The first hint I got that maybe I was missing something was when someone I respect arrived at a meeting in 2002 full of excitement at just having bought a copy of his new album, The Rising. Then I read an article about how in each city he visited, he would meet a local community organisation, then promote their work during his show. Finally I gave myself another listen and bought a cheap copy of The Essential Bruce Springsteen.
I was right, there was a lot of mess, but I'd grown up enough that I didn't need prog solos any more, and I could hear the horns and the singers doing their thing with a more trained ear. In the end, though, there were two things that drew me in.
The first was that simple word, "Mister". He uses it a lot. Tom Waits says every song should have a town, a street name and the name of a girl. What he might have been trying to say is you have to make it real. Springsteen does it with just that one word.
All those things that seemed so important,
Well, Mister, they just vanish right into the air
Now I act like I don't remember
Mary acts like she don't care.
He's not singing a song on stage to ten thousand people, he's talking to you, or someone like you, leaning on the back of his old beat-up car in the main street of an American rust-belt town. You can feel the rust and smell the smoke, you can see the stubble on his chin and the checks on the flanellette shirt. It's personal.
The other thing that got me was this beautiful performance of American Skin (41 Shots).
In 1999 New York City police fired 41 shots at a man named Amadou Diallo as he reached for his wallet. They swore they thought he was drawing a gun, and were acquitted of murder. Springsteen doesn't need to preach, he tells you this story.
41 shots and
Lena gets her son ready for school
She says "on these streets, Charles
You've got to understand the rules
If an officer stops you
Promise me you'll always be polite,
that you'll never ever run away
Promise Mama you'll keep your hands in sight"
Is it a gun? Is it a knife?
Is it a wallet? This is your life
It ain't no secret
It ain't no secret
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in
Your American skin