I was a high school junior when Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA came out and I didn’t like it at the time. I never understood when older people would talk about him in such reverent tones. I simply wasn’t old enough to appreciate his music, which has grown on me in my middle age. In an NPR interview, he talks about his religious upbringing and how it influenced his songwriting:
The thought of an in-between space makes me want to talk about gospel music. And I know that you had an idea of doing a whole gospel project. We heard some of it on Wrecking Ball and we hear some of it on this album with “Heaven’s Wall.” I’m a great student of gospel music and I can see where that kind of call-response thing [is] really like the preacher leading a choir.
Well, sure. That was where James Brown came from. The preacher, he’s the original frontman. It’s the shaman. If you go back, that was the original unit that functioned like that, whether it was in church or whether it was tribal. So the frontman kind of grew out of that thing and so it all gets thrown back to roots in blues and gospel music in church.
But what was your idea for a gospel project? Because I know you’ve talked in the past about getting this religious impulse to work in a way that it’s not restrictive or judgmental, you know. We talked about U2. They do a similar thing. And I hear that in songs like “Heaven’s Wall” and even in some of your protest music, the version of “41 Shots” that’s on the album, there’s a lament quality to it, you know, and a trying-to-transcend quality.Without overusing the word, you know, there’s a Christian element that runs through it because I grew up Catholic and so I was indoctrinated in religious language between eight o’clock and nine o’clock every single morning for the first eight years of my schooling. Five days a week, every single morning, the first thing you did was religion. And so you grew up with that language and it was, of course, distorted, and screwed me up terribly, but at the same time, it made for good writing. And it was a wonderful source of metaphor when you went to write about the world and about your inner life and it served me. I suppose looking back on it, I would like to change some things but I wouldn’t have had that any other way in that it’s served me very, very well and continues to do so. I have a very deep connection to gospel music. I understand the language — I feel I understand the essence of the music itself.
And it isn’t just the religious imagery in his music, it’s the role he plays on stage at times. Watch this live performance of Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, my favorite Springsteen song. He’s a preacher on stage during this song, in the best possible way. It was this exact DVD that really turned me into a fan.