President Barack Obama’s eighth and final batch of Presidential Medal of Freedom winners were honored this week, and it was a diverse bunch, from basketball greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan and legendary baseball announcer Vin Scully to acting giants Robert DeNiro, Robert Redford, Tom Hanks and Cicely Tyson. Bill and Melinda Gates got medals, as did Ellen DeGeneres, Diana Ross, Lorne Michaels of “Saturday Night Live” fame and several people who accomplished their feats without the benefit or burden of the celebrity spotlight. And there was Bruce Springsteen.
For me, Springsteen looms larger than all of them put together, and that should not be taken as a slight to their accomplishments. That’s just how big my regard is for Springsteen.
I, like most of America, didn’t discover Springsteen’s music until his third album, “Born to Run,” and it jolted me like a 90-volt transistor radio battery on my tongue. Until then, I’d been wallowing in the soft rock/disco swamp that constituted Top 40 music back then.
The songs at the top of the pop charts the week “Born to Run” came out at the end of August 1975 were, in order starting at the top, “Get Down Tonight” by K.C and the Sunshine Band, “Fallin’ in Love” by Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds, “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell, “One of These Nights” by the Eagles” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” by James Taylor.
And along comes Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” with its epic yet intimate tales of young people struggling to find their place in the world, a world in which cars seemed to offer the only escape from a dead-end life. I probably shouldn’t have felt trapped at that age and in my circumstances, but I did.
I was just about to start my first year of high school, which was 10th grade back then, and I was eight months away from getting my driver’s license. I’d been pumping gas at my parents’ Sinclair gas station since just before my 13th birthday, and if I hadn’t spent so much of my earnings on records, car magazines and junk food, I’d have had myself a pretty nice first car.
A 1963 VW Beetle was an OK start, not exactly the Springsteenesque rocket to freedom a guy might want, but it still made those lines from “Thunder Road” resonate: “Roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair; well, the night’s busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere.”
Springsteen’s next album, “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” came out as I crashed into the summer of 1978, a newly graduated kid who didn’t know where to go next. This album spoke to me even more deeply than “Born to Run.” I had thoughts of a life where I wouldn’t have to work so hard to get my hands clean, but on “Darkness” Springsteen celebrated guys like me, guys who knew exactly what Springsteen was talking about in “Racing in the Streets”: “I got a ’69 Chevy with a 396, fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor.”
By the way, I did not have to Google “‘Racing in the Streets’ lyrics” to come up with that quote. By the time I saw Springsteen live for the first time, on his tour for his next album, “The River,” I knew all the songs from “Born to Run” and “Darkness” by heart. And, it seemed like, so did everybody else at that concert. It was like going to church and everybody was singing along to their favorite hymns, only the hymns were written so there were places where you could catch a breath and in a key that worked. No hymnal required.
I saw two concerts on that “River” tour and they were like no concerts I’d ever seen before (or any I’ve seen since aside from other Springsteen shows). There was no opening act – that would have been cruel to put any other band in front of a crowd that just wanted Bruce – and Springsteen played longer and harder than any bar band in the land. This was no rock star going through the motions.
When I took my wife to her first Springsteen concert many years later, she was just as impressed as I was, even though she didn’t know all the words. He’s set a high bar, not just in the musical realm but in general for guys in their mid-60s. He’s still putting on four-hour rock ’n’ roll shows all these years later.
She also is ever-thankful to Springsteen for so many easy Christmases. Every classic Springsteen album reissue package or collection of outtakes or “Boss” book seems to come out just in time for the holidays, and she knows what this guy likes.
She already bought me Springsteen’s much anticipated autobiography, and it has a place of honor atop the bedstand pile of other rock bios I’ve been meaning to read. But before I get to Tom Petty, Neil Young and the Replacements, first I’ve got to read about Springsteen. First things first.
These days, there are many bands I listen to a lot more than I listen to Springsteen and I don’t always love every album he puts out. But he’ll always be one of my all-time heroes, even if all he ever did was create “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”
So on this day when the president has honored someone who means so much to me, I want to say something that people have said a lot out of spite but I say out of true appreciation: Thanks, Obama.
Rock on …
Randy Erickson covers arts and entertainment and county government for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at 608-791-8219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.