The Gospel According to 'The Boss'
Whenever my family entered a new stage in life, Bruce Springsteen's music was there for the journey.
Devotees of different religious systems often have truly amazing miracle stories to relate. Here's mine.
In the summer of 2004, my wife, Elizabeth, and I were nearing the end of our first full day as travelers in southeastern France. We were sitting in an ornately decorated dining room in a charming hotel on the main street in Corps, a small town about forty miles south of Grenoble, just on the edge of the French Alps. We had returned a short time before from a sometimes harrowing, always exhilarating, thoroughly rewarding excursion over about ten miles of arduous mountain roads to the shrine of Notre Dame de LaSalette, which sits perched on a mountainside about six thousand feet above Corps.
Now, having survived the drive down the mountain, it was time for dinner. At the shrine, we had heard good things from another American traveler about this restaurant in the village, at the Hotel de la Poste; we were not disappointed. For more than two hours, we luxuriated in the bounty of French cuisine: there had been escargots, and champignons, and confit de canard, rich chocolate desserts, and fine local cheeses. Now, sated and full, it was almost time for us to go, and as Elizabeth paid a visit to the powder room and I waited for our check over coffee, I happened to hear the music that was playing softly over the restaurant's speakers. It was Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia." I smiled, shook my head, and pondered how uncanny it was to be sitting here, in a small village, in this isolated corner of France, hearing my hero, Springsteen, coming over the speakers singing a song about Philadelphia, back in the States. Not Springsteen's most romantic song, I thought; but still, the irony was quite amazing.
As Elizabeth rejoined me, I called her attention to the music. We smiled and shared a little laugh as Bruce finished up the song. After a brief pause the next song came on, and in a few moments we were both in tears. That next song was "our" song (or, at least, the most recent incarnation of "our" song). It was Bruce again, this time singing "If I Should Fall Behind," a song we both love and had come to see as a symbol for us, of our marriage, our love for one another, and our common journey. "If I should fall behind," the singer asks his beloved, "wait for me." Wherever we travel in life—wherever life takes us—we will wait for one another and hold one another close.
It was a moment that could not have been scripted better. Here we were, traveling side by side on this trip of a lifetime—a trip we had talked about taking for so many years—celebrating the jubilee year of our common journey of twenty-five years. With us now was Bruce Springsteen, an unseen (but not unheard) traveling companion, singing about faith and fidelity and love and loyalty.
Bruce had been there for us before. On other critical milestones along our journey, he had provided vital notes in the "soundtrack of our lives," to use Dick Clark's insightful phrase. I can remember the first time I ever heard Springsteen's music. It was in the spring of 1976 at Elizabeth's senior prom at the Chateau de Ville supper club in Framingham, Massachusetts. The band played "Thunder Road," which had just been released a year or so before as part of the Born to Run album. We danced and danced, and one line from that song—"Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet"—seemed somehow so appropriate to the occasion that it carved a place into my memory.
We danced to other Springsteen numbers that night as well. I remember hearing the references to Crazy Janey and the Mission Man in his "Spirit in the Night," wondering if the parallels to the poems about Crazy Jane and the Bishop by William Butler Yeats were intentional. (I'm still wondering.) Soon Elizabeth and I were hooked on Springsteen, and in the spring of 1977, we celebrated her recovery from mononucleosis by going to see him at the Music Hall in Boston, back when he was still not quite a megastar and was still playing relatively small theaters and not huge sports arenas.
But the years intervened, and in time, we put aside some of the trappings of our younger, somewhat more carefree years. As family responsibilities and the raising of children came to the fore, our ardor for "the Boss" cooled somewhat, and the importance of his music receded into the background. The soundtrack faded to a soft background melody, though we did hold on to our old LPs and would take them out, dust them off, and play them from time to time.
But the notes of that original rendition of "Thunder Road" were merely lying in wait—waiting for a later, and even bolder, reprise.
It came as we were taking our oldest son, Micah, down to Baltimore to start his first year at Johns Hopkins University. Long car trips down the I-95 corridor of the American Northeast can be notoriously boring. By the time we reached the southern reaches of the New Jersey Turnpike, the miles seemed to be dragging along. The scenery consisted of toll booths and tarmac and taillights. There wasn't much of interest on the radio, and everyone else in the car seemed to have dozed off in the midday heat of late summer. Somewhere just before Delaware, I started rummaging through the cassette tapes we had brought along. I came across Springsteen's Greatest Hits, which I had bought a couple of years before but had played relatively few times since. The first song on the album was "Thunder Road."
Perhaps it was the pent-up emotion of taking my firstborn off to college. Or perhaps it was simply the monotony and exhaustion of a long car trip in the heat of summer. But all of a sudden, I found myself deeply affected by that relatively simple piece of music I had heard, no doubt, scores of times before. I felt goose bumps along my arm, tears welled up in my eyes, and my voice caught as I tried to sing along about a screen door slamming and Roy Orbison singing for the lonely.
Bruce was there, singing about graduation again—not graduation as a once-in-a-lifetime, here's-your-diploma, now-go-get-a job event. Rather, he was singing about the many, continual graduations we face whenever we leave behind the well-worn (and perhaps constrictive and grown-too-small) ways of the past and dare to enter a new stage in our lives.
Bruce was there for us as we made our journey to the next stage of our life.
He would be there again, about a year later, on the morning after we buried my father, and I drove home alone, after dropping Micah off at the Providence airport for his flight back to Baltimore. As I listened to the words of the song "Independence Day" from the album The River, Bruce was once again summing up for me the inevitability of the transition I was now facing. "Well Papa, go to bed now, it's getting late," Bruce sang, and I thought of my own father, now eternally at rest. There comes for all of us that "Independence Day" when those who have nurtured us and loved us will be no more and with whom our relationship, for good or ill, is now history.
Once again, the tears fell. They were tears of loss, but tears of healing as well. And I sensed again that power deep within us to transcend the inevitable pain and heartache of the passing years and to carve out for ourselves meaningful, fulfilling, and loving lives.