The Gospel according to Bruce Springsteen

Claudio Zonta SJ

 Claudio Zonta SJ / Culture / Published Date:5 November 2018/Last Updated Date:28 July 2020

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The existential, Christian journey of American singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen is traced through his complex and vast discography in a recent publication by Luca Miele, a journalist of the Italian daily newspaper Avvenire.[1] In five sweeping chapters – The Land of Dreams; In the Name of the Father; The Tunnel of Love; The Rising; In the Belly of the Whale – he shows how “The Boss” has tried throughout his artistic career to penetrate and understand the social and human reality of the United States, using existential concepts that echo some biblical themes.

Miele stresses that this is the start of a journey through his songs, highlighting evocations and suggestions that link up with Gospel culture, which are reread and reinterpreted by the famous American singer.

Leaving the land

La Civilta Cattolica

As a singer-songwriter, Bruce Springsteen’s songs are like a coast-to-coast road trip with sporadic stops in lonely places where the earth is lashed by wind, where we meet his characters walking toward a dreamed-of destination, fleeing toward an undefined future (Straight Time; Highway 29) and traversing physical and existential frontiers (Across the Border). The protagonists of his songs embrace a condition of exit and exodus. This existential dimension recalls the exodus from Egypt by the people of Israel, who crossed the borders of Canaan and other neighboring places in search of a land where they could finally find peace. Journeying on, for Springsteen, possesses a symbolic value: it holds together the physical reality of fatigue and the uncertainty of a journey with an existential experience of escaping from oneself, of the search for a self that is too often elusive, or the quest for a “Beyond” that reflects a continuous tension between immanence and transcendence.

The musician’s quest even dares to scramble into apparently tight corners. For example, in the song Human Touch: “Ain’t no mercy on the streets of this town / Ain’t no bread from heavenly skies / Ain’t nobody drawin’ wine from this blood.” This text, as Antonio Spadaro has suggested,[2] presents a rejection of transcendence through “the inversion of the Eucharistic image.” At the same time it is pervaded by a sense of immersion in a reality where the anchor of salvation will be union, the outcome of movement toward another.

The contradiction of relationship

This journey to a Promised Land (a song on the 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town) also contains moments of fragile rest, instances that involve looking unmasked at one’s own deep relationships, especially at the contradictory paternal figure. Miele states: “All ‘Born to Run’ is a struggle, with and against the father. Young Springsteen’s struggle to escape the father figure’s grip – and the demon who possessed him” (p. 23).

The figure of a missing, absent, often depressed father, permeates Springsteen’s songs, for example Adam Raised a Cain; My Father’s House; Used Cars; and Mansion on the Hill. From the title Adam Raised a Cain, the reference is totally biblical, and the verse “He was standin’ in the door, / I was standin’ in the rain,” shows an original and irreconcilable tension not only between a father and a son, but also between the Father and the actuality of human sin.

One has the feeling that the fragile and contradictory nature of the paternal relationship results in a sense of sin that is impossible to wash away definitively. This song, in fact, opens with a baptism scene, but it fails to have the effect of purification as the faults that affect father and son are not remitted; the figure of the father conveys sin, which becomes the mark of Cain: “The ‘father’ does not guarantee salvation; behind him we cannot glimpse the shadow of Abraham who finally, hearing the word of God, spares Isaac” (p. 27).

Though this paternal relationship is suspended in a dynamic tension, it is also capable of openings or glimmers of light, as in the song Living Proof. Here we can see a change in image with regard to the father figure, perhaps because when Springsteen wrote the song he himself experienced becoming a father. This generative event, as is often emphasized in biblical anthropology, is not only capable of overcoming anger, frustration and despair, but of provoking a profound vital impulse: “Well now all that’s sure on the boulevard / Is that life is just a house of cards / As fragile as each and every breath / Of this boy sleeping in our bed / … Looking for a little bit of God’s mercy, / I found living proof.”

Solitude and the sense of the double

As is apparent from his extensive back catalog, the tones with which Springsteen colors his research are never explicitly defined, but they include numerous nuances that are sometimes difficult to separate. The songs are thus transformed into passages of self-reflection, which he uses to investigate himself: a “self” that includes the abyss of darkness, the somber colors of the night, crisscrossed by lightning and foreboding. The musician’s inner being becomes a battleground between angels and demons.

It is worthy of reflection that Tunnel of Love followed the immensely successful Born in the USA. This album with its persistent rhythms, catchy melodies, which is saturated with energy and anger, represents the American singer’s umpteenth change of artistic direction, this time toward the deep sea of ​​his own being. In this new phase, coinciding with his marriage crisis, he employs country music, which is a new musical style for him, and an introspective, crepuscular and bare style of writing.

It is the way to isolation, to dead ends and lost ways; in the Tunnel of Love album he sings of “men (and women) who discover that their identity is something friable, that their ego is inhabited, besieged, edged, and haunted by doubt” (p. 45). The war this time is not directed toward the outside, but ad intra: it is an internal, personal clash with the doubt that can rage violently and cynically.

The theme of the double, of the fragility of the ego, is highlighted in the song Two Faces, while the protagonist of Cautious Man has the word “love” tattooed on his right hand, and “fear” on the left, without knowing which will prevail in his life. However, in the Tunnel of Love album the characters are fighters, even in their ambiguity and fragility; they do not abandon the battlefield when confronted with the awareness of an indefinite and uncertain outcome.

September 11, 2001

Springsteen has traversed America’s recent history with his rough voice, the edgy sound of his Telecaster guitar, and his songs composed with just a few chords that nonetheless touch the heart. The dramatic events of September 11, 2001, are reread musically by Springsteen in the album The Rising where, with humility and energy, he tries to give a fullness to a disconcerting void, full of anguish and pain. The Boss enters the inner core of this drama, crossing the abyss of evil to seek a sense of new hope: “Death does not saturate the entire poetic horizon of The Rising, horror does not completely sequester it” (p. 56).

In view of such a painful event, the community dimension takes the place of individual introspection. The fall of the Twin Towers thus becomes the open wound – “The sky was falling and streaked with blood” – and the dust and the fire are the companions of this horror. But in all this hell there are also images of a sacrificial ascension. This is embodied by the rescuers who rise higher and higher in the Towers, going in the opposite direction to all those who are fleeing from horror and pain, descending from the buildings.

In the songs Into the Fire and The Rising two individual factors appear who carry the sense of community on their shoulders: they are baptisms in fire, which take and give back light, turning the fire of hatred into a light of sacrifice. The firefighter in The Rising prays: “May their precious blood forever bind me / Lord as I stand before your fiery light.” Only in this way is it possible to sing the refrain “Come on, rise up” from Into the Fire, recalled in different terms by the whole song My City of Ruins, which is a hymn to getting back up and rising together again.

Christ-like figures

During this last decade, Springsteen’s record production has seen another change of themes, especially in the albums Magic (2007) and Wrecking Ball (2012). Here we witness Springsteen’s writing “becoming sharp, allegorical, overflowing with images and figures, condensed in the wrecking ball that breaks down the stadium and cancels the ‘glory days’” (p 71).

In these albums there is a sense of instability, of a fall, of an abandonment directed at society and the American dream. The lyrics include terms indicating a sliding downward toward darkness, of a drifting, a sense of death that grips and chases the various characters (Gypsy Biker, Devil’s Arcade). However, this is not a cosmic, all-encompassing pessimism. In I’ll Work for Your Love, faith and hope are conveyed through the dramatic situation of a woman who faces her personal Calvary, whose ribs are like the Stations of the Cross, while a light defines a halo about her head, and drops of blood fall.

The Christ-like imagery expands, reflecting the relationship between human suffering and that of Christ on the cross – “And I’m just down here searching for my own piece of the cross – looking deep into the human abysses for the light that allows us to get up and embrace the complexity of life.

* * *

These are just some of the themes dealt with in Il Vangelo secondo Bruce Springsteen (The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen) by Luca Miele. The author’s achievement lies in his highlighting and linking, throughout the American singer’s many songs, those themes and thoughts that have a direct relationship with the human spirit and that are reflected in biblical tradition. The citations and translations of numerous important verses of Springsteen’s texts are ample and exhaustive. Bruce Springsteen continues to be a tireless singer-songwriter of the American dream: a dream that includes the many uneasy lives of men and women who, on their road, are often touched by God in a silent way.

[1] L. Miele, Il Vangelo secondo Bruce Springsteen, Turin, Claudiana, 2017, 81.

[2] A. Spadaro, “La resurrezione di Bruce Springsteen,” in Civ. Catt. 2002 IV 14.