When it began, early Bruce was an exotic figure — young and feral, with a wild mop of hair, a scraggly sailor’s beard and a fearsome, frenetic intensity. This was Gypsy Bruce, Boardwalk Bruce, car and girl obsessed, and Asbury Park to the core. He looked like something the cat might have dragged in, but instead decided that it should probably find a less unsavory trophy. With all the fashion making that was happening throughout the mid to late 1970s, the thirty-minute distance between the Newark PATH and CBGB may as well have been a million miles. Even as he was providing the actual songwriting ballast for hipster darling Patti Smith’s first hit “Because The Night,” he lacked the cachet of a true hero of the underground elite. Much like John Fogerty, another brilliant, populist hero that the crucial tastemakers of the of the day were astoundingly slow to embrace, Springsteen lacked the art school edge to scan as a part of the allegedly revolutionary Blank Generation crowd. Still, no doubt, he looked cool — like Desire-era Dylan by way of a Nathan’s stand. He had talent and energy to burn — James Brown energy. Lou Reed understood though, and brought the Boss in to do an unforgettable voice over on the classic degenerate opera “Street Hassle.”
Nothing in those early days suggested the possibility that he would quickly reimagine his image as a kind of Elvis-style matinee idol. This transformation began with the iconic album cover for Born To Run, wherein the music’s obsession with everything Phil Spector is visually rendered by Springsteen in full Rebel Without A Cause regalia, reclining with delighted insouciance, telecaster in hand, against bandmate Clarence Clemons. No less a New Jersey aficionado than Charles Bissell of the Wrens once recalled having this poster on his bedroom wall as a child and so imagining it as the embodied articulation of cool that he struggled for years to play a telecaster even though nearly every other brand of guitar suited him better. But the full flowering of Bruce as Greaser God came on the next album cover, for the masterpiece Darkness On The Edge Of Town, where his clean-shaven, leather-jacketed handsomeness threatens to promise more then any album could actually deliver. Fortunately, he had the goods to prove it all night.
The weirdness of Springsteen’s evolution into the ultimate, pumped up, Good Time Charlie avatar of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning In America” circa the 1984 release of Born In The USA was lost on practically no one, particularly the man himself. After the brilliant, novelistic digressions of The River and the utterly harrowing, bare bones acoustic menace of Nebraska, it was time for Springsteen to reassert his commercial might. Arguably, he did this too well, with Born In The USA becoming the kind of ubiquitous monster that brought millions of new fans into the narrative midway, with all of the attendant misunderstanding of what was mainly a withering arena-scaled critique of the country’s backslide into economic and social inequity. (One of those new fans was apparently Reagan himself, who decided to employ the title track at campaign rallies for his re-election before being pointedly asked to refrain by the decidedly progressive-minded Springsteen).
It may have all been fundamentally accidental — even regretted — but with its denim-clad, stars-and-stripes album cover, its upbeat-sounding songs of disappointment and despair, and its memorable videos featuring a grown-up version of Springsteen a million miles from his gutter rat beginnings, Born In The USA launched new universes of fashion trends and forays into the music of the “heartland.” It is almost impossible to imagine either the success of Tommy Hilfiger or New Country music occurring without this template. Almost definitely this was not the plan. But sometimes things get weird, and this did nothing to diminish the power of his efforts.
In the ensuing years, Springsteen has sensibly shied away from anything approaching an “image makeover,” instead becoming a remarkably astute exemplar of aging gracefully in this most graceless of vocations. Springsteen is fit and hale, but still willing to chug a random fan’s beer during an adventurous walkabout through his rapt stadium audience. He is professional without being overly careful with his politics and prose — “Wrecking Ball,” his 2009 tribute to the soon to be torn down Old Meadowlands, made the forsaken stadium a metaphor for all of America’s neglected institutions, and channeled lyrics one could easily imagine Bon Scott having written: “If you got the guts, Mister/ If you’ve got the balls/ If you think it’s your time/ Then step to the line/ And bring on your wrecking ball.”
Having fully realized the promise of his ability, and embraced the responsibility of his pulpit, Springsteen has passed into pantheonic legend along with the artists who first informed his work: Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson, and the other great soul icons, Woody Guthrie and Van Morrison, the Sun Records artists that inspired him to become a virtual fifth member of the Million Dollar Quartet. As you might expect to hear from a column like this, he has inspired many, many crafts. Lets have a look, shall we?
Start Crafting here.