The Musical Muse Turns 70
This week, Bruce Springsteen turned 70 years old. With a new album recently released, The Boss is still rockin’. The Boss had the fever for rock ’n roll since the 1960s on his way to becoming a local hero at the Jersey Shore. While growin’ up, The Boss was no cautious man, traveling the backstreets from Asbury Park to Atlantic City searching for that musical magic. Taking a roll of the dice, he put together the E Street Band in the early 1970s. Bruce and the E Streeters were born to run with Bruce destined to be one of the most popular and revered artists of his time.
Commemorating this 70th birthday, a few articles popped up this week seeking to explain Bruce’s rendezvous with success spanning decades. The Boss has never had a “Number 1” hit. Yet, his popularity continues to increase as others fade away. This article briefly explores Bruce’s amazing popularity and a fundamental reason it continues to expand as Mr. Springsteen enters his seventh decade. Point blank — these other articles missed the mark. A rather simple explanation is not wrapped in some brilliant disguise, but plain to see. What have all these pundits overlooked? What could be so basic to drive and expand popularity all this time? And, amazingly, what might it teach us about mediation and litigation?
First, disclosure and a confession of sorts. Since the late 1970s, I have been a Springsteen fanatic. From my hometown in New Jersey, my buddies and I would drive all night until the light of day just to get to the next concert of Bruce and the E Street Band. I have seen well more than a dozen Bruce shows live. One friend and I reached the promised land one night in the mid-1980s when we partied with The Boss at a small, local bar down the Jersey Shore (more on those glory days later). My wife and I insisted on Springsteen songs among the playlist at our wedding reception with his songs still among the ties that bind us. I am not impartial when it comes to the music of The Boss.
The huge business known as the entertainment industry rewards only the current hot “thing” and immediately moves on to the “next big thing”. The business takes no surrender in stomping on any artist’s book of dreams in search for the next hit. A musician’s life comes with no easy money with most artists winding up out in the street. Despite these odds, Bruce and the E Street Band steadily grew in popularity with their grit, raw style while other fads came and went (disco, the MTV generation, big hair/heavy metal, techno rock, rap, etc.). Over the decades, Bruce racked up 20 Grammys, an Oscar, a few Golden Globes and a Kennedy Center Honor.
What has given Bruce one step up on all the entertainment industry competition and the entertainment industry complex itself? These recent articles suggest the following:
Correctly, these articles note that Springsteen is masterful at writing songs. The Boss brings a human touch to his poetic verse in making his songs come to life. Great songs. Check.
Uniformly, these articles observe that Bruce and his band put on epic, legendary live shows which no other performer can match in duration or intensity. Bruce can prove it all night with the band typically playing four or more hours until they shut out the lights. Great shows. Check.
Some of these articles suggest that The Boss will challenge his audience which adds to his appeal. The latest album, Western Stars, presents an almost country music feel. His 1982 album, Nebraska, daringly left behind many electric guitars and signature horns. Where other artists fear treading on the rocky ground of something new and different, Bruce boldly crosses the river and walks bravely into the fire with high hopes that his audience will follow and new fans may join the ranks. Bruce grows as an artist. Check.
Interestingly, these articles cite Bruce being respected and revered by other artists as a reason for the lofty status of The Boss. Given the down to earth nature of his songs and rather humble beginnings, Bruce may not necessarily enjoy being considered the man at the top, but such may be the price you pay. Professional peer respect and admiration. Check.
Bruce has been open with his fans about his own vulnerabilities. He has spoken about a challenging relationship with his father. He has battled depression. He had to work through a divorce. Bruce has lived life itself and shares his experiences. From these restless nights eventually comes better days. His songs reflect this very fragile, human side. Bruce is a real person and shares both the good and not so good. He is human like us all. Check.
Finally, The Boss presents a strong element of social justice, or perhaps injustice, in his music. For example, so many politicians like to use Bruce’s song Born in the USA as an anthem of patriotism. Listen carefully to the lyrics to find a song about a nation which fails to be there for returning soldiers who just fought with their blood brothers — no jobs, no help, no thanks for all your sacrifices. Social conscience. Check.
All of these points certainly contribute to the overall success of The Boss. I suggest the most fundamental aspect of Bruce’s popularity and longevity rests in the undeniable fact that Springsteen is living proof of the supreme master storyteller.
I do not profess to know the psychology of storytelling and why people so admire good storytellers. Perhaps because a storyteller can transport you into the story itself. Perhaps the power rests with instant connections to the characters in the story. A good story evokes sympathy and even empathy for the characters. Whatever the reasons, we like stories and remain enthralled by good storytellers. The Boss is an excellent storyteller.
Here is but one example from Bruce’s music. The song Thunder Road begins:
The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey, that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again, I just can’t face myself alone again
Don’t run back inside, darling, you know just what I’m here for
So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore . . .
All can envision the setting on a large porch with music playing from merely one line of the song. The man in the song has put himself out there for Mary. He expresses his vulnerabilities and fears and knows Mary is equally fearful. You are hooked and rooting for the two of them halfway through the first verse. We all understand being afraid of rejection, relationships and the prospect of loneliness. The first verse of the song is not even completed.
Rather than chronicle the stories in Bruce’s songs, permit me to share two Springsteen stories from my own experiences. On December 8, 1980, I attended a Springsteen concert in the old Philadelphia Spectrum. Being December, the show featured a number of Christmas songs and band members in Santa hats. The spirit in the night was positive for all until the encores. Bruce came back on stage for the first encore dragging his guitar behind him. He was visibly shaken. He solemnly announced to the crowd that he just learned that John Lennon had been shot and killed in New York City.
Bruce spent the next few minutes explaining how much the Beatles meant to him and every kid who picked up a guitar after 1964. Springsteen related how he studied the Beatles lyrics and strove to make his own songs simple and understandable as John and Paul wrote. The E Street Band then played a set of Beatles music in tribute. There could be no rehearsing the stories Bruce passed on at that fateful moment. They were genuine. You could feel the storyteller’s own pain as the words poured forth. As the crowd emptied out to the streets of Philadelphia, concert goers still had tears in their eyes.
The second story is a little more lighthearted. In the mid-1980s, my friends and I wasted too much time at the Jersey Shore. Rumors always swirled around that Bruce had been spotted nearby and we were in the lucky town where The Boss will show up next. One night when a buddy and I were at a seedy little bar in Belmar, New Jersey with a crowd of maybe 30 people, Bruce strolled in with a few friends. Bruce joined the house band — which terrified the band members — played for about 45 minutes and then held court at the bar.
While sharing beers, everyone gathered around like children listening to grandpa. Bruce told stories about when he started out and dreamed of playing before a huge crowd like these 30 people at this bar. He had everyone doubled over laughing at the vision he created of his band being booed off the stage so the regulars could watch the ball game on tv. He encouraged the house band to stick with it to reach the land of hope and dreams. Once more, off-the-cuff stories transported us back to Bruce’s early days with him.
If any doubt remains, view a recording of Bruce’s Broadway show. You need not be a Springsteen fan to be pulled into his stories behind the music. Through these stories, without trying, you feel for him and feel like him at the same time. Storytelling is powerful.
Mediation practitioners and trial lawyers can take lessons of storytelling from The Boss. In mediation, attorneys typically show up well prepared to discuss key facts and legal issues. One line of inquiry as a mediator is to discuss the alternatives if settlement is not reached. If the case proceeds to a jury, what is the story the party will tell? Quite often, the lawyer wants to reiterate the great facts or legal positions in support of claims.
Failure to develop a good storyline in litigation or even mediation is an opportunity missed. Attorneys will benefit from working on a story and themes early in the case. A good story captures the audience (jury) just as Bruce captured the audience with half a verse of Thunder Road. A good story can make the audience want to root for certain parties. A good story presents a framework to allow the audience to feel sympathy or compassion for particular parties. A good storyline may present a convenient vehicle to ignore or belittle “bad” facts or evidence as not fitting into the narrative.
Lawyers, as advocates, need to work on storytelling skills. Listen to The Boss tell a story through is music, Broadway Show or from clips from his concerts. Lawyers who show up at mediation without a solid storyline for the case and without litigation themes, quite simply, are not prepared for trial. They might be well set for motion practice, including summary judgment applications. However, the trial presents a significant risk and they may not appreciate the magnitude of the risk. Develop storylines early and work on storytelling skills.
Happy Birthday Bruce. Oh, and for those die hard Springsteen fans, you should be able to locate the 48 Bruce song titles used in this article.