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A Thousand Springsteens Bloom

From the Winter 2004 issue of Doublethink magazine: Why the Boss is above politics.

11:00 PM, Feb 11, 2004 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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IN 1989, Walker Percy sent a letter to Bruce Springsteen. Percy was a not-exactly famous Southern Catholic writer. Springsteen was a rock megastar and cultural icon. Their correspondence, you can imagine, was unexpected.

Percy wrote his letter--the critic Eric Alterman explains in "It Ain't No Sin to Be Glad You're Alive," a 1999 bio-cum-hagiography of Springsteen--because he liked what he saw in an article about Springsteen that his nephew Will had shown him. In Percy's note, hints of a deep respect emerge. "I've always been an admirer of yours, for your musicianship, and for being one of the few sane guys in your field," Percy wrote. "The two of us are rarities in our professions."

Springsteen didn't have an opportunity to write back until well after Percy had died. But he wrote anyway, to Percy's widow. In the letter, he compared themes in Percy's works to his own. "The loss and search for faith and meaning," Springsteen told Bunt Percy, "have been at the core of my own work for most of my adult life."

"I'd like to think that perhaps this is what Dr. Percy heard and was what moved him to write me," he mused.

On its surface, Springsteen's guess--that Percy was moved by his music's themes of loss and longing--is an instance of the polite sensibility to which Springsteen fans are well accustomed. But it raises an interesting, and perhaps unanswerable, question: What, exactly, did Walker Percy hear when he listened to Bruce Springsteen? What do any of us hear?


WELL, HERE COMES ROBERT COLES TO TELL US. Coles, the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard, is a friend of Springsteen's, but was also a friend of Percy's. He is a friend of a whole bunch of other people, for that matter--all of whose names he manages to drop in "Bruce Springsteen's America: The People Listening, A Poet Singing," a wispy 200 pages of oral history and reminiscences on Springsteen songs accompanied by an introduction and epilogue written by Coles. It's a book worth reading, if only because it brings home an important point: What a person thinks about "Bruce Springsteen," like what a person thinks about "America," often tells you more about the person doing the thinking than the topic he's thinking about.

Witness how Coles treats the Percy-Springsteen correspondence. For Coles, the exchange of letters was a long time in the making. "Once in [Percy's] Louisiana home," he writes, "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.'" The philosopher--you guessed it--turned out to be Springsteen.

Why the adulation? Springsteen "skips the American bragging of the [political] right and the American slamming of the [political] left," Percy allegedly told Coles. "That's no mean feat." (The brackets are Coles's.) When Percy listened to Springsteen, Coles writes, he described it in near mystical terms: "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."

Got that? I didn't, nor will most readers. Coles's quotes are long and discursive but short on insight. They leave us without any real answers as to what drew Percy to Springsteen's songs about men who work thankless jobs and lead unnoticed lives. Instead, they prompt more questions.

Most prominently, is Coles "improving," or even fabricating, quotes? Music critic David Hajdu investigated this after concluding that passages of Bruce Springsteen's America strained credulity. He made a few phone calls to people likely to know Percy's take on Bruce Springsteen. The results, which ran in the New Republic, are not conclusive, but certainly cast doubt upon the veracity of the quotes. "The fact that . . . Walker Percy had such extensive conversations with Robert Coles on the subjects of . . . Bruce Springsteen, and that those discussions yielded insights so parallel and neatly suited to Coles's own take on Springsteen is incredible--utterly incredible," Hajdu writes.

Hajdu called Walker Percy's nephew, Will, and read him some of Coles's Percy quotes. Will thought these were "outrageous." His uncle "definitely didn't talk like that," Will said. (Will, you'll remember, is the person who first introduced Percy to Springsteen.) Will seems to have figured prominently in his uncle's life, and was in a position to know the answer to this question--more so than Coles, anyway. There doesn't seem to be any reason for him to attack Coles's book, other than a fondness for the truth.

What is going on here?