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The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen

Jeffrey B. Symnkywicz
Westminster John Knox Press, 197pp

The Gospel According to Bruce SpringsteenIn a business frequently characterised by irresponsibility, selfishness, greed and hedonistic excess the US rocker Bruce Springsteen has always been a beacon of virtue. In his work he has explored issues of justice, freedom, hope and redemption. In his personal life he has appeared to be self-controlled, unpretentious and caring.

He's long been a supporter of good causes from Amnesty International and Artists Against Apartheid to War Child and the Rainforest Foundation and has used his power as one of the world's premier rock stars to make audiences aware of moral issues.
Raised in blue collar New Jersey, he has always been particularly concerned about the stifled potential of the ordinary working person. As a passionate believer in innate human dignity his fiercest criticism has been directed against those who dare to defile or cramp that dignity.

This theme was explored most comprehensively on Darkness At the Edge of Town, the album which portrayed the lives of small town people condemned to lives of mundane ritual. Some of them accept things as they are, 'and start dying little by little, piece by piece.' Others head for the edge of town determined to pierce the mystery of the darkness. They go 'racing in the street.'

The car in Springsteen's songs was always more than a machine to get you from A to B or even a private space for illicit sexual relations. It was a means of grace. It could take you on the road to the 'promised land.' In 'Thunder Road,' the opening track of Born to Run, he admits to his girl that all the redemption he can offer 'is beneath this dirty hood.'

His vision has deepened but not changed over the years. He no longer uses the car metaphor so glibly and is more likely to recommend family, community, love and the pursuit of truth as means of restoring dignity and hope. There's more to salvation than simply pressing the accelerator down and turning the radio up.

Like artists such as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye and Bono, Springsteen has always couched his search for meaning in biblical language. He appears to feel that when the questions being dealt with are that big the words used have to have a corresponding majesty. So Springsteen is a fertile subject for anyone looking for hints of divine longing in popular music.

Having said that, Symynkywicz, a long time Springsteen fan, takes a rather ponderous approach to the Springsteen canon. Rather than isolating the grand themes and showing how they have been worked out over the decades he talks us through his recorded output album by album, song by song, from Greetings from Asbury Park to Magic. There's very little supplementary material about his beliefs taken from events in his history or interviews that he's given. It's all down to Symynkywicz telling us what Bruce is really saying.

Frustratingly he doesn't give us much of a glimpse into Springsteen's personal belief system. We know that he was raised in the Catholic faith, but what type of Catholicism was he exposed to? How devout was his family? Was there a time when he lost this faith and, if so, how did it come about? Surely a book about Bruce's 'gospel' should have come up with some revelations here.

This means it's a pretty slow ride, more 'Radio Nowhere' than 'Born to Run.' For example, he takes over a page to tell us what's happening in 'Racing in the Street,' all of it delivered in a rather po-faced style that is in direct contrast to the spirit of the song. It would have been quicker just to listen to it.

Springsteen sings 'I got a '69 Chevy with a 396/Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor/She's waiting tonight down in the parking lot/Outside the 7-11 store…' Symynkywicz interprets; 'At the outset the song's narrator seems to have it all together; in the object of his '69 Chevy he evokes a perfectly controlled universe. Not only does the car have every accoutrement one could want in such a vehicle, it has also been built ex nihilo, as it were, by the owner himself, exactly to his own specification…' etc., etc.

I've got nothing against a bit of lit crit applied to the humble song lyric. I've been known to do it myself. But I think a bit of zip needs to be injected to keep the attention of an audience in love with the subject because of its drive, excitement and passion.

Symynkywicz is good at noticing what Springsteen does well. He correctly identifies his belief in the glory of what it means to be human and his frustration with the forces that limit our potential. Yet he seems to be so in awe of the Boss that he never challenges his conclusions.

I've always felt that Springsteen's shortcoming is his failure to ultimately go beyond saying that we shouldn't submit to thinking small and that we should grab life with both hands. It can often sound like 1950s positive thinking theory in a pop cultural disguise. It is inadequate because it doesn't take the fall seriously enough and offers a heaven that is no more than wishful thinking.

Symynkywicz's acceptance of this may result from his Unitarian Universalism (he is a UU minister). According to the religion's website, it has no doctrine or dogma and believes that we should each find the spiritual path that is right for us. In other words, the good news of UU is that we're all on the broad road to salvation. Springsteen's lack of defined theology and his belief in pushing forwards towards some vaguely defined 'glory day' is clearly compatible with the UU view of life.

In his song 'Land of Hope and Dreams' Springsteen took the familiar gospel train metaphor from the spirituals but made room on board for everybody. Symynkywicz comments, 'All must be saved if there is to be any hope for any of us. And all shall be saved if we hold steadfast to our faith in the ability of men and women to take care of one another, stand by one another, and help one another to heal; if we remain committed to our hope and our vision of the more glorious land that can be.'

I think Springsteen has given a great gift to music, and to us as listeners. He has offered a very necessary corrective in a world of diminished dreams and damaged humanity. He just needs pushing to find the truths that would give substance to what are otherwise doomed to be no more than informed hunches. The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen could have done that, but it didn't.

Steve Turner