A rabbi friend in the States knows a priest in Philly who says that Bruce Springsteen is the most important Catholic theologian today. I wouldn't know, but as a rabbi I do know something about theology and religion, and I've little doubt about the Boss's power as a galvanizing spiritual personality. I'll go further: I don't know a figure, religious or otherwise, who preaches and prances, dances and sings about redemption and hope as well as Bruce Springsteen. Indeed, I can't think of anybody else who has inspired hope in so many hearts for so long and so well. Not another performer, preacher, nor president or prime minister. I'm ready to so testify.
I'm not a long-time member of the Springsteen faithful. About six or seven years ago, while brooding one day about the complications of sibling bonds, I heard Bruce Springsteen sing of two brothers of divided fate — yet who were nothing less than “blood on blood”, bound together and ultimately responsible for one another. That zing to the heart swung my head around to the Boss. Soon I'd listened closely to his entire repertoire. By now I've read probably every book on Springsteen and I've watched his concert videos more than I'd care to admit. Well, actually, I don't mind saying so; after all, I learn from Bruce Springsteen in all his iterations, as I do from good books or good teachers: like them, he's become close to indispensable.
I love this uniquely American Jersey shore guy, this part rocker, part poet-philosopher. His music inspires his fans to think about life's serious matters, all the while making us want to dance. Springsteen neither shies away from irreverence nor religion; he knows that each has its place and purpose.
Often he puts the two together. In “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”, one of his signature songs, Springsteen gyrates across the stage while regaling his incessantly jazzed up audience of how he went from lonely boy to fulfilled rocker “when the Big Man (Clarence Clemons of course, his late soul-brother sidekick) joined the band”. Evangelical style, he proclaims, “Take me to the river, wash me in the water…I want to throw a Rock and Roll Baptism, a Rock and Roll Bar Mitzvah…I want to go to that river of life and hope and faith and transformation.” And then his kicker, another zing to the heart, in case you weren't paying attention: “I want to go there with you because I can't get there by myself.”
Who else but the Boss could bring us together as if we were still in the church or synagogue most of us walked out of long ago? Reminding us all the while of our yearnings, religious and irreligious both — to say nothing of our desire to be better and do better. Who in this highly disaffected time doesn't want what the Boss seems to offer? He grew up lonely and alienated, his guitar his only friend, and somehow figured out, like nobody else, how to use the music made of his yearning soul to bring people together.
Which is precisely what his remarkable concerts — three hours and more of frenzy, fun, friendship, and, dare I say, meaning and redemption — are about. It's not just that Bruce (you just want to call him that) brings the energy of the old time preacher to every concert; he fills his songs with religious imagery and language, and suffuses them with an understanding that life's a tough road to travel, but hope is real, and redemption is available for everybody. He gets loneliness and love, his own included, among other polarities of the human condition. When he sings, we feel the Boss knows what's in our hearts. And we feel more tied to one another: the guy in the row in front of us begins as a stranger and leaves a friend. It's what his saxophonist Jake Clemons (Clarence's nephew) calls “the churchiness of it”. Which means, Jake explains, the sense of the audience coming together “to make the experience bigger and stronger”.
Finally, this confession, embarrassing though it is: Until this past week, I'd never been to a Springsteen concert. But there I was, finally among the faithful at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, joining the Boss (and the rocking E Street Band, the spectacular Jake — “Jakie” as his Boss calls him –in particular) down by that River of Hope and Transformation, most grateful to testify to the power of the experience!
John Moscowitz is rabbi emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, and the author of “Evolution of An Unorthodox Rabbi” (Dundurn Press 2015)