The Greatest Catholic Poet of Our Time

“[The Springsteen album] Tunnel of Love may be a more important Catholic event in this country than the visit of Pope John Paul II,” wrote Father Andrew Greeley in 1988, just after it was released. “The Pope spoke of moral debates using the language of doctrinal propositions that appeal to (or repel) the mind. Springsteen sings of religious realities—sin, temptation,  forgiveness, life, death, hope — in images that come (implicitly perhaps) from his Catholic childhood, images that appeal to the whole person, not just the head, and that will be absorbed by far more Americans than those who listened to the Pope ... The piety of these songs—and I challenge you to find a better word—is sentient without being sentimental...”

You’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above
If you want to ride on down through this tunnel of love

This record is filled with Catholic imagery and language, from the straightforward memories of the church bells of his childhood to the words that fill the songs: mercy and love and fear. Tunnel of Love ends with an epiphany, the song “Valentine’s Day,” and the last verse is a rebirth: “I woke up scared and breathin’ and born anew…”

In subsequent records like Human Touch and Lucky Town, Springsteen continued to grapple with the great themes of his work, good and evil, right and wrong, courage and despair, and even as his voice grew sharper (“Now I ply my trade in the land of king dollar / Where you get paid and your silence passes for honor”), he sings life and hope with ever greater power and poetry:

Well now all that’s sure on the boulevard
Is that life is just a house of cards
As fragile as each and every breath
Of this boy sleepin’ in our bed
Tonight let’s lie beneath the eaves
Just a close band of happy thieves
And when that train comes we’ll get on board
And steal what we can from the treasures, treasures of the Lord ...

Bruce Springsteen’s music has been recorded by a number of other artists, and has been used in a number of feature films. But he had never been commissioned to write a song until director Jonathan Demme approached him in 1992 with such a request for Philadelphia, a 1993 film about a man with AIDS who wrongly loses his position with a law firm. Springsteen agreed to see what he could do. The result was “Streets of Philadelphia,” which won Grammy Awards, a 1994 Oscar, and tremendous commercial success. Whatever else this song may be, however, it is also a profound religious statement. “There was a certain spiritual stillness that I wanted to try and capture,” he said.

I was bruised and battered and I couldn’t tell what I felt
I was unrecognizable to myself
I saw my reflection in a window I didn’t know my own face
Oh brother, are you gonna leave me wastin’ away

The song is about faith in human grace, and there is an almost overwhelming longing for transcendence. At the end of it, the irregular beat stops for the only time in the song. It’s as if the narrator is just about to let go. But not yet: He turns his concern outward. In the first verse, he was afraid of being left alone; now, at the end, he wonders if we will leave each other alone. The question is left un-answered as the narrator sings the words “Streets of Philadelphia” for the last time. But the song is not over. It goes on for about another minute. The chanting harmonies and drumbeat gradually fade as the organ increasingly dominates the song. The same phrase — the chord progression is one often used for “Amen” during church hymns — is played repeatedly, rising in steps. Finally, the lower notes fall out as the organ notes peak and disappear: He has risen.

Listening carefully to the music of Bruce Springsteen, one hears an emphasis on egalitarianism; an instinctive compassion; a pragmatic skepticism toward utopian solutions; and, especially recently, a bracing humility about human endeavor — worth emulating in sacred as well as secular life. These are the values of a good conservative. These are the values of a great people.

      In the almost 150 years since the Civil War, numerous politicians, artists, activists, and others have called on what Lincoln called our “better angels.” More often than not, such calls have fallen on deaf ears. One might even say that our most notable achievements, ranging from the passage of child labor laws to defeating the Nazis, have cynical explanations. But no nation can function at all without some faith in its intentions, and it is the American faith that the republican democracy of the last 200 years can claim more success than failure, more progress than regress. Honorable people can disagree as to the degree of success or regress, and can disagree as to what exactly constitutes better angels. My own answers to those questions are formulated with the help of a rock and roll singer with little in the way of formal education. It may seem unlikely to think of him in such Lincolnian terms (though Lincoln himself had little in the way of formal education), but it seems to me that part of our American faith is a willingness to look for—and the confidence that we will find—answers to our most important questions in relatively humble quarters.

      The value of Bruce Springsteen’s art is not in some vast talent (though he is an unusually talented man), but rather in his acuity in representing the people who populate his songs, people who have foibles and failings, but people who in the end constitute our last best hope for making this society work. At the same time, considered as a whole, Springsteen manifests a series of tendencies—his republicanism, his accommodation of personal and collective failure, his hope for his country, and his belief in something larger than it—which really do reveal better angels that at least coexist with lesser ones.

      These tendencies are not Springsteen’s alone; that is precisely why he is important. His art bears a strong resemblance to that of a number of other important figures in our history, from the expressive poetry of Walt Whitman to the humorous prose of Mark Twain. His politics reflect an egalitarian spirit that brings Jefferson’s plowman to FDR’s fireside. His moral fervor resonates with that of Lincoln and Martin Luther King. Springsteen may not be as accomplished as any of these people. But he too, with immense grace and power, embodies common values spread across American society at large.

      In January 1993, inaugurating a presidency that was a disappointment to many of us, Bill Clinton told his fellow citizens that “there is nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what’s right with America.” This, it seems to me, is the core of our national creed and the essence of Springsteen’s music. It is the job of a truly great artist to remind us of who we are. When I listen to Bruce Springsteen, I remember how to be an American.

One last Springsteen story. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 murders, Springsteen was in his car, pulling out of a beach parking lot in the town of Sea Bright, New Jersey, when a man drove by, rolled down his window, and shouted “We need you!” Springsteen went to work. He recorded “Thunder Road” for one victim’s funeral. He helped raise a million dollars for the families of victims in his county. He performed a new song, “My City of Ruins,” for a fundraising telethon. And he began to write and record feverishly.

      “I didn’t set out to write a 9/11 album,” he said later. “I didn’t want to write literally about what happened, but [about] the emotions in the air. In the purest sense, that’s what a songwriter does ... [it’s] a secular stations of the cross ...” What this great American storyteller made was the record The Rising, which may well remain the most durable cultural artifact to emerge from the rubble. Incantation, choirs, chants of resurrection, transubstantiation, passion, starkness, references to Buddha and Allah and prophets and the eleven angels of mercy  — it is an insistent fusion of joy and sorrow, East and West, life and death. It is a musical tapestry that argues for a kind of diverse unity: e pluribus unum. This Catholic is catholic. Like the very best priests, the work Springsteen has done helps us to keep faith: with ourselves, with our country, with a love that both encompasses and transcends the gift of life.

Jim Cullen is a writer in New York. This essay is drawn from his book Born in the U.S.A.: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition (Wesleyan University Press). Our thanks to Suzanna Tamminen and Stephanie Elliott for their prompt & cheerful help. And yes, The Rising is a  masterpiece.


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