/ 29 March 2024

God with a battered Telecaster

Bruce Springsteen In Concert Foxborough, Ma
Dancing in the dark: Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band perform in Massachusetts in the US in August during their world tour. Photo: Lisa Dragani/Getty Images
God Edition

It’s an early Sunday evening at the start of July in Oslo. The drizzle has yielded to sun. Along with my girlfriend, a friend from my uni days and about 50 000 others, I’ve made my way to an outdoor sports stadium in what used to be the working-class heart of the city. 

Bruce Springsteen is in town as part of his 2023 world tour. And I’m there to worship. Like many other believers, I just call him Bruce — God hasn’t got a surname.

On that Norwegian summer evening, like every summer’s evening that I’ve flocked to a stadium with tens of thousands of others to lose myself in hours of the finest rock ’n roll ever made, it struck me that Bruce’s concerts are more than just musical experiences. 

They’re a form of communion, where the faithful gather in their masses to share in something sacred and give in to a wondrous collective effervescence. For a dyed-in-the-wool atheist like me, it’s certainly as close as I’ll ever get to religion.

As I stand there, I wonder why that is. What is it that makes this master purveyor of such a deliciously profane form of music so much like a deity? How does Bruce have this unique ability to offer transcendence to us believers?

The mighty E Street Band walks on stage and snaps me out of my musing. We cheer for each and every rock ’n roll brother and sister who appears before us. Each of them greets us. And then we cheer even more for Bruce, who comes on last. 

At 73, the man looks as sharp as ever in a short-sleeved black shirt, dark blue jeans and oxblood 1460 DMs (Dr Martens). He adjusts his battered Telecaster guitar and says hello to us in broken Norwegian. 

Then he and the band plunge into the first song of the evening and provide me with an answer of sorts to my questions: “‘Cause I got me a promise I ain’t afraid to make / My love will not let you down.”

Although I’m not a believer, I imagine that any God worth their salt must extend a promise of some kind of steadfast love — the unshakeable kind that offers redemption, no matter how dark the times, and no matter how lost we might be. Bruce’s music does precisely this, in a way that very few of his peers can match.

More than anything else, he’s able to do that because his craftsmanship is defined by a deeply empathetic ability to see the human experience. 

Since the release of Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. about 51 years ago, Bruce has woven a rich tapestry of stories, peppered with characters and lives we recognise. Workers and vagabonds; lovers and friends; dreamers and outlaws; the living and the loving ghosts of the dead. 

In Bruce’s songs, young hopeful rebels charge down highways that are “jammed with broken heroes”. They reappear, further up the road, chastened by time, to share with us their wisdom, born from life’s sweet little victories and its bitter defeats.

And, of course, there’s always Mary. One of her first appearances was on Thunder Road, the track which opens the 1975 masterpiece Born to Run. In that song, as a young woman, she danced like a vision across the porch as the radio played. 

In the early 2000s, when Bruce resurrected the E Street Band after a long hiatus, she was still there, a little older, hosting a humdinger of a party: “Familiar faces around me, laughter fills the air / Your loving grace surrounds me, everybody is here.” The song? Mary’s Place, of course.

Bruce’s stories are very specific to context: they’re quintessentially American stories. But still, most of us will have known, or even been, at least one of these characters at some point in our lives. This feeling of recognition cuts through the specificity of place, and with the feeling of recognition comes a sense of being seen. 

That’s where the steadfast love of his music resides — in telling us the lives we lead are seen and cherished and invaluable. That’s what Bruce’s refusal to let us down looks like and it’s one we can believe in.

There’s always been an element of anger in Bruce’s music, the kind of fierce, righteous anger that erupts when our loved ones are wronged.

It’s hardly coincidental that this strand of his craft became more pronounced during the 1980s. This was, after all, a decade in which the Reagan presidency widened what he calls “the distance between the American dream and American reality” in merciless ways. 

During that decade, Bruce expressed his anger through stories of construction workers who couldn’t find work “on account of the economy” and Vietnam veterans confronting the false promises of a country that had left them with “nowhere to run and nowhere to go”.

By the mid-1990s, the scope of these stories had widened. On the hauntingly beautiful album The Ghost of Tom Joad, the American working class he had sung about so often was still there, but it had been joined by migrants crossing the Mexican border at great peril to labour on the margins of the promised land. 

When New York police murdered unarmed Guinean student Amadou Diallo in 1999, he responded with American Skin (41 Shots) in which he indicted the deep structural racism of US society: “You can get killed just for living in your American skin.” 

Bruce revived this song in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder by George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood-watch volunteer in Florida, in 2012, and again when Zimmerman was acquitted the year after.

Bruce’s anger makes his seeing us even more real. I sensed this first-hand at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey in September 2012, when he unleashed Wrecking Ball ­— the title track of his then most recent album. It spoke to widespread sentiments in a society that had been rocked first by financial crisis and then the Occupy Wall Street movement. 

The song is an absolute banger that celebrates resilience and resistance in the face of parasitic capitalism. When Bruce belted out “Hold tight to your anger / Don’t fall to your fears,” the crowd roared like nothing I’ve heard at any shows before or after.

I saw something simultaneously different and similar four years later at Circus Maximus in Rome, Italy. “Wherever somebody’s struggling to be free / Look in their eyes, Ma, and you’ll see me,” Bruce sang, echoing and extending Tom Joad’s monologue in the John Steinbeck novel, The Grapes of Wrath

He sang the song at the request of Italian social workers he had met earlier in the day. There wasn’t a roar this time. Instead, there was pin-drop reverential silence in the ancient arena. But it spoke just as loudly about what Bruce makes us feel — seen, cared for, loved.

As the early Oslo evening turned to night, Bruce wrapped up the show with I’ll See You in My Dreams, an acoustic meditation on the passing of time and the passing of friends.

Many have commented this tour seems to be somewhat of a goodbye. Truth be told, there were signs that Bruce’s time, like ours, is finite. His step was a little slower and his hair a little greyer than last time. Instead of pushing toward four hours, the show was just under three. But I, like many others, batted these signs away. It’s not something we want to see.

“In my line of work,” Bruce writes in his 2016 autobiography, “you serve at the behest of your audience’s imagination.” And in our imaginations, we want Bruce to be forever. We need our God with a Telecaster up there, reminding us that he loves us, and exhorting us: “Show a little faith / There’s magic in the night.”

• Bruce Springsteen is on a tour with 52 concerts in 17 countries.

• Alf Gunvald Nilsen is a professor of sociology at University of Pretoria, where he is director of the Centre for Asian Studies in Africa.