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April 12, 2001

Hope Springsteens Eternal
I didn't watch The Boss's new HBO special, and someday I might regret that

By Mike Haney

All right, it's time to raise some tempers. Get ready to flame me.

I hate Bruce Springsteen.

I wish I could tell you this was some contrived, last-minute effort to squeeze a column out of an incredibly boring post-SXSW couple of weeks, but it's not. It's my dirty little secret. Some people hate dogs. I think The Boss sucks.

I can't stand his voice. I can't stand his lyrics (despite having more than 57 channels on which, often, nothing is on). The E-Street band is surely stuffed with talent (or at least that's what everyone keeps telling me), but the music sounds bland to me. Plain old rock-and-roll. Nothing inventive. Nothing inspiring. Ho-fricking-hum.

The hordes of shrieking white trash, that annoying raspy voice, and cheesy Conan hack Max Weinberg grinning stupidly in his Men's Wearhouse suit ... it all came back to me: God, I hate The Boss.
So socially taboo is my opinion in the twenty-something middle-America set that even I had forgotten I felt this way. Despite his record-setting concert sales, Bruce doesn't get much radio airplay anymore. But my devotion to the amazing HBO series The Sopranos brought the reality of my hatred screaming back.

You're thinking it's because E-Street guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt plays a regular character in the mob drama, but you're wrong. I've loved the character of Silvio since the first season, completely unaware of Van Zandt's musical ties. What reminded me of my unorthodox feelings on the "working-class rocker" was HBO's incessant pre-Sopranos hype for their April 7 broadcast of "Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band: Live in New York."

Before every new Sopranos episode this season I was slammed with a five-minute preview of what I'm pretty sure my own personal hell will look like. The hordes of shrieking white trash, that annoying raspy voice, and cheesy Conan hack Max Weinberg grinning stupidly in his Men's Wearhouse suit ... it all came back to me: God, I hate The Boss.

I remember liking Born in the USA when it came out. I was in third grade and I have a distinct memory of either wearing or wanting to wear (okay, it's not that distinct) ripped jeans with an American flag bandana in my back pocket. Then I turned 10 and grew out of it. At one point in junior high I even liked "Glory Days," until I actually heard the lyrics and realized the song was a hackneyed attempt at what John Mellencamp has been doing for 20 years. I know fans argue these are not his best songs, but I've delved deeper into his catalog several times, and I don't hear any difference between the big pop sellers and those supposedly "deeper" songs.

I was thinking about my hatred for Springsteen last weekend as I was driving to Chicago listening and singing along at full volume to Blood on the Tracks.
He throaty rasp has no range, and he constantly looks and sounds like he's taking a squirrel.
As I yelled the lyrics to "Idiot Wind" — in my best Bobby D impersonation, of course — at the confused and somewhat-frightened tollbooth attendant, I thought about how sometimes even the most awful voices just work. Bob Dylan can't even speak normally, much less sing, but no cover of his songs ever sounds quite right. "Tangled Up in Blue's" confusing lyrics make sense because of Dylan's naturally odd intonations. "Idiot Wind" is perhaps the most heartbreaking heartbreak song ever because the pain is so obvious in Bob's strained shouting. Even the simple lovesick sentiments of "Bucket of Rain" are made all that more genuine in Dylan's innocent high-pitched vocals.

This realization bothered me because I have for years defended my dislike for Springsteen with the fact that he can't sing. His throaty rasp has no range, and he constantly looks and sounds like he's taking a squirrel (insert your word here: dookie, dump, growler ... you know what I mean, but I promised my mother I wouldn't swear in these columns anymore.) Like him or not, The Boss is simply not a singer who's easy to listen to.

But neither is Bobby D, and several of his albums fill my top ten.

Although, for years I hated him too, arguing vehemently to my fat Dylan-obsessed friend that nobody could possibly enjoy listening to this guy. Beyond the voice, there's that screeching harmonica threatening to blow the tweeters right out of my car doors. And what the hell is he singing about anyway?

The idea that the most influential artist in rock history was once the butt of his neighborhood's jokes only added to his legend.
And then one day it clicked. Driving alone, barely noticing that "Tangled Up in Blue" was playing on the radio, I found myself turning it up a couple of notches with each verse, until the volume wouldn't go any higher. I was singing along to lyrics I didn't think I even knew at the top of my lungs. I was reveling in that screeching harmonica. I was hearing the story and the emotions in those kooky lyrics. Suddenly I got it. And I've been a fan ever since.

Like most forms of art, I suppose the best music isn't meant to be understood at first glimpse. Maybe it's because we like the challenge of working at being a fan. Or maybe it's because we just have such respect for these artists that build monumental careers with such a seemingly limited set of tools.

Years ago, when I worked in a local coffee shop, I had a regular customer who told me stories of his days at the University of Minnesota in the late 1950s, when a young Bob Dylan — then playing in small clubs and on street corners — was the laughing stock of the West Bank. The old man could have been crazy I suppose, but I always listened to him. The idea that the most influential artist in rock history was once the butt of his neighborhood's jokes only added to his legend.

Similarly, I remember listening to an interview with John Lennon — recorded eerily on the day he was shot — in which he was asked what current rock stars he listened to. Lennon went on for some time singing the praises of a young singer-songwriter from New Jersey. I cringed when I heard it, but I remember thinking "Who am I to argue with John Lennon?" (He was The Walrus, you know. Bruce Springsteen could be the Walrus; I'd still think he's sings like he's taking a poop.)

I'm sure for many the HBO special and the two dates at Madison Square Garden during which it was filmed were amazing shows. For those that revel in that squirrel-voice, who see inspired musicianship where I see only boring rock and roll, who hear the stories and the sentiments in lyrics that sound trite and forced to me.

I don't know, I didn't watch it. I accidentally flipped to it in the hotel room of a friend who is a big Springsteen fan, and painfully conceded that we could watch it if he wanted to. But he must have seen the scowl on my face, and agreed to let me change the channel.

I still think The Boss sucks, but then again, maybe I just don't get it.



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