’s convinced himself “the sands turn into gold.” As the song draws to its conclusion, Bruce cries out an invitation: “Meet me tonight in Atlantic City.” Driven by Max Weinberg’s muscular drumming, The Boss’s voice swells, transforming that invitation into a command for a last-ditch stab at salvation.
“Born in the USA,” the title track from the album of the same name, is, if not Bruce’s most politically-charged song, then certainly, his most misinterpreted. Climbing to #9 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles of 1984, it joined six other songs from that album to achieve the same Top 10 distinction. Although it does not contain direct references to the Garden State, this bitter dirge mourns the loss of Springsteen’s fellow New Jerseyans: friends who perished in the Viet Nam War. The song infers the guilt of a callous government: ours. Bruce pushes the chorus, “Born in the USA, I was born in the USA!” through his lungs as if he were standing atop Mount Rushmore, bellowing for all the world to damn well hear him. Derailed by the song’s title, its zealous delivery, and/or the photo of its creator’s blue-jeaned bottom on the cover of the album, with the American flag trailing from a pocket, certain Republicans assumed Springsteem to be a nationalist, and attempted to recruit him in support of Ronald Reagan’s Presidential campaign. Although Bruce politely refused the offer, it didn’t stop Reagan from alluding publicly to the modern-day protest singer as a bastion of America’s heartland.
As Bruce’s first marriage to model-turned-actress Julianne Phillips was dissolving, his music grew darker, returning to the Jersey of his youth to stand it on its ear. “Tunnel of Love” from the album of the same name uses familar symbols as double entrendres. Set in a funhouse ride, the tunnel of love with its dark twists and turns becomes a symbol for a marriage rocky with fear and mistrust. The complex melody, alternately spooky and bright as a carnival, rises and falls like the car barreling through the tunnel to its inevitable end. The background includes the sound of an actual family riding a roller coaster in Point Pleasant.
It would take an encyclopedia to relay every song that The Boss has penned and performed in his extensive career. Although his sound has evolved from anthemic rock to more introspective material, and although his music has gained audiences around the globe, Bruce Springsteen remains the voice of a brash, tough State clinging to its proud heritage even as it moves forward.