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  • Words by Mr Peter Ames Carlin, music critic and author
    of the seminal Bruce Springsteen biography, Bruce

Mr Bruce Springsteen - "High Hopes"

With an almost 50-year music career that has made him an icon for the world's working classes, Bruce Springsteen has become something grander than the everyday folks he gives voice to in his songs. His shirts are custom designed and hand stitched, just as his new guitars are distressed to give them that classic look and feel. And yet the irony of this millionaire rock star as an Everyman stops short of hypocrisy. Springsteen's vision is the same one he saw as a boy, the same one he has shared through so much of his music over the past 40-plus years.

Style has always mattered to Springsteen. As a schoolboy marvelling at the televised gyrations of Elvis Presley, the wildness of the King's looks hit him as hard as the music did. The long, piled-up hair and the shiny lapels struck the young Springsteen as symbols of a new kind of man: an outcast who turned his own freakishness into a superpower. A student and critic of rock fashion throughout the 1960s, he and fellow teen musician Steven Van Zandt - still one of Springsteen's guitarists - debated their heroes' aesthetic choices as if they were political philosophies. Springsteen evolved with the times, from Beatle boots and bangs to paisley shirts, and then the flowing hair and peasant shirts that flourished in the New Age movement.

Mr Springsteen backstage in Uniondale, New York, 1981.
© Annie Leibovitz/ Contact Press Images

Beginning his recording career in the early 1970s, the twentysomething Springsteen emerged as a Dylan-esque singer-songwriter. His definitive works - including "Spirit in the Night" and "Growin' Up" - established his grasp on street poetry as clearly as his unshaven, sweat-shirted look conveyed the rusty industrial towns of his New Jersey boyhood. The world was initially underwhelmed, but as the ragamuffin musician slowly worked his band from grimy roadhouses to big-city clubs and 3,000-seat theatres, he built his Nowheresville look into a mystique that seemed to capture the essence of America's shattered dreams - and also the ones it was still waiting to discover.

Look at the cover of Born to Run and you'll see it all in a glance: his leather motorcycle jacket, artfully shredded white T-shirt and Elvis Presley Fan Club badge sealed his rock credentials, while he evokes the beatniks in his earrings and beard, and Bob Dylan in his corkscrew hair. The way he leans on saxophonist Clarence Clemons represented a bridge across rock's racial divide. Such are the brave declarations of 25 year olds. But as he grew into his thirties, his technicolour reveries took on the real-world burdens of responsibility and disappointment. Looking at his father, school friends and neighbours, he saw their lives consumed by drudgery, with barely a twinkle of promise waiting at the end of the week. And you could go at it for decades and emerge with nothing but a worn-down body and the knowledge that the game had always been rigged against you.

As a schoolboy marvelling at the televised gyrations of Elvis Presley, the wildness of the King's looks hit him as hard as the music did

Springsteen identified with his songs' characters, and altered his thinking accordingly. His concerts stretched to double-length, with a crusading intensity. He stuck to (mostly) familiar terrain and spoke according to its humble customs, even as he tested the boundaries of rock'n'roll, first by aiming for the stars and then by descending into its darkest chasms. All too aware of the economic and moral poverty triggered by the war- and wealth-obsessed governments of the 1980s, he presented 1984's Born in the USA as the sound of the forgotten American: the lunchbox-toters who fought the wars and worked the factories that propelled America's rise from an upstart of colonies to unchallenged superpower. More than don the T-shirts, jeans and cut-off Levi's jackets of the day, Springsteen rebuilt himself in mammoth proportions, the muscles adorning his body like plates of armour.

That much-admired physique did no harm to his vanity, yet violations of his strict anti-fame policies (no limousines, no glitter - he even folds his own laundry at hotels) could make him as bitchy as the most temperamental diva. Mostly, he has held his fans close and the vulnerable ones closer still. From 1984 onward he has turned his concerts into platforms for local food banks and military veterans' organisations. And when the time came to play his definitive song, "Born to Run", he spun his introduction into a plea for community spirit: "In the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins".

No matter how distinctive his look, Springsteen's style has more to do with the proximity of his talk and walk, and with the empathy he has for those he's encountered on the boulder-strewn road through life

Now 64, Springsteen has aged with something close to grace; there may be an occasionally over-ambitious dye job, but he maintains his grasp on youth the hard way, through a healthy diet and a daily routine of weights and exercise that would defy the will of men half his age. The basics of his look - boots, denims, leather jacket and some designer-y variation on the tee and work shirt combo that he's sported since his early twenties - remain more or less consistent. A varying display of necklaces, bracelets and ear piercings adorn him, while silver, and sometimes bejewelled, crucifixes portray the faith he has both battled and found comfort in since his childhood.

No matter how distinctive his look, Springsteen's style has more to do with the proximity of his talk and walk, and with the empathy he has for those he's encountered on the boulder-strewn road through life. Certainly, the man has stumbled. He has suffered and dealt suffering to others. And yet he's kept his eyes wide, his spirit warm and hands extended to those in need. Or tried to, at any rate, and this is the spirit that still ignites his audiences across the world.

The artwork for Mr Springsteen's latest album,
High Hopes, which was released last month

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