Taking the Boss for a Bruising

I have always loathed Mr. Bruce Springsteen. And it is more than just having the Boss hanging around, bossing around my radio airwaves for decades and decades. Not so much the music I loathed, but his fame (especially this crap about him being the Boss). Not so much his fame but the people who made him famous, that is, his fans and his fawning critics. Not so much all fans but just the few that I have known over the past, say, 30 years. They were all people full of passionate intensity, and as W.B. Yeats wrote, they are the worst kind of people (compared to the best, who lack all conviction, I guess). Maybe not so much full of passionate intensity, because I am one of those big, bad, willful people, too, and the truth is my reaction to these fans and the fawning critics has always been a little too strong. In fact, I have always kind of admired Bruce Springsteen, but the real truth of the matter is it all got ruined for me a long time ago.

In the new century of exclusion (as opposed to inclusion), membership still has its privileges. For that reason, I endorse the BMG Music Club, of which I am now a member, and now I bring to you critical news of what landed on my doorstep, "The Essential Bruce Springsteen." The triple-CD collection of basic Bruce, of course, for the most part, nobody needs, except for the 12 bonus tracks, which most true fans will find to be รค um, essential.

My loathing of Springsteen goes back to those so-called Glory Days at my high school (Chaparral, Scottsdale, Arizona, class of 1978), and a girl I was secretly in love with named ... Now, like most of the femme fatales in a Springsteen song, she was not the prettiest girl in school. But I never went for the kewpie dolls anyway (and they never went for me). It was all made more complicated, though, by the fact she was ... was ... that's tangential, because we were all dazed and confused, listening to the Who, Genesis and Pink Floyd.

Now, at that time, I was a total Anglofile. In fact, I still believe those Brit bands of the 1970s != your Led Zeppelins, your Yes men, Your Genesi (with Peter Gabriel), your Crimson Kings != were pretty much the final angel prophets of our time sent to gong the electronic trumpets of the Apocalypse for the generation before it all went down ... Like I said, dazed and confused.

So when this girl, now an old woman, old as me, at least, chirped in that the only true god was this wannabe Elvis they called "the Boss," well, it just ran against my doctrine at that time. Then she said he was the sexiest man alive, and so I was jealous, and that was simply more than I could take.

No more. As this essential set reveals, Bruce is all about passionate intensity and there's nothing sexy about it. Rather than polishing the sacred gemstone of stoned souls or wooing the ladies with the Elvis routine, Bruce plundered the depths beneath the dark cities of the American dream, finding not so much light down there, but dignity. A lot of it.

Probably the best thing about this triple-CD isn't the music at all but the collection of the lyrics of all of his songs in a single booklet. His words can stand alone. With passages too numerous to write down for these purposes, his lyrics transcend the last decades of the 20th century. His words come across like political propaganda, too; but no, what I mean is this: Bruce has been used, quite incorrectly, it seems, as political propaganda.

Which brings me to another one of those Springsteen fans whom we all used to call the "human storm cloud." I just didn't like this guy, we didn't get along at all, since he was my boss, and it did not help that the real ascendant rock God by the mid-1980s was U2.

Nevertheless, in the 1980s, somehow, the song "Born in the USA" -- even though it chipped huge chunks out of the self-assured armor of the American century -- somehow (I guess it was just those Teflon times) became the anthem for the Reagan Era. Read these lines and explain the fallacy of this reading by the masses:

Born down in the dead man's town
The first kick I took when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that's beat too much
Till you spend your life covering up
Or this:

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I'm ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain't nowhere to go

Reading these lines, I just don't feel so lucky being born in the USA. I wonder if I'd have been better suited as a Tibetan monk ... or a Vietnamese fisherman (another story there, too).

My old hated boss later moved on and became some kind of Las Vegas gambling guru, last I heard. I bet, though, that for a time he lost touch with the Boss, as we all did. Springsteen entered a period of contemplation and resignation and happy family life. As other bands such as REM and U2 went on to conquer the world, Bruce descended into the "Tunnel of Love," penning somber folk songs about the interior lives of quiet, little, marginalized people. Except for a few exceptions, his music was no longer the soundtrack, the background music, of our lives. It was more like the museum of our lives.

Which is perhaps why I stopped hating him so much. Until Monica. Now, the person I am referring to is not a real person. In the 1990s Monica, a character on the show "Friends," was the fussy girl. I have no idea what the actress who played her, Courtney Cox, is really like. I think she's really hot, as kewpie dolls go. However, I always identified her with Bruce Springsteen because she was basically discovered when she was brought on stage to dance in that horrendous "Dancing in the Dark" MTV video.

Now, Monica was a clean freak character on the show, of course, and there lies the rub for myself: Clean freaks are the most controlling, manipulative, contradictory, conspicuous consumers on the face of the earth. All of that soap. Chemicals in the home that will give you cancer. Bug killing agents with fumes that you soak up yourself. And paper, tons of paper. And trash bags piling up in small mountains worldwide.

So there was Springsteen, contemplating his folksy navel in the older-is-wiser middle-age years of the 1990s. Meanwhile, squeaky clean Mall America became the safety zone for all of this poisonous whitewashing of the landscape. The Boss was too focused on decrepit street folk and dignified bikers on the fringe to really spend much time on the Monica virus.

Just as a bizarre composite of consumerism was moving into the far corners of China -- forget about compromised Ohio -- just as the Internet gold rush was taking place; the I-am-the-Walrus marketing guru was climbing into the pilot seat of Air America; just as Deadhead stickers were stuck on Cadillacs; just as Las Vegas was remade into an All-American Disneyland for the kids and folks, well, the Boss was plain missing from his throne.

Even worse, while on tour during the past few years, his old fans, his constituency, the common man, needed to apply for financial aid to see his shows.

If you look at the demographics of this nation, the common man could only marginally afford to enjoy Bruce Springsteen as an American Natural Resource. As one of the richest entertainers on an annual basis, he is actually a major Third World Nation now, asking for a handout. Oh sure, this has really nothing to do with the quality of his work but the fact is that after the lilting eulogy to AIDS victims in the song, "Philadelphia," Springsteen waited until after 911 to resurface as, well, himself. That is, the Boss. Except, the song, "The Rising," still sounds like a lot of foaming at the mouth as it plays to the culture of vengeance as hip.

But now that the Bank of America logo is tattooed on the ass of pretty much everybody's favorite pop star (even U2 has caved, pandering to the marketgeist by co-branding a song from its new album to also help sell iPods), Mr. Springsteen is just another voice in the wilderness of big, bad money. Too bad he couldn't have found himself sooner, like say, 1996. All I know is my BMG Music Club is charging me $29 for this triple-CD set, which I am glad enough to own, not that I am not sure if I can afford that. Probably have to send it back.

In the meantime, I will e-mail some of his best lyrics of the past to people I love, miss, friends like that Courtney Cox or a holographic Monica will be interested enough to call. Or maybe even the Boss, finding the true connection to the real common man, no Woody Guthrie style bullshit here, will pen an anthem about some idiot driving a Humvee to the cleaners around the corner.

Finally, you might ask, do I recommend this, based on the quality of the bonus tracks? Well, maybe. Depends on your station in life. I would just hate to think about what kind of soul-wrenching experience it would be to find out what it costs at the mall, or to learn what mass production on this scale really costs; in terms of the paper, the CDs, the electricity to burn it, the bottom line for the record company, the publicists, the marketing, distributors, retailers and so on, in order to repackage the non-bonus CDs. Apparently, the Boss was one of the first of his generation to DIY these early recordings and sell them on his own. Now that was a beautiful idea. Now that was essential. Now that was what it was really like to be born in the USA.

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