Sunday, September 21, 2014

"Fifty Years of Makin' This Guitar Talk" at Monmouth University

Wilson Hall, Monmouth University
What's your favorite Bruce Springsteen song? That was the gist of the first panel at "Fifty Years of Makin' This Guitar Talk," a symposium to celebrate Springsteen's 65th birthday this week, presented by the Friends of the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection and Monmouth University. As you might expect, "Born to Run" was the favorite of most of the panelists and audience members. One panelist suggested that if you tend to ignore the song because it's old and often-played, then you should listen to it again fresh, as if you've never heard it before. I'm happy to say that I do this every time I hear the song, and I always hear something new or different in the lyrics or the music taken as a whole, or in sections, or in the individual instruments. The music and performances are transformative on so many levels.

I can imagine what you're thinking. That a bunch of us Springsteen fans, experts and scholars got together at a symposium at a university to talk about our favorite Springsteen songs and that that is superficial indeed. But wait. That initial discussion served as an icebreaker, and soon the panel and audience were naming their favorite "guilty pleasure" and twenty-first-century songs and then those songs that may have done better if they had been recorded differently. "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" was suggested as a favorite from the current century, possibly because of the excellent imagery:

Since many of the attendees have been to many Springsteen shows, there was also a category of discussion for songs that were okay on the recording but brought to live in live performance. Springsteen has been playing for a long time (50 years according to the title of this event), and performances have evolved and matured along with the performers and the audience.

Stan Goldstein (blogger and author), Christopher Philips (Editor/Publisher of Backstreets Magazine), Holly Cara Price (writer, Huffington Post), and Barry Schneier (long-time photographer of Springsteen et al) sit on a panel at the symposium

So if you still don't get why people would bother convening at a symposium to discuss a man's body of work and his influence, let me try to understand. I enjoy spending lazy days off reading and writing. It's almost as if I am hosting my own storytelling salon where famous authors share their stories with me and I'm writing my stories for anyone who will read them. Even when I take a break for lunch and pop on the TV for an hour, I'm drawn to stories being told by actors. Guess what: Bruce Springsteen is a master storyteller, and if you listen closely to his lyrics you'll hear that. Every person brings their own experiences and knowledge to a story being told, and that is why it is so interesting to discuss a book with a book club, or discuss a movie around the office water cooler, or, discuss Springsteen's music at a symposium.

'Symposium' is a word with stuffy, pedantic connotations, but this symposium was not that. It was casual and interesting, with ample opportunity for attendees to offer their thoughts on various panel topics. I'll be honest: I wasn't sure I wanted to dissect my beloved Springsteen music in this way. I deeply appreciate his work as an innovative musician and poet, but I don't analyze his music in the same way as I would a Beethoven symphony or Puccini opera, The symposium topics were more general, assessing Springsteen's relationship with his audience and how it's evolved, his use of religious themes, and what's happening in Springsteen scholarship and media. Speaking of which, if you are not aware of Backstreets Magazine and BOSS, an open-source scholarly journal on Springsteen-related topics, you should check them out right now.

Waiting to start
My favorite moments had to be when panelists and attendees responded to the question, "How did you become a fan?" This sharing of stories brought tears to eyes as individuals described hearing their first Springsteen record or attended their first show in a seedy little bar or a giant stadium. Everyone agreed that no matter where he plays Springsteen has a way of involving everyone present, and showing that he appreciates everyone's attendance. Every show is different, and that is why fans go to multiple concerts when he plays in their town, and they might even follow him around the country to see him in other cities, and some even catch him abroad.The Springsteen audience is cohesive because they've experienced these feelings that they have not with other performers and they share. In this age of social media, there's even more sharing, and more firs-hand accounts of what various concerts are like. Did you know concert attendees live-Tweet set lists so those not in attendance will know what was played? (Springsteen fan Tweets were a subject of a scholarly study.)

As with any conference or symposium or event where experts speak on a topic that interests me, I came away with a list of books to investigate. Interested?

  • A Race of Singers: Whitman's Working Class Hero from Guthrie to Springsteen by Bryan K. Garmin (University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
  • Talk About a Dream: The Essential Interviews of Bruce Springsteen edited by Christopher Phillips and Louis P. Masur (Bloomsbury Press, 2013)
  • Bruce Springsteen, Cultural Studies, and the Runaway American Dream, by Kenneth Womack, Jerry Zolten, and Mark Bernhard (Ashgate, 2012)
  • Finding Grace in the Concert Hall: Community and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans, by Linda K. Randall (Waveland, 2010)
And the upcoming
  • Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen, by Jamez Chang, Jen Conley, Mark Krajnak, James Peterson, and Chuck Regan.
So there you have it: a day well-spent listening to people share their ideas about Bruce Springsteen and calling up my own similar stories. I can't wait until the Boss plays in Philadelphia again! Here's another of the big favorites...