Almost anyone who knows me well has heard my story about the first time I heard Springsteen. I was 12 and we lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere and too far from anywhere for a kid to do anything at the weekend except listen to the radio and read. We didn’t have a T.V. so once my chores were done and homework was taken care of, those were my two favorite pastimes: music and books. One afternoon I was listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 – the local station got it – and The River album was being released. The first song I heard was Sherry Darlin’…. a fun song about a guy arguing with his girlfriend about her mother. By the time I had heard Hungry Heart and Fade Away a few weeks later, I was hooked. I was a little young to understand the themes and the images but I loved them and oh man I wanted to do that. I wanted to make people see stories in their heads with my words.
Since then, Springsteen has been probably the most influential man in my life. My dad had died a year earlier and Springsteen became I suppose a long distance stand-in. As I grew up, he became a long distance stand-in for a whole bunch of other relationships as well, but that is an entirely different conversation.
There has always been something about the imagery Bruce (I’m going to just say that after 41 years … he won’t mind a little familiarity on my part) uses that appeals to me. In his early albums there are some very complicated, rich images that always make me thing of those velvet brocade curtains they used to hang around four poster beds. I personally like Mary, Queen of Arkansas but I’m a little weird so I accept that it’s an acquired taste. From Born to Run on though he has made a career of documenting post-modern America in a way few other writers have, using a pared back language that is both simple and powerful. Certainly the identification of him as an every day guy comes as much from that language as from his denim and flannel (yes, yes I have issues, I know) stage wear. There is, for me at least, a beauty and a power to his imagery that still leaves me in awe.
Now the pool’s filled with empty, eight-foot deepMoonlight Motel – Bruce Springsteen
Got dandelions growin’ up through the cracks in the concrete
Chain-link fence half-rusted away
Got a sign says “Children be careful how you play”
Your lipstick taste and your whispered secret I promised I’d never tell
A half-drunk beer and your breath in my ear
At the Moonlight Motel
There is so much packed into that verse – abandonment, danger (eight feet is a long way down), sex, deception, and underpinning it this sense of … resignation? Maybe. What I do know is I can see that motel, that empty pool, and that rusty fence. I can taste the lipstick and feel the breath in my ear.
I was a weird kid – I never really fit in anywhere. Not in school, not in the books I read, not even really with a family who loved me and whom I adore. I was – and am – a loner. Kind of awkward. Bruce’s music taught me that being that weird, awkward kid was okay.
His music taught me that love and sex – sometimes two different things, sometimes so tied up it’s impossible to see them as anything but the same – could be both raw and beautiful – and that both need hard work and commitment to be any good. Even the hard and fast kind of both still need you to be present and focused.
His music taught me that sometimes even the worst things, the hardest things, the things we don’t want can have provide at the least a moment of reassurance – “it happens to other people too? ” – and sometimes a beauty and a solace – for ourselves or others. I think when we see ourselves in a character – or see our struggle in theirs – we are able to take comfort in that familiarity. That comfort and that familiarity allows us to be sad or angry or happy. To speak out. In that moment we are not alone. It’s why representation is so important.
As I watched him tonight in Western Stars – 41 years after I heard him for the first time – I realized that I try to do these things in my own writing. All these years later I’m still trying to do what he does. Capture that raw beauty that makes us human and is made up of broken dreams, dented egos, bruised hearts, the sweet and salty that is our physical and our emotional being and if I do my job properly – show someone something of what I saw when I wrote it. In his Broadway show he called it a trick – well I ‘m far from his level, I don’t always succeed and I don’t think I’m ever going to get the trick as perfect as I would like to but I try – because that’s what he taught me to do.
My mother is possibly the strongest person I know. She has faced stuff I couldn’t make up in a book and survived it. Everything – and I mean everything – I know about survival, about not giving up, about putting one foot in front of the other and getting to the other fucking side, sweating and panting and crying with exhaustion, I learned from my mother. My mother taught me strength in the face of any adversity. Bruce taught me how to take that adversity, and the sweat, the panting, and the exhausted tears and create something with it.
When I was a journalist I dreamed of interviewing Bruce Springsteen. These days I dream of writing a book about the way he has captured the America in which he grew up and about the significant body of work he will leave as his legacy. Most days though I really still want to just do what he has done for me my entire life – write words that people see in their heads.
I guess it’s how I say thank you. How I get to say “hey dude, look, it’s the same fuckin’ riff” (don’t worry if you don’t get it….he would). Because the little girl who listened to him all those years ago and wanted to write, has grown up to do exactly that.
And guess who she listens to when she does…