Happy 70th birthday, Bruce!

70 years ago today, on 23 September 1949 in Long Branch, New Jersey, Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen sucked life-affirming oxygen into his lungs for the very first time and announced to the world – “I’m here!” I can’t really remember when my admiration for and fascination with this rock icon began. What I do know for sure, it was written in the stars.

Just to get it out the way – it doesn’t bother me in the slightest how others have described my absolute enthralment with The Boss as somewhat intense. According to them (and “them” are family and long-time friends who haven’t and probably will never understand this “Bruce thing”) it borders on the edge of stalking. Sheer nonsense and utter rubbish, I say!

Back to the real story, the thing about the stars and planets and celestial creations that aligned so perfectly that it couldn’t help for our paths but to intersect…

It’s been a long time comin’, my dear
It’s been a long time comin’ but now it’s here

Out neath the arms of Cassiopeia

Where the sword of Orion sweeps

And that the musical master’s words and tunes would become the soundtrack of my life. After all, it surely can’t be a coincidence that Liryn de Jager was born in the year that Bruce released his first album (1973 – Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ); that the song resonating with me the most (Brilliant Disguise) appeared on Tunnel of Love that was released on my 14th birthday on October 9 in 1987; and that the Jersey star and this self-proclaimed wild child from Johannesburg on the other side of the planet, are both Libras, sometimes trudging and sometimes skipping, to our own beat… 

Im just a lonely pilgrim

I walk this world in wealth

It may be a combination of his hardy Italian-Dutch-Irish genes, but there has been no sign in the last few years that Bruce has been approaching his 70’s. It started in 2016 when he told us his story with the publication of Born To Run. Then he did something that no rock and roll star has ever done and no one expected from The Boss of all people when he took his voice to the Walter Kerr theatre for 236 sold-out shows of Springsteen on Broadway. In the last few months, Western Stars, his 20th studio album and again a departure from the expected, was released. But far from finished, and in the absence of an accompanying album tour, he adds the title of director (with Thom Zimny) for the first time to his name with the release of Western Stars, the film.

Bet I can make you smile when the blood, it hits the floor
Tell me, friend, can you ask for anything more?
Tell me can you ask for anything more?

Now there’s also the promise of a new album with the E Street Band with which they will most certainly hit the road, Bruce says. Then the suitcases will be packed with plenty of space for the stories and characters that come alive in the hundreds of songs in his abundantly rich and overflowing catalogue. For him, it lies in his own growing up years in the factory suburb of Freehold, his complicated relationship with his father and hero worship for his mother, an initial hostile attitude toward the Catholic Church, inspiration from books, the ordinary lives of working class people and his philosophy about who and what America really is. But even more so, that he is willing to lay his soul bare for the countless fans who have placed him on a pedestal because heroes don’t have feet of clay, or do they? And then he shows us, without cloak and dagger, and by putting all his cards on the table, that he too has demons, struggles and other shortcomings, he is but a mere mortal.

Wages of sin, I keep paying
Wages of sin for some wrong that I’ve done
Wages of sin, well I keep paying
Wages of sin, one by one

And it is in this way that Bruce, with all the supposed glamor and allure of living in a rock star’s world, looks us straight in the eye and says: “I am one of you, I understand you, I hear you, I give you what you need, and that is that one and one equals three”. He speaks and inspires generations that stretch back to the Baby Boomers and Generation X, to the Millennials (Generation Y) and the Centennials (Generation Z), no matter where you come from or under which flag you were born.

Like Sarfraz Manzoor who wrote Greetings from Bury Park about this very thing and then turned it into the movie Blinded by the Light, released a couple of months ago. In a column in the New York Times, Manzoor writes about how Bruce Springsteen unites the world and gives hope to ordinary working class people thousands of miles away from New Jersey:

“I wrote the book about Springsteen’s influence on my experience as a Muslim teenager in the 1980s in a small, working-class village in Britain. I was introduced to his music in 1987 by a Sikh friend of mine … He claimed that Springsteen was the direct line to everything that was real in this world. When I first started listening, it was a confirmation of nothing but the truth.”

The overtones of religion and faith and disciples and sermons run like a golden thread through Bruce’s connection with his followers (see what I mean?) Testimony is given of how his music has carried them through difficult times, through the struggles of growing up, divorce and the end of relationships, health problems, unemployment and life’s everyday struggles.

The documentary movie Springsteen and I, composed of footage from fans from all over the world, is further evidence of what Bruce’s music means to ordinary folk. One described it as:

“Listening to Springsteen’s lyrics is like flipping through someone’s photo album and looking at their lives and smelling their coffee … and sharing in their grief … and that they can overcome anything.”

And having to overcome a lot, especially these days, certainly gets Bruce straight to the point. In Springsteen on Broadway, he doesn’t flinch when he presents his take on President Donald Trump and the state of the country of his birth.

“We are a country of immigrants and no one knows … whose story can become a significant page in our American story … we once again wage war against our “new Americans” … who must fight against the most reactionary and the hardest of hearts in their adopted home… ”

This is not the first time Bruce has made a political stand with and through his music. Despite what the Reagen administration thought of it, in the early 80’s he emphasized that Born In The USA was a protest song about the real lives of real Vietnam War veterans.

With 41 Shots, Bruce gave a voice to the, mostly black, victims of police brutality in America. In 1999 Amadou Diallo was an immigrant who was falsely thought to be a serial rapist. He put his hand in his pants pocket after police stopped him. 

It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret)
It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret)
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in
You can get killed just for living in
You can get killed just for living in
Your American skin

The men in blue fire fired 41 shots, 19 shots hit Diallo. He just wanted to take out his wallet.

But then Bruce produces what he calls his “magic trick” and pleads with us to share in the healing power of rock and roll in the form of epic, hours-long concerts. That is what he means to me and the countless other loyal and dedicated fans and followers – that camaraderie of souls – united, unbridled and unwavering. It’s about so much more than just the music, the words and the notes, the man in the middle of the stage holding everything together. On freeways and back roads, on side streets and railroad tracks, with planes, trains and automobiles, we all ride together on this rollercoaster and don’t want it to ever stop. All roads have a final destination however, that’s life, for Bruce too, but for now we’ll pretend it’s still way in the distance. 

Bruce speaks to our hearts and not our heads, and in doing so he creates bonds across borders, across cultures and nationalities, between like-minded souls and spirits. It is in this acknowledgment that ordinary people are wholly and completely prepared to believe that with every note and every word, the man with the harmonica and guitar, is talking to just them. 

This community of Bruce fellows must be experienced to truly understand what it is about, how deep it goes. Should one be so fortunate as to strike up a kinship with another who has the same appreciation for his music, then there’s nothing else to know. 

The stars are burninbright

Like some mystery uncovered

And Ill keep movinthrough the dark

With you in my heart

My blood brother

Then there are all the other things we will do in our quest for the musical therapy of ‘Dr Springsteen’. The thirst, the hunger, the sun, the rain, the heat, the cold, the bare feet, the lack of sleep, the running, the standing, the sitting, the waiting. And then you do it again and again and again… I wouldn’t trade it for anything. As someone once said, “It may just be rock and roll but it sure feels like love.”

Since I began this piece with an acknowledgement of my so-called stalker status (as per the definition of ‘others’), I suppose I have to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There may have been more than one Springsteen on Broadway attendance, more in the region of three… (The man himself has got this thing about 1 + 1 =3, ok?) The first one was through the verified fan system and the second one was bought at the box office at Walter Kerr the same week I was in New York for the first show.  For the last one it was a whirlwind trip from Dublin, Ireland via Reykjavik, Iceland with WOW Air, without having a ticket in my hand already. It was a ‘casual’ meeting with George Travis of Bruce’s management team, on the sidewalk in front of the theatre, which provided me with a seat on the balcony (usually reserved for VIP guests).

Bruce has not necessarily changed my life in a profound and spectacular way. What he undoubtedly has done, however, is to give a sense of direction to this wondering wanderer. His Springsteen-way with words and notes has been a gift – honest and true. It is this shoot-from-the-hip and from-the-depth-of-the-soul touch that has set him apart from the rest, made him one of a kind. He has created a community of fellows, united in their gratitude for true artistry.

It is obvious that I get that magical ‘something’ in abundance as a dedicated follower of The Boss. Sounds almost ecclesiastical, doesn’t it? That’s exactly what it is. Because when someone like Bruce Springsteen, along with the jolly music makers of the E Street Band preaches the gospel according to rock and roll, I’m definitely a believer. Which songs he uses time and time again to deliver his sermon (never less than three hours and sometimes for as long as four hours) don’t really matter. In a glorious career spanning more than 50 years, this musical bible has no last page.

In celebration of his 70th year, anxiety is starting to creep in that this iconic music maker’s earthly journey is nearing its end. I have no fear whatsoever though about the eternal life of Bruce Springsteen’s musical treasure chest.

Tonight this fool’s halfway to heaven and just a mile outta hell
And I feel like I’m comin’ home

These are better days baby
These are better days it’s true
These are better days
Better days are shining through