Bruce and the Art of Rock ’n’ Roll Storytelling

Last Friday evening I was in the checkout line at a bookstore when something on the CD rack caught my attention: Springsteen on Broadway. I consider myself a huge Springsteen fan, but I hadn’t heard this legendary set yet, so without a second thought I picked it up, bought it, and put it on.

There are only three “real” ways to listen to Bruce Springsteen music. Anything less is sacrilegious. The first, of course, is live. A religious experience that speaks for itself, the Springsteen concert is still a Mecca in American rock music. The second is on vinyl. Just as classic novels are meant to be read from physical books, so too are great albums meant to be heard on vinyl. The third—my preferred sacramental form—is on the road.

The Broadway album contains sixteen songs interspersed with Springsteen narration that spans roughly two-and-a-half hours, so I had a lot of driving to do. While I listened to the Boss tell me about his childhood, his parents, his friends, his wife, and his music, I made a pilgrimage. First I drove around my hometown—a rundown, post-industrial, Midwestern tragedy right out of a Springsteen epic. Then I drove through my father’s hometown, where my parents met and where I, too, came into adulthood. Finally I drove around the hometown of my mother, who baptized me with my first Springsteen album, Born to Run.

In a 2009 interview, just before he played the Super Bowl, Bruce said he started writing music “to start a conversation with people about life.” As he told his stories to me during my car ride last Friday, I remembered mine, and we had a conversation about what we’ve learned from the world—from our beloved country, from our families, from our failures, and from our faith. We raced down the highway together, watched the working-class people downtown together, and even prayed together (no, really—the album closes out with an “Our Father” before “Born to Run”).

Above all, Bruce’s music reminds us what great rock ’n’ roll is and has always been about: the human condition. It’s an art of American storytelling, and nobody has done it better or longer than Bruce. The Broadway album slips seamlessly between song and speech, poetry and prose, narration and prayer. It’s passionate, vulgar, reverent, tearful, kind, angry, humble, proud, and funny. It is profoundly human, a feature that distinguishes great music from the profanely human music of lesser artists.

The great stories of rock capture the imagination and emotion of the common man. Rather than singing about fame and fortune, Bruce writes about the blue-collar working class in the factory, the garage, and the bar. These are not, as he confesses in his Broadway monologue, his experiences, but the experiences of the people he admired—especially his father, whom he struggled to understand. By writing about the struggles of the working class, Bruce was able to come to understand and appreciate the world he grew up in and push to change it.

Ultimately his story has been one of sin and reconciliation—to both his earthly and heavenly fathers. It is a reminder that our lives, no matter our calling, have purpose and direction, and if we pursue them, our lives become a “long and noisy prayer.” Though our hearts at first feel “born to run,” they eventually lead us back to a “land of hope and dreams” that was never very far from home at all.