Friday, August 24, 2012
Everything I Know About Writing, I Learned From Bruce Springsteen
It wasn't something I could focus on at the moment anyway, but I have been thinking a lot about Bruce. See, when I was in seventh grade, right after my best friend, Cheri Smith, had passed away, I was befriended by another girl, Stacy Muir. Now this friendship was destined to die when we hit high school-- she was the child of lobbyists and I was the child of, well, neither my dad nor my stepmom had their nursing degree at the time, and they weren't married yet and suffice it to say, well, I did NOT fit into her world. (This isn't to say she was a snob--she was very nice. We just didn't have a lot in common when we hit high school.) However, her brother was doing an interesting thing. He was going AWAY to college, and Stacy expected to go AWAY to college, and although college was not something that was discussed a lot in my house as part of MY future because my parents were too busy worried about THEIR college education, which I'm very proud of. But I was possibly the only one of the three of us--my stepbrother, my stepsister, and I-- who thought that college and going away to school was part of my future.
Anyway, Stacy Muir's brother had another really cool feature, and that was a total obsession with Bruce Springsteen. This would have been around 1980, so her brother had been privvy to some pretty cool concerts--I do believe he had a copy of that famous Winterland concert, because he'd been there! (This is the concert during which Bruce told bootleggers to start recording. I love him for that!)
So the first place I heard about Bruce Springsteen was in Stacy Muir's bedroom, and that was the first place I ever heard the song Thunder Road.
At the time, I was like, "Eh?" but then I paid attention to music, and the more I heard of him, and the more I realized that other people had stolen his shit (Manfredd Mann? I'm talking to YOU!) the more and harder I fell. Born in the USA was awesome for Springsteen fans--but it was also sort of irritating. Yeah, yeah, suddenly he was selling out everywhere, but, he'd been ours forever! And now all these other people wanted him? But that was okay. Those other people were just a passing phase, who left Springsteen behind with big hair and pegged pants as we moved on into the nineties. Those of us who were married to the Boss knew the best years were to come--and he didn't let us down. Sure, there were some empty years following Tunnel of Love and Lucky Town, but then there was "Streets of Philadelphia" and "Secret Garden", both released as sound track songs and guaranteed to remind us that Bruce was still out there.
And then, Springsteen did this sort of amazing thing. Jacob Dylan was in the top of his form as lead singer of The Wallflowers, and Springsteen got upstage (at Dylan's request, I think) and sang Dylan's signature song with him--and upstaged him by no other virtue than being Bruce.
And suddenly, Bruce was back on the map. (For those who'd thought he'd dropped off, of course. For the rest of us, he'd never left. He was just in a quiet little town that few people visited--but he was still there!)
And he has put out phenomenal music ever since.
But still-- I was not expecting the Magic CD.
Those first few bars of "Gypsy Biker" shot a hole through my soul, and I've been bleeding through it ever since.
And that was just the first salvo on the album.
Every song just called to me, and reminded me of that in damned near every interview I've done, I've cited Bruce as an influence. So how does a down and dirty east coast rock and roll superstar/poet influence a west coast soccer mom and writer of sweet romance?
Well, in his ROCK-AWESOME tribute to The Boss at the Presidential Award Ceremony honoring Springsteen, John Stewart said (and I'm going to mangle his quote) that, "When you listened to a Springsteen song, you weren't a loser. You were a character in an epic poem ABOUT losers." And that right there is one of the great thing about Springsteen-- he gives a grandeur to the common man, the guy who doesn't succeed, and that right there is where I'm going to start my list of Everything I Know About Writing I Learned From Bruce Springsteen list. (Now note-- I put songs or albums that served as examples behind some of the things on the list, but I could have listed a dozen songs or every album there. Springsteen's got a body of work out there-- I just put the easiest to remember!)
EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT WRITING I LEARNED FROM BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
* The common man is still the epic hero of his own story ("Night")
* Everyday moments have grandeur and dignity ("Meeting Across the River")
* When you live a small life, the common landscape can assume epic proportions ("Born to Run", "Jungleland")
* If you're the epic hero of your own story, sometimes the gods really ARE out to screw you ("Seeds", "Reason to Believe".)
* Even the bad guy has something to say ("Nebraska", "Johnny 99")
* You can tell the beginning, middle, and end of a story in six minutes of lean prose and aching emotion. ("Jungleland")
* You need to know the rules of your art to break them. (Devils and Dust)
* Even if you break away and leave it all behind you, it's still going to haunt you like a cheap U-haul attached to your motorcycle with a triple length of clothesline. ("Hungry Heart")
* Every player on the board has a voice in the song. (The River, Wrecking Ball, Nebraska, Magic, every frickin album he ever put out.)
* People are betrayed by their dreams all the time. ("Philadelphia".)
* Not everyone is going to understand what an artist was trying to do with every work. That doesn't mean the artist shouldn't have created it, just that he should expect the world isn't going to get it every time. (The Ghost of Tom Joad)
* If everyone's a hero, everyone can fall. ("Backstreets")
* If everyone can fall, everyone can be redeemed. ("Gypsy Biker")
* People don't need to be pure to be worshiped. ("Candy's Room")
* Goodbye's are sometimes a necessary part of life. ("Bobbie Jean", "Highway Patrolman")
* The place that made you can trap you, break you, or set you free-- but it will always be a part of you, and you can't lose that. ("Devil's Arcade", "Darkness on the Edge of Town")
* From great suffering comes greatness of heart. (The Rising)
* You don't have to be dirty to be sexy. ("World's Apart") But it doesn't hurt. ("I'm On Fire")
* Other artists can have a voice in your work. (Oh Clarence, Max, how we miss you both!)
* A happy artist makes good art longer. Don't let the work destroy you. (Patty Scialfa deserves a frickin' medal-- and not just for having a gritty and ethereal singing voice.)
* You are never too old to celebrate the holy shit out of your art. (That man did a standing backflip in front of a Superbowl crowd when he was 58 years old. Holy Crap.)
* All art is personal. You can't escape it. Be up front about it and take any punches from the fuckers who don't like you square on the chin, and then spit in their eye and make another song. (That's from everything, pretty much.)
* The most painful lessons of our life can be achingly beautiful. ("Magic", "Devil's Arcade")
* Living long enough to learn the painful lesson can sometimes be the most painful part of all ("Last to Die")
* Simple, haunting images are the most powerful. (Nebraska)
* Religion is destructive. Faith is redemptive. The two together are explosive. ("Adam Raised a Cain")
* Art is an exploration of the human condition. This can not come without politics. Politics don't always make you popular. Fuck it. Be true to your art and you'll be true to the human race. ("Born in the USA", "Seeds", "World's Apart", "This Land is Your Land", the entire album of Wrecking Ball, The Ghost of Tom Joad, Nebraska, Devils and Dust... oh fuck it. The man's whole body of work says this.)
There's more. I mean... hell-- the guy has put out an album every two-three years since I was in sixth grade. I remember one pundit lamenting that this was not productive enough for him to sustain his popularity--since Bruce is still putting out music when a lot of people who got caught and lost in the business are now in permanent rehab, I think it speaks well to his ability to balance a real life and an artistic one. I know that Bruce has just come out about suffering from depression. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say a lot of artists do this. I think it comes from being an exposed nerve, and from sometimes not being able to call the difference between what's real and important and what's in our head and can wait. It makes for a horrible dichotomy, that, and it's hard to balance the needs of what's going on inside our head with the people who love us who don't live there and don't know why the inside of our heads are so needy. But his open nerve has made his world so much richer, and I pray that someday, someone will say the same about me.
Thank you Bruce-- Mourning Heaven may have been inspired directly by you, but I don't think anything I've written has been untouched by your growly, stripped-bare voice and your ripping, snarling guitar. I love you and your art in a way that goes behind intellectual, and beyond emotional. Every time I hear your voice, you move me, and I can give no greater praise than that.