For the life of me, I can’t see why anyone under the age of, say, 55 would want to listen to Bruce Springsteen, never mind revere him as a deep and important artist, or pay upward of $200 to be crammed into a football stadium to attend one of his concerts.  Surely the only pertinent use for Springsteen was as an interim stage in rock music’s passage from tuneful banality to today’s relentless diet of screwed-up nihilism and phony salves.  His 1975 album Born To Run was perfectly timed for those of us coming to terms with the fact that the likes of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan had all either broken up or succumbed to self-parody.  Even then, it’s sometimes forgotten that many of the more artistically pristine reviewers savaged the record.  Springsteen was to earn the critical yappings and shin-bitings that invariably seem to greet a shamelessly commercial, and successful, product like Born To Run.  “The album is as stiff as a frozen mackerel,” said the supposedly influential trade magazine Creem.  To one British publication, “Most of the songs are clichéd, as if he wrote them to suit the bank manager . . . Hideous . . . The strength, spontaneity and visceral rush of the early music are gone.”  This was a theory heard frequently among Springsteen’s few but intensely loyal first-wave fans, who suddenly saw the masses coming up behind them, fast.

A third of a century later, Springsteen is out there again, stretching his stiff joints one more time into “Rosalita” and the rest, a synonym for nostalgia.  The crowds still pack the shows out of residual respect, if not awe, much as they might visit an historical monument, whatever its current state of disrepair.  In the Born To Run era, Springsteen’s live performances were famously free-form affairs in which he functioned as a sort of human jukebox, hustling out not only his own songs but a generous selection of covers of the likes of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.  Today, those moments of contingency and punch have long since been lost in what has become a tightly scripted recollection of youthful rebellion.  A significant part of the audience now experiences the Springsteen phenomenon by parting with the equivalent of a week’s salary for the privilege of aiming a pair of binoculars at a distant video screen.  The accompanying marketing blitz is robust, even by rock-music standards, and customers are invited to supplement their ticket purchases by buying everything from machine-signed lithographs to shot glasses.  With the exception of The Rolling Stones, nobody does decline-management quite like Springsteen does.  Perhaps as a result, he remains one of the half-dozen most consistently popular attractions in the music industry.  To put this achievement into context, one has perhaps to imagine how it might have felt if, in 1969, the year in which the young Springsteen burst onto the scene, the major box-office draws had been Rudy Vallee and other Jazz Age crooners who sang through a megaphone.

Springsteen was born on September 23, 1949, in Freehold, New Jersey, of Irish-Italian descent.  By all accounts, he enjoyed the classic rock-star upbringing, with a musical and endlessly indulgent mother and an embittered, fitfully employed father who banged angrily on the wall whenever his adolescent son practiced the guitar in his bedroom.  Springsteen survived rather than excelled at Catholic school and lasted only a few desultory months at the nearby community college.  A crisis presented itself in the summer of 1968, when he was turning 19 and was summoned to an Army conscription interview, with the prospect of an eventual posting to Vietnam.  Springsteen later said that he had beaten the draft by pretending to be a homosexual, but this was perhaps to exaggerate his own role in the proceedings.  According to the military archive, he was rejected because he was classified 4-F, physically unfit for service, as a result of having twisted his knee in a motorcycle accident.  Within a year or two, Springsteen had both a group, the E Street Band (named after the Belmar, New Jersey, address of one of their rehearsal rooms), and a recording contract.  Fame struck in 1975, with the release of the Born To Run album and single.  That October, Springsteen simultaneously graced the covers of Time and Newsweek, making him the first nonpolitician to receive the American media’s ultimate accolade, with much accompanying discussion elsewhere about his having singlehandedly saved rock music from its headlong decline into triteness and cultural irrelevance.  The two concerts he played later that year in London (which I attended) had the British music press stroking their collective stubble and writing headlines such as “Re-mythologizing Americana.”  They were fairly good shows, too.  I took to Springsteen because of his rather old-fashioned songs, his obvious sincerity, and his vulnerable, quirkily engaging look.  (He was wearing a hat the size of a throw pillow).  I felt that if I’d met him in school, I would have wanted to make friends with him.  He seemed at that time a serious working musician rather than the ritualized “Boss” to whom presidents would later pay court.

As Springsteen was to remark, “it couldn’t get any better” than was the case by late 1975, and it didn’t.  What it got, of course, was bigger.  After an acrimonious change of management, Springsteen emerged as a commercially radio-friendly recording artist—with no less than seven hit singles culled from his 1984 Born in the USA album—whose live performances saw him take the role of a massively amplified aerobics instructor supervising his stadium-sized class.  In just over a year, 5.2 million fans paid to see Springsteen’s shows.  President Reagan mentioned him in a speech.  When the tour ended, Springsteen married a model and sometime actress named Julianne Phillips.  He wrote a bittersweet album about their tempestuous marriage called Tunnel of Love and then, on the tour for the new album, his marriage falling apart, took up with his background singer Patti Scialfa.  Phillips filed for divorce in late 1988; after the divorce was granted in March 1989, Springsteen and Scialfa made the, to some, baffling decision to move to Beverly Hills.  (They would be married in 1991 while Scialfa was pregnant with the second of their three children.)  More shocking than even this apparent lapse in taste, perhaps, in 1989 Springsteen fired the E Street Band and went on tour with newly hired musicians.  Possibly as a result, he performed to empty seats for the first time in 15 years.

Since the mid-1990’s, there have effectively been two Bruce Springsteens: the aging frat-house rocker who, once again backed by the E Street Band, is content to recycle his former glories on a seemingly never-ending progress of the world’s sports arenas, and the “sawdust Steinbeck” who is known to sit in clubs with an acoustic guitar and rasp out ballads about hobos and the Great Depression.  Whether anthemic or not, Springsteen’s songs in general have a peculiarly clenched quality, in which the tune is a mere runway from which to launch toward the clear-sky freedom of a peak-volume chorus.  There is a kind of sameness even to his improvisations—a little singalong part at the start of a number to whet the appetite, then a choreographed audience participation section in the middle, typically light on melody but goosed up by a rhythm section that makes the likes of The Who or The Stones sound polite by comparison.  Now in its late middle age, Springsteen’s yowling foghorn of a voice is as extreme and powerful as any instrument you’ll hear on a rock-music stage, but his are not the sort of songs you hum to yourself on the way home afterward.

Notwithstanding his harmonic shortcomings, Springsteen has attracted an unusually devoted following over the years, as anyone who writes a mildly critical biography of him will find.  I took this path in 1999, and for my pains still receive a regular supply of fans’ indignant letters, not untypically composed in red ink and apparently written in short bursts of manic energy around the edges of the paper, so that often one has to turn the page through 360 degrees to read all of it.  Many if not most of the correspondents appear to be drawn to Springsteen as much as a political figurehead as a moderately gifted, industrious musician.  It’s a somewhat curious phenomenon, as Springsteen seems to me to have, at best, a kind of facile, adolescent knowingness, resembling nothing like proper, ordered knowledge, let alone the kind of instinctive wisdom one might seek in the leader of an international cult.  In 1976, a British journalist named Ray Coleman asked him if he were “politically minded” or “studied world events.”  “No,” said Springsteen.  He voted in his first presidential election in 1984, when he was 35.  Springsteen did, in time, proceed to a familiar litany of Republican ills, and, judging from his song lyrics, increasingly adopted a view of life in the late 1980’s as rigidly divided into rich parasites and jolly peasants.  This Manichean take on human nature still seems not to have made Springsteen a liberal in the ideologically pristine sense of the word.  Rather, he was romantically attached to certain personal principles that were not necessarily owned by the left or right.  After two terms of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Springsteen still felt able to insist, “I’m just a singer; I don’t get involved in that stuff,” when asked about his party affiliation.  Two weeks before the 1988 election, Springsteen remarked, “I’m not registered . . . I don’t think along those lines.”  As late as 2001, he told the London Times, “I don’t sit down and think, I’ve got a message or I’ve got something I gotta say about the state of the Union.”  He was, he added, “nobody’s poster boy.”

Indeed, in his belief in noblesse oblige and his frequently aired doubts about the usefulness or desirability of big government, Springsteen was, if anything, a Tory in the classic sense.  Around 1984, he began to include as a regular part of his North American concerts a brief appeal on behalf of the community’s nearest soup kitchen or food bank.  After the show, Springsteen frequently made time to advise the group’s local organizers on how best to proceed.  The director of the Seattle-based Northwest Harvest told me that he had been quite insistent about her seeking to “involve everyone who could conceivably help, including the indigent, and not just rock stars like himself.”  More a collection of neighborly gestures than a moral argument or philosophical narrative, Springsteen’s politics never really grappled with the question so often posed by commentators in the post-Watergate decades: “What’s wrong with America?”  It seems fair to say that for the most part Springsteen was content to leave formal policymaking of that nature to a brain trust composed of such formidable intellects as his manager Jon Landau and the sometime pop journalist Dave Marsh, and restricted himself to reading out their words when called upon to speak at an awards ceremony or any other public function.  When, on occasion, Springsteen did depart from the agreed text, his comments tended not to be distinguished by their Wildean wit or nuanced oratorical subtlety.  “Don’t vote for that [expletive] Bush,” he advised a concert audience in 1988, referring to that autumn’s election, having earlier endorsed Jesse Jackson for president.

In fact, driving any Springsteen biography worth its salt is the essential tension between the utopian political effusions and their practical implementation (or wretched distortion).  This, in turn, requires some acknowledgement of the humanizing contradictions that as a general rule apply to rock stars no less than the rest of us.  In September 1979, Springsteen broke off in the middle of a New York concert as part of the Musicians United for Safe Energy (or “No Nukes”) collective to harangue a press photographer named Lynn Goldsmith, who was standing in the front row of the audience taking pictures of him.  The couple had previously enjoyed a close social relationship but had fallen out.  Springsteen threw down his guitar, jumped into the crowd, grabbed Goldsmith, and manhandled her back onto the stage.  She told me that he had twisted her arm so hard that she thought it would break.  Springsteen then leaned toward the microphone, snarled “This is my ex-girlfriend,” and propelled her into the wings.  At that, various muscular representatives of the road crew escorted Goldsmith to the exit.  In the words of Rolling Stone, “After the show, a clutch of roadies could be heard shouting ‘macho Bruce!’  Several women standing backstage were shocked.  Goldsmith was intensely humiliated by the experience.”

In June 1984, Springsteen released Born in the USA, then set out on a tour in which he appeared in front of a vast diorama dominated by an American flag.  Twenty-five years later, he was to be denounced by a pop-eyed Bill O’Reilly on FOX News as “unpatriotic.”  Springsteen’s offense had been to remark of the veteran folk singer Pete Seeger, “He remains a stealth dagger to our country’s illusions about itself.  He sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we’d like to leave out about our history as a people.”  O’Reilly may have overreacted (a not-unheard-of development), but it does seem reasonable to ask whether Springsteen always takes his commitments to such causes as ecology and energy conservation, and indeed to the struggles of the working-class American, too personally.  Quite apart from the $14 million home in Beverly Hills, there is the fact of his apparently permanent concert tour, with its roughly 200 band members and their families, roadies, managers, and associated entourage, all of which requires electricity and transportation.  One might tentatively hazard the guess that Springsteen himself has access to a significantly larger number of high-performance vehicles than the average American and is also on terms of some familiarity with the concept of private-jet travel.  Earlier this year he incurred the wrath of organized labor by choosing to release his latest greatest-hits package through Walmart, a company not currently in favor with the AFL-CIO and similar groups.  Springsteen’s blue-collar credentials were most obviously challenged in 1991, when two former employees went to court to sue him for what one plaintiff described as “massive violations of labor laws which resulted in our being cheated out of hundreds of thousands of dollars,” a claim Springsteen contested and which was eventually settled without a trial.  Whatever the merits of that particular case, it might fairly be said that no one makes a living as an entertainer for 40 years, as Springsteen has, without a certain sense of resolve and an overall command of his organization.  His colleagues did not nickname him “The Boss” for nothing.

At 60, Springsteen remains a hard-working and commercially successful rock musician.  We do neither him nor ourselves any favors by seeking to elevate him beyond that.