I was born and raised in New Jersey—“The Garden State”—and when people ask me where in the state I’m from, I don’t respond with “Oceanport,” (my hometown) “Monmouth,” (my county) or “The Beach.” (too broad)
Instead, when I tell people about my home area, I simply say “Springsteen Country,” and most folks get it. They immediately conjure up images in their heads of The Stone Pony, the grungy rock club that sits just west of the Asbury Park Boardwalk, followed by an instant—basically debilitating—craving for large slices of pizza served on paper plates. This isn’t the land that Bruce built, but it sure as hell is the land that he sings about so fondly. And considering I was born the son of a musician at Monmouth Medical Center, the same hospital “The Boss” arrived at in 1949, I was pretty much destined to follow and practice the religion of Springsteen.
The reason Bruce is so revered in and around Monmouth County is not because everyone walks around star struck, hoping to snag a picture or an autograph; it’s actually the exact opposite. Monmouth County residents see Bruce everywhere, and he’s simply a neighbor with a cooler job than you. My sister danced at the same studio as his daughter, my mother worked out at the same gym as him, and in high school, my brother and I would frequently see him at Häagen-Dazs, grabbing some nighttime ice cream that he’d feel guilty about the next morning—just like the rest of us.
But while Bruce’s normalcy might make him seem unremarkable, he most certainly is. To call him merely a local celebrity, after all, is erroneous; he might have been born and raised in the swamps of Jersey, but the religion of Springsteen has a following that extends worldwide, and he’s been holding mass for decades in sold-out arenas and stadiums. The homilies are notoriously long and the music alarming loud. But year after year, night after night, people come out to hear Bruce and his E Street Band mash, bash, and jig their way through 3+ hours of whatever the hell they feel like playing. You would think it would get old—to both Bruce and his fans—but to even think this could ever be the case is sacrilegious.
The secret to Bruce’s everlasting run of popularity and relevancy is difficult to pin on one thing in particular. His live shows do obviously come to mind, and in addition to jumping out of an airplane or seeing the Northern Lights, a Springsteen concert deserves a spot on any respectable bucket list. Not only will you treat your eardrums to a smattering of hits from five decades, but you can also marvel at the sight of a 67-year-old man running around stage like he’s Forrest Gump and just got his leg braces removed.
But being a great entertainer is far from the only reason Bruce has managed not to be shelved away on the record rack like most of his contemporaries. While Bruce is—and always has been—a showman like no other, it’s with his message and words that he’s turned listeners into fans and fans into fanatics. It’s not that what he’s singing is remarkable; it’s that he’s saying what so many of us are thinking.
The themes present on each of Bruce’s records have progressed and matured with the man himself. His early work was distinctly adolescent, and the conflicts were those that typically exist during a man’s young adulthood: girls, egos, fast cars, and late nights. By the time he smashed through into superstardom with 1984’s Born in the U.S.A., he was more cynical, progressive, and nostalgic. He penned songs about the average American man, looking for work, love, and painfully aware that youth is a brief fleeting moment that cannot be caught. He also sang about his country, cleverly disguising his angst and disgust in the album’s title track, a song that sounds like it should be a national anthem but is instead a sharp detestation about the Vietnam War.
There is no more obvious example, however, of Bruce literally singing from the heart and souls of so many Americans than 2002’s The Rising, an album that not only represented a comeback to prominence for him, but also, is largely a reaction to the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Of the 2,977 civilians that were taken on 9/11, 147 were from Monmouth County. Just like my family, my friends, and myself, Bruce was another local resident who was deeply saddened and angered by the loss of life he witnessed around him. As a community, we were confused and scared, but more than anything, we were speechless.
With the E Street Band reassembled for the first time in 18 years, Bruce took to the studio and wrote what we were all thinking and feeling. He gave his neighbors and so many people around the world the voice they so desperately needed to digest the horror they had witnessed. Listening to that album the summer it came out was revolutionary for me; it was the first time I cried listening to music. Twelve-years-old at the time, 9/11 represented a new nadir in my young life, where the world seemed disastrously imperfect and damaged beyond repair. I had so many questions, and while The Rising didn’t answer them, it did let me know that I was not the only one asking.
All this being said, it seems almost ludicrous that seeing Bruce—no matter how common it may be for those who live near him—is not a near death experience. After all, the man has been the voice of a generation for generations and is regarded as near royalty in most countries across the globe. A woman at a wedding once came up and hugged me because she had learned from her son that I’d been on stage with Bruce at a charity concert. I—and most people I know—have paid to see him perform on numerous occasions, yet when I see him eating ice cream, or perhaps walking on the boardwalk after a morning workout, he’s nothing more than “a guy from the area.”
On Tuesday, Bruce will release his autobiography, unsurprisingly titled Born to Run. I, like so many, am excited to read it, but I admit that I’m skeptical of what I could possibly learn. Given the intensely personal nature of Bruce’s music, it seems almost impossible that the man can have any secrets. Part of me also asks myself, “Do I want to know?” After all, Bruce has basically bared his soul for nearly half a century; if the man has anything left to reveal, shouldn’t we give him the dignity of keeping that private?
But this is what has made Bruce the unique superstar he’s become. Rather than living life in the Hollywood Hills, far removed from the common folk and behind a veil of falsified perfection, Bruce has stayed in Monmouth County, mere miles from where he was born and raised, and lived a life that people do not question because no one feels they have to. And this in itself, the very reason why Bruce seems like “just another guy” to so many people, might in fact be the most extraordinary thing about him.
–Joe Rapolla Jr.