Ah, Boss, Ah Humanity
A couple of years ago, on a warm summer night in Syracuse, I was outside a supermarket having dinner while the classic rock playlist churned along. I had known all of these songs for most of my life, but I was currently between lives. I was moving to Brooklyn, to a new one. The rent and stakes would be higher. Then came a song that was probably the Bruce Springsteen song that gave me the most pleasure of all of them, though I had not thought about why. Not until then.
I have never written about Springsteen before, so I’ve been a holdout in my profession. I was a Rolling Stone subscriber starting at age 10, in 1983. When Born in the USA came out the following year, it wasn’t an album. It was a coronation. It wasn’t just five stars. It was the second coming. Step aside, Dylan, Beatles, Jesus. This was it. He sang with a southern accent, but he was from New Jersey. What was up with that? I was living in Dallas. Why would someone from up there want to sound like he was from down here? I bought the album and spent a lot of time with it. I did not love it and—may I be struck down—I still don’t. It was musclebound and announced, I am a hero. My heroes were not jocks, and if they were, they had to be twice as good to do anything for me. They did not pump their fists into the air. I also did not like the way the album sounded. The gated reverb drums on something that is supposed to be denim and authentic did not sit well with me. I did not get the irony of what the title track really met—thanks, Reagan campaign—but I wasn’t really curious about it, either.
The years would go on, and sometimes, a random Springsteen track would come along that made me more curious—“Tunnel of Love,” and, looking back, all of Nebraska. The Springsteen I liked had some edge, the edge that came out of Dylan and was passed on to Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, among others. As a radio song, I was always happy to hear “Hungry Heart.” When it came on, it was pure euphoria. I would pump up the volume and sing along. But did I really know what I was singing. I later learned that Bruce doubted himself a lot, not something you’d expect from a titan who gave four hour concerts at Madison Square. But he had gone through clinical depression. He was also close to his mother. Ah, Bruce. When I was a kid I thought Springsteen was Springstein, a member of the tribe. It gave me hope that I could grow up and beloved by ladies, too.
Springsteen is not a member of the tribe. But he is something. And that night at the outdoor tables at Wegmans, shortly before my escape, on comes “Hungry Heart,” and I felt the rush that I had always felt. Then I really listened to that voice. That voice was in pain. That voice was desperate. This was someone who fell in love, knew it wasn’t going to last, felt broken and desperate and then linked himself to humanity while making us think this was joy.
Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back
Like a river that don't know where it's flowing
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going
Everybody's got a hungry heart
Everybody's got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Everybody's got a h-h-hungry heart
We are Jack. We are the other guy at the bar listening to this. We have hungry hearts, too. But this is Bruce’s story, Bruce’s tear in his beer, or this character who is telling a stranger about abandoning his family. The heart is always hungry. It is insatiable. It is bottomless. Keep feeding it, and it will keep demanding. More. I need more. This guy is not Bruce. He is an invention for the song, a guy who left his family and didn’t look back, a very un-Boss thing to do. By the way, I love this song, but Bruce is not the Boss of me. Maybe he’s something better than a Boss—a guide, a vessel. You can’t fake pain. You can, but most of us can tell the difference. There is pain in that voice, and from that pain comes a hunger. It is undeniable.