Today is the 68th birthday of Bruce Springsteen. I like birthdays. It is a time for us to pause and honor people. It is a chance to think about the person and their qualities we should try to imitate. Birthdays provide the opportunity to reflect upon the impact someone has made on your own development over the years. Ever since I was in middle school, Bruce Springsteen has inspired me, entertained me, and accompanied me through good and bad times even though we have never met. Most importantly, he has taught me. I’ve been abundantly blessed to have many incredible mentors in my life, even some I’ve never met. It is hard to imagine someone I don’t even personally know teach me so much, but when I think about the values and beliefs I hold today, many of them have been shaped by the music and the life of “The Boss.”
Ten Lessons taught to me by Bruce Springsteen:
1. You can get better with age: In America, we tend to have the fascination with being young. Our culture teaches us to fear big milestone birthdays because they just throw you into an older, less relevant age bracket. Bruce has taught me that is all baloney. I would argue that Bruce Springsteen has never been better than he has been in his sixties. The last time I saw him in concert was in Los Angeles in 2016, he played 3 hours and 55 minutes. It wasn’t some hippy standing up there playing slow songs with an acoustic guitar. He was a man possessed. He didn’t take any breaks longer than a few seconds. He was constantly jumping around, he crowd surfed, and at the end he had more energy left than 99 percent of the crowd.
I used to hate birthdays. I remember waking up on the morning of my thirtieth birthday like I had to go to my own funeral that day. I’m embarrassed now by how stupid that was. Bruce has shown me that if you continue to learn, grow, live with passion and take care of yourself, life is only going to get better.
2. Give your best effort, every time: Bruce Springsteen attacks each and every concert like it was his last night on earth, because he knows it might be. I’ve talked to dozens of people who after seeing him for the first time made some sort of comment like, “Wow something must have really got into him tonight….he can’t be like that every time.” As a witness of 29 shows, I can only smile and say, “He is.” Bruce Springsteen has an appreciation for time, and a respect for his audience. He knows that people spend more than they should to come see him, and he knows it may be for the only time. He respects the time and the attention the audience is giving him, and wants to prove himself worthy of it.
In my job as a teacher, I think about Bruce Springsteen’s approach to music and try to bring that into my own job and role in the world. I tell myself, “Be like if Bruce Springsteen was a high school history teacher.” The kids are giving me their time and attention, that taxpayers are giving me their money, and my job is allowing me to be a storyteller. I owe them all my absolute best in return. Granted, I fall well short of that lofty expectation on a daily basis, but I try. I know that I might be the one adult who ever gets a chance to teach that teenager about the Vietnam war, civil rights, or whatever the topic is that day. I owe that kid my best effort, just like Bruce would.
3. Our past is never our past:
In interviews, Bruce will say this quote often. He means that the events that happen as far back as our childhood, good and bad, stay with us for the rest of time whether we realize it or not. The same thing is true for our country. One of our biggest problems we face today is that we can’t seem to be able to shake the sins of our past, which is really frustrating since the people who committed the majority of these sins aren’t even here anymore. It is a quote I use often in class.
4. Being an American is Complicated:
Certain groups of people like to really blast Bruce, calling him unpatriotic. Three years ago he played at a Vietnam Veteran’s benefit in Washington D.C. He sang “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Fortunate Son”, both about the struggles of the kids who got sent to fight in Vietnam. He was crucified by people who didn’t understand that you can be a patriot and at the same demand your country to be better. “Born in the U.S.A.” is not “Anti-American” as was said by Glenn Beck and others, it is in support of the men and women that have served this country. You can respect the people in uniform by wanting them to appear in that uniform in a parade rather than a body bag. Bruce repeatedly teaches that being a patriot is not being a sheep. You can love your country, and also think about it.
5. The friends of your youth are different from any friends you make after:
The E. Street Band is made up of people Springsteen started playing with when he was very young. Bruce got musically restless in 1989, and wanted to try playing with other musicians. The other musicians were good, the music was good, but it wasn’t the same. Bruce realized there is nothing quite like the relationship you have with the people that knew you best when you were young. A decade later, he brought the band back together, and they have been scorching hot ever since. I’ve been lucky enough to meet lots of great people and friends, but they will never understand me like the kids I used to play ball in the street with.
6. Stick up for people, even when it is difficult:
Bruce Springsteen has been a leader in showing respect, dignity, and compassion to groups while leading others down the same path. He had two black men in the E Street band in the early 1970’s in New Jersey, a place still very filled with racial tension. He would often kiss his black saxophone player in those concerts. In his 1988 video “Tougher than the Rest”, there is a compilation of 25 couples kissing in a kissing booth. Bruce put in two gay couples. This was at a time when people were much less kind and tolerant to the gay community than they are now. This was brave. In 1994, he sang the title song on the soundtrack to the movie “Philadelphia” about a man struggling to deal with A.I.D.S. On his 1996 album, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is filled with songs about immigrants in tough situations in the American Southwest. In 2016, Bruce was the first major artist to boycott North Carolina because of their transgender bathroom bill. Once again, he took a lot of criticism for this. He constantly sticks up for the poor, the prisoner, and others who get kicked to the curb of life by far too many.
When Bruce Springsteen is at the end of his life, he will be able to feel the pride and satisfaction of knowing that he didn’t turn his back on groups that so many others have. I hope to be able to say the same when I come to my end.
7. You define your grief, not the other way around:
In 2011, when Bruce’s longtime best friend and onstage side kick “The Big Man” Clarence Clemons died. Clarence had been such an integral part of Bruce’s life, many long time fans wondered if Bruce and the E. Street band would even be able to continue. Bruce came out the next year replacing Clarence with a vibrant horn section, which included Clarence’s nephew on saxophone. Each night he paid powerful tribute to Clarence and keyboardist Danny Federici, who had passed three years earlier. Not only did Bruce carry on, but he seemed to draw more energy out of his loss and the reminder of his own mortality. As I’ve lost friends and relatives in the past few years, I’ve looked to Bruce’s example about how to respond in the best way to honor those who leave us to soon, and that is to go forward in a way they would be proud of.
8. Most of life exists in the grey areas:
Too many people want to define things in black and white terms these days. They desire the ease of labeling people and events as either good or bad, without respecting the nuance, the multi sided stories, and the in-betweens. In 2000, Bruce wrote a song about the shooting of an unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo in New York in 1989. The song was titled “American Skin (41 Shots).” Many people saw it simply as an anti-police song, but it wasn’t. It was about the tensions and difficulty of living in modern America. He sang about the difficulty faced by police, “Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet? This is your life”, as well as the young black man, “Promise me if an officer stops you’ll always be polite. The you’ll never ever run away and promise ma that you’ll keep your hands in sight.” The complexity of the song, and the situation was lost on many. Law enforcement officials were so angry they threatened to boycott Springsteen and refuse to provide security at his concerts. Bruce wasn’t taking a side, but trying to explain the complications of the issue. He was teaching. He does this in many songs, challenging the listener to analyze situations in more depth than people are typically willing to devote the energy to. One of the best things I can teach kids is the lesson that issues are often very complicated, and they always need to be trying to learn more of the story.
9. Respect the Power of your Power:
Bruce Springsteen understands that when he says something, or takes a stand on an issue, people listen. He said once, “You can change a life in three minutes.” Whether it be in song or speech, he doesn’t just say random thing or shoot from the hip when he enters controversial waters. He studies, reflects, listens, and then speaks. This bothers a lot of people. They say things like, “Just shut up and play music. I didn’t pay to hear your opinions.” Bruce understands and respects his power. He as worked hard to accrue it, and wants to use it to help the world a better place. I understand that, while on a much smaller scale, there are people who value what I have to say. Like Bruce, I have a responsibility to take that seriously, and use my influence for the greater good.
10. Our time is limited, use it:
I can’t say it better than him:”For the one’s who had a notion, a notion deep inside that it ain’t no sin to be glad your alive.” Bruce’s music and personal message are consistent reminders of the preciousness of life, how our time is finite, and we have to use it to do good work and make the lives around us better. He exhausts himself with concert, never leaving anyone to wonder if he could have done more. This, like the others I’ve mentioned, is a pretty good lesson for all of us to remember.
Happy birthday Mr. Springsteen. Thank you for being my teacher for many years, and hopefully many years to come. Your years have made mine much better.
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