Years ago I ended up at a San Francisco Water Department dinner with my father and an old neighborhood friend, eating in the back hall of a half-century-old Italian restaurant in the Excelsior. The room spilled over with thick-armed men who were union, white, and not bad-off and from whom I learned a thing or two about old San Francisco family names and accents that tell you if someone is from the Richmond, the old Castro, or Balboa. It was a return to the blue-collar 'Frisco that I was raised in: a posthippie, pre-dot-com city with a ubiquitous and at one time iconic KFOG, 104.5 FM, playlist composed of harder rockers by the Stones, Creedence, and the Beatles. My earliest memories of the city are tied to those songs, moaning from tiny car speakers, rattling empty cans of Bud, and wafting over garages that smelled of grease.
Yet there was one member of this blue-collar pantheon I could never get too close to. He was too bombastic. His character was too huge. Even before ingesting punk rock ideology via Maximumrocknroll and Epicenter, I felt in opposition to the stadium and the spectacle. Somehow I had internalized a belief that the Boss was my enemy.
Yet this year I found myself buying Magic (Sony), Bruce Springsteen's latest album, literally on sight. My teenage self would have been horrified to know that at 30 I would be purchasing a Springsteen record not in spite of the E Street Band but because of it, and that after listening to it again and again, my greatest criticism would be that it has too few Clarence Clemons sax solos. The truth is that I've moved well past being appreciative of the man and into the realm of the fan the kind who marks his Slingshot planner with the date and time tickets go on sale for Springsteen's latest tour.
As with many young men with elitist tastes, it was Nebraska (Sony, 1982) that broke me. With its high-contrast cover, four-track production, and the slap-back reverb echoing of Suicide, the album suggested an almost punk quality, and it subverted all of my assumptions about Springsteen's gross theatrics. Here was a serious songwriter with compassion for working people, concern for their dignity, and a subtle hint of darkness. Suddenly, I was listening, and, as I began to discover, so were my friends.
What surprised me most was the nonlinearity and consistency of his politics. Springsteen isn't partisan, pro-union, antiwar, or above it all. He's for ordinary people and their battles with life, injustice, and the institutions that seem set on killing their dreams, if not destroying the dreamers. It turns out that "Born in the U.S.A." isn't a nationalist anthem but an indictment. He takes on police, poverty, and racism with "American Skin (41 Shots)," whose title pointedly refers to the slaying of Amadou Diallo by the New York Police Department. Springsteen is a humanist who never wanted to choose sides in the process of choosing between right and wrong. Perhaps for good reason it's hard not to wonder whether Clear Channel radio stations' boycott of Magic isn't linked to his fateful decision to openly oppose George W. Bush during the 2004 election.
My slow-burning appreciation for Springsteen's moral and political iconoclasm wasn't what really set my obsession with him into high gear. It was the unexpected but inevitable emotional connection that grew. Before I knew it, I was sitting in the dark listening to The River (Sony, 1980) and crying to its titular masterpiece. Conversion is strange, and when a person goes from being outside the church pews to singing in the choir it's a hard thing to explain to anyone. I can listen to "Atlantic City," "The Promised Land," or even Magic's "Long Walk Home" and feel the agony of every person who's ever loved or lost.