Bruce Springsteen calls his latest album Magic. After last weekend, I have an idea why.
Last Saturday night, my brother Matt and I saw Springsteen at Gillette Stadium. The show got off to an ominous start: even before the band played a single note, the sky erupted with a furious symphony of its own. Thunder. Lightning. Torrential rain and winds.
The storm didn’t last long, but what it lacked in endurance it more than made up for in intensity. Within seconds, we were all soaked. And when everyone took cover, we were also crushed and cramped under the same enclosures. To top it all off, we had to sit through an hour-long delay to ensure the worst of it had passed.
You know what? No one cared. No one complained. We were all just excited to see the Boss.
Now that’s magic!
The only moment that ever-so-briefly broke the spell for me took place right before the skies opened up. Just as my brother and I were walking into the stadium, we ran into two of my former students. (This qualifies as magical in itself; after all, there were only 30,000 people there.) I told them that the last time I saw Bruce was twenty years ago, in 1988.
“Wow,” one of them marveled, “I wasn’t even born yet.”
“Yeah, I was negative one,” the other mused.
Just then, as if on cue, we heard our first crash of thunder, as I wondered what threatened to put more of a damper on the evening: the rain, or the reminder of my mortality.
Twenty years—damn. A lot has changed during that time: I got married, had two kids. I moved to Connecticut, became a homeowner. Began a teaching career and started losing my hair. (Those two may or may not be related.)
A lot has changed for Bruce, too, in those twenty years. He divorced his wife and married his bandmate Patti. He divorced his band too, for a time, and went through a period of comparative irrelevancy as a singles act (Tom Joad, anyone?) before heading back to E Street where he belongs.
Now, twenty years later, the Bruce and the E Streeters are back together, but they’re not just doing same ol’, same ol’. Before the show, when I mentioned to my brother how excited I was to hear “Rosalita,” he warned me they probably wouldn’t play it. Even though Bruce always closed with “Rosalita” in the early part of his career, he only plays it sporadically now. You almost can’t blame him for wanting a change.
“Think about it,” Matt reminded me. “If Rosalita was a real woman, she’d be in her fifties now.”
Again: twenty years—damn.
And yet, the moment Bruce started playing, it was as if no time had passed. He still rocked, just as vigorously, as transcendently as I remembered. On that stage, he defies time, and through him, we do too.
How does Bruce accomplish this bit of magic? I suppose I could chalk it up to his much-vaunted energy, but that can’t be the only thing. After all, all the energy in the world can’t redeem lousy material. No, Bruce can defy time because the songs themselves are timeless.
And not just because his songs are catchy and eminently singable (even though they certainly are). And not just because Springsteen is a true poet, with a knack for vivid images and natural rhymes (even though he certainly is). For me, when it comes to writing songs,“ The Boss reigns because he is first and foremost a storyteller.
Take “Thunder Road,” for example: the song is a narrative, about a guy who wants to convince his girlfriend Mary to take that “long walk’ from her porch to his car, so they can leave their town full of losers and make something of their lives. It’s a simple story, really, but through those desperate, lonely people, Bruce sums up the longing and unfulfilled desires of the entire world.
This is just one example. Go through his catalogue, and you'll see all of Bruce's best songs tell stories: Jungleland—a story about gang violence; “Hungry Heart”—a story about the worst (and yet somehow most celebrated) dead-beat dad in history; “The Rising”—a story about a firefighter climbing one of the Trade Towers; even “Glory Days” is a story about folks who can’t stop telling stories.
I guess I always knew this implicitly about Bruce, but his ability to tell stories in song really hit me that night at the concert, as I watched him try on and then shed different personas with each new number. Then I started thinking about how essential storytelling is to so many other other songs I consider personal favorites:
“Hotel California”; “Boys of Summer”; “The Boxer”; “Cats in the Cradle”; “Roll Me Away”; “Message in a Bottle”; “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”; “Fast Car”; “American Pie”; “Margaritaville”; “Levon”; “Livin’ on a Prayer”; “Jack and Diane”; “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” or “Allentown” or even “Piano Man.”
Heck, even “Puff the Magic Dragon” tells a story (and, no, it’s not about marijuana). Even “The Pina Colada Song,” even “Copacabana” tell stories. (Oh, come on: just try and tell me you don’t like them!)
And pretty much every country song in the world—from Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” to Dixie Chicks’ “Traveling Soldier” to Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”—tells a story. That’s essentially what country music is: storytelling with a heaping side of twang.
We value stories so much in our music that we actually try to apply stories even when they’re not there. Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” for example, apparently has nothing to do with a drowning friend, but man, does that story ever ratchet up the song’s coolness factor. Same with James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”; his friends actually didn’t put Suzanne on that doomed helicopter. That was just a rumor that sprouted around the song. An urban legend. A story.
We don’t even have to understand the story the song is telling to like the song. I have no earthly idea what’s going on with Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”—something about jokers and thieves—but I’m hooked regardless. And I liked Elton John’s “Daniel” even before I found out I found out that Bernie Taupin had written a third verse which explained that Daniel was a Vietnam vet who lost his eyesight. Without that verse, the song doesn’t make much sense—but who cares? We know there’s something going on.
Thus brings me to my treatise: Songs that endure, songs that leave an indelible imprint on your psyche, tell stories.
Now can you have great songs that don’t tell stories but are simply fun and catchy? Absolutely. (See “MMMMBop” and mostly every song from the 80s not included on The Joshua Tree.)
And can you have songs that tell stories but still stink? Sure. (After all, that new Katie Perry song “I Kissed a Girl” tells a story, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying to me.)
Still, it seems to me, as a general rule, that a catchy song with great lyrics that tells a story has a greater shot at immortality than a song that is merely catchy or merely has great lyrics. To me, it’s the difference between “Love Me Do” and “Eleanor Rigby.” Or “P.Y.T.” and “Billie Jean.” Or “Cover Me” and “Thunder Road.” (Sorry, faithful Springsteen fans, but it’s true.)
We need stories, as a culture and as individuals, because that’s how we learn. It’s a paradox, really: We learn about ourselves through other people’s stories. It seems counter-intuitive at first, and I often see students struggle with this idea when they write personal narratives. They don’t want to get too specific because they think someone else couldn’t get something out of it if they do. I have to assure them that the more specific a story, the more universal its appeal. And the more universal its appeal, the greater its shot at immortality.
That's the real magic of storytelling: the ability to transcend time.
One last thing: at the end of last Saturday’s show, just shy of midnight, for the seventh song of his encore, Bruce said he would play one final song—or as he called it, “one more fairy tale about New Jersey.” It was “Rosalita,” of course, and with those opening chords, the house erupted just as raucously just as it did twenty years ago—maybe even more so.
And let me tell you: for a woman in her fifties, Rosie sure can rock. Just like her creator, she hasn’t aged at all.
Incidentally, for all those who are interested, here's the set list from the Saturday, August 2nd Springsteen show in Foxboro, Mass:
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
The Promised Land
Spirit in the Night
Tunnel of Love
Little Latin Lupe Lu
Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?
Who'll Stop the Rain?
She's the One
Livin' in the Future
Last to Die
Long Walk Home
* * *
I'm Goin' Down
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark