"An American classic, they'll never make another one like him."
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Each side of the tape had 45 minutes on it, which meant you can fit all of “Born to Run” on one side but “Born in the U.S.A.,” which runs 46 minutes, 57 seconds, always got cut off before “My Hometown” ended. When I hear that song today, I still wait for it to stop after “these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back,” like it did in dad’s truck, where I listened to it over and over and over. One of Dad’s younger brothers, who was still single and thus could spend his paycheck on stuff for himself rather than waste it on children, had a record player that recorded to blank tapes, so Dad asked him to record the two Bruce Springsteen albums for him. What albums could possibly be more valuable?
Dad didn’t have a case for the tape, because there was no need: It was always playing. “Born in the USA” was written in black Bic pen ink on side, and “BORN TO RUnnnn” was on the other; some water had gotten on the tape and smeared the last word. Whether we were driving to baseball practice, or to Dad’s work, or to Moweaqua to visit my grandmother, or we were just driving around Mattoon scratching off lottery tickets all night, that tape was on repeat: As soon as one album ended, Dad seamlessly flipped it right back over to hear the next one. He had an old 1986, maybe 1987 Chevy pickup truck, looked like this but blue; he had a Leer camper shell (or “topper”) for a while but eventually got rid of it.
I’d sit in the front with Dad, and The Boss would sing about drinking beers with your buddies and the girl that got away and textile mills closing and Buicks and working on the highway, and Dad would tap the steering wheel to the rhythm of the music and we’d drive and drive and I would feel wistful for a life I hadn’t even had yet. Dad used to keep his truck running when he was on site with his substation crew so they could listen to The Boss while they were working. Those albums will always sound like being out on a sweltering summer day, sweating like a fool and working hard to finish the job so you can get home to a cold one and your best girl. They feel like home.
Dad dressed up as Springsteen for one of my uncle’s Halloween parties one year. It wasn’t very hard. He just put on a pair of jeans and unbuttoned a couple of buttons on his top shirt. Everybody knew who it was. It was everyone’s favorite costume.
Last night, I took my parents to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. It was their Christmas present. It was the second show of Springsteen’s 2023 tour, his first North American tour in six years. Suffice it to say, a lot has happened in the six years since Bruce Springsteen last went on tour. The band thus came out as if fired out of a cannon.
Springsteen turned 73 years old in September—he is in fact one month and 17 days younger than my father—and while it is tempting to say something like, “I hope I have that sort of energy when I’m 73!” the fact is I’ll be fortunate if I have that much energy next week. The show only has a couple of songs from his new album—which is simply covers of old R&B songs, which means the audience was familiar with them anyway—and focuses instead on Springsteen playing the most beloved, and joyous, songs from his canon. The man last night had the energy of someone who has not played to live audiences in six years and was famished by their absence: He bounced around the stage, he ripped off multiple guitar solos, he leapt into the audience, he played every song like he was singing it for the first and last time. Springsteen is renowned for his live shows, of course, but I found myself most taken with how he was almost a conductor of the ever-expanding E Street Band: He runs everything—all energy flows through him. It was an incredible thing to watch.
It can sometimes make you feel a little sheepish to be a public Springsteen fan, as if enjoying his music is somehow evidence you are washed, some boomer wearing a too-small concert T-shirt to the Margaritaville in the strip mall and complaining about how kids just don’t want to work hard anymore. (Particularly when so many sportswriters are so deeply thirsty for him, often for the wrong reasons.) A reporter called me for an interview just as we walked into the arena last night, and when she asked why it was so loud where I was, I didn’t say I was at a Springsteen concert: I said I was taking my parents to a Springsteen concert, like I was a dad escorting teenage girls to see a boy band. But honestly, I knew more songs than they did. So let’s just admit it here for the record: I love Springsteen. Springsteen is from a generation before mine, but he was the titan of that generation, one who was ubiquitous, inescapable and titanic: He was the guy your parents loved but you still didn’t hate. (He even liked Kurt Cobain.) Springsteen is often misunderstood by people who don’t listen to him, people who find him jingoistic, or reactionary, or old-fashioned, when I’d argue he’s the opposite of all three. He always feels on the right side of everything.
As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve discovered what binds all the artists—whether they’re writers, or musicians, or filmmakers, or even athletes—that I admire most is sincerity. That doesn’t mean earnestness, or mawkishness: It means that they are people who truly, profoundly believe in what they have to offer the world and are compelled, almost compulsively, to do so. Springsteen is sincere in the best way. Even if he’s not your cup of tea, there isn’t a false note about him. He truly, profoundly believes his music can change the world. I’m pretty sure it can’t. But I’ll be goddamned if, when you’re watching him, ricocheting around the stage at 73, you don’t think that maybe it can. And you can be damned sure he’s never going to stop trying.
Also, seriously, the songs are so good. Even a song like “Glory Days,” which (understandably, it’s called Glory Days) is seen as boomer remember-when pablum, takes great pains to undercut all that easy and empty sentiment, arguing pretty clearly against the cold comfort of revisionist nostalgia:
I hope when I get old I don't sit around thinking about it
But I probably will
Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture
A little of the glory of, well time slips away
And leaves you with nothing mister but
Boring stories of … glory days.
But whatever. I don’t need to sell you on Springsteen. You’re with him or you’re not. I’m with him. The sincerity will work forever on me, and always has. I will always remember, back in October 2006, when I was going through some serious personal upheaval and sleeping on the couch of my friends AJ’s and Aileen’s apartment, feeling lost and adrift, when, while we were all just waking up and staring at our laptops, “Rosalita” came on the stereo. Unbidden, without a word between us, these three would-be super-hip-and-cynical New York City internet Gen-Xers stopped what they were doing and began to dance around the living room together, at 8:15 in the morning. That’s a story of my life. There are so many like it.
And there are even more with my parents. He is the story of their lives too—moreso even than mine.
As we watched the show, really just in awe of that maniac on stage—a 73-year-old maniac driven by an relentless energy that none of us could possibly understand—we heard songs we knew, songs we didn’t, held onto memories of people we’ve lost, had hopeful visions of memories yet to be made, and it felt like another chapter in an ongoing, neverending story. I found myself watching my dad watch the show. He’s older now, slower—like all of us. But he’s still sincere too, still himself, still that guy in the front seat of the truck, wearing out that old dubbed cassette tape. I noticed at one point, during “Dancing In The Dark,” he was tapping the cupholder on his seat to the rhythm of the music, the same way he used to tap that steering wheel. I looked down, and I was doing the same thing.
My father, as he has gotten older, has started listening to the ‘50s station on the SiriusXM station in his car. At first I thought this was strange. Dad was a small child in ‘50s. His formative years were some of the greatest in rock history: He was 18 when Sgt. Pepper’s came out, 20 when Abbey Road and Led Zeppelin II came out, 22 when Sticky Fingers came out, 24 when Born to Run hit. But that’s not what he listens to now. As he has gotten older, he has come to listen to the music of his youth—Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard. And watching that show, that transcendent show, with him and my mother last night, made me understand it. It made me understand, and feel, acutely, that need to connect to who you once were and, most important, to the people you have lost along the way. When my dad is listening to Sam Cooke and Carl Perkins, he’s listening to the music his father listened to. And through that music, he gets to remember him. He gets to sit in the truck right there next to him.
When I am older, perhaps my sons will get me a Christmas present like this. Maybe they’ll be sitting there with me watching a 75-year-old Jeff Tweedy, and they will remember listening to “A Ghost Is Born” in Dad’s car, and they’ll see me tap my foot then the way I do now when I listen to “The Late Greats,” and it will make them feel warm and connected to me, and who they were, and who they now are. And then I will go out in my car after the show, and I will put on The Boss, maybe “Working on the Highway,” and there Dad will be, right there next to me. And the boys in 20 years will do the same, and on and on and on it will go, and when we feel like crying, we will start laughin’, thinkin’ ‘bout …
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Billy Packer and the End of the Antagonizing Broadcaster, New York. Do not let a man die without reminding people of just how much they used to hate him.
Your NL Central Preview, MLB.com. Two of these down, four to go.
M. Night Shyamalan Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. Updated with Knock at the Cabin.
Marjorie Taylor Greene Has a Better Chance of Becoming President Than You Think, Medium. It’s terrifyingly true.
Fun Bandwagon Teams For 2023, MLB.com. As proof that I am an impartial journalist, I put the Cubs on here.
The Six Players Most Likely to Bounce Back in 2023, MLB.com. I Believe In Spencer Torkelson.
Look at These Idiots Who Ran For President, Medium. Weirdos!
The Thirty: Best Home Series For Every Team, MLB.com. I’m counting London as “home” for the Cubs and Cardinals.
Grierson & Leitch, we’re back! We discussed “Infinity Pool” and “M3gan,” as well as the Sundance Film Festival and the 2023 Oscar nominations.
Seeing Red, no show this week.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
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CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Cold Irons Bound,” Bob Dylan. “Time Out of Mind,” along with “Love and Theft,” is one of those inner-tier albums that I know every single word and chord of by heart. So I wasn’t sure I’d be down for a remix of it: That album is perfect to me. But boy howdy did they nail this song.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
I am ready for the Illini to destroy Iowa today. Screw Iowa. Go Illini.