As a kid, there were three musicians or musical entities that I despised with almost no exceptions: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and the Grateful Dead. In Dylan’s case, I always liked “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” To give The Dead their due, I loved “Shakedown Street” and didn’t mind “Don’t It Ease Me In” and “Alabama Getaway” when they hit the airwaves in 1980. No matter what Springsteen came on the radio, I reflexively changed the channel.
Then, as the saying goes, I grew up.
But maybe it was more than that. For many years now, Dylan, Springsteen, and The Grateful Dead have occupied lavish suites in my musical inner sanctum, that holy of Rock holies where cherished bands and songs are housed. But with each of these Titans it took literal distance, as well as lived time, to prompt an epiphany, a profound “Aha!” moment when I finally understood the greatness of their music.
Surprisingly, it was Springsteen who broke through first.
Bruce Springsteen: “Born to Run”
As a kid growing up in the 1970s (I was 10 in 1977), I loathed Bruce Springsteen. My two favorite bands were The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, purveyors not only of Rock’s greatest songs but of its most ear-pleasing songs. I just couldn’t fathom what anyone heard in this raspy-voiced singer whose tunes all seemed to have glockenspiels pinging away in the background.
I remember how the older guys–16, 17 year-olds, the “big boys” to whom my friends and I looked up–raved about Bruce (and it was always “Bruce,” as if they actually knew the guy.) They went on about how he said so much in his songs and how I was just too young to appreciate him. And they all had this knowing tone of voice as they shook their heads, as if to say “one day, you’ll understand.”
You can see how a 10 year-old could only roll his eyes at such patronizing guff.
But even in my teens I couldn’t tolerate hearing Springsteen on the radio. In those days I listened to WPLJ, once New York City’s premier Rock station. As soon as I’d hear that telltale drumroll intro of “Born to Run,” I’d turn the dial like a motor reflex. I remember how Carol Miller, one of WPLJ’s most popular deejays and still a fixture of the airwaves, swooned over “Bruce” (once again, the first-person familiar.) She even campaigned (alas, in vain) to make “Born to Run” New Jersey’s state song. I just scratched my head.
I graduated college in 1989 and was commissioned a second lieutenant of infantry through ROTC. I had the luck to be assigned to the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks on Oahu. So now I’m 23 years old, a rifle platoon leader, and it’s just another sunny Saturday in Hawaii. I’m driving down H1 to Honolulu and the dreaded “Born to Run” comes on KPOI. For the thousandth time I reach for the dial but some mysterious force stays my hand and a voice tells me: “Wait, let’s listen to this song and see what it’s about.”
And suddenly I do! I start to really hear every beautifully turned phrase, every powerfully poetic emotion. I was astounded: waves of goose bumps rolled up my legs and arms (an impressive feat for a song when it’s 80 degrees out!) I understood in an instant how great this song was, how majestic this poet’s vision of life.
I didn’t even mind the glockenspiels.
And I’ve never looked back. Bruce Springsteen has become one of my favorite artists, his first four albums some of my most treasured, most listened-to, most lived records.
Maybe it took being away from home, along with some subconscious understanding that I was now on my own? Sure, I was still eminently in the U.S.–the familiar 3-lane, red, white, and blue-signed highway, windows down, a Rock radio station blaring. Breathe it in: America.
And yet I was smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, an officer now, on active duty six thousand miles away from Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan . . . and that opera out on the Jersey Turnpike.