Last night, I decided to download a comprehensive album of Bruce Springsteen’s music. I had just listened to his latest album, Western Stars, and then one from the pinnacle of my youth, Born in the USA. I had a sudden urge to hear “Hungry Heart”, and rather than fetch my iPod or move up to my office, where my whole, vast musical collection is stored, I decided to just order another Springsteen compilation. Bill and I sat there and listened in our German Eckbank Gruppe (corner booth) and I was suddenly transported to my 14th year.
When I was fourteen, Springsteen was at the top of his game. I got my dad to buy me his Live 1975-1985 box set for Christmas. I had it on cassette tape and, along with Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms album, I used to wear out those cassettes, riding my bike to and from the barn where I boarded my horse, Rusty. It got to the point at which I had the whole box set memorized, right down to the stories Springsteen told about facing the Vietnam draft, and fights he had with his father over his rock n’ roll lifestyle. I was definitely a true fan.
As the years passed, I stopped listening to Springsteen so much, especially when his sound changed. I think it happened in the early 1990s. I was in college and had started discovering new music, thanks to my stint as a radio DJ and unofficial music studies. The faculty members of Longwood University’s music department kindly gave me the opportunity to study voice privately and join their auditioned choir, The Camerata Singers, even though I wasn’t a singer until I came to college. Being in a choir and studying voice introduced me to music I had never heard. I had limited time and even more limited funds, so old interests went by the wayside. Prince, another one of my obsessions during adolescence, suffered a similar fate. I stopped listening to him at around the same time I quit listening to Springsteen.
When I got older, I had more time and more money… and I started listening to and buying those old albums I missed. Last night, as I heard Springsteen’s familiar, evocative lyrics, and the familiar cadences of his best known songs. I was suddenly reminded of being fourteen, in the traumatic tempest of adolescence. I remember fourteen was a particularly stormy year for me. I was a bucket of emotions. One minute, I was cracking off-color jokes. The next minute, I was in tears for some reason. People literally thought I was crazy. The evidence is in the inscriptions left in my yearbooks.
In those days, I remember people asking me if I was bipolar. In the 80s, they didn’t refer to bipolar disorder as such; it was called “manic depression”. No, I am not bipolar, but I was very moody in those days. In the midst of crying jags, temper tantrums, and hysterical laughing fits, I was riding my horse and my bike, struggling with school, writing short stories, and loving music. I loved more music than I could possibly purchase. It surprises and, frankly, kind of depresses me I never made an effort to study it seriously when I was growing up, although I’m pretty sure I was like that because my parents were/are musicians. I wanted to do my own thing, without pressure from my parents to do what they were doing. I’d rather ride my horse, who was the best company and never judged me for being who I am.
I have always had really eclectic musical tastes. I think it comes from having three much older sisters who introduced me to the stuff they liked. My oldest sister was mostly gone from our house by the time I was old enough to know what was going on, but I seem to remember she was a fan of Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand, and… actually, I don’t know. I’ve never really gotten to know Betsy that well. She’s thirteen years older than I am and an extremely high achiever. When I was growing up, she lived in other countries: France, Morocco, Egypt, India, and she visited so many others because of her work.
My sister, Becky, was more of a hard rock/alternative fan. She introduced me to groups like The Who, Roxy Music, Dead Can Dance, and The Police, and singers like Eric Clapton, Dan Fogelberg, and Kate Bush. She also introduced me to James Taylor, who is probably my favorite of all of them, besides Kate Bush. I used to raid her record collection the most. We shared a room for awhile, even though she’s eleven years older than I am. I’m probably closest to her.
Sarah, who is eight years older, liked “urban” music. She liked funk, R&B, and white soul, like Hall & Oates. She introduced me to Earth, Wind, & Fire, The Commodores, and Rose Royce. I remember she also introduced me to Pat Benatar. The very first album I ever purchased was Benatar’s Crimes of Passion, which came out in 1982. I even remember how much it cost… $7.86. For a kid who got $2.50 a week as an allowance, that was a lot of money to save up. I remember walking from my house to Murphy’s Mart, which was a shitty discount store in a strip mall near my home in Gloucester, Virginia, and plunking that money down at the cash register. I wore that album out.
I used to buy a lot of 45s in those days, since they were much cheaper and I usually just wanted to hear one or two songs. I also used to tape music from the radio. Now I routinely download entire albums, sometimes without even having heard any songs on it. I often do that when I’ve been drinking. I have surprisingly good taste when I’m drunk, too. Bill and I often refer jokingly to my “drunken downloads”. They’re usually a pleasant surprise.
I switched to cassettes when I got a Walkman, because I liked listening to music while riding my bike. Also, cassettes never skipped, although they could be damaged in other ways. I remember one time, I left a copy of Zenyatta Mondata on the dashboard of my car, in direct sunlight. It was warped when I came back. Anyone who has ever listened to cassettes knows that sometimes the tape jams and makes a squiggly mess that requires a pen or pencil to correct. I had a few tapes break, too. I was glad when CDs were a thing… and even gladder when MP3s were a thing, even if I do miss the magic of opening a new album and looking at the artwork. Sometimes there would even be special gifts in those LP records. I got a Prince and the Revolution poster in my copy of the Purple Rain soundtrack. That doesn’t happen with downloads.
So anyway… there I was last night, listening to Springsteen and remembering being a teenager. My home economics teacher actually went to high school with Springsteen. She was from New Jersey and a few years younger than he is. She was a freshman in high school when he was a senior. I took her class when I was a freshman. I remember being kind of an anomaly in her class. Most of the people who took it with me weren’t bound for college. I took the class because I like to cook and it hadn’t occurred to me that I should have explored music. Ms. Kulnis, who had married a Gloucester local, told us that back during his high school days, Springsteen was kind of “gross”. In 1986, he was definitely not gross. He was a huge star in his prime. But as a teen, he was unkempt, greasy, had super long hair, and, she said, kind of skinny because he didn’t work out. She said he wasn’t appealing back then, musical talent notwithstanding. She had no idea he would someday be a megastar.
It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago that I was fourteen. I have some good memories of that time of my life, though I sure as hell wouldn’t want to repeat it. I would not want to be an adolescent again for anything, although I might have made some different choices knowing what I know now. The nice thing about the passage of time is that it tends to smooth out the worst memories. I remember being chronically upset during my teen years. Mostly, I got yelled at by people. I had a short temper and a foul mouth. Sometimes, I was kind of impulsive, but never to the point at which I did anything that got me into serious trouble. Most people seemed to think of me as a “good kid”, although I probably wasn’t as good as some of my friends were… or appeared to be. On the other hand, some of my friends were being naughty behind closed doors. I never had a need to sneak around, because my parents mostly didn’t care what I did, as long as it didn’t embarrass or involve them.
Springsteen’s older music is like a soundtrack to that time of my life. It takes me back every time. The 80s seemed so modern at the time, but now it seems like such a quaint time. One thing that remains constant is the staying power of certain artists. I can tell a truly gifted musician if their music stands the test of time. Springsteen’s definitely does, for the most part. Most artists have an off album or two. Springsteen is no different. I don’t think I cared much for his Human Touch or Lucky Town albums, for instance. Some people don’t like his 2009 album, Working on a Dream. I have only heard one song from that album… a freebie I got from Amazon. No one can bat 1ooo every time. But here I sit in 2019, listening to Springsteen’s 1973 album, The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle, released the year after I was born. It’s still very solid.
By contrast, Western Stars, which is a brand new album, is very different than Springsteen’s early stuff is. I like it, but listening to Born in the USA (which I only JUST added to my collection) took me back to the 80s. I had to hear “Hungry Heart”. I ended up listening to a panoply of Springsteen’s hits from over the years. It was fascinating. I suddenly realized how far we’ve come. Springsteen doesn’t have Clarence Clemons anymore. He’s entered a new phase, just like all great musicians do at some point. I haven’t seen him in concert, nor have I seen Billy Joel… both are acts I’d brave the crowds and pay big bucks to see, just because I didn’t have the money or wisdom to see them when I was younger. I hope I can catch them before one of us dies.
Thank God we still have the ability to take a carpet ride back to our youths through nostalgia. Maybe not everyone is whisked away by an old Springsteen song. I’m sure today’s young people have other artists that take them back.