Backstreets has published Dave Marsh's piece for the Kennedy Center program, hopefully, no one will mind if I share with my readers:
After Born in the U.S.A., I used to tell people who asked what it was like to know Bruce Springsteen that when he left on that tour, he was my friend who used to come over and sit on the couch and afterward, he and Clarence Clemons had become Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
This was a lie. After the tour, he was still my friend, and still sat on the couch. Other people may have thought he and the Big Man were characters out of an American fable but Bruce knew better. That is not to say that he didn’t live out, write out, act out and play out the American dream about as well as anyone ever has, even down to writing his own second act with The Rising and the records that followed it.
I've been writing about popular culture, as boy and journalist, for 40 years. In that time I've known or at least interviewed or met most of the classic rock stars. None of them has kept his persona so close to his person and, for certain, no artist I know in any medium has worked so diligently as Bruce Springsteen to keep his work personal without sacrificing what makes it universal, to at least a large swathe of his fellow world-citizens.
Bruce pulls this off because he's blessed with a singular fearlessness about being ordinary, an unsurpassed ability to turn the everyday (I was going to say "the quotidian," but he wouldn't) into drama and romance. He also possesses a native sense of stagecraft and narrative; an abiding belief in the verities of rock 'n' roll, particularly devotion to repetition and the backbeat; a subtle understanding of the minute distance between Saturday night and Sunday morning; a concrete determination to reach the lowest and the most distant people in his universe; a genius for creating musical anthems and lyrical summations; a stock of characters so deep it seems impossible that all of them aren't as real as Madame Marie; a faith in the genius of simplicity and a refusal to apologize for his own complexity.
OK, that's the art stuff. You probably want to know about the person.
A friend of mine claims that Bruce once served him the best turkey sandwich ever made. (I was there. It was really, really, really good.) Bruce also has excellent taste in, among other things, tequila, bourbon, soul and gospel music, painting and photography, dogs and musical instruments. I know him just well enough to be unsure I know him (as opposed to his work) deeply, but when the darkest deal went down for my family, he was there with all he had. Which is to say, I am quite sure he knows me.
Now that Bruce has boogalooed down Broadway and come back home with the loot, he's probably got enough money to run for Senator from New Jersey, if not for mayor of New York. But when someone asked if I thought he'd stand for office, the answer came easily: "Why would he want a job with less power and prestige than the one he’s already got?" In the history of the United States, no Senator has ever had hundreds of fans crowd into a side street, and stand all night long beneath a hotel balcony to serenade him with his own songs, which is what happens when Bruce plays Barcelona.
I don't think of Bruce as very political, despite his involvement in the last couple of Presidential campaigns. He's really a moral actor, a person of strong convictions whose basic life experiences, starting with an economically insecure childhood and then a struggle through the ranks of professional musicianship along the Jersey store (OK, it was more a rocket ride than a struggle, but he still didn't get paid much). His root allegiances, as derived from his songs because they are the most trustworthy source, are to people endangered, erased or forgotten—Vietnam vets, the homeless, the unemployed, single mothers, unwanted immigrants, the broke, the hungry, the uprooted, and those who travel the turnpike with broken radios.
Bruce Springsteen may someday be known as a first-rate photographer, a slapdash but hilarious cartoonist, one of the consummate rock 'n' roll guitar players and, for that matter, as one of the greatest blue-eyed soul singers ever. He already is all those things, it’s just a matter of the world figuring it out.
He is as private as any public figure of our time. I don’t mean private as in secluded or hidden. He doesn't just still own a house in central New Jersey, where he grew up. He actually lives there: Walks down the sidewalk with his kids, shops in the stores with his wife, parks on the street, hits the beach and the gym as often as time will allow, these days even does some important recording (his version of work) there. Not that nothing’s changed: I bet he doesn't get as many speeding tickets as in the old days.
Let's see, what have I left out. Ah yes: Love.
Love is Bruce Springsteen's center, the one tour sponsor he's ever acknowledged, the thing he wanted to know at the beginning (and yes, he tells us, it is real).
I'm not talking about Bruce as co-crafter of a long-term marriage with a fellow artist or as the very active father of three terrific kids. Once he got going he made doing that stuff look a lot easier than it is. More to tonight's point, Bruce is the wizard of nurturing an audience toward community.
It's impossible to overestimate how much he has given the people who share his musical life, the tramps like us, the ones who had a notion, the people working on their dreams and counting on a miracle. On stage, he lets those folks get close, basks in their adoration and then he pours it right back out to them. More important, he trusts them to share it, with each other and with strangers. That’s really what his nightly talk about this city's food bank or that town’s shelter for battered women is about.
Bruce Springsteen is, like Woody Guthrie and damned few others, a democrat in spirit and in practice, and he challenges all of his listeners to be and to do the same.
His train that's bound for glory carries saints and sinners, losers and winners, whores and gamblers, fools and kings, the brokenhearted, thieves and souls departed. His train is not destined for a metal-flake city on a hill; it comes from down in the valley and while it doesn’t intend to stay there, it doesn’t mean to forget it, either.
He set out to change himself and he wound up, in a hundred little ways and a couple of big ones, changing the world or our perceptions of it, which is pretty much the same thing. In the process, he has not remained the same person—because that would be a colossal failure—but he has become something like the guy he wanted to be. He has walked tall, finding poetry in guys wearing tube socks and women at checkout stands, has truly rocked all over the world and found the rock 'n' roll heart of Ellis Island. He's made us proud of our nation when we should have been and left us ashamed of its behavior when that needed to be said.
Let me end with the way I feel about him, as a friend and as an artist, and let me say it directly: Bruce is the brother I would like to have, and more than that, he is the sort of person whose brother I would like to be worthy of being.