Cover image for Bruce Springsteen's America : the people listening, a poet singing
Bruce Springsteen's America : the people listening, a poet singing
Coles, Robert.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [2003]

Physical Description:
244 pages ; 25 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Personal Subject:
Format :


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Material Type
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ML420.S77 C65 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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In this compelling book, Robert Coles, the celebrated Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize--winning author, turns his attention to popular music legend Bruce Springsteen, and to the powerful impact Springsteen's work has had both on the lives of his audience and on this country's literary tradition. Coles places Springsteen in the pantheon of American artists--Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Percy, among others--who understood and were inspired by their "traveling companions in time," the ordinary people of their eras. With wisdom and a unique personal perspective, Coles explores Springsteen's words as contemporary American poetry, and offers firsthand accounts of how people interact with them: A trucker listens to "Blinded by the Light" during long, lonely nights and reminisces about his mother; a schoolteacher is astonished when a usually silent student offers a comparison between "Nebraska" and Conrad's Heart of Darkness; a policeman responds to "American Skin (41 Shots)," reflecting on his own role in his family and community. As these people, and others, candidly discuss the meaning Springsteen's words have in their lives, Coles listens and, with the special insight and compassion that are the trademarks of his art, sheds new light on "The Boss," removing the legendary American rock musician from fan-filled stadiums and placing the poet in a greater social, cultural, and philosophical context. Coles sees Springsteen as a representative of a uniquely American documentary tradition--as a sing-ing and traveling poet who does not simply embody the culture of which he is a part but fully engages it, interacting with its people and creating a conversation that has helped to shape a distinct way of looking at, and living, American life today.

Author Notes

Boston-born psychiatrist and author Robert Martin Coles devoted his professional life to the psychology of children. Coles has been associated with the Harvard University Medical School since 1960.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his five-volume series entitled Children in Crisis, Coles has contributed hundreds of articles to popular magazines, as well as writing over thirty books for adults and children. Other books include The Mind's Fate, Flannery O'Connor's South, and Walker Percy: An American Search.

(Bowker Author Biography) Robert Coles is a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at the Harvard Medical school and a research psychiatrist for the Harvard University Health Services. His many books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning five-volume Children of Crisis and the bestselling The Moral Intelligence of Children. He is also the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard. He lives in Massachusetts.

(Publisher Provided) Robert Coles is a professor of psychiatry & medical humanities at the Harvard Medical School, a research psychiatrist for the Harvard University Health Services, & the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard College. His many books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Children of Crisis" series as well as the best-selling "The Spiritual Life of Children" & "The Moral Intelligence of Children". Dr. Coles is a founding editor of the award-winning magazine "DoubleTake".

(Publisher Provided)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In an unusual pairing, famous child psychologist Coles pays homage to rock musician Springsteen. In two long essays that serve, in effect, as a foreword, Coles quotes the late novelist Walker Percy on Springsteen's wide appeal: His songs are about America, without hyping the country up and without knocking the country down. . . . he sings of us while singing to us. Furthermore, Coles connects Springsteen to another New Jersey native, William Carlos Williams, calling them poets of ordinary American people. And in the sections that follow, that point is underscored as people from all walks of life talk in loving detail, as if they were in a conversation with Springsteen himself, about the musician's lyrics. A cop takes issue with the portrayal of law enforcement in Highway Patrolman ; a grandmother is moved to tears by the love song If I Should Fall Behind ; an affluent pre-med student is carried back to the Depression by The Ghost of Tom Joad. Plainspoken and poignant, their uplifting comments continuously circle the bedrock issues of family, community, and work. --Joanne Wilkinson Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

The best part of this disappointing work is the dissection of Springsteen's lyrics but Coles's bid to highlight average Americans' interpretation of the Boss's songs falls short on several levels. Many of what are essentially oral interviews with about a dozen everyday Americans-from truck drivers to lawyers-are rambling and at times barely coherent. Curiously, many of the songs they discussed come from Springsteen's Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, two of Springsteen's least popular albums. The focus on these solo albums may have been a conscious decision by Coles (The Moral Intelligence of Children; Children of Crisis) since they fit his attempt to portray Springsteen as a singer/poet in the manner of Arlo Guthrie, but it leaves out much of Springsteen's best material. And worst of all, the interviews, complete with short biographies of the people featured, generally offer little insight. The liveliest piece is one in which a teacher and her students discuss the messages in several Springsteen songs. Although fans may find themselves singing some of Springsteen's lyrics that appear in the book, the work is mostly full of flat notes. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

After a lean 1990s, Bruce Springsteen has reasserted himself as America's premier rock poet. With this resurgence come two new books, further cementing the singer-songwriter's iconic stature. Pulitzer Prize winner Coles (psychiatry & medical humanities, Harvard; Children in Crisis) presents reflections on Springsteen from ten average Americans, not die-hard fans, just ordinary folks who have connected in some meaningful way to Springsteen's work. The goal: to lift Springsteen above the role of common "rock star" and make him a people's poet in the tradition of Walt Whitman and especially Coles's mentor, William Carlos Williams. So what's not to like? Maybe it's the way the author manages to take ten different human beings and make them sound like the same person, using similar patterns of speech and turns of phrase. Maybe it's the clumsy attempt to translate conversational speech into the written word, concealing the speakers' pertinent points in an incessant clutter of parenthetical asides (most with meaningless exclamation points!). Or maybe it's one too many bad puns on Springsteen's unauthorized nickname, "The Boss." While an occasional glimmer of insight or individuality breaks through (the Rhode Island police officer is a hoot), the herky-jerky prose makes this relatively slim volume seem twice as long as it is. Purchase only if demand is high. Photographer Stefanko gives us a generous sampling of portraits that he took of Springsteen and his E Street Band during several sessions between 1978 and 1982, including the cover shots for Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River. Stefanko's work with Springsteen was limited: there are only a handful of live concert photos and no candid shots, but these powerful portraits do cover the critical years when Springsteen rose from critics' darling to near superstar. Not essential, but of high interest to Springsteen's many loyal fans (the Boss himself wrote the introduction).-Lloyd Jansen, Stockton-San Joaquin Cty. P.L., CA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 1 Conversations and Songs About Life THE ORIGINS OF THE IDEA FOR THIS BOOK, AND OF THE decision to do the work that made this writing possible, go back to the late 1940s and early 1950s, when I was a college student studying the writing and working life of a New Jersey physician and poet, William Carlos Williams, who lived in Rutherford and ventured sometimes to Paterson and other cities of the Garden State. An enormous privilege and a continuing education it was to sit in his car and hear him speak of the patients he was treating for a wide variety of illnesses and complaints. Back at his home, at 9 Ridge Road, the doctor was not loath to take on various "principalities and powers," whether of the university world or of his home state and, beyond it, the American nation, which he both loved ardently and regarded closely, critically. I'd often sit surprised, perplexed, or uneasy as I heard outpourings of dismay or disgust follow expressions of his admiration and affection, directed at individuals or causes or points of view of which I knew very little, or nothing. I was learning so very much through the eyes of a busy physician who made house calls and who scribbled notes afterward about what he'd heard, seen-and, I was being prompted to do as he did: attend the individuals I was meeting as a medical student, then a hospital physician, in such a way that I learned how their lives were unfolding as well as how their medical difficulties might be figured out, then challenged. All that I took pains to get down for myself-not only through hastily written notes but with a tape recorder, at the time not so easy to use as the present-day ones, which are so much smaller, lighter, and more accurate in what they capture for one's future attention. One day in October 1954, as I sat with Dr. Williams in his office, hearing him talk about one of his patients, a teenager who had been struggling with polio and now had pneumonia, I was suddenly asked, "Have you listened to Frank Sinatra do his singing?" The question seemed to me to come out of nowhere, and I was initially so preoccupied with trying to understand why I had been so queried that I had no answer at all. Dr. Williams was a fluent, discerning conversationalist, and a sharply knowing observer of those with whom he spoke-and so, within a few seconds, I heard this: "You're flummoxed [he loved using that word]; you're wondering what that singer, Sinatra, has to do with what we were just talking about-a kid who can't walk without crutches, and now is coughing badly, so she has her parents even more scared than they usually are." I sat there silent, still not sure what to say. I wanted to nod a signal of agreement (if not of confession, in response to an implied criticism). Immediately, he added this amplification: "Look, whether we're young, or we're all grown up and just starting out, or we're older and getting so old there's not much time left, we're human beings-we're looking for company, and we're looking for understanding: someone who reminds us that we're not alone, and someone who wonders out loud about things that happen in this life, the way we do when we're walking or sitting or driving, and thinking things over." A pause, and then a further, and more extended foray into our humanity, its various forums of expression: "I mentioned this guy, Sinatra, because he's very much present in the homes, in the lives, of my patients. He's 'a New Jersey boy,' they'll tell me (as if I don't know!) 'and now he's gone national,' one dad told me, contemplating the pictures of Frankie-boy all over his daughter's room. Yeah, yeah, I said to myself, as I got ready to use my stethoscope and then my [neurological] hammer to check out her reflexes. But afterwards, doing my thinking as I often do, while driving home, I kept hearing Sinatra sing-in my head and, in a way, through that girl's head. Her name was Sally Ann, and she called herself, over and over, a Sinatra fan. I pretended ignorance, hearing her talk like that (an old trick of the medical trade: let the patient do the talking, and you do the listening, the learning)-and the less I seemed to know, the more I ended up finding out about Frank Sinatra, naturally, but also about this fan of his, who was also my patient. "I came home and told Flossie [his wife] about that (Sinatra and my patient), and I learned even more. 'Bill,' she told me, with a little of the surprised teacher in her, 'he's so popular with young people; he's their hero, and you should listen to him, hear with your ears what their hearts are taking in.' She gave me that kind but stern look, always successful in getting my head to shift gears! Next came the words, four or five of them (I'm always adding them up, when I can): 'He's from New Jersey.' All right, I told her, this New Jersey boy will tune in on that one, Sinatra-like so many of my patients have been doing. I didn't mention, then, to Flossie that a lot of my patients had already told me that Sinatra was a 'Jersey boy'-I wanted her to have the pleasure every teacher has, of being there first with a student, and besides, I think I knew in my gut that hearing Flossie say what she did would get my head going real good! A good singer does that-gets our minds going: makes us look at life with an intensity that comes from her or his head, heart, taking hold of our own." Those words (that way of seeing things, of listening to people, and indeed, listening to those whom others regard so closely, through attending what they say and sing), would stay with me over the years. A few years later, I was myself getting to know families in their homes, or children in their schools, where they were daily learning their letters and numbers. I was teaching in college classrooms and in elementary and high schools across Boston, then the United States. That research (doing documentary fieldwork) has been written up, as has my work with teachers of my own: Erik H. Erikson, in whose college course I was privileged to teach; Dr. Williams, whose writing, whose strongly felt thoughts and beliefs, I keep offering in my class; and another American physician and writer, Walker Percy, whose eyes were often focused on the shifting social and cultural scene in the United States, whose ears took in so many of the sounds that come our way through the radio, the movies, and television, and whose reflecting mind was constantly trying to make sense of those "messages," he often called them, that come our way, sometimes calling upon our attentive notice, sometimes slipping us by altogether. Even as I heard Dr. Williams trying to figure out what his patients "made of Sinatra" (his way of putting it), got out of his singing as they heard it or recalled it, I would hear Dr. Percy contemplating the America of the 1960s and 1970s: what seemed to matter much to us and, as well, who was on many of our minds. He was no poll taker, but he had his eyes open to the way people wanted to appear, and his ears concentrated on the sounds Americans sought out: announcements, reports, inquiries, exclamations, and not least, music, all part of the daily fare of broadcasting, and of the records and discs and newspapers and magazines constantly being pressed upon us in stores and through advertising. Once in his Louisiana home, as I was hearing him speak of friends and neighbors, he interrupted himself and spoke earnestly and with animation about someone he called "my favorite American Philosopher." I knew of Dr. Percy's strong interest in philosophy (a subject in which he majored as a college student), and I had heard him talk at great length, and with a certain passion, about the existentialists whom (from Kierkegaard through Camus and Sartre) he had studied and whose ideas he had worked gracefully rather than didactically into his novels The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman. I was now eager to hear about this "favorite," and soon enough I did: "It's Bruce Springsteen all the way for me. He's 'on to us,' as the young people now say it when they talk about someone who has figured someone else out 'heart and soul'-the expression some 'existentialists' use to describe a human encounter that sticks with the people lucky enough to have one, during the headlong course of a year. I listen to him singing, and I think (I hear my mind saying with great enthusiasm): Hey, this guy has got it! What Kierkegaard called 'everydayness' this singing American knows in his bones: how we get lost in our thoughts, lose sight of one another, courtesy of the distractions that come upon us (so constantly in what gets described as an 'affluent society')-but also, how we find ourselves, through finding one another. "His songs are about America, without hyping the country up (becoming patriotic self-congratulation) and without knocking the country down (becoming mean-spirited nation bashing). You could say it like this (alternatively): He skips the America bragging of the [political] right and the America slamming of the [political] left; that's no mean feat-and you can tell, hearing him, that this is no clever trapeze artist, trying to have it his very own way and dropping all the ideological baggage that will make him enemies all over the place. I'd call him smart for doing that, and I'd admire his songs if they did only that-walked the middle American way. But he goes beyond that fence-straddling act, way beyond. This guy is his own boss-he's earned the title [the Boss] every inch of the way: he sings of us while singing to us, and what you hear (the one you're hearing) is a plain, ordinary guy soaring way above himself and everyone around him through his voice, and through the songs he's written, not composed. He sings what he's got to tell you, straight out, but he's not an 'artist' going up and down the musical scales; he's a talking Joe, nabbing his next-door Americans, his neighbors, and letting them know, after he gets them listening, that there are things he's seen (people and where they live) that have really heartened him-and you know, when you really care about someone or something it comes across in your voice." There was even more, to the point that I joked with Dr. Percy, told him he was a "fan" all right. For the first time I'd heard him favorably inclined to a living (and popular) American-it ordinarily being the other way around: a certain wry bemusement at best, or more ordinarily, a thoroughly detached skepticism. "I don't know if I'm becoming a 'fan,' " I heard in response, and then this self-observation: "I think I'm carrying on a conversation with the guy: he says something, sings something that really says something, and then I get back to him, at him, with him, in my wondering head, wandering all over the map, as usual. I'll bet there are plenty like me out there: his 'audience'-a much too impersonal and abstract way of lumping us together. (The 'existentialists' were right to worry about that kind of thinking, including their own, when they used that word [existentialists] to describe themselves!) We're all having enough trouble making sense of this life, of who we as individuals are, without turning us into members of a herd, even a national one! But it sure would be great if some of us, who talk to ourselves, hearing a singer talking to himself, then to us, with his own words that he uses to make music-if some of us heard each other doing our talking with our talking buddy, I call him. (His fans are so 'into' this sharing of ideas and attitudes that they call him by his first name, and a lot of them, I know, aren't teenagers all charged up: they're listeners talking.)" Soon thereafter Dr. Percy had died-having sent a warmly appreciative letter to the Boss, who knew well of Percy's work but couldn't get back to him, having learned of his death. Soon thereafter I began the work that made possible this book. I started talking about the conversations I'd had with Dr. Williams and Dr. Percy in my ongoing discussions with Erik Erikson; I was teaching in his college course, and as we talked about the students, and the American world around us, the name and work of Bruce Springsteen came up. Especially, I spoke of Dr. Percy's admiration for the Boss. Ever-knowing and exact in his way of speaking, Erikson remarked: "There's an American who knows Americans so well that their voices become his own!" Yes, indeed-and I began to realize that through listening to Springsteen, I was myself yet again carried to certain neighborhoods, homes, schools, backyards, playing fields, places of worship where I'd been as I was getting to know fellow citizens of a country we all share. The result, finally, is what follows-stories that tell by indirection about an artist's impact upon, connection to, responsive American lives. This book offers the voices of individuals, as they spoke to me and I wrote these comments down. All of them were "born in the U.S.A.," but none of them are avowed Springsteen "fans," who go to concerts and follow all the news about this person being held up so high, even idolized. These are Americans going about their daily, ordinary lives, and taking the time, here and there, now and then, to heed a singer's voice: the words of the songs he sends forth, available on radio, or on albums purchased and played-often by others, husbands or wives or children or relatives or friends or neighbors or fellow workers or schoolmates.The result, finally, is what follows-stories that tell by indirection about an artist's impact upon, connection to, responsive American lives. This book offers the voices of individuals, as they spoke to me and I wrote these comments down. All of them were "born in the U.S.A.," but none of them are avowed Springsteen "fans," who go to concerts and follow all the news about this person being held up so high, even idolized. These are Americans going about their daily, ordinary lives, and taking the time, here and there, now and then, to heed a singer's voice: the words of the songs he sends forth, available on radio, or on albums purchased and played-often by others, husbands or wives or children or relatives or friends or neighbors or fellow workers or schoolmates. Excerpted from Bruce Springsteen's America: The People Listening, a Poet Singing by Robert Coles All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.