Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Jukebox: Growin’ Up

Bruce Springsteen: Growin’ Up

In this post-Brian Williams world, I have been reading a great deal about the unreliable nature of memory. It always strikes me when I speak with old friends that I can have a strong memory of something and they don’t, or when our memories are different, even when I know they were there. For example, when I was a senior in college, I got the opportunity to visit the Gettysburg battlefield with a group of professors and grad students, led by the eminent Civil War historian James McPherson. My friend Judith was the only other undergraduate invited.  I recall that I got the invitation because I had a big car and was friendly with one of the grad students (who later wrote a book about Springsteen). I’m not sure what Judith’s in was, but she later became a history professor and worked with McPherson, so maybe there was something there. She’ll probably read this and let me know, and based on the video linked below, she has a different memory of how I got invited.

Anyway, there are things about that trip that have stuck in my mind to this day, more than 30 years later, especially walking across the field toward Cemetery Ridge as we recreated Pickett’s Charge. A few years ago, Judith contacted me to say that she was going to be participating on a panel honoring Professor McPherson, and told me that she was going to tell an anecdote referencing something that I said during that walk. And to be honest, I do not remember saying it—but it was so memorable to her that she told the story at the conference. It’s here, starting at 24:25. And I’m happy that what I apparently said got laughs from the assembled historians.

There were no jukeboxes at Gettysburg, but trust me, I’ll get there.

It was probably my 12th birthday, but I’m not sure, and I remember that someone gave me a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. which had come out earlier that year. I can’t specifically recall if I was familiar with his music or who gave it to me, and I do remember some surprise, because I know that I had never mentioned to anyone that I wanted that album. And I remember putting it on the turntable and being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of words and the cleverness of the lyrics, as much as the power of the music.

No, I didn’t become a crazed Bruce fan, and it wasn’t a religious experience for me. But I have always liked his music. I’ve only seen him once, at Princeton a few years before I went to Gettysburg, and my most powerful memories of the show (other than that it was great) are that he messed up “Born to Run," and that the crowd jumped up and down so much, it damaged the gym floor. And I do think that his body of work has been consistently excellent, for much longer than most artists stay relevant.

As I said, (and have written about elsewhere) I loved the wordplay on the debut album. While the song “Growin’ Up” isn’t as thesaurus reliant as “Blinded By The Light,” it has its moments. Clearly based on Springsteen’s memories of, yeah, growin’ up, he wrote:

The flag of piracy flew from my mast, my sails were set wing to wing 
I had a jukebox graduate for first mate, she couldn't sail but she sure could sing. 

So, what’s a “jukebox graduate”? Someone who only knows what she learned from music? Someone who wasn’t “book smart”? I’m not really sure, but it is a great phrase, and has been co-opted as the inspiration for at least two blogs (one by a former Smithie), a band and a middle school club in North Carolina.

Really, it doesn’t matter that I didn’t remember my memorable remark to Judith, or who gave me Springsteen’s debut. But both my trip to Gettysburg and that album have continued to resonate with me through the years.

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