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Staying sane through the pandemic with Bruce Springsteen

Cultivating a Bruce Springsteen obsession was not on this writer’s lockdown agenda. But the pandemic had other plans

Before I knew it, my phone’s playlist knew nothing other than Bruce. There was an album for every pandemic mood. Photo: Getty Images
Before I knew it, my phone’s playlist knew nothing other than Bruce. There was an album for every pandemic mood. Photo: Getty Images

In the waning minutes of this year’s Super Bowl, Bruce Springsteen appeared in a commercial for a US auto manufacturer in which the septuagenarian rocker brooded against a heartland Kansas backdrop, pleading with Americans to come together at a time of heightened political polarisation.

Diehard fans believe Springsteen sold out by making his first-ever product placement. Progressives found his emphasis on “meeting in the middle” not only grating but downright blind to America’s social and racial fault lines. Conservatives saw it as a hit job by a known Democratic partisan to rally support to the winning side.

Here’s what I know: Springsteen may be solely responsible for preserving my sanity during our covid-19 quarantine.

On the first day of our interminable hibernation, my wife, two children and I made a collective lockdown “to-do” list: family movie nights, cleaning the attic, dealing with overdue home repairs. We even discussed recording a family song, with each of us playing an instrument. With weeks, or possibly months, of indoor activity staring us in the face, we needed a plan. Suffice it to say, cultivating a Bruce Springsteen obsession was not on the agenda.

My personal goal was to read more. Working at home for the foreseeable future with our two dogs meant two hours a day of dog-walking around our Washington, DC neighbourhood, to tackle audiobooks.

My first foray was Bruce Springsteen’s 2016 autobiography, Born To Run. I downloaded it not out of desire, but guilt; my sister-in-law had gifted me a hard copy but after struggling through the first chapter, I set it aside. But there was something about hearing Springsteen narrate his life story—his battles with depression, the stories of forgotten American men and women, and his political activism—that struck a chord with me in this bizarre pandemic age. Soon, I was making excuses for extra dog walks just to sneak in another half an hour with Bruce.

Truth be told, I was never a big fan. My first encounter with Bruce was Friday Night Videos, the now defunct television show my mom—a fellow music lover—and I watched in the mid-1980s. Sandwiched between Madonna’s Material Girl and Phil Collins’ Easy Lover, I recall watching Springsteen’s famous Dancing In The Dark video, in which a young Courteney Cox shimmied with The Boss on stage.

Over the next few decades, my mind rarely turned to Springsteen. Yes, I recall singing my heart out to Born In The USA along with the rest of America, oblivious to the fact (also like the rest of America) that this was not a jingoistic paean but an angry anti-war anthem. But little else registered. To my grade-school self, Springsteen was, well, what old people listened to. He was a product of the 1970s, trying to stay relevant in the 1980s, stumbling towards the synth rock era of the early 1990s.

As a 20-something student watching the horrors of 9/11 in real time, I did feel compelled to buy Springsteen’s The Rising—songs inspired by that fateful day—at a Philadelphia record store, driven by the romantic notion that my generation finally had its very own musical statement, just as an earlier generation had had Marvin Gaye’s Vietnam-era What’s Going On. But though I enjoyed the album, I felt no inclination to go further.

So, it came as something of a shock that, upon finishing Springsteen’s autobiography, I punched his name into Spotify and began raiding his back catalogue—starting from Springsteen and the E Street Band’s 1973 debut, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. Before I knew it, my phone’s playlist knew nothing other than Bruce. There was an album for every pandemic mood. For joyous moments, Born To Run. For sombre ones, the cinematic arrangements of Western Stars. For intense periods of work from home, the minimalist Nebraska. Springsteen even dropped a new album in the middle of the pandemic, Letter to You, almost like he intuited that I had developed an appetite that could not be satiated.

Having worked my way through the entire catalogue multiple times over, like an addict desperate for a fix, I scoured YouTube for his most legendary live shows. Hammersmith Odeon, 1975. The Roxy, 1978. New Year’s Eve, 1980 at Nassau Coliseum. LA Sports Arena, 1988. I even claimed the obscure, album-ending Valentine’s Day—from 1987’s Tunnel Of Love—as my personal Springsteen hymn.

As American politics turned sideways and my consternation over the state of democracy boiled over, social media, friends and family had no answers for what ailed America. Instead, The Boss would be my guide. With his controversial song about the 1999 New York police department shooting of Amadou Diallo, American Skin (41 Shots), Springsteen foresaw the police violence that rocked Summer 2020. In The Ghost Of Tom Joad, a tune about economic hardship inspired by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath, he addressed the same dislocation the pandemic had induced. And there was 2007’s Long Walk Home, a song whose lyrics explore social turmoil in George W. Bush’s America but could just as easily have been written about the Donald Trump era.

My family grew increasingly worried about my obsession. My wife muttered that even though she too loves Springsteen, I was ruining it for her by playing him 24x7 on my tinny iPhone speakers as I mixed cocktails, prepared meals or vacuumed the floors.

However, my obsession would eventually seep into their heads, if not their hearts. Our nine-year-old daughter penned a song she sings each night after I tuck her into bed—an odd hybrid of Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) and the horn arrangement from Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out. Our older daughter amuses me in the evenings with an air guitar routine as Bobby Jean or Badlands play as I tidy up the kitchen. This year, my birthday coincided with Inauguration Day, where Springsteen opened up the evening’s festivities. We watched on television as Bruce—just miles from our house—stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and belted out Land Of Hope And Dreams. Just weeks after the 6 January insurrection, here was Springsteen staring down the National Mall towards the desecrated Capitol, offering words of solace.

As our home internment dragged on, my younger daughter and I developed a routine of sneaking outside for an afternoon game of catch. I would trudge out with my baseball mitt, my phone tuned to the E Street station on satellite radio. One day, as we tossed the ball back and forth, the opening chords to 1977’s Because The Night—a Springsteen song made famous by Patti Smith—wafted into the air. “This is my favourite ‘Steen song, Dad. Can you turn it up?” she asked. I stood dumbstruck, fumbling with my phone’s volume button while trying to conceal my delight. Nearly one year into quarantine, we still haven’t gotten around to performing that family song. But we don’t need to—we have Bruce now.

Milan Vaishnav (@MilanV) works at a Washington, DC think tank and listens to way too much Bruce Springsteen.

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