“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” —Jesus of Nazareth
Several years ago I decided that I was going to give Paul Simon my undivided attention. For reasons I cannot explain, I had never really listened to him beyond what I heard on the radio and MTV back when MTV played music videos.
Since so many of my friends regarded Simon as one of their favorite songwriters, I decided I would download the iTunes Essential Paul Simon playlist and listen to nothing else for at least a month.
I was immediately taken in by the brilliance, complexity, and originality not just of the music, but of the artist himself. Paul Simon has been a consistent treasure in American songwriting for over five decades. I find that amazing.
Early this year, I decided I would do for Bruce Springsteen what I had done for Paul Simon. This would be The Year of the Boss.
As it was with Simon, many of my friends considered Springsteen to be one of the great American artists. So I asked them where I should begin. I already had his Greatest Hits and Nebraska. I added The Ghost of Tom Joad, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Tunnel of Love, and Human Touch. These have been my soundtrack for the better part of this year, and I have been thinking a lot about where this musical journey has taken me.
Here are two things I’ve learned during The Year of the Boss.
First, I have learned that I am not blown away by Bruce Springsteen in the way that I was with Paul Simon. I thought pretty much every Paul Simon song I heard was brilliant. Springsteen’s catalog, on the other hand, contains many songs, and even some entire records that do nothing for me. I can’t seem to connect. Some of his music doesn’t age gracefully. Some of his songs just don’t land. I could go on, and I know I’m being unfair, but you get the point. Springsteen is, to me, hit or miss.
The second thing I’ve learned during The Year of the Boss is that I have trouble extending and, as a result, receiving mercy. There were a number of times when I almost wrote Springsteen off for not connecting—I, the grumpy muppet in the balcony, and he, the struggling troubadour trying to win me over. Never mind that millions of people around the world, including most of my musically savvy friends, were saying I should pay attention.
There’s an anecdote about an art student who went to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. He stood before her for a while as a frown formed at the corners of his mouth. The docent came over and asked the art student if he had any questions about DaVinci’s masterpiece. The art student said, “Not really. I just don’t see what the big deal is, that’s all.” The docent looked down on the poor art student and said, “Son, this is the Mona Lisa. The critic does not judge the Mona Lisa; the Mona Lisa judges her critics.”
Springsteen’s greatness does not require my validation. Had I, in my initial ambivalence, become the poor art student frowning at the Mona Lisa? I decided to give him more time and here’s where it has taken me. Bruce Springsteen is a genius. Some of the best songs I’ve ever heard come from him. The Ghost of Tom Joad, Dancin’ In The Dark, Glory Days, Highway Patrolman, If I Should Fall Behind, and Devils and Dust, to name a few, are simply incredible.
There is a world Springsteen wants to tell me about, and it is up to me to decide if I want to pay attention. Do I sit coolly in the arena as he shouts above the din, “Are you not entertained?” What should he expect of me? Should I require an artist to feed my preferences one hundred percent of the time? Is it fair to dismiss him if he doesn’t? The truth is I often do dismiss, and in the process I forget what it means to live the life of an artist.
The artist puts himself or herself out there, risking their creative ideas in the hopes of connecting meaningful truths to a willing audience. This is an act of mercy. They endeavor to convey the complexity of romantic love or the pain of a broken heart or the nuanced fear of growing older or the carnage of war into a three-minute song, a window-sized canvas, a chapter in a book, or twenty lines of poetry. It is an impossible task, and yet they work, they risk, they suffer, they edit, they scrap, they refine, and then eventually they go public. Sometimes they hit their mark. Other times they miss. Either way, before long they’re back at it. And that, in some measure, warrants my respect.
Springsteen’s power as an artist comes to us through the world he creates and then populates. His characters live a dusty, blue-collar existence where you can almost hear the slap of the screen door against the clapboard house as they head off for another day at the mill. You get to know these men and women as they wile away their time working for the union, riding their border patrols, rekindling old flames at the bar, sitting in their prison cells, or wondering about the wrath of God. How they spend their days matters because, as Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
As a student of humanity, Bruce Springsteen has put words to many of the joys and sorrows we all experience. His catalog, like anyone’s, has its share of hits and misses. But some of his hits have brought greater clarity to how I see the world and my own place in it, and I want to receive that as an act of mercy from him to me. Had I withheld the mercy to listen a little more patiently and carefully, I would not have received the mercy he offers through his art.
I am grateful for the life and music of Bruce Springsteen.
Bob Dylan, you’re next.