Casual fans — the ones who haven’t shelled out cash money for a Springsteen album since Born in the U.S.A. — need not apply for The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen. They would probably find Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz’s album-by-album, almost song-by-song evaluation of Springsteen’s work from a spiritual perspective to be almost maddeningly comprehensive and, at times, just plain kooky: Who thinks this much about this stuff?
But for those of us who do think this much about this stuff — we know who we are — this detailed, thoughtful analysis is a welcome and thought-provoking look at the words of an important artist whose work has and continues to resonate on a spiritual level.
In many ways, it’s a companion piece to last year’s For You, the compendium of first-person stories by Springsteen fans — many of whom have found Springsteen’s music to be the nourishment their souls needed to get through life’s toughest moments. In Gospel, Symynkywicz doesn’t so much ask why Springsteen’s music seems to have this affect, but rather what its unifying message might be — its “good news that this world of ours fails to hear (and heed) at its peril.”
Not that Springsteen necessarily had any of this in mind when he was writing these songs — for Symynkywicz, what’s really important is what you can take away from them, not what Springsteen put there. It’s a journey that’s as philosophical as it is spiritual, maybe even more so. (It’s worth noting that Symynkywicz is a Unitarian minister — and Unitarians are nothing if not contemplative.)
If there’s an underlying philosophy that Symynkywicz points to in Springsteen’s work, it’s that we have to bring our own “love and joy“ to our lives. “Nothing will change if we put all our hopes for salvation outside of ourselves,” Symynkywicz writes, “if we waste the whole summer waiting ‘for a savior to rise from these streets.’”
There’s a fair amount of lyrical analysis, some of it fairly obvious to anyone who’s listened to these songs carefully (meaning most people who’d be interested in this book). He says of “Badlands,” for instance, “When Springsteen sings ‘I want the heart, I want the soul, I want control right now,’ he represents all of those who feel themselves at the mercy of impersonal, spirit-crushing forces.” Well, yeah.
But more interesting, to me at least, were Symynkywicz’s looks at the underlying religious implications of some of the songs, including references to scripture. Talking about the “angels that have no place” in “Streets of Fire,” Symynkywicz writes that “they stand nowhere, so they stand for nothing; they are angels without any real faith, all-too-earthly counterfeits of heavenly beings. ‘Where there is no vision the people perish,’ says Proverbs 29:18.”
Of course, not all the references are quite as insightful: “‘It is not good that the man should be alone,’ God declares in Genesis 2:18. Or as Springsteen sings on The River, ‘Two hearts are better than one.’” Still, the allusions are intriguing, and make you want to listen to these songs again, either to try to hear what Symynkywicz hears or to dismiss it as a lot of hooey.
That’s most true in the book’s section on The Rising, one of Springsteen’s most spiritual albums. Because the lyrics are more oblique than some of his earlier tales of Magic Rats and ’69 Chevys, they’re more open to the type of interpretation Symynkywicz excels at — and he rises (so to speak) to the challenge of analyzing them in the context of the horrific events of Sept. 11 that inspired them.
Even “Mary’s Place,” a party song despite its forlorn lyrics about learning to live broken-hearted, is revealed on a deeper level as an illustration of Springsteen’s efforts to “make peace with the Catholic faith into which he was born.”
“Even if he isn’t exactly singing an Exultet to the Blessed Virgin in this song, ‘Mary’s Place’ can be heard as an ode to that great figure of maternal comfort and grace and as a recognition of the need we all have for a community of faith to get us through the hard times of life,” he writes.
Take this all as you may — even the diehard Springsteen fans might not want to delve this deeply into his work, out of fear that it might become too academic and lose some of its primal power, or even its sense of fun, an important component of most Springsteen albums and certainly his concerts. Still, if you have all those albums on your shelf and have enjoyed them through the years — and maybe, like the writers in For You, even leaned on them to get you through the rough patches of life — The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen will at the very least have you nodding your head in enthusiastic agreement.
It’s telling that late in the book — in his “Bruce’s Ten Suggestions for Spiritual Living” — Symynkywicz quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson as saying “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.” Springsteen certainly does that, and Symynkywicz does the same by digging deeper beneath the surface of something as deceptively simple as rock ’n’ roll.