Maybe Bruce Springsteen Was Born to Run Home

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Springsteen on Broadway (courtesy of Netflix)

Religion News Service is running my piece on Catholicism and “home” in “Springsteen on Broadway.” Needless to say, I had fun with this one.

Here is a taste:

Yet, as Springsteen knows all too well, escaping a Catholic past in the Irish and Italian enclaves of working-class New Jersey is not easy. “You know what they say about Catholics … there’s no getting out … (the priests and nuns) did their work hard and they did it well.”

Springsteen understands that the past often has its way with us — shaping us, haunting us, defining us, motivating us and empowering us. Like a priest conducting Mass, he asks the audience to receive the Lord’s Prayer as a “benediction” — perhaps a final blessing from a music legend who was never quite able to outrun the sound of the church bells.

Maybe this is what it means, as he wrote famously in “Born to Run,” to “get to that place where we really want to go” where we can “walk in the sun.” Maybe Bruce Springsteen was born to run home.

Over the years, Springsteen has become the darling of progressive politicians. He campaigned for John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and (briefly) for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But when he tells his story on Broadway, he transports us back to a day when progressive ideals and the relentless quest for the American dream were not separated from tradition, roots, place, a longing for home, and Christian faith.

Read the entire piece here.

Springsteen’s *Tunnel of Love* at 30

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Over at Blogness on the Edge of Town, Peter Chianca reflects on the thirtieth anniversary of one of Springsteen’s most personal albums.  Here is a taste:

At least a few of the songs point to the value in at least trying to ford the rough river of romantic relationships. The steady, martial drumbeat that starts off “Tougher Than The Rest” evokes the singer’s steely commitment to succeeding where others before him have failed, and an acknowledgement that love is only truly attainable if you’re willing to endure a long, hard slog to reach it. And even “All That Heaven Will Allow” – the album’s brightest track, sung in a hopeful warble – acknowledges the constant presence of “Mister Trouble.”

But much more of Tunnel of Love is dedicated to the ways that love is complicated, trust is fleeting and truly knowing someone is heart-wrenchingly difficult – sometimes impossible. The title track equates relationships with a dim, twisted carnival funhouse, an analogy that’s brilliantly simple and exquisitely executed: “the lights go out and it’s just the three of us,” Springsteen sings, “you, me and all that stuff we’re so scared of.” The way he shares harmonies both with himself, in a anguished overdub, and with Patti Scialfa’s echoing yelps only accentuates the number of hidden specters floating just beneath any relationship’s surface.

Read the entire piece here.

I am also reminded of Father Andrew Greeley‘s review of the album in the February 6, 1988 issue of America.  He argued that Tunnel of Love revealed Springsteen’s “Catholic imagination.”  He even described the release of the album as “a more important Catholic event in this country than the visit of Pope John Paul!.”

Here is a taste of that review:

In the context of religion (in its origins) as an exercise of the metaphor-making dynamisms, Bruce Springsteens album Tunnel of Love may be a more important Catholic event in this country than the visit of Pope John Paull! The Pope spoke of moral debates using the language of doctrinal propositions that appeal to (or repel) the mind. Springsteen sings of religious realities—sin, temptation, forgiveness, life, death, hope—in images that come (implicitly perhaps) from his Catholic childhood, images that appeal to the whole person, not just the head, and that will be absorbed by far more Americans than those who listened to the Pope.

I intend no disrespect to the Pope or to the importance of his trip. I merely assert the obvious: Troubadours always have more impact than theologians or bishops, storytellers more influence than homilists.

Some rock critics contend that Springsteen has turned away from the “positive” music of Born in the USA to return to the grimmer and more pessimistic mood of Nebraska. It might be debated how optimistic USA really was. But, while there is tragedy in Tunnel of Love, there is also hope. The water of the river still flows, but now it stands, not for death, but for rebirth. Light and water, the Easter and baptismal symbols of the Catholic liturgy, the combination of the male and female fertility principles, create life in Tunnel of Love.

Religion is more explicitly expressed in Tunnel of Love than in any previous Springsteen album. Prayer, heaven and God are invoked naturally and unselfconsciously, as though they are an ordinary part of the singers life and vocabulary (and the singer is the narrator of the story told in the song, not necessarily Springsteen). Moreover, religion is invoked to deal precisely with those human (as opposed to doctrinal) problems—love, sin, death, rebirth—that humankind in its long history has always considered religious.

On the subject of human sinfulness, Springsteen sounds like St. Paul, who lamented that “the good which I would do, I do not do; and the evil which I would not do, that I do.”

Read Greeley’s entire review here.

*The Rising* at Fifteen

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In honor of the 15th anniversary of the The Rising, I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s 9-11 album several times on my recent drive from Mechanicsburg to Princeton and back.

I have written about The Rising several times here at the blog.  Here are some of those pieces:

Rise Up: Springsteen in Pittsburgh” (September 13, 2016)

Why September 11 is About Vocation” (September 10, 2011 and September 11, 2014)

Bruce Springsteen’s Spiritual Vision for America” (March 6, 2012)

Many of themes I wrote about–vocation, calling, courage, faith, hope, community, loss and tragedy–continued to resonate with me as a drove down the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

“May your strength give us strength

May your faith give us faith

May your hope give us hope.

May your love give us love.”

Over at Salon, David Masciotra reflects on the 15th anniversary.

Here is a taste:

“The Rising” demonstrated that Springsteen, already an uncontested legend, and his band, already one of the best in rock history, were not merely a classic rock expression of nostalgia. They could adapt to a rapidly changing world and musical landscape, even in the worst of circumstances and with the most brutal of muses, and provide music that sounded and felt built for the present.

Springsteen has often explained that he aspires to write songs with “blues verses and gospel choruses.” “The Rising” maximized that formula. “Lonesome Day” — one of Springsteen’s best songs — rocks with abandon, even while integrating country elements into its introduction and musical break, to describe a scene of devastation. “House is one fire / Viper’s in the grass . . . ” Springsteen sings. The chorus offers a secular prayer of revivification: “It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, yeah!”

The simplicity of Springsteen’s faith claim that somehow, even if it is hard to imagine, everything will turn out alright is another force allowing the record to transcend its historical inspiration. “The Rising,” an anthem of life, death and love giving an awe-filled depiction of how firefighters moved through what Springsteen calls “secular stations of the cross,” soon became the campaign theme for Barack Obama’s campaign. “My City of Ruins,” making great use of music similar to Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” describes communal destruction and individual despair before a chorus of “Come on, rise up!” Its message of social uplift caused it to resonate in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and Christchurch, New Zealand, after the city suffered an earthquake in 2011.

Before playing “My City of Ruins” at a benefit for 9/11 survivors and family members in Red Bank, New Jersey, Springsteen said, “This is a song I originally wrote for Asbury Park. You write songs, and you hope that they end up where people need them. So, this is a gift from Asbury Park to New York City.”

The man in the parking lot was right. It seems that people will always need the songs of “The Rising.” When a friend takes her last breath, when a spouse slips away, when a natural disaster leaves a city in ruins, or when the victory of an unqualified, bigoted demagogue turns a national election into a lonesome day, Springsteen’s exploration of human tragedy and triumph — from the funeral of a lover to the house party of a friend — will inspire those in need to drop the needle and pray.

After Springsteen sings “I drop the needle and pray,” near the end of “Mary’s Place,” the Alliance Singers, a New Jersey gospel choir formed in the wake of 9/11 and personally recruited by Springsteen for “The Rising,” shout with church fervor and ecstasy, “Turn it up!”

That’s as good advice as any.

Read the entire piece here.

Bruce Springsteen Talks Catholicism on “Fresh Air”

Born to RunCheck out Bruce’s interview with Terry Gross of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.”  Here is a taste:

So, you also lived near the church and church was a part of your life. And you write about Catholicism, “This is the world where I found the beginnings of my song. In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a language of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward.”

Are there particular Bible stories or religious paintings that really made an impression on you? 

No, it was more just the basics. I think when you’re a child, you just cling to the basics, which is the basic story of Jesus and the Crucifixion and hell and eternal punishment and the flames. This was all stuff that was, when you’re young, this is very tangible and is as real as the gas station next door to you.

Maybe especially since the church was just about next door to you.

Exactly! So these things, and also because we lived in the presence of the church and the convent and the rectory and the school 24/7, and this was an enormous cornerstone in the lives of my entire family. They were all pretty serious Catholic churchgoers. And as a child, these things were very, very terrifying.

What things? Were you afraid of hell?

Haha, yeah.

Eternal damnation?

[Laughs] That one too! So, these were stories that were not stories, you know? They were simply facts. This is what occurred. This is what can occur, unless you toe the line, my friend.

So, when you’re a child — and you forget that the Catholic religion at the time was much darker and more mysterious. The entire Mass was in Latin. If you go to my church now it’s incredibly bright inside, but when I was young, it was very dark inside.

It was just the difference in the way they’ve painted it since I’ve gone there and it strives for a very different and welcoming spirit. Where when I was young, it was sort of built to intimidate, even on this very local level and this very small church in this small town, it still held you in the palm of its darkness. And it was something I carried with me, never forgot, brought into my music, and it’s been in my music ever since.

Read the entire interview here.

Springsteen: “I Have a ‘Personal’ Relationship With Jesus”

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Thanks Byron Borger!

Relax evangelicals, Springsteen does not mean THAT kind of personal relationship with Jesus.  No, he did not have a born-again experience.  But his recently released memoir Born to Run  (which I recently purchased from Springsteen fan Byron Borger, the proprietor at Hearts & Minds Books) does say some interesting things about the influence of Christianity on his lyrics.

Springsteen writes: “As funny as it sounds, I have a ‘personal’ relationship with Jesus. He remains one of my fathers, though as with my own father, I no longer believe in his godly power.  I believe deeply in his love, his ability to save…but not to damn–enough of that.”

I am not sure what Springsteen means by this statement, but anyone who listens to the Boss’s music will hear songs loaded with Catholic imagery and even some Catholic social teaching about work, justice, life, and hope.

In Chapter 3 of Born to Run Springsteen talks about his tortured relationship with the Catholic faith of his parents.  The chapter is a conflicted one.  He writes about how Catholic school “left a mean taste in my mouth and estranged me from my religion for good.”  He also says that “Catholicism seeped” into his “bones.”  He writes about walking away from his faith after eighth-grade. Though he doesn’t participate in organized religion anymore he knows “somewhere…deep inside…I’m still on the team.”

And then there is this: “The way I see it, we ate the apple and Adam, Eve, the rebel Jesus in all his glory and Satan are all part of God’s plan to make men and women out of us, to give us the precious gifts of earth, dirt, sweat, blood, sex, sin, goodness, freedom, captivity, love, fear, life, and death…our humanity and a world of our own.”

I love Bruce, but I am glad he is a singer and a songwriter and not a theologian.

Springsteen makes a little more sense in this interview with Steven Colbert:

Are You Lonely? Perhaps You Need to Go to a Springsteen Concert

Bruce at PSUEven scholars at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), that bastion of limited government and free markets, love the Boss!

Michael Strain, a resident scholar at AEI, puts his passion for Springsteen on display in a great piece at the website of The Washington Post.  Springsteen’s politics may be on the left, but his music appeals to folks of all ideologies!

Here is a taste:

I saw Springsteen and his mighty E Street Band last week, here in Washington, on a night when I needed to feel young. (Who doesn’t need to feel young these days?) And whenever I see a Springsteen show, I feel like I’m hearing music for the first time — music, and all the wonderful things that come with it.

A Springsteen concert is a celebration of community. There’s an intimacy associated with seeing those seated near you in complete abandon, and that intimacy fosters friendliness. Last week’s show offered a new spin on this familiar theme: I happened to meet the guy seated next to me a few days earlier when I sold him a couple of my extra tickets. He arrived during the third song, and we greeted each other as if we were old friends. It’s odd, but there was more warmth between us than I have with any of my neighbors. Springsteen brings people together.

Many different kinds of people. There are the veterans, who share stories of their favorite concerts in anticipation that what will happen on that stage in a few minutes will top what they’ve seen before. There are the skeptical first-timers — five songs in, and they are always mesmerized, stunned, in awe of the fact that all the hype they’ve heard for many years wasn’t hype after all. But my favorite are the kids, often with their parents — a generational handoff. My unborn son has been to two shows already.

We live in a fragmented society. People feel isolated. Many feel invisible. Springsteen is aware of this, and he explicitly tries to combat it with his concerts. For a few hours, any trace of loneliness vanishes. A Springsteen show is a balm.

Read the entire post here.

Song of the Day

The lyrics are worth adding on this one:

Well now on a summer night in a dusky room
Come a little piece of the Lord’s undying light
Crying like he swallowed the fiery moon
In his mother’s arms it was all the beauty I could take
Like the missing words to some prayer that I could never make
In a world so hard and dirty so fouled and confused
Searching for a little bit of God’s mercy
I found living proof

I put my heart and soul I put ’em high upon a shelf
Right next to the faith the faith that I’d lost in myself
I went down into the desert city
Just tryin’ so hard to shed my skin
I crawled deep into some kind of darkness
Lookin’ to burn out every trace of who I’d been
You do some sad sad things baby
When it’s your you ‘re tryin’ to lose
You do some sad and hurtful things
I’ve seen living proof

You shot through my anger and rage
To show me my prison was just an open cage
There were no keys no guards
Just one frightened man and some old shadows for bars

Well now all that’s sure on the boulevard
Is that life is just a house of cards
As fragile as each and every breath
Of this boy sleepin’ in our bed
Tonight let’s lie beneath the eaves
Just a close band of happy thieves
And when that train comes we’ll get on board
And steal what we can from the treasures of the Lord
It’s been along long drought baby
Tonight the rain’s pourin’ down on our roof
Looking for a little bit of God’s mercy
I found living proof

But the Greatest is Hope

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Andrew Gardner, a doctoral student in American religious history at Florida State, has a nice piece on the role of faith, hope, and love in the music of Bruce Springsteen, particularly his 2012 album Wrecking Ball.  The piece is published in a relatively new academic journal titled Boss: The Biannual Online-Journal of Springsteen Studies.   

Gardner shows how Springsteen’s album draws heavily from the work of Thomas Aquinas, but places more emphasis on the virtues of “hope” than on “love” and “faith.”

Here is the abstract:

Bruce Springsteen’s relationship to his Roman Catholic background is complex and multifaceted. This paper seeks to analyze the artist’s understanding of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love as seen in the album Wrecking Ball (2012). By juxtaposing Springsteen’s understanding of these virtues with Catholicism’s Thomistic tradition, scholars can see how he draws upon this tradition while creating a more robust role for the virtue of hope. This analysis of Springsteen’s engagement in a theological discourse around the virtues of faith, hope, and love offers a fuller understanding of the artist’s commitment to visions of the American Dream.

You can read the entire essay here.

If you like Wrecking Ball, check out some of our posts on the album and the tour.

Springsteen is a “Deeply Christian Writer”

Springsteen in Asbury

Over at The Religious Studies Project, Kate McCarthy, a religion professor at California State University-Chico, talks to A. David Lewis about religion, popular culture, and Bruce Springsteen.

The conversation about Bruce begins around the 9:30 mark of the interview. McCarthy discusses the Catholic theology embedded in Springsteen’s music, talks about his concerts as “religious experiences,” analyzes the masculinity of his songs (as a feminist she says Bruce’s music is a “guilty pleasure”), and laments the fact that young people are not connecting as much with his music (although she obviously did not see him at Penn State a few years ago and has never met my daughters).

McCarthy calls Springsteen a “deeply Christian writer.”