A Humbled Boss


What lessons has the older Springsteen learned?

The last time Bruce Springsteen appeared in this column was three years ago, having just announced his decision to headline a series of anti-Bush concerts in the last months of the 2004 presidential election campaign. I wrote then that trading the musical vocation for the partisan political one was a step down. But in a popular music world dominated by manufactured ciphers with talent and insight thinner than a CD, it is hard to be upset with the Boss for long. His new album was released on Tuesday, and he is back with the E Street Band in all its saxophone-wailing, piano keys-dancing, mandolin-plucking, guitar-blazing, harmonica haunted fun.

The politics is still there, but set against a broader critique. Springsteen accuses the architects of the Iraq War of deceit and bad faith, but it is with the experience of an older man who sees that so much of life fails to live up to earlier ideals, many of which were illusory. The title track, applies the image of the dark illusionist to the current American political leadership: “I’ll cut you in half/ While you’re smiling from ear to ear/ And the freedom that you sought’s/ Driftin’ like the ghost amongst trees... On the road the sun is sinkin’ low/ There’s bodies hangin’ in the trees.”

Springsteen is now 58, and there is a melancholy note sounded here. Almost 25 years ago, he wrote My Hometown, the lament of a 35-year-old man who sees his hometown in decline and realizes that it might be time for him and his wife and son to move on. Now pushing 60, he has long since left and he thinks about going back in Long Walk Home. But that town is gone, familiar places shuttered up and strangers having replaced old friends. And the values of small town America are no longer found either, the knowledge that there are some things set in stone: "Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't." He knows where he came from, but that to get back there "it's gonna be a long walk home".

The young Springsteen wrote of the ordinary man beaten down by the system, but who, with a few friends, a serviceable car, a hospitable bar and the attention of a pretty girl, might escape it all, even for a short while. The darkness of the edge of town always returned in his music, but it was kept at bay by a certain exuberant optimism, not untouched by sheer foolishness.

Ornamented by the imagery of his faith, Springsteen knows that the measure of love is sacrifice, and the wise man is the one who knows for what he should make his sacrifices...

Foolishness is not becoming in a mature man, and the Boss now warns the girls he used to chase that “you’ll be fine long as your pretty face holds out/ Then it’s gonna get pretty cold out/ An empty stream of stars shooting by/ You got your hopes on high/ You’ll be coming down now... Like a thief on a Sunday morning/ It all falls apart with no warning.”

What lessons has the older Springsteen learned? Most are rather bleak, in the vein of realizing that all is passing away, and we are often betrayed, often by ourselves. But the fallen-away Catholic has not fallen completely, and my favourite song on the new album is a rousing love song in which he promises Theresa that, “I’ll work for your love, dear/ What others want for free/ I’ll work for your love.”

Ornamented by the imagery of his faith, Springsteen knows that the measure of love is sacrifice, and the wise man is the one who knows for what he should make his sacrifices: “Now our city of peace has crumbled/ Our book of faith’s been tossed/ And I’m just out here searchin’/ For my own piece of the cross.”

The thriving cities and factory towns of Springsteen’s youth have passed away and the ideals of earlier time have now dissolved into “tears, they fill the rosary at your feet.” The breezy optimism of the young man is gone. In its place is something like wisdom, a wisdom that seeks love, and knows that seeking love means finding the cross, and that a price must be paid for all that is worthy of enduring. The accompanying sadness is that too often a steep price is paid for that which is false, what is not worthy, what doesn’t endure.

Three or four years ago, the Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Coles wrote a book about those who listened to Springsteen. He subtitled it, “A People Listening, A Poet Singing.” The poet indeed is singing again. And for the people who listen, there is a something new here: a measure of wisdom, world-weary to be sure, but wisdom still.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "A Humbled Boss." National Post, (Canada) October 4, 2007.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2007 National Post

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