Last month in Palm Beach County, Fla., a lawsuit was filed that accused a New Jersey man of backing out of a deal to buy a horse named Pavarotti. No operatic drama there, right?
Not exactly. The New Jersey horse trader was none other than Bruce Springsteen. The lawsuit accused the 58-year-old rock legend and his wife of breaking a contract to buy an $850,000 horse (the aforementioned Pavarotti) for their teenage daughter.
Excuse me? Bruce Springsteen, blue-collar bard, negotiating with a Palm Beach socialite to buy a show horse for nearly $1 million? Whatever happened to the “prince of the paupers crowned downtown at the beggars’ bash,” the “king of the alley,” and “finding the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car”?
“Born to Run”? Bruce, did you really mean, “Born to Canter”?
Before I commit any further heresy, the obligatory Springsteen street cred: I was born and raised in Jersey, and had an older brother who opened my ears to Bruce at an early age. My brother was so devout he convinced my grandmother to needlepoint him a pillow displaying the cover of Springsteen’s debut album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.” He slept on it till college.
I first met Springsteen when I was a junior in high school. I drove my mother’s Mercury Cougar to Philadelphia with some friends to catch the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” show, and we stood the entire concert in sweat-drenched rapture. Later, we hovered outside the Spectrum in case Bruce showed up. At 2 a.m., when only a few stragglers remained, he emerged, scruffy and hoarse. I had rehearsed the perfect greeting for hours. But as Bruce approached me, all I could muster was, “Boss, you’re the greatest!” Springsteen nodded and whispered, “Thanks, man.” Then he jumped in a shiny yellow Camaro, gunned her and was gone.
For me, that night was almost perfection. But nearly 30 years later, it’s time for a reckoning. I’ve got kids of my own now, and a few months ago I started thinking about taking them to their first Springsteen show. Yet doubts are creeping in. Even before the equine lawsuit hit the wires, I’d been wondering if Bruce had lost his way.
I don’t expect Springsteen to take a vow of poverty, or to work as a bouncer or a state trooper in his off hours, for verisimilitude. I guess I’ve accepted that musicians who rise to fame by fighting the power will sooner or later become powerful. Some even sell out. Mick Jagger trades his cockney rebellion for the trappings of English aristocracy. 50 Cent graduates from the streets of Queens to the serenity of suburban Connecticut.
From underdog to horse trader
But, fair or not, I hold Springsteen to a higher standard. It wasn’t his blue-collar balladry that had always inspired me. Or his politics. It was his outsider persona, his role as a defiant misfit who memorialized the love and melancholy he found in life’s back alleys and badlands. He was the underdog in “Rosalita” who couldn’t convince his girlfriend’s mom to like him “’cause I play in a rock and roll band.” He was the desperate loner in “Thunder Road” who couldn’t seem to coax Mary into his front seat. He was the rebellious teenager in “Growing Up” who stood up when told to sit down.
To be fair, Bruce has not become The Man. In his new album, “Magic,” he sticks it to the Bush administration for the failings of the Iraq war. And he continues to help the downtrodden. Springsteen has quietly donated for years to low-income homeowners in the Garden State who desperately need house repairs. And at every concert, he raises money for local homeless groups and food banks.
So what’s a life-long fan to do?
While composing this rant in my head, my 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter began playing Springsteen on the I-Pod in our kitchen. They don’t expect Springsteen to speak to their generation, or save the world. They just love the music. And we began talking about whether we should go to one of his upcoming shows at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC.
I looked around and found three lower-level tickets for sale on StubHub for $700. And I thought, that’s a ridiculous price, but why not? Who wouldn’t spend just about anything they could afford to make their children happy?
So, with a lighter wallet, I was in the sold-out crowd Monday night when Bruce took to the stage. To show a little faith, as you know who might say.
Jim Popkin is the Chief Investigative Producer for NBC News.