Bruce Springsteen and the Secret of the World

Fame grips a Jersey boy, but he gets out unscathed

February 5, 1981
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Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Annie Leibovitz

Bruce Springsteen, in the abstract, is just the kind of guy my little New Jersey hometown schooled me to despise. Born seventy-seven days apart, raised maybe fifty miles apart, this beatified greaser and I grew up sharing little more than what came over AM radio. In Mountain Lakes, a community of 4000, we had a word for people like Bruce: Newarkylanders. The urban canker of Newark-Elizabeth was their state capital, but they lived and played along the boardwalked Jersey shore. They wore those shoulder-strap undershirts some people called "guinea-T's"; we called them "Newarkys." They drove muscle cars and worked in garages and metal shops. They ate meatball subs made of cat parts for lunch, and after work they shouted at their moms, cruised the drive-ins, punched each other out and balled their girlfriends in backseats.

Our contempt for Newarkylanders cut almost as deep as our fear of them. We looked on them as prisoners, a subclass that would not get the college degrees and Country Squires we were marked for. But we realized that prisoners sometimes bust out of their cages with a special vengefulness. The fear was as real as a black Chevy rumbling down your tree-lined block, and inside are six guys with baseball bats and tire irons.

Bruce Springsteen has seen all this from the inside, he's seen the gates swing shut, he's watched people turning the locks on their own cages. You can hear it in his music, a music with shack-town roots; paradoxically, it saved him from that life. I could not have heard his songs, especially the early, wordier ones, and expect our meeting to boil down to the wracking Jersey nightmare of Joe College vs. Joe Greaser.

While even among his ardent fans there are people who say Springsteen has gone to the well too many times for his favorite themes of cars, girls and the night, watching him perform the new songs, I came to believe he really was battering at new riddles: marriage, work and how people in America turn themselves into ghosts.

I would come to understand that this jubilant rock & roll cock of the walk never had cut it as Joe Greaser, that what had fathered his obsessiveness was doing time as a runty, bad-complected kid whom the nuns, girls and greaser had taken turns having no use for. There is finally something irrevocably lonely and restless about him. He's never claimed any different Springsteen wants to inspire by example – the example of a trashed and resurrected American spirit. "You ask me if there's any one thing in particular," said E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan when we talked about Springsteen's commitment. "There's too many things in particular. He's older and wiser, but he never strays from his basic values. He cares as much, more, about the losers than the winners. He's so unlike everything you think a real successful rock star would be."

Springsteen comes down the ramp at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and looks down the empty corridor: "No autographs," he says in his characteristic parched cackle. "No autographs, please."

This is exactly what he never says, of course, and when the tour party breaches the corridor's double doors, he greets a pack of young, denim-jacketed guys familiarly. Some are holding copies of The River released just this day and headed very quickly for Number One. As the entourage loads itself into a string of station wagons, a kid who has been hanging at the edge of the pack tells Bruce about a friend who's critically ill in a local hospital. Bruce tells the kid to get his friend's name to him through the record company. Doors are slamming and engines gunning. It's bitter cold. Just another stranger, I think.

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Bruce Springsteen's The River

Thirty-eight hours later, after performing "Out in the Street" onstage at the St. Paul Civic Center, Springsteen halts the show. "I met a bunch of guys at the airport yesterday coming in. One told me he had a friend who was sick. If that fella who told me his friend was sick will come to the side of the stage during the break, I got something for your friend backstage."

After the kid appeared, and was duly loaded up with autographed mementos, I pondered the gesture. Springsteen could have scribbled his good wishes on an album at the airport and been done with it. But he had left the benediction to be arranged in public. There's a lot of showman in Springsteen, and not a little preacher. Why had he let the anonymous kid slip so close to being forgotten, then given him his last rock & roll rites before the crowd?

"There's not much people can count on today," says Springsteen. "Everything has been so faithless, and people have been shown such disrespect. You want to show people that somehow, that somewhere, somebody can…I guess you just don't want to let them down. That's probably why we come out and play every night, there's that fear, 'cause then nothin' works, nothin' makes sense. As long as one thing does, if there can be just one thing that goes against what you see all around you, then you know that things that goes against what you see all around you, then you know that things can be different. Mainly, it's important to have that passion for living, to somehow get it from someplace."

The inescapable cliché about faith is that it can always be doubted. That's the thing about Springsteen – if you pay any attention at all, his lyrics and his every stance will force you into a corner where you must decide whether you believe him or not. I had to believe he wasn't staging the benediction to pump up his image – in the tradition of Babe Ruth socking a homer for a dying child – but for the kid himself. Not to say "rise and walk," but to offer something tangible – the momentary, empathetic suffering of this captive crowd of 15,000. And although most are in their wild age, perhaps some of them might even learn a little charity themselves.

Accuse Springsteen of being a "star" and he'll flick his hand like he's just been splashed with pigeon shit. He is eager to point out that he has the better deal in the meeting place between fan and star.

"I think the one feeling that's most unique to this job, the best part of the whole thing, is meeting someone like this guy I met the other night who had been on a bus ten hours. He's twenty-one years old, and he just grabs hold of me. We're in a room crowded with people. He's cryin', and he does't care. He says, 'It's my birthday,' and I ask, 'How old are you?"' He says, 'I'm twenty-one, and this is the most important thing in my life.' And you know they're not kidding when they say it, because you look in their faces and they're so full of emotion.

"You meet somebody, and it's like an open well. In ten minutes I'll know more about him than his mother and father do, and maybe his best friend. All the things it usually takes for people to know each other just go away, because there's this feeling that it's so fleeting. They tell you the thing that's most important to them right away. It's a sobering thing, because you know that somewhere you did something that meant something to them. It's just a real raw, emotional thing; it's like the cleanest thing you ever felt. You have a communication, a feeling, and I don't know, you just gotta love the guy. If you don't, there's something the matter with you.

"And it ain't some starry-eyed thing, and it ain't some Hollywood thing, and it ain't some celebrity thing. This guy, he loves you, and what's more, he knows you in a certain way. That's the thing that makes me strong. I get strong when I meet somebody like that."

There is an obsessiveness to Springsteen – the underside of his manic onstage energy – that can be a little scary. It seems to spring from flash fires that ignite in his very detailed memory. "There ain't a note I play onstage," he says late one night, "that can't be traced directly back to my mother and father."

We're riding in a rented Winnebago, rocking back and forth in icy crosswinds on a six-hour drive from Pittsburgh to Rochester, New York. We had started the drive at three a.m., an hour Springsteen takes to like a pup going for a walk. Still buzzed from a show that closed with Elvis Presley's "Mystery Train," he merrily salts some fried chicken and picks up a remembrance. "It was a real classic little town I grew up in, very intent on maintaining the status quo. Everything was looked at as a threat, kids were looked at as a nuisance and a threat. And when you're a kid, your parents become fixtures, like a sofa in the living room, and you take for granted what they do." He lets out one of his oddly mournful laughs. "My father used to drive around in his car, and it would not go in reverse. Heh. I remember pushing it backward; that was just something you did, you didn't even think it was strange."

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