It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive
Hell’s brewin’ dark sun’s on the rise
This storm’ll blow through by and by
House is on fire, Viper’s in the grass
A little revenge and this too shall pass
This too shall pass, I’m gonna pray
Right now all I got’s this lonesome day
Bruce Springsteen, Lonesome Day
As everyone knows, Prince died yesterday and his death set off a wave of emotion across the world. Even though I was never a huge Prince fan, nevertheless I appreciated his genius, god-like guitar skills, and his 2007 Super Bowl half time show. Yet his death and the well deserved outpouring of love for him brought back some unexpectedly raw memories of the connections I’ve made to music over the years. And for whatever reason, today seemed like as good time as any to finally write about some of those. So this is not a post about Prince, it’s really a post about my love for Bruce Springsteen.1 Or to zoom out a little, it’s a single about the power of music and the connections we all make with the sonic landscape around us.
Prince, Bowie, Merle, and all the others we’ve already lost in this absolutely terrible year meant a lot to millions of people and many have deeply personal stories about why. For me the person who I will be absolutely devastated to see pass away is Bruce Springsteen. Even though he’s in better shape than most 20 year olds (let alone me) and still plays uninterrupted three-and-a-half hour shows in his 60s, the passing of Danny Federici and Clarence “Big Man” Clemons reminded all Springsteen fans of the morality of the Boss and E Street Band and Prince’s far too early passing should be a reminder of the fragility of this thing called life. But when Springsteen does eventually die, I’ll be like the countless Prince fans today or Bowie’s fans back in January who mourn someone others may write off as superfluous or musically unappealing. I don’t really desire to make this about me, but historians tend to like case studies, so here’s the backstory on my love for Bruce Springsteen. I’ve never actually said any of what follows to anyone, let alone my family (although I assume they know—love you Mom!), but given that it’s been almost a decade and a half, it’s probably time to put it out there.
To put it simply, in 2001 and 2002 I was in a really bad place mentally. Middle school is a living hell when you’re being constantly constantly bullied. For me it got so bad I had meetings with the vice-principal to discuss incidents and the administrators and counsellors had to take actions to try to mitigate some of it. Unfortunately the sad fact of life is kids will be jerks regardless of what anyone tries to do and nothing really helped and I quit trying. I ultimately ended up in counselling for other issues, but it was all tied to the fact that I was regularly being told I was meaningless, stupid, and god knows what else. In one of those meetings I happened to tell the counsellor that I didn’t want to be around anymore. It took her a minute to realize I wasn’t rebelling against the meetings with her, but that I didn’t want to be alive anymore. I never got far enough down that road to try anything but I got closer than I care to remember and no one, let alone a 12/13 year old, should be put in a place where they seriously think ending their life is the most sensible option they have, but there I was.
In the summer of 2002 I saw a commercial for a Today Show concert by some guy named Bruce Springsteen who I had never really heard of. Even though I thought the music in the commerical sounded terrible, I ended up watching the concert held at the convention center in Asbury Park, New Jersey.2 To put it simply, a savior rose from that stage and I was hooked and bought The Rising as my first Springsteen album a short time later. Maybe it was fortuitous that I happened to pick up Springsteen with his single-9/11 album all about being resilient and overcoming obstacles, but it wasn’t just that album. As I started to dig deeper, Bruce showed me I could escape, or to quote him, “These two lanes can take us anywhere…It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win.” There was also “ Badlands", the song that showed me it’s never a sin to be glad you’re alive and someday if I kept at it I’d rise above those badlands. I could go on and on but the point is, Bruce showed me there was a light and a reason to hang on and keep going at the same time that he and other bands provided countless hours of simple bliss of popping in albums and tuning out everything around me.3
Ultimately the counselling helped, I got involved in some programs centered on speaking out against bullying, and I never went down that road again and don’t plan to in the future. But those memories still sting, and they creep out of the dark recesses of my brain from time to time. In those instances the first thing I reach for is music and a lot of the time it’s Bruce. Hell I listened to “No Surrender” on repeat for probably a half hour before my oral comprehensive exams and I’m not exaggerating when I say Bruce falls right behind my parents as the biggest thing to get me to this point in grad school.
The point here isn’t how middle school was a pretty fucked up time for me. Instead what I want to get at is that everyone makes connections to music, and a lot of it is deeply personal. While millions have been forthcoming about how Bowie or Prince showed them it was ok to be themselves, many more people have stories they simply can’t bring themselves to talk about but they’ll almost always publicly embrace music. So the next time someone says they love some band you find terrible, don’t sneer, think of the connections you have and let them have theirs. The beauty of music is that we don’t all have to love, let alone like, every piece of music, but all of us love at least a small part and sometimes we learn more from a three minute record than we ever do in school.
So to all the fans of those we’ve lost this year, I’m sorry, I know how much they meant. And sincerely Bruce, thanks for everything, it’s not much of a stretch to say you’re the reason I’m here today.
The music in that commercial? The opening lines to Thunder Road. I deeply regret ever holding that opinion. ↩︎
For the record, in addition to shelves of classic rock CDs, a number of those bands happened to be early-2000s rock bands lots of people love to hate. Nickelback, Good Charlotte, Papa Roach, Trapt, and others that populated radio during that period all have a special place in my book. ↩︎