Examining Bruce Springsteen at sixty-two

Springsteen wants his audience to leave the arena, as he commands them, with “your back hurting, your voice sore, and your sexual organs stimulated.” Photograph by Julian Broad.

From The New Yorker:

Nearly half a century ago, when Elvis Presley was filming “Harum Scarum” and “Help!” was on the charts, a moody, father-haunted, yet uncannily charismatic Shore rat named Bruce Springsteen was building a small reputation around central Jersey as a guitar player in a band called the Castiles. The band was named for the lead singer’s favorite brand of soap. Its members were from Freehold, an industrial town half an hour inland from the boardwalk carnies and the sea. The Castiles performed at sweet sixteens and Elks-club dances, at drive-in movie theatres and ShopRite ribbon cuttings, at a mobile-home park in Farmingdale, at the Matawan-Keyport Rollerdrome. Once, they played for the patients at a psychiatric hospital, in Marlboro. A gentleman dressed in a suit came to the stage and, in an introductory speech that ran some twenty minutes, declared the Castiles “greater than the Beatles.” At which point a doctor intervened and escorted him back to his room.

One spring afternoon in 1966, the Castiles, with dreams of making it big and making it quick, drove to a studio at the Brick Mall Shopping Center and recorded two original songs, “Baby I” and “That’s What You Get.” Mainly, though, they played an array of covers, from Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” to the G-Clefs’ “I Understand.” They did Sonny and Cher, Sam and Dave, Don & Juan, the Who, the Kinks, the Stones, the Animals.

Many musicians in their grizzled late maturity have an uncertain grasp on their earliest days on the bandstand. (Not a few have an uncertain grasp on last week.) But Springsteen, who is sixty-two and among the most durable musicians since B. B. King and Om Kalthoum, seems to remember every gaudy night, from the moment, in 1957, when he and his mother watched Elvis on “The Ed Sullivan Show”—“I looked at her and I said, ‘I wanna be just . . . like . . . that’ ”—to his most recent exploits as a multimillionaire populist rock star crowd-surfing the adoring masses. These days, he is the subject of historical exhibitions; at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum, in Cleveland, and at the National Constitution Center, in Philadelphia, his lyric sheets, old cars, and faded performing duds have been displayed like the snippets of the Shroud. But, unlike the Rolling Stones, say, who have not written a great song since the disco era and come together only to pad their fortunes as their own cover band, Springsteen refuses to be a mercenary curator of his past. He continues to evolve as an artist, filling one spiral notebook after another with ideas, quotations, questions, clippings, and, ultimately, new songs. His latest album, “Wrecking Ball,” is a melodic indictment of the recessionary moment, of income disparity, emasculated workers, and what he calls “the distance between the American reality and the American dream.” The work is remote from his early operettas of humid summer interludes and abandon out on the Turnpike. In his desire to extend a counter-tradition of political progressivism, Springsteen quotes from Irish rebel songs, Dust Bowl ballads, Civil War tunes, and chain-gang chants.

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