The Enduring Catholic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen
Back in 1988, in an article in America, the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, the author and sociologist, described and celebrated the “Catholic imagination” of Bruce Springsteen. With characteristic exuberance, even moments of panache, Father Greeley referred to Springsteen as a “Catholic Meister- singer,” a liturgist and a troubadour—making sure to point out that troubadours “always have more impact than theologians or bishops, storytellers more influence than homilists.” He suggested that the recent release of the album “Tunnel of Love” might very well have been “a more important Catholic event in this country than the visit of Pope John Paul!” Even more significant—and with the inevitable reference to James Joyce, the archetypal literary-genius-as-lapsed-Catholic—Greeley claimed that Springsteen exemplified a “more primary, a more pristine and, yes, a more powerful and more benign version of Catholicism” than the one presented by the institutional church.
Biographically, Greeley hedged his bets, repeatedly stating that Springsteen might not have been aware of just how Catholic he really was. Theologically, however, Greeley had bigger points to make about the imagination (“the imagination is religious”), about religion (“religion is imaginative”) and about the seeming inability of Catholics, Springsteen included, ever to leave the church. Greeley would expand on some of these Big Ideas in his book The Catholic Imagination (2000), but by then he had left Springsteen far behind, focusing primarily on “works of high culture...permeated by Catholic sensibility” as they might somehow “predict the ways ordinary Catholics behave.” Yet, for all the genius and accomplishments of the great artists he mentioned, from Bernini to Verdi, none of them ever gave a world tour, filling stadiums night after night, playing for four hours a shot.
Andrew Greeley didn’t know how right he was about the Boss.
Almost 30 years later, Greeley’s essay remains a point of reference in the occasional essay or blog post exploring the religious themes and qualities of Springsteen’s music. Yet for all its grand gestures, the essay is also dated and severely limited: As far as Springsteen’s music goes, it is really just a brief review of “Tunnel of Love.” Now, in the past year or so, Springsteen has completed The River Tour, the culmination of an extended celebration of that album’s 35th anniversary. He has also published his autobiography—called Born to Run, of course—and this past October he began a series of solo performances at the Walter Kerr Theatre, “Springsteen on Broadway,” which are now scheduled to run through December. So it is a particularly good time to revisit Greeley’s argument that, for all its shortcomings, turns out to be remarkably prescient, especially regarding the enduring influence of Catholicism on Springsteen’s career and on the evolution of his public role and his iconic cultural status.
Greeley’s insights and limitations derive largely from his generational perspective. He is careful not to “claim Springsteen as Catholic in the way we used to claim actors and movie stars and sports heroes,” disavowing the kind of mid-20th-century cultural appropriation by which, in his view, many Catholics of his own and earlier generations, often raised in immigrant enclaves and eager for a place in the American mainstream, identified deeply with public figures like the once-famous “jungle doctor,” Tom Dooley, or Bing Crosby (particularly in his role as Father O’Malley in “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s”), or perhaps most of all President John F. Kennedy. Instead, Greeley looks for “symbols” of Catholicism that can serve a more contemporary and more expansive role. He suggests that his “troubadours,” like Springsteen, are “only implicitly Catholic (and perhaps not altogether consciously so).” He is compelled to note that they will not serve the church in the most obviously pragmatic ways: “they will not increase Sunday collections or win converts or improve the churchs [sic] public image.”
In short, Greeley is so eager to disclaim Catholic stereotypes and provincialism that he protests far too much. Nonetheless, his various disclaimers help him clear the way for a point that is ultimately more significant: “But those are only issues if you assume that people exist to serve the church. If, on the other hand, you assume that the church exists to serve the people by bringing a message of hope and renewal, of light and water and rebirth, to a world steeped in tragedy and sin, you rejoice that such a troubadour sings stories that maybe even he does not know are Catholic.”
The last 30 years have made it much clearer just how fully Springsteen’s Catholic imagination aspires to “a message of hope and renewal” at the same time that it is “steeped in tragedy and sin.” Beyond that, it is in his profound reconceptualization of the relationship between “the people” and “the church” that his music has taken on its most consequential role in our culture.
A Catholic Childhood
In Born to Run (the autobiography), Springsteen shows that he is a far more reflective and deliberate artist than Greeley imagined. He turns out to be particularly thoughtful about his Catholic upbringing and its continuing importance to his life’s work. In one of the book’s earliest passages, he remembers standing with his sister “like sideshow gawkers peering in through the huge wooden doors of our corner church, witnessing an eternal parade of baptisms, weddings, and funerals.” The Springsteen family lives “literally, in the bosom of the Catholic Church, with the priest’s rectory, the nun’s convent, the St. Rose of Lima Church and grammar school all just a football’s toss away across a field of wild grass.” At St. Rose, he proves to be a highly inept altar boy, yet he still absorbs Catholicism deeply enough “in his bones” that he would later conclude, just like Greeley, “that once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic.... I’m still on the team.”
“Once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic,” Springsteen writes. “I’m still on the team.”
Springsteen quickly comes to understand that this childhood, surrounded by “lives inextricably linked with the life of the Church,” taught him how faith can be nurtured in community and how to draw meaning and dramatic force through an ongoing sequence of familiar rituals. At the same time, he learned a great deal about how faith and hope can be expressed and sustained through performance.
Not surprisingly, even in these earliest passages, Springsteen is also keenly aware that his autobiography is a performance in its own right, of a kind with his recordings and concerts. Fittingly, the first chapter of Born to Run echoes both a common rally cry at Springsteen concerts and a revival meeting:
Here we live in the shadow of the steeple, where the holy rubber meets the road, all crookedly blessed in God’s mercy, in the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, race-riot-creating, oddball-hating, soul-shaking, love-and-fear-making, heartbreaking town of Freehold, New Jersey.
This same passage also dramatizes some of the characteristics of Springsteen’s imagination that would prevail well beyond its mid-20th-century Catholic origins: it is rich and nuanced, ironic and self-aware, expansive and improvisational, comic and tragic.
Moreover, Springsteen’s autobiography shows how the Catholicism of his childhood has generated some of the most compelling features of his music, most of all its appeal to a common humanity and its capacity to generate a sense of shared ritual. At the same time, over the course of his career, “the people” have become only more desperate for hope and redemption, just as his music has developed a complex dynamic for meeting this need.
Saints in the City
From the very beginning, Springsteen’s songs have been informed and energized by distinctly Catholic imagery. In his first album, “Greetings From Asbury Park,” the narrator of “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” finds traces of Catholicism everywhere in the youthful joys and temptations of life on the city streets, from his boast, “I was the pimp’s main prophet,” to his trepidation in those moments when “the devil appeared like Jesus through the steam in the street.” On a darker note, “Lost in the Flood” is populated by a cast of characters from the doomed drag racer called Jimmy the Saint, to the “Bronx’s best apostle,” to a seductive “storefront incarnation of Maria.” Springsteen’s streets are full of desperate and lonely figures, nearly all of whom seem to be waiting for some revelation, as though it might instantly appear like the brilliance encountered in the moment of rising from the subway into the afternoon sunlight (or nighttime lights) of Times Square.
Springsteen’s streets are full of desperate and lonely figures, nearly all of whom seem to be waiting for some revelation.
Springsteen’s Catholic vocabulary often introduces and frames his music’s prevailing themes.
His characters always seem to be colliding—with each other, with the police, with fate and with other forces beyond themselves. In the brief moments when they see beyond their own youthful posturing, they find themselves on the verge of some larger meaning near, or just beyond, the limits of their understanding. Sometimes the consequences are enlightening. Sometimes they are deadly. Yet even in these very early songs, Springsteen’s Catholic imagination reminds us of the essential humanity and the ultimate interconnectedness of the wild and the innocent, the lost and the redeemed, the sinners and the saints.
This imagination is also playfully and productively ironic. Consider, for instance, “Thunder Road,” the classic power ballad (and standard concert encore). Springsteen reduces his narrative to a few essential elements, focusing on a moment in which, for better or for worse, a character stands on the verge of transformation. In this case, the scene opens on a seemingly ordinary occasion, when a young man arrives at a romantic vision of his future. Apparently he does not have much else, except a car. Nonetheless, he begins to imagine that he can escape his “town full of losers,” if only he can convince a girl (of course) to join him in the front seat (at least). She is named Mary (of all things) and his moment of possible enlightenment occurs when he sees her dancing across her front porch to the sound of Roy Orbison singing for the lonely. Suddenly, redemption seems just that simple. Yet in Springsteen’s New Jersey that is usually how dreams get made. In such a moment, a world, or at least a highway, seems about to open. The long-term prospects might be dim (he does not seem to have a reliable source of gas money). He is “no hero,” as anyone can tell, and the only “redemption” he can offer is beneath his car’s “dirty hood.” The path to salvation might turn out to be nothing more exotic than the New Jersey Turnpike. Yet in this moment, hope is enough. In fact, it is everything. It is time to take a chance.
Springsteen’s music has come to serve as a vehicle for revival, particularly in the aftermath of catastrophe.
The basic narrative and thematic structure of “Thunder Road” is a familiar Springsteen prototype, and not much different than that of hundreds of other songs of youthful hope and rebellion. Yet Springsteen almost always uses this structure for something more, at times because he adapts it to songs of friendship, like “Bobby Jean” and “No Surrender,” at times because he expands it into urban epics like “Rosalita” and “Jungleland,” and at times because he follows it into the struggles of men and women whose aspirations have nearly been destroyed by adult disillusionment and economic scarcity, as in “The River” and “Racing in the Streets.” Yet there is often a religious quality to the imagery, and almost always to the narrative structure—sustaining hope, in one of Springsteen’s most American tropes, that somewhere down the road there might really be a “promised land.”
Mostly, that is the early Springsteen of The Stone Pony and Madame Marie’s, of crossing the river into New York City, of being sprung from cages on Highway 9. Of course, regarding these songs, Greeley is correct enough to describe these early Springsteen themes as a part of his role as a troubadour rather than a theologian. He dramatizes lives lived in the shadows of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, in working class neighborhoods and suburban developments built on reclaimed swampland, and he gives these lives, even in their most desperate moments, a sound of their own with a visceral sense of dignity. Still, in separating these roles, Greeley misses the ways in which these songs find their way into the foundation and everyday practice of personal and communal faith.
The Minister of Public Remembrance
Over the years, Springsteen’s Catholic imagination has continued to evolve. In its best known cultural roles, his music has come to serve as a vehicle for revival, particularly in the aftermath of catastrophe. By now, it might seem almost inevitable that a song like “My City of Ruins,” written in 2000 for a benefit to aid the revitalization of Asbury Park, would become after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a touchstone for our most prominent national trauma.
In very different ways, songs like “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” are animated by the same rallying of communal spirit and affirmation of common dignity, while drawing upon traditions of social justice including the civil rights movement (“People Get Ready”), Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck. These same qualities also give shape and power to “The Rising,” which began as the story of a firefighter climbing one of the World Trade Center towers, as it burns, wearing a cross.
Writing in America in 2011, on the tenth anniversary of the attacks, Christopher Pramuk revisited “The Rising” as a public remembrance, grounded in Catholic ritual, which opens a “space for critical self-reflection on our actions as a nation.” In this respect, Mr. Pramuk argues that this song—especially in Springsteen’s “stark, even prayerful renderings,” which often build toward a concluding gospel chorus—provides a necessary antidote to American jingoism and to our gradual acceptance of a continuous state of war, as well as a sense of communion among the living and the dead. Yet “The Rising” builds toward a vision that is also profoundly aesthetic. Its narrative and musical structure lead to a central image as explicitly Catholic as any Greeley finds either in high culture or popular devotion—Mary in “the garden of a thousand sighs” surrounded by “holy pictures of our children/ Dancin’ in a sky filled with light”—which invokes at once the firefighter’s wife, the Blessed Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene in a modern reliving of the crucifixion and the resurrection.
Especially in recent years, one of the most remarkable features of Springsteen’s Catholic imagination is his recognition that this public role requires an ironic self-awareness, mostly to cultivate a humility grounded in gratitude. In this regard, “Springsteen on Broadway” is the culmination of his career’s steadiest and most logical progression. Now, five nights a week, Springsteen performs on his own (other than harmonies with Patti Scialfa on a couple of songs), in a 960-seat theater, with nothing but a collection of guitars and a baby grand piano, with a remarkably spare stage and lighting design, and with the songs interspersed with spoken passages mostly adapted from the autobiography.
One more time, it is an original, authentic Springsteen. In a recent interview, he has said that this project recaptures his earliest performances at clubs like the Bottom Line and Max’s Kansas City, which involved “a lot of storytelling” in an intimate setting and, on a good night, an audience of around 200. It also draws elements from the acoustic tours following the release of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” in 1995 and “Devils & Dust” in 2005, as well as a 2005 VH1 Storytellers segment. After that performance, Elvis Costello told Springsteen that he had created a “third element,” distinct from both his recordings and his concerts. Then, in January 2017, in the last days of the Obama presidency, Springsteen performed an acoustic concert at the White House as the president’s “parting gift” for 250 staffers. Driving home with his wife, Patti Scialfa, and Jon Landau, his manager, Springsteen decided to create the production that would soon become “Springsteen on Broadway.”
This long artistic development has been informed by—and has in turn fostered—the distinctly Catholic characteristics of Springsteen’s music. The New York Times theater critic Jesse Green has described “Springsteen on Broadway” as an “overwhelming and uncategorizable Broadway show.” Tellingly, Green also compares the audience’s experience to being in church, even as a matter of decorum (sitting on hands, no clapping). At the same time, he describes “Springsteen on Broadway” as an “anti-hit” concert, focusing on less familiar and more meditative songs, along with significant reinterpretations of some of his best-known “hits,” so that “Dancing in the Dark” no longer seems to be “a casual invitation to sex” but becomes “a parable about the nihilism underlying such invitations,” and so that Springsteen recovers “Born in the U.S.A.” as a protest song dwelling on the struggles of damaged veterans, and perhaps finally exorcises Ronald Reagan’s bizarre attempt to appropriate it as an anthem of optimistic jingoism.
Springsteen has arrived at a more mature and more compelling understanding of our collective need for a communal expression of struggle and hope.
Springsteen has arrived at a more mature and more compelling understanding of our collective need for a communal expression of struggle and hope and, at the same time, his own need as an artist for the ultimately solo act of stark reappraisal, in a continuing and partially ritualized return to the origins of his dreams and his beliefs. Ultimately, “Springsteen on Broadway” is subtly yet determinedly confessional. At our current moment in history, this quality might be the last thing we expect, in any serious way, from such a public figure. But it is also the latest and seemingly inevitable stage in the continuing evolution of Springsteen’s Catholic imagination.
Most of all, “Springsteen on Broadway” shows that Springsteen has been much more than a national “troubadour.” Yes, he is “still on the team.” More important, he has emerged from the shadow of St. Rose of Lima as a new kind of minister—of remembrance, repentance, recovery, resolve and redemption—in a church that serves the people even more profoundly than Father Greeley would have imagined.