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My fanatical attachment to Bruce Springsteen features no road-to-Damascus conversion, no single, sudden epiphany that clarified his unique importance in my life (though "Blinded by the Light" would appropriately accompany such a revelatory moment). No, the connection evolved -- as all healthy, viable relationships must -- changing as we both moved through young adulthood into maturity and middle age, altering with time and new circumstance. If my ardor continues to wax and wane, however, it never entirely disappears, and every (maddeningly infrequent) new release reawakens my borderline-obsessive interest (Tracks, his recent four-CD boxed set of studio outtakes and B-sides, has played continuously at home and in the car since its purchase, as my wife will peevishly attest).
Bruce first bubbled up in my consciousness in 1975, during my early college days, with the release of Born to Run. Although I was aware of the simultaneous Time and Newsweek cover stories and his "New Dylan" rep -- a millstone hung on Springsteen by Columbia Records -- it was a rapturous review in Rolling Stone, then my musical bible, that sent me off to Peaches to buy the record. The album's glorious, aching romanticism and dramatic Wall of Sound layered density kept it distorting my cheap speakers and shaking the walls of my room for months -- the needle cutting especially deep grooves into "Thunder Road," "Backstreets" and the title track -- and I soon headed back to the store for The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, with "Rosalita" and "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" receiving most of my rapt attention. A Christmas present of Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. -- with its naive but exuberant Dylanesque wordplay -- eventually completed my collection, but then the long wait was on: Trapped in a protracted court battle with his former manager, Mike Appel, Springsteen didn't release another work until '78.
The album birthed after that lengthy gestation, Darkness on the Edge of Town, moved me from interested admirer to committed devotee. Shifting away from grandiloquent epics of runaway teens and rumbling gangs, Darkness began Springsteen's continuing exploration of the thwarted ambitions and hardscrabble lives of the working class, not only digging down to his own family's roots but also widening his perspective to include characters whose adolescent dreams of escape have taken them down dead-end roads, slamming them into a hard, unforgiving wall of desperate anger. The record affected me profoundly by articulating the feelings of young-adult angst I was wrestling with in my own life. More significantly, Darkness -- and Springsteen's subsequent work -- helped remind me of (and keep me true to) my own blue-collar origins, from which college and my career path were rapidly distancing me. This class consciousness, this keen sense of empathy with the have-nots (despite his own obvious transformation into one of the wealthiest of haves), is Springsteen's greatest gift to us: Through his closely observed narratives on such albums as The River, Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, he forces us to remember those whom society too often deliberately forgets.
However dark the pitch-black night of his most powerful songs, Springsteen shines a hopeful light that's generated by the rock & roll energy of his blissfully raucous concerts. 1978 also provided my first opportunity to see Bruce live, an ecstatic experience that left me wrung out and delirious. Springsteen shows are legendary for their white-hot intensity and marathon duration -- I've seen him eight times during the last 20 years, most recently during the acoustic Tom Joad tour, and never once felt disappointed -- and that first in-person experience further strengthened an already-powerful bond.
The abiding connectedness that fans develop toward Springsteen -- a phenomenon thoughtfully examined in a new book, Daniel Cavicchi's Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning among Springsteen Fans (Oxford University Press, 222 pages, $18.95) -- is unique in the ephemeral world of pop music. Although others have sustained similarly long careers, only a handful of rock artists -- Dylan, Lou Reed, Neil Young and Paul Simon spring to mind -- have remained as vital as Springsteen, and none has so closely traced the same arc of growth as his audience members, reflecting their concerns and sharing their feelings. As Springsteen explored romantic disillusionment (Tunnel of Love), marital fulfillment and parental joy (Human Touch and Lucky Town), and societal discord (The Ghost of Tom Joad), his fans -- particularly those baby boomers who have followed him throughout his 25-year career -- felt a special kinship because so many of us were dealing with the same issues, coping with the same problems.
Springsteen, unlike most rock stars, was then, is now and will be forever one of us. And that commonality, that oneness with his fans -- with you and with me -- is what ironically elevates Bruce and makes him a genuine hero.