Saturday, May 4, 2013

Re-Examining Springsteen these Years Later

"There was an old road that ran near the edge of my town. Out where the suburbs were still farms. I used to go there nights, that autumn of nineteen seventy-two. Sometimes I just wasn't ready to go home. That year, I traveled streets I'd never known before. I pushed against the limits of my suburban life. I had no idea exactly what lay ahead. All I knew was, I was running out of time. And I was gonna bust if something didn't happen, soon."

Summer looming, I've found myself with spare time to read again. I recently received a copy of Bruce, the definitive and mesmerizing Bruce Springsteen biography and I've delved whole-heartedly into it. Springsteen holds a special spot inside my soul. His role in my life, aside from family and close friends, is second to none. On a fateful autumn day in the fall of my senior year in high school, I had discovered a couple of his albums amongst my parents CD collection in the basement. That discovery - and specifically the notorious "Born to Run" album - couldn't have coincided with my youthful vigor for life at a better time.

Chalk full of midwestern angst, Springsteen's verses rang true in my soul. He captured in prose my youthful desire for the marrow of life, my itching for the world that lay outside the only streets I had ever known, and my growing knowledge that not everything under my father's roof could satisfy my wild oats. Baby this town rips the bones from your back, it's a death trap, a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we're young - Springsteen put into words teenage angst and my ever-increasing wariness of Midwestern, catholic school morals.

But it wasn't just the way Springsteen's lyrics echoed my thoughts. The discovery of Springsteen's lyrics were a springboard for my future endeavors. From Springsteen's lyrics, I discovered a whole new world in Bob Dylan's poetic lyrics. Springsteen's tales ranging from suburban restlessness to the darkness of murder in a Nebraskan night rekindled in me a passion for literature, leading soon to my discovery of Kerouac and subsequently the crucial discovery of On the Road, and shortly thereafter the discovery of Hemingway's northern Michigan world.

There was an old dirt road in my town, still unpaved and sheltered from the expanse of suburban life. I used to go there nights, that autumn of my senior year of high school. Sometimes I just needed to get out from under the roof of my father's house, a place that could no longer offer answers to all of my questions. Sometimes I just wasn't ready to go home. I was full of life, and night. 

The pine trees secluding me. The glow of the moon-colored floodlight at the school in the distance. The churning sound of driving over the pebbles on the dirt road. The amber waves of Jack Daniels in a glass cup in the console. Bruce's sincere, heartfelt melodies playing from the car stereo. And the leaves of tall grass waving over the baseball diamond field. I remember it all very well.

I didn't know it at the time, but big things loomed in my front-shield window in the form of the University of Michigan. But it's hard to grasp that better things await you at that age. I felt very trapped. I was tired of the strictures of high school life: I had a Catholic school disciplinarian constantly telling me to cut my hair, telling me to tuck in my shirt, telling me I needed to shave; I had priests teaching me that the Bible was the only way of thinking; I had football coaches telling me that there was only one way of doing things - these were the very ideas that my body repelled: the thought that there was only one way of doing things, that there was only one way of thinking about things. I abhorred the thought of a sheltered suburban life: it seemed to me then that all of my family throughout suburban Michigan had robbed themselves of what the outside world had to offer, that every neighbor in that secluded Millwood Village had willingly foregone the beauty of what this world had to offer for a prison on monotony in that dull neighborhood where nothing ever happened. I was wrong about all that, but I didn't know it then. 

Some day during that autumn of 2005 found me sitting with Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run album, a splash of Jack Daniels in a gatorade bottle, and seasonal change in the form of rust-colored leaves above me. The Springsteen, Jack, and autumn cocktail struck converged in hurricane fashion to cause a sea-change in my soul that night. Bruce said it better than I ever could:

Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we're young
Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run

It was as if Bruce was telling me that there is more to it than this - more than this sheltered suburban life, more than this high school routine that found me sipping whiskey just to create some variety on a Wednesday night, more than this family life that left me doing the exact same thing from week to week, more than your circle of friends who are all Catholic-school educated and sheltered by their middle-class upbringings. "There's something out there," Bruce was saying. "Something much more than your mind can comprehend". Bruce was right. He never told me that it wasn't all good out there, but he was right. Life as I knew it would never be the same.

Reading Bruce's story these years later has reinvigorated a youthful energy I had long thought gone from my body. Bruce lived his life with the same unbridled spirit that flows from his lyrics. The years since those nights parked on that old dirt road have left me jaded and grizzled by life's scars. My soul has been brewing with regret and shades of wintry grey for an extended period of time now, yet re-entering Bruce's world these years later has opened a hatch in my soul somewhere, letting in a glimmer of blue skies long since forgotten. 

I've been more the man in Springsteen's "Glory Days" or "Dancing in the Dark" as of late: living in the past while going through the moments of the present with weary eyes, seeing the world through a lens of grey and wallowing in the rut I've become stuck in. Springsteen's albums are full of men going through that fate: feeling like an old man, dwelling on older days that have long since passed them by. As it goes in "Dancing in the Dark": I ain't nothing but tired, man I'm just tired and bored with myself. You can't start a fire, sittin' round cryin' over a broken heart.

But opening the pages of Bruce felt like an re-opening of my soul to new light. You can't start a fire, you can't start a fire without a spark. Maybe Springsteen's spark is back in my life once again.

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