From 'Glory Days' to 'Better Days,' The Boss has lived our lives


April 10, 1995|By DAN RODRICKS

I got into this strange conversation with my brother Eddie the other night, after all our kids had gone to bed. We started listing old friends from high school -- dropping names of men and women we'd seen at reunions, talking about the ones who still lived in the hometown and the ones who'd disappeared. That last group -- the ones who'd disappeared -- made the conversation take a dark turn.

There had been some fierce tragedy in the first few years after high school -- some old friends, guys we'd grown up with, dying in car crashes and motorcycle accidents, or from drug overdoses, or suicide. Two or three went to prison. A girl from my brother's class had murdered her husband because he'd beaten her so many times. I mentioned a guy -- Dean, the last name doesn't matter. About two years ago, I caught Dean-o coming out of the supermarket near the center of town. I hadn't seen him since we got out of high school. Right there, in the frosty Massachusetts air, he'd told me his story. It took about 10 minutes and covered all the good parts and the bad parts, including how he'd almost died from drinking too much. He swore he was finished with booze, said he'd moved into an old cabin in the woods; he and some long-gone pals had built it right after high school, as a shrine to their independence. He was seeing his kids once a month. He had a job in a restaurant. Doctors told him he couldn't drink anymore.

Now, Eddie said, Dean finally had stopped drinking. Because he was dead.

We talked about the hometown -- lots of new houses eating up the old farm land; lots of new families; lots of kids crowding into the schools, which the town can't afford to expand; lots of traffic through the center. Twenty-three years ago, when I graduated from high school, you could still, maybe, find a low-paying job at a local mill or foundry. Those jobs are gone for good. So are the guys who took them, first thing out of high school, because, at the time, there was nothing else -- and no families to support yet. Just cars and girlfriends and beer tabs.

The conversation was getting depressing so we left our old friends alone and talked about good things happening today -- our kids, our jobs, our homes.

My brother and I didn't get into it, but there had been a lot of divorce among our classmates, too. Lots of tough choices and hard feelings. Lots of custody battles. Lots of scars.

Funny, but you don't think about that kind of stuff happening to the kids with whom you went through the first 20 years of life. You remember them as innocents, or not-yets -- the not-yet burned, the not-yet jaded, the not-yet unhappy.

"Barefoot girl sittin' on the hood of a Dodge drinkin' warm beer in the soft, summer rain."

Bruce Springsteen wrote that line about 20 years ago, and every time I hear "Jungleland," I think of three dozen cars parked in a woods on the edge of town; kids in blue jeans, denim jackets and T-shirts, gathering to hang for the night or 'til the crew-cut cops showed up; kids being a little wild, listening to Led Zeppelin on someone's 8-track, relieved the government finally had stopped taking guys for Vietnam.

I had friends from two large circles -- the ones who were headed out of town, to college or the road; and the ones who were going to stay, look for a job, maybe marry the girl they'd dated through high school. We all went our own ways, and most of us are still around, having pushed through the brier patches of life. At the last reunion, the turnout was good and everyone seemed to be pretty happy, settled . . . normal.

Springsteen has enjoyed a splash for the last month or so, with the release of his greatest hits album and with his Grammy awards for "Streets of Philadelphia." But I hear hipsters say The Boss ain't the Boss anymore, that he's way past his prime, that he's irrelevant. Even Howard Stern -- there's someone who has enriched American life -- bashed him the other day.

Agreed: Springsteen is not for everyone, never was.

But he's been important to millions of young-headed-for-midlife Americans, and the conversation with my brother got me thinking about why.

Springsteen's music is honest; it comes from where we live -- or lived, anyway. We busted out of the same kind of towns and experienced, either personally or through our friends, the passions and pains that come with growing up in America. And I don't mean the kid's stuff either -- "Born To Run" and the myth that we were once all wild ones on Harley's. We weren't, but being young meant you believed in possibility and the open road.

Listen to "My Hometown" and you hear a ballad for the tottering, post-Baby Boom American Dream. Listen to "Glory Days" and you get a laugh thinking of a buddy's once-glorious throwing arm and guys with beer guts reminiscing about football days. Listen to "Brilliant Disguise" and you remember the bitterness that comes with the realization that life and love don't always turn out the way you had expected. "Human Touch" and "Better Days" hold the promise that life, ultimately, forgives, that it's possible for a man or a woman to get through the brier patches and settle down and even, maybe, know peace again.

I look and listen to Bruce Springsteen and see a tremendously creative, thoughtful guy who, like a lot of us, went barreling through the 1980s, and slamming into the 1990s. And here we are, sitting around the kitchen table, with our kids upstairs asleep, thinking about the life we've lived so far.

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