By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Bruce Springsteen shouldn't need an introduction. He's won 18 Grammy Awards and an Oscar, sold more than 65 million albums and, well, his name is practically synonymous with "working-class," "Everyman" and "New Jersey" in conversation. Everyone knows The Boss. In his 1980s heyday, it seemed like you couldn't go half an hour without hearing him on the radio or television.
And yet, while his bigger hits have had tremendous mainstream appeal, Springsteen's rabidly devoted fan base also includes a surprising number of indie-rock fans and musicians—especially odd since it's these groups that normally seem most suspicious of such commercial fare.
Some local members of this set say they appreciate the gritty poetry of Springsteen's lyrics and the crack musicianship of his backing E Street Band. Others say they're won over by his quieter, folk-influenced material—particularly his 1982 solo album Nebraska, a stark collection of somber narratives recorded on a 4-track cassette recorder.
Josh Venable, radio DJ for both KYSR in Los Angeles and KDGE in Dallas, remembers the first time he really listened to Springsteen. Until he was 25, Venable considered it "adult music," stuff his parents listened to. And then one morning at 6 a.m., as he crossed the Interstate 35 bridge over Lake Lewisville driving home from a graveyard shift, "Born to Run" came on the radio.
"There's only a few songs in my life that I've heard that are absolutely perfect," Venable says. "When you listen to 'Born to Run,' there's nothing wrong with it. It's perfect in every single way. The lyrics are amazing, the music is amazing."
That moment, Venable says, led to his discovery of Nebraska, which, in turn, led to his current completist obsession; Venable says he owns every officially released Springsteen album and that he's constantly hunting down rare 7- and 12-inch albums.
And then, in 2006, his obsession went to the next level when he and several Dallas musicians formed Springsteen tribute act Nightmare on E Street.
Nightmare keyboardist Brent Engel, a songwriter who performs around Dallas as Here, In Arms, also proudly boasts a complete Springsteen collection—his, though, unlike Venable's, goes so far as to include bootlegs and biographies. And like Venable, Engel says, he was drawn to Springsteen's lyrics first. Later, he was awed by the E Street Band's finely honed performances.
"As far as keeping rock 'n' roll alive, [Springsteen] puts on a show," Engel says. "He's so connected with the audience, and that band turns on a dime. I just wish that I could play like any of those guys."
Engel's own original outputs reflect that desire. His songwriting showcases a noticeable '70s rock influence—including an obvious nod to Springsteen.
"He sings about criminals a lot, but a lot of them [are] about their redeeming values," Engel says. "It's just so simple—and written so you sympathize with them. He's got really ambiguous lyrics in the beginning, like [with] 'Blinded By the Light,' which has a lot of metaphors and ambiguous lyrics that he uses in his earlier stuff. But then he gets more concise later in his career."
It's easy to hear the admiration in Engel's speech. And in the words of the other Nightmare bandmates too. Dylan Silvers—of [DARYL], The Crash That Took Me and, yes, Nightmare too—says he admires Springsteen's versatility, specifically citing Springsteen's ability to go from broken-down lo-fi solo folk to bombastic rock with the E Street Band.
Indeed, if you search for it, Springsteen's influence on Dallas is pretty obvious. But he's also made an impact on music that seems, at first listen, to have nothing in common with his own.
Look at the jagged, discordant and disturbing rock of The Paper Chase. It seems decidedly un-Springsteen-influenced—until, that is, you speak with Paper Chase singer/guitarist John Congleton.
"For years, I always associated Springsteen with a culture and a style that had no resonance with me," Congleton says. "About the age of 19—it's the same story with a lot of people—I heard Nebraska and couldn't believe I had missed this jewel. It's so intimate and personal. Everything about it appealed to me, and what I like in music.
"Just because he was somebody in the '80s and did the videos, he'd become this pop icon. A lot of people completely missed the weight of his lyrics and how intelligent the music is."
Congleton openly admits that he tries to emulate The Boss' songwriting approach.
"One thing that has definitely influenced me is [his songwriting]," he says. "Especially around the time of Born to Run, from that point on, he really seemed to make sure that every song had this great apex or climax where the character and the narrative of the story hit its peak, and the realization was made. He made sure everything built up to that one moment. That's one thing a lot of artists forget, especially in pop music. They concentrate on writing a hook or a catchy chorus, and they forget that a song needs to have moments...That's what I try to take from him and put in my music."
This isn't to say that everything Springsteen does is golden, even to his biggest fans. Silvers says he doesn't care for his late-'80s or early-'90s output—a pretty common opinion among fans. And when asked for their least favorite Springsteen album, everyone interviewed for this article referred to 1992's Human Touch, with most picking out the song "57 Channels and Nothing On" as a particularly egregious low point.
But they also all love his recent material, particularly 2002's 9/11 response The Rising, and they're all supportive of Springsteen's latest, 2007's Magic.
"Boss is hands-down one of the best," Silvers says. "He's up there with Bob Dylan and Prince as the best [American] songwriters. I mean, shit, the last Boss record was good, and even the last one with the E Street Band...He's consistently put out some pretty kick-ass shit and kept up with the times."