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A Saint in the City

Nobody tries harder, and less persuasively, to be an everyman than Bruce Springsteen does.

BERTRAND GUAY / Getty Images

“He is the rare man of sixty-two who is not shy about showing his ass—an ass finely sausaged into a pair of alarmingly tight black jeans—to twenty thousand paying customers.” This panting observation about a rock star was committed by the editor of The New Yorker. I miss Eichmann in Jerusalem, almost. David Remnick’s 75,000-word profile of Bruce Springsteen is another one of his contributions to the literature of fandom. Once again there is a derecho of detail and the conventional view of his protagonist, the official legend, is left undisturbed. It could have been written by the record company. The interminable thing is an inventory of Springsteen (and rock) platitudes, punctuated by the fleeting acknowledgment of a dissent about the deity, but much more interested in access than in judgment. “Springsteen Survives,” the cover of the magazine triumphantly proclaims. Survives what? When Remnick turns from reporting to commentary, the earnestness becomes embarrassing, which is to say, fully the match of the earnestness of his subject: Springsteen’s new album, he patiently explains, is “shot through with a liberal insistence that American patriotism has less to do with the primacy of markets than with a Rooseveltian sense of fairness and a communal sense of belonging.” Just wrap your legs round these paperbacks. And Remnick is not alone in his articulate swoon. In The Atlantic, in another one of his exercises in stenographic journalism, Jeffrey Goldberg accompanied Chris Christie to a Springsteen concert and recorded the boorish governor’s frenzy and its repercussions for contemporary conservatism. “We are in a luxury suite at the Prudential Center—the Rock—in downtown Newark, the sort of suite accessible only to the American plutocracy.” The lucky Jew! Then Christie “loses himself.” “The fist-pumping governor seems uncontainable.” “Bringing him to a Springsteen concert is an exercise in volcano management.” It is an unpleasant thought, as Christie’s ass is not at all finely sausaged. Goldberg wishes also to establish his own demotic credentials. “I’ve spent much of my life as a pro-Springsteen extremist,” he boasts. “If the E Street Band at full throttle doesn’t fill you with joy, you’re probably dead.” Goldberg is alive. And so, apparently, is David Brooks, who recently began a column with this tasteless remark: “They say you’ve never really seen a Bruce Springsteen concert until you’ve seen one in Europe, so some friends and I threw financial sanity to the winds and went to follow him around Spain and France.” Your tax cuts at work! The lesson that Brooks learns from the popularity of Asbury Park so far away from Asbury Park is “the tremendous power of particularity.” “Don’t try to be everyman. … Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial global community. Go deeper into your own tradition.” It is an ancient point, often made about Joyce and Faulkner and Sholem Aleichem; but a fine point. The problem is that nobody tries harder, and less persuasively, to be everyman than Bruce Springsteen.

Do these men have ears? The musical decline of Bruce Springsteen has been obvious for decades. The sanctimony, the grandiosity, the utterly formulaic monumentality; the witlessness; the tiresome recycling of those anthemic figures, each time more preposterously distended; the disappearance of intimacy and the rejection of softness. And the sexlessness: Remnick adores Springsteen for his “flagrant exertion,” which he finds deeply sensual, comparing him to James Brown, but Brown’s shocking intensity, his gaudy stamina, his sea of sweat, was about, well, fucking, whereas Springsteen “wants his audience to leave the arena, as he commands them, ‘with your hands hurting, your feet hurting, your back hurting, your voice sore, and your sexual organs stimulated!’”, which is how you talk dirty at Whole Foods. Remnick lauds him also for his “exuberance,” which is indeed preternatural. I was twice at The Bottom Line in August 1975 and I have never been in a happier room. But there is nothing daft or insouciant, nothing crazy free, about Springsteen’s exuberance anymore. The joy is programmatic; it is mere uplift, another expression of social responsibility, a further statement of an idealism that borders on illusion. The rising? Not quite yet. We take care of our own? No, we do not. Nothing has damaged Springsteen’s once-magnificent music more than his decision to become a spokesman for America. He is Howard Zinn with a guitar. The wounded workers in his songs do not have the authenticity of acquaintance; they are pious hackneyed tropes, stereotypical class martyrs from Guthrie and Steinbeck. Springsteen’s sympathy is genuine, but his people are not. His 9/11 and recession songs are bloated editorials: “where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” His anger that “the banker man grows fat” is too holy: “if I had a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight” is not a “liberal insistence.” I prefer Dodd-Frank. The drawl in his voice is a production value, the grit a mannerism. A few minutes with one of Johnny Cash’s last records and it is impossible to take Springsteen’s vernacular seriously. A few minutes with Lucinda Williams (who is perilously close to becoming a prisoner of her own mannerisms) and the costs of preferring sermons to experiences are clear. When was the last time Springsteen wrote a song as moving and true as Alejandro Escovedo’s “Down in the Bowery”?

It is one of the duties of rock n roll to create nostalgia. There is a bliss that only the sounds of one’s youth can provide. (For me, it’s been downhill since Dion.) Springsteen worship is a cry against the clock. But rock n roll has played also another role in American life, which is to prove that Herbert Marcuse was right. There will be no revolution in America. This society will contain its contradictions without resolving them; it will absorb opposition and reward it; it will transform dissent into culture and commerce. Marcuse’s mistake was in believing that this is bad news. It is good news, because we will be spared the agonies of political purifications. But it is also comic, as protest songs become entertainment for the rich, and Bruce Springsteen the idol of the elite. The New Yorker clinches it: he is the least dangerous man in America. “With all the unrest in the world,” as Tony Curtis once said to Marilyn Monroe, “I don’t think anyone should have a yacht that sleeps more than twelve.”