February 16, 2004

A Thousand Springsteens Bloom

By: Matthew Berry

In 1989, Walker Percy sent a letter to Bruce Springsteen. Percy was a not-exactly famous Southern Catholic writer. Springsteen was a rock megastar and cultural icon. Their correspondence, you can imagine, was unexpected.

Percy wrote his letter – the critic Eric Alterman explains in It Ain’t No Sin to Be Glad You’re Alive, a 1999 bio-cum-hagiography of Springsteen – because he liked what he saw in an article about Springsteen that his nephew Will had shown him. In Percy’s note, hints of a deep respect emerge. “I’ve always been an admirer of yours, for your musicianship, and for being one of the few sane guys in your field,” Percy wrote. “The two of us are rarities in our professions.”

Springsteen didn’t have an opportunity to write back until well after Percy had died. But he wrote anyway, to Percy’s widow. In the letter, he compared themes in Percy’s works to his own. “The loss and search for faith and meaning,” Springsteen told Bunt Percy, “have been at the core of my own work for most of my adult life.”

“I’d like to think that perhaps this is what Dr. Percy heard and was what moved him to write me,” he mused.

On its surface, Springsteen’s guess – that Percy was moved by his music’s themes of loss and longing – is an instance of the polite sensibility to which Springsteen fans are well accustomed. But it raises an interesting, and perhaps unanswerable, question: What, exactly, did Walker Percy hear when he listened to Bruce Springsteen? What do any of us hear?

Well, here comes Robert Coles to tell us. Coles, the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard, is a friend of Springsteen’s, but was also a friend of Percy’s. He is a friend of a whole bunch of other people, for that matter – all of whose names he manages to drop in Bruce Springsteen’s America: The People Listening, A Poet Singing, a wispy 200 pages of oral history and reminiscences on Springsteen songs accompanied by an introduction and epilogue written by Coles. It’s a book worth reading, if only because it brings home an important point: What a person thinks about “Bruce Springsteen,” like what a person thinks about “America,” often tells you more about the person doing the thinking than the topic he’s thinking about.

Witness how Coles treats the Percy-Springsteen correspondence. For Coles, the exchange of letters was a long time in the making. “Once in [Percy’s] Louisiana home,” he writes, “as I was hearing him speak of friends and neighbors, he interrupted himself and spoke earnestly and with animation about someone he called – my favorite American Philosopher.'” The philosopher -you guessed it – turned out to be Springsteen.

Why the adulation? Springsteen “skips the American bragging of the [political] right and the American slamming of the [political] left,” Percy allegedly told Coles. “That’s no mean feat.” (The brackets are Coles’s.) When Percy listened to Springsteen, Coles writes, he described it in near mystical terms: “I think I’m carrying on a conversation with the guy: He says something, sings something that really says something, and then I get back to him, at him, with him, in my wondering head, wandering all over the map, as usual.”

Got that? I didn’t, nor will most readers. Coles’s quotes are long and discursive but short on insight. They leave us without any real answers as to what drew Percy to Springsteen’s songs about men who work thankless jobs and lead unnoticed lives. Instead, they prompt more questions.

Most prominently, is Coles “improving” or even fabricating quotes? Music critic David Hajdu investigated this after concluding that passages of Bruce Springsteen’s America strained credulity. He made a few phone calls to people likely to know Percy’s take on Bruce Springsteen. The results, which ran in the New Republic, are not conclusive, but certainly cast doubt upon the veracity of the quotes. “The fact that … Walker Percy had such extensive conversations with Robert Coles on the subjects of…Bruce Springsteen, and that those discussions yielded insights so parallel and neatly suited to Coles’s own take on Springsteen is incredible – utterly incredible,” Hajdu writes.

Hajdu called Walker Percy’s nephew, Will, and read him some of Coles’s Percy quotes. Will thought these were “outrageous.” His uncle “definitely didn’t talk like that,” Will said. (Will, you’ll remember, is the person who first introduced Percy to Springsteen.) Will seems to have figured prominently in his uncle’s life, and was in a position to know the answer to this question – more so than Coles, anyway. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for him to attack Coles’s book, other than a fondness for the truth.

What is going on here?

In January, I reached Coles, who is 74, at his home in Concord, Massachusetts. He said he had first heard of the controversy when a reporter from the Boston Globe had called him asking for comment. Hajdu’s charges, he told me, were “absolute nonsense.” He urged the New Republic critic to visit the Cambridge offices of Doubletake, the magazine he edits, where the tapes of his interviews with Percy are kept. When the conversation turned to Will Percy, who had repudiated Coles’s book, the professor wasn’t kind. Said Coles, “With all due respect to Will Percy, some of the things [Walker] Percy said to me, he wouldn’t say to his wife.”

Yet, oddly, Coles also said he hadn’t sent a letter of protest to the editors of the New Republic. “Nor will I,” he said. “Let the book speak for itself. We’re each entitled to our reactions.”

Still, I said, fabricating quotes is quite a charge, isn’t it?

“I’m not going to get into an argument,” he said, as if that settled the controversy.

Even if Coles is innocent – and let’s say, for the sake of argument, that he is – Hajdu points to a larger problem in the book (only a small portion of which, after all, is devoted to the relationship between the megastar and the novelist). The problem is that each of the ten uninterrupted oral histories, reminiscences about particular Springsteen songs, sounds rather like Walker Percy, who sounds rather like Robert Coles.

Compounding the weirdness of it all is the fact that, except for the actual testimonies, which consist mostly of syrupy you-had-to-be-there anecdotes, you learn little about the subjects themselves. Coles tells us that he met these individuals, or “fellow citizens,” as he often calls them, over decades of social work. He writes, “These men and women are ordinary folks … whom I have been lucky to talk with in the course of research and teaching.”

Okay. But it would be nice if he were a little more specific. The subject of each oral history, for example, is identified only by his or her trade. There’s a lawyer, a schoolteacher, a policeman, and “a businessman crisscrossing the country,” who is not to be confused with “my husband, a businessman, traveling,” or “student of mine, whistling.” Each is barely distinguishable from the next.

Which, come to think of it, may be the point. Coles isn’t interested in making each individual voice sound unique. He is interested in making each individual voice sound like it is one of, as he puts it, “the voices of Bruce Springsteen’s America.” Springsteen, Coles writes without irony, is “a singing poet of the people.” And the people the poet sings about are good-natured, aw-shucks, blue-collar types with families to feed and bills to pay and church socials to attend.

But let Coles tell it. Bruce Springsteen’s America, he writes, is composed of “individuals young and old, from various parts of a nation, linking themselves in words of reminiscence, reflection, assertion, (sometimes, self-affirmation) with certain of a singer’s songs.”

“In their sum as listeners,” Coles continues, “these Americans provide a chorus of resonance to an outpouring of engaging, stirring, inspiring music sent during our recent times toward the many who harken to the summons of a troubadour.”

(That’s right: Coles uses the word “harken.”)

Reading such engaging, stirring, inspiring words, one can only respond by asking … What in God’s name is Robert Coles talking about? When you read a little bit deeper, however, you realize that Coles isn’t talking about “ordinary people” at all. You realize that he probably isn’t even talking about Bruce Springsteen, or at least the Bruce Springsteen who wrote Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska and Born to Run and Tunnel of Love. You realize that he is talking about the Oprah Winfrey version of Bruce Springsteen, best expressed in his post-9/11 album The Rising, in which angst and frustration, the typical stuff of Springsteen songs, were replaced with sensitivity and spirituality.

You realize that Coles, in other words, is using Springsteen to forward a vision of America as one giant self-esteem workshop.

It’s not the first time the Boss has been misappropriated thus. Springsteen, like most great artists, has the uncanny ability to act as a sponge for other people’s hopes, desires, and agendas. His music is misinterpreted about as often as it is listened to – which is another way of saying, a lot. And the most egregious misinterpretation of Springsteen’s music, it pains me to admit, was committed by conservatives, who should know better.

In September 1984, George F. Will, the Washington Post columnist, attended a Springsteen concert. Will had been invited to the concert by Rebecca Weinberg, the wife of Max Weinberg, the drummer in Springsteen’s E Street Band, and was so taken by the performance that he penned a column about it, entitled “Bruce Springsteen’s U.S.A.”

The 827 words that follow are mystifying. Will turns Springsteen, on the Born in the U.S.A. tour, into an imago of corn-fed proletarian masculinity and from-the-heartland American values. “There is not a smidgen of androgyny in Springsteen,” wrote Will, as if that were the reason why the man’s music appealed to so many people. “Springsteen’s fans say his message affirms the right values. Certainly his manner does.” What’s more, the man “is no whiner.”

When you read Will’s column, you begin to wonder whether he actually listened to any of the music. And then you realize that the answer is … well, probably not. The most telling moment in the whole column comes when Will says he stuffed cotton into his ears “three beats into the first number.”

At times, Will seems almost purposefully ignorant, as when he writes that Springsteen, who in Will’s telling is a cockeyed optimist, punctuates “the recitation of closed factories and other problems” in his most famous song with “a grand, cheerful affirmation: “Born in the U.S.A.!'”

Bleah. Of course, Springsteen’s scream of “Born in the U.S.A.” is meant as a howl of protest, not a patriotic salute. This makes sense when you pay attention to the song’s lyrics, which include this grand, cheerful quatrain, the first of the song’s five: Born down in a dead man’s town / The first kick I took was when I hit the ground / You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much / Till you spend half your life just covering up.

None of this matters to Will. His version of Springsteen is vindicated by a conversation he has with a “male fan,” who tells him Springsteen is tops because “He sings about faith and traditional values.” Really? Springsteen’s album prior to Born in the U.S.A., remember, was Nebraska, in which most of the songs deal with psychopaths, murderers, and petty criminals.

But Will’s message stuck. A few days after the column appeared, Ronald Reagan mentioned Springsteen during his official reelection announcement, delivered in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty: “America’s future,” Reagan said, “rests in the messages of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.”

Reagan was trying to appeal to the youth vote, sure. But he did so not by speaking about the Bruce Springsteen who wrote songs in which a person’s best days are behind him. He did so by speaking about George Will’s Bruce Springsteen, who wrote songs in which a person is proud to be born in the U.S. of A., damnit.

Or maybe Reagan was speaking about Bernard Goldberg’s Bruce Springsteen. On September 12, 1984, around the same time Will wrote his column, Goldberg, then a CBS correspondent and now a conservative polemicist, filed a profile of Springsteen. Here’s how Goldberg closed the piece: “He touches his fans and they touch him. His shows are like old-time revivals with the same old-time message: If they work hard enough and long enough, like Springsteen himself, they can also make it to the promised land.”

Whoever Reagan was talking about, he bore just as little resemblance to the actual Bruce Springsteen as Robert Coles’s Springsteen does. The actual Bruce Springsteen, if I read his biographers correctly, is neither a Republican nor a sensitive, Oprahfied New-Age male concerned with “social ethics.” He’s a liberal who once wrote an “antiwar original” called “Balboa vs. The Earth Slayer,” played at benefits held to oppose nuclear energy and promote a nuclear freeze. He wrote a famous song, “Born in the U.S.A.,” about a man, he has said, who “wants to strip away that mythic America, which was Reagan’s image of America.”

Springsteen wrote songs not to “defend” or promote “Middle American Values,”
as John Tierney, the libertarian journalist, once wrote in the New York Times. And he didn’t write abstract, syrupy songs “of his nation’s, our nation’s ups and downs, possibilities and problems, breakthroughs and breakdowns,” as Robert Coles has it. He wrote songs that examined the lives of people who aren’t quite adjusted to “Middle American Values” – people who want to get to that place / Where we really want to go, but can’t, because they got debts that no honest man can pay.

What is it about Springsteen that his songs and image are fodder to be appropriated, twisted, and sculpted into something they are not? It might be his extraordinary popularity, or, maybe, his wonderful, often captivating talent, that brings out all the armchair psychologists and pundits and professional social commentators. But it might also be that his songs – prior to The Rising, anyway – weren’t preachy or polemical. They told stories simply. Unlike the songs of Woody Guthrie or Billy Bragg, they were free of political commentary or policy proposals.

Into this void of political content jump Robert Coles, George Will, Bernard Goldberg, and others. They want to explain the inexplicable: Who is Bruce Springsteen? In truth, just as there are millions of Springsteen fans, there are millions of Springsteens. Robert Coles says
as much, though he doesn’t seem to realize it, when he quotes Erik H. Erikson, the psychoanalyst, who tells him Springsteen is “in our personal lives, even while being a public figure: his way of behaving, talking and even walking, have another life in our heads … the many lives, thousands and even millions of lives, a certain kind of public person can have!”

Matthew Continetti is an editorial assistant at the Weekly Standard.