There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence--depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse--our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.
William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book XII
I wear two hearing aids, I have glaucoma and gout, and I write occasional book reviews for The Spectator. I’m 58 years old. Should I be a prisoner of rock and roll?
I first saw Bruce Springsteen in 1975, at Hammersmith Odeon, when he was hailed, to his annoyance, as ‘the future of rock and roll’. I was 17 years old. His stuff was written for me. “Baby, we were born to run”.
Forty years later, I find his stuff is still written for me, even though getting up is hard enough, let alone actually running.
Those who don’t get ‘The Boss’ (he got the moniker at a very early age not by way of music but because he was a demon Monopoly player) tend to stereotype a typical Springsteen fan as a once-youngish white male on the cusp of collars between blue and white, with perhaps an overdeveloped love of hubcaps or twin stroke engines (whatever they are), and certainly a deeply outmoded approach to women. It is true that – pace Sarfraz Manzoor - most Springsteen fans are white. Otherwise they are more diverse a group of people than you will find at any other gig.
Age does not seem to be a factor; class does not seem to be a factor; sex does not seem to be a factor; dress is not a factor; nationality is not a factor. The only unifying factor is the Boss himself.
This is going to sound mawkish, but one of Springsteen’s abilities is to ennoble the mawkish, so: Springsteen’s fans love him. It is not the love of the teeny bopper, not the love of the obsessive, it is the love of a figure, a sound, that has remained not simply constant, but constantly good through all our lives. Springsteen is a consoling force, an example of moral virtue in an age of relativism. One may agree or disagree with his politics, but it is impossible to deny his decency.
For some this is expressed by his liberal deeds, for others his lyrics affirm it, but for most it is the experience of a Springsteen concert that seals the deal. There are no fancy light shows, no following spots, no explosions, no dancing girls. There is a band, and there is the material the band plays, and that is it. What the audience is given is unfiltered. The songs, which on the whole are fairly musically unsophisticated, are, like hymns, easy to sing, and so the concert invariably becomes a shared event. We’re like a choir. Enjoyable, undoubtedly, as this is, it is not merely enjoyable; it is, as hymn singing is, an act of praise. Springtseen’s lyrics are often informed by Biblical imagery, by notions of faith and sinfulness, and he employs the rabble-rousing rhetoric of the Baptist preacher to spur his band and people on. He is a witness, we are witnesses.
All this might sound phoney, but the ironies are understood by band and audience alike, and in a godless world, at the very least an agnostic one, Springsteen offers rock and roll as a redemptive draught. We all know it is momentary. In Springsteenian terms that moment usually lasts upwards of four hours.
At the recent Wembley concert I found myself weeping. This has happened before. I struggle to explain it to myself. The loss of childhood is involved, and a sense of one’s mortality; there is a consciousness of the loss of innocence; and the presence of excellence is moving in itself. The songwriter has said that his best work is sparked by the friction between pessimism and optimism. This is perfectly exemplified in the early and ever popular ‘Thunder Road’, recorded as a rocker in which he and his girlfriend are ‘pulling out… to win’, but performed almost always solo on an acoustic guitar or piano, with accompanying melancholy harmonica. Springsteen too has a lost youth.
There is also this acute awareness of being not merely distracted or entertained or informed, as, say, by Eddie Izzard or Elvis Costello or Ian McEwan, but rather as living in a Wordsworthian ‘spot of time’. Bruce Springsteen indeed has a ‘renovating virtue’.
In a way this is of course laughable, because apparently pretentious, but if spots of time do exist then why shouldn’t the Boss be a cause of them? Perhaps it is just me. I do have others, of course – spots of time, that is - and there is no guarantee that next time round he’ll have another such effect. The truth is that my sobs (ok, it is sometimes more than a mere weep) are for the huge ineffable sadness of things, and the paradox is that being at a Springsteen concert also makes me very very happy.