Bruce Springsteen turns 70 today. It’s hard to think of another rocker of his age who is still so close to the top of his game: no semi-retirement with occasional fanbase-only comebacks, he’s still putting stuff out regularly that seems to be accepted as culturally relevant – and is still recognised as one of the best live acts around.
I heard Roger Daltrey on the radio years ago, saying that one of the greatest failings of rock’n’roll is that is hasn’t properly addressed getting older. That might be mostly true; but I think one of the many reasons for Springsteen’s enduring appeal is that he has managed to square that circle. Not overtly as such (although, controversially, some of my favourite songs by him come from the Tunnel of Love to Lucky Town period when he very deliberately turned to the compromises and revelations of adult life), but it’s there in the meaning between the words. Springsteen has said that from 1975’s Born to Run onwards, the fundamental questions of his work are, “What do you do if the dream doesn’t come true? What happens then?” And indeed, even as a young man, the characters in his songs weren’t idealised rock’n’rollers or eternal teenagers; they were just people (often men but not always), travelling through their lives and trying to deal with what the journey throws at them.
So why is a storyteller writing about this? Well, because part of what gives Springsteen’s work real power is that in those fundamental questions, he is addressing the central myths of modern Western society – maybe human society as a whole. Myths as in the narrative by which we understand the world, the symbols by which we construct our story of who we are. Springsteen looks, uncompromisingly but kindly, at the fault lines that tell us, “Maybe the narrative doesn’t hold up, maybe the story isn’t true…” And if it is not true, what are we left with? Who are we after the storm?
But the real majesty – or the magic trick, as Springsteen himself has started calling it – is that he somehow makes us feel there is a reason to believe after all. That we can make it through, despite the clear impossibility, that we can get to the Promised Land, through faith in each other and in our better angels – and through the blazing, ephemeral promise of rock’n’roll. He both critiques and reaffirms that great Western (universal) myth that popular music represents in all its multifaceted forms; I myself, through many years of enjoying his songs and performances, have realised why I, a man pushing 40 and a father of two with a mortgage and a day job, still find rock music so exhilarating and vital: it’s because it sounds like freedom. Not from my life, not at all, but from the outside forces that drag us down. A freedom you can believe in and that we can all share.
Bruce Springsteen and the Holy Grail. A storytelling performance years in the making, coming to you soon – watch this space.