When a young Bruce Springsteen was setting out on a life in music, he would little have imagined that people would still be making rock’n’roll at the age of 65.
Yet as Bruce qualifies for his bus pass, millions of people will be toasting The Boss – a nickname he has always disliked – as an artist who has stayed as vital and as relevant today as he was when his first record was released in 1972 (the year I was born, as it happens).
As a teenager looking for escape from both small town drudgery and a domineering father, Springsteen was inspired, amongst others, by Tyneside’s The Animals, describing them as “a revelation, the first records with full-blown class consciousness that I’d ever heard.”
Aiming to bring together the spirit of ‘60s soul records with the more complex songwriting emerging at the time, he got his break when he was signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond (who had earlier discovered another of his heroes, Bob Dylan). Yet his first two albums flopped and his career was only saved by a song he later described as “my shot at the title – a 24-year-old aimin’ at the greatest rock’n’roll record ever.”
To many, Born to Run is exactly that, a story of urgent young love set to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and an unforgettable guitar riff. It sounds as exhilarating as when it was first released nearly 40 years ago, and from then on there would be no going back. Born to Run made Springsteen a superstar, and though legal wrangling kept him out of the studio for the next three years, he used the time to write and record hundreds of songs from which he chose those that reflected a new and deeper approach.
Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) was “tough music for folk in tough circumstances”, songs about ordinary people forced into extraordinary choices. The hardships of life under Reagonomics also informed The River and Nebraska - a set of home demos he’d been carrying around in his pocket and released after deciding the E Street Band couldn’t do them justice.
Born in the USA carried on the approach of documenting the lives of the working man, but also set Springsteen on the path to world domination, selling 30 copies, spawning a record seven singles and bringing The Boss to Tyneside for two sell-out gigs at Newcastle’s St James’ Park.
“We expected excitement, emotion and rock’n’roll, and we got it,” said The Journal’s review. “And we got a lot more besides in a performance that reached the sublime in part one before achieving the ecstatic in part two.”
As a 12-year-old whose musical tastes had moved on from The Wurzles to The Police, the gigs passed me by: I’ve been kicking myself for the last 30 years.
I became a Springsteen convert shortly afterwards and can clearly recall many of my Bruce moments: getting Nebraska and Darkness on the Edge of Town out of Fenham Library and copying them onto two sides of a C90; buying the Live 1975-1985 triple album from the mezzanine music department at WH Smith’s old Eldon Square store; making sure the first CD I ever bought (from Gojo Records in Hexham) was Bruce’s Tunnel of Love.
My chance at redemption came in 1996 when Bruce – estranged at the time from the E Street Band – announced a solo show at Newcastle’s City Hall. It was in never in doubt that I would bunk off work and queue round the block for a ticket. Hundreds of others were doing exactly the same.
When the concert came round it was dark and brooding and when someone asked for asked for old favourite Thunder Road, he said “I ain’t playing that old bastard.” But it was a compelling performance and even being in the same room as Springsteen would have been enough. If he’d played songs from the shows on a kazoo I would have been enraptured.
What makes Springsteen so special? I like lots of musicians and have everything that, say, Elvis Costello has committed to tape. But I could probably hold a conversation with him and most of my other favourites while Bruce would doubtless reduce me to a gibbering wreck.
Part of the appeal is the effect his music made on me as a teenager. To a shy, short, ginger lad in the west end of Newcastle, songs about car races and copping off with great beauties under the boardwalk were improbably exciting.
Yet he was also singing about the sort of people I knew and did so entirely without cynicism. He has never shied away from the harder side of life, singing about illegal immigrants and people tempted into crime and showing the human side of people so easily categorised, pigeonholed and dismissed. He has always offered hope of a better future for people who worked hard and did the right thing.
He still does, by the way. The Rising, his 2002 response to 9-11, and Wrecking Ball, inspired by the economic downturn and the damage it wreaked on ordinary people, stand comparison with anything he released at his commercial peak.
The latter also brought him back to the North East and – at last – I got to hear someone say: “Ladies and gentlemen...Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.”
June 21, 2012 saw Springsteen play to 50,000 people at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light. Three hours of good tunes ended with an encore which surpassed my wildest dreams: Born to Run, Hungry Heart, Glory Days and Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out. On the Metro home, my friend and I struggled to know what to say. We knew that if Springsteen – then a relatively spry 62 – brought his band to the North East every 28 years, we might never see such a gig again. But we had been there this time and it was wonderful.
I honestly believe that most of life’s dilemmas can be solved by asking: “what would Bruce do?” That is because it is another way of asking “what’s the right thing to do?” or perhaps: “how can I be the best person I can be.”
So happy birthday, Bruce, and thanks for all the songs. Long may you be Born to Run.