I was never a big Bruce Springsteen fan. I didn’t dislike him; there was nothing to dislike, at least as far as I could tell. He’s undeniably talented, neither pretentious nor phony, we’re about the same age and from similar blue collar backgrounds, so there should be a lot about him that I could relate to.
But I never quite made the connection. I brushed him off as a little too “mainstream,” which probably says more about me than him. By the time he came along, I’d been listening to rock and soul music for a dozen years or more, and my tastes were pretty well established. Besides, I was getting into punk and underground music, and developed an almost allergic reaction to anyone being touted as “the future of rock and roll,” which Springsteen famously was.
It was around that time that I saw him play, for the first and only time. I found it both exhilarating and exhausting. Though I couldn’t help but get caught up by Springsteen’s near-boundless energy and the waves of adulation that came pouring back from the audience, there was just a little too much of it. Most bands I knew played for half an hour, maybe an hour if they’d been around a long time, but Springsteen played for three or four, followed by four encores, each consisting of several songs. Before he finally wrapped things up, I was audibly begging him to stop. “That was great, really great, thank you so much,” I kept saying, “but please, can we go home now?”
Of course there was nothing stopping me from getting up and leaving, but at the age I was then, walking out while the band was still playing felt unimaginable. Besides, even if they weren’t playing my favorite style of music, I knew I was seeing and hearing something I would remember for the rest of my life.
Soon afterward, Springsteen became a superstar, which made it unlikely I would ever see him again (it’s rare for me to attend stadium or arena shows unless I know the band or promoter). Meanwhile, I got more deeply involved in the punk scene, so I was only semi-aware of the various twists that Springsteen’s career was taking. I knew, but only vaguely, that he had transcended rock and roll and even show business itself to become deeply imbedded in American culture, a hero even to many who might not share his political or musical values, but who simply appreciated him as a decent, hardworking guy who made good yet didn’t try to hog all the glory for himself.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and about a year ago I saw trailers for a film called Blinded By The Light, about a British-Pakistani kid living during the bitter, waning days of Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s, when guitar-based rock was already starting to be considered passé. Inexplicably, he discovers, then becomes almost possessed by Bruce Springsteen’s music, seeing it as both beacon and lifeline out of the grim post-industrial suburb where he’s grown up.
It looked good, but as with most films that look good, I never got around to seeing it. Until today, that is. When watching the trailer, what appealed to me was the quirkiness and far-fetchedness of a boy from a traditional Muslim background relating to the Catholic rock star from New Jersey. It seemed like your standard fish-out-of-water, stranger-in-a-strange-land premise, a theme that’s run through my own life ever since my Downriver Detroit childhood.
But while that might have been the obvious hook on which to hang the narrative, it turned out to be almost a background detail to what really grabbed me about the film: the power of music and words and poetry and art to inspire and transform someone’s life.
Since my encounter with Springsteen in the 1970s, I’ve gone on to write songs and play in bands myself, and also to work with bands who’ve achieved (there’s that dreaded word again) mainstream success. As a result, it’s not unusual for complete strangers to approach me and say things like “That song you wrote helped me get through some really rough times,” or “Thank you for the records you put out by (insert band’s name here). They literally changed my life.”
When this started happening, I found it kind of embarrassing, especially when the compliments were being directed toward my own music. I’d mumble something, shrug it off, maybe even think to myself, “Wow, this person really needs to get a life.” Sure, I liked my music, too, but am I supposed to believe it could have that dramatic an effect on someone?
In a word, yes. When I turn things around and recall times I’ve approached my own musical heroes to tell them how much their work had meant to me, I typically got a similar reaction. They’d either mutter “Thanks” or just shrug it off. Which is understandable, I guess. How could they know what it was like to be 12-year-old or 24-year-old or 36-year-old me, at a time when life felt like a hopeless muddle or an even more hopeless dead end, and then hear a phrase or a melody or an intonation that suddenly made it all make sense again?
That’s essentially what happened to the kid in Blinded By The Light. There’s no telling what would have become of him if he hadn’t encountered the work of Bruce Springsteen, but there’s also no denying that his life was dramatically and irrevocably altered by it. And altered for the better, I should add, at least in the movie, but almost certainly in reality as well (the movie is meant to be based on a true story, but even if it wasn’t, equally profound truths are often found in fiction).
It made me deeply – almost painfully – aware of the responsibility that accrues to any artist, amateur or professional, whether with an audience of one or of millions. There’s an ongoing argument in my circles for and against this proposition. Some people maintain that the artist’s only duty is to please him or herself; I’ve long believed the opposite: that your work only becomes art once it reaches and has an impact on another human being.
And though it’s nice to think of the uplifting, life-enhancing qualities our work might have, it’s important not to forget that odes to depression, nihilism, drug addiction, or despair can also change someone’s life, and not always for the better. I’ve heard it said that “Be yourself” is the worst advice you can give to some people, and while that sounds flippant, there’s an element of truth to it. It doesn’t mean you should pretend you don’t have problems, or that life isn’t hard for you at times. But when you introduce a work of art into the world, just as when you raise a child or plant a tree or build a house, it’s incumbent on you to give some thought to how that will affect others.
When I wrote my first stupid punk songs (that’s how I saw them at the time, anyway) 30 or 40 years ago, it was beyond the wildest stretches of my imagination that some of those songs would still be being listened to today, let alone that there would be people who might take them more seriously than I had myself. My own fans might be numbered in the hundreds (maybe the thousands on a good day), while someone like Springsteen has reached tens, maybe even hundreds of millions. Doesn’t matter; the principle is the same. What you put out into the world might very well live forever; it almost certainly will outlive you. Do what you can to make it something good.