I DON'T BELIEVE IN JESUS—but I believe in Bruce Springsteen.
All my life I've heard people preach the gospel of both notable figures—their eternal relevance, their compassion, their dashing good looks in a pair of torn Levi's and a leather jacket (okay, maybe that was just Springsteen)—but neither resonated with me. That was until a handful of years back I found myself at rock bottom, swallowed whole by an eternal void and emptiness that longed to be filled. But there was a book, a single book that understood my pain, the vacant feeling festering inside, and it gave me the answers that I so longed for. That book was the liner notes inside Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, and upon first listen, the clouds parted, a miracle occurred, and I was baptized in the holy water of the Jersey Shore.
I was saved.
Much like the Son of God, splayed on a cross, Springsteen is a rock deity of iconic stature. His words, his message, and his actions have blurred over time as his devoted followers continue to glorify certain achievements endlessly (see Born to Run), while unnecessarily justifying others ("Hey, Human Touch wasn't so bad"), and standing up for an era when The Boss was donning a bolo tie (Tunnel of Love). Religion is all about context and zeal, and it's hard to not twist the very words of "Thunder Road" until they represent escapades of your reckless youth, right down to the rippling dress of Mary as her screen door slams. And the zeal, well, that comes easy when your messiah is a showman from the Jersey Shore who draws you in with a carnival barker's yell, and holds you close like a lover beneath the dim lights of the pier.
And like the carpenter from Bethlehem, Springsteen is a miracle worker—still somehow able to top the charts even as an elderly rocker, even in an era where people have ceased purchasing music—who shies away from claiming his existence is perfect. His catalog is littered with poor decisions (Lucky Town), questionable directions (sporting a look we will refer to as "Papa Grunge" in the early '90s), and losing a hit song to the satanic clutches of Manfred Mann's Earth Band ("Blinded by the Light"), but still, the man has prevailed. He has maintained his relevance because his followers are devoted.
There have been Deadheads, Parrotheads, and the screaming girls who faint when they see Paul McCartney on Ed Sullivan—but nothing compares to the followers of The Boss. They lack a clever title because unlike certain demographics with unifying taste in music, fans of Springsteen are just people. Mill workers, students, stock brokers... it doesn't matter. He spoke to the downtrodden bar rockers in Asbury Park in the '70s, the pop radio boomers seeking an anthem in the '80s, and in the '90s he... well, okay, he didn't speak to many in the '90s, but the man's message continues to resonate once more with the kids today.
He's the icon that fuels everyone from the Hold Steady to Bright Eyes to Arcade Fire, an essential element of music in the past, present, and future. Fans have clutched Springsteen close to their hearts since the early Stone Pony days, through the lineup shifts and turmoil, because in him, they see themselves. Even at the height of his popularity, when Born in the USA felt like it could topple Thriller as the ultimate statement of '80s pop perfection, he was just like us, and we all knew that we could be just like him. The man's ragged gospel reached the people and spoke to them—the young and old, the rich and poor, the rural and urban—in a way that no one else could.
Like any good messiah, whether on a cross or on a stage, Springsteen is surrounded by his disciples. The man is only as good as his surrounding cast, and the E Street Band has ascended from the realm of nameless backing bands lurking behind a known singer (Quick: Name two members of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers? That's what I thought.), as a group with nearly as much recognition as the man they support. There's Little Steven Van Sandt, Max Weinberg (the man responsible for Conan O'Brien's rimshots), Springsteen's wife Patti Scialfa (no, he didn't marry Courteney Cox after pulling her from the crowd in the video for "Dancing in the Dark." They just danced. In the dark.), and the loveable Clarence "Big Man" Clemons. A rock enigma for numerous reasons, Clemons is an exception to the rule that an obnoxious, long-winded sax solo does not belong in rock 'n' roll—it does, but only for him. Also, it needs to be noted that the E Street Band has a few other nameless members, but some disciples are best left unnamed. I mean, really, when you look at "The Last Supper," can you name everyone there?
Springsteen is our very own American Jesus. He's outspoken, supports the downtrodden worker, and can—although this has yet to be proven by modern science, or fact—cure lepers with a delicate stroke of his guitar-playing hand. Springsteen represents all that is romantic about this country (fast cars, hometowns with tiny American flags in their lawns, freedom), and none of what is not (greed, war, the Bush administration). He does this without ever pandering via soulless Chevy truck commercials (hey Mellencamp, I'm looking in your general direction), or changing his message as he's aged.
In fact, modern-day Boss is more subversive than The Wild, The Innocent Springsteen of the early '70s. He went from being vaguely political to hitting the campaign trail, and from supportive of progressive causes to active in them. With the exception of Neil Young (AKA Canadian Jesus), Springsteen has aged as gracefully as any artist or prophet could hope. When he dies, there'll be no resurrection. No three-day weekend spent eating Easter marshmallow peeps and waiting for him to return, for his legacy lies in songs that will never get old. Music that will never tire.
Boss bless us all.
Bruce Springsteen performs at the Rose Garden on Friday, March 28.