As I write this, the most e-mailed story on the New York Times’ website is David Brooks column “The Other Education.”
Like many of you, I went to elementary school, high school and college. I took such and such classes, earned such and such grades, and amassed such and such degrees. But on the night of Feb. 2, 1975, I turned on WMMR in Philadelphia and became mesmerized by a concert the radio station was broadcasting. The concert was by a group I’d never heard of — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Thus began a part of my second education.
We don’t usually think of this second education. For reasons having to do with the peculiarities of our civilization, we pay a great deal of attention to our scholastic educations, which are formal and supervised, and we devote much less public thought to our emotional educations, which are unsupervised and haphazard. This is odd, since our emotional educations are much more important to our long-term happiness and the quality of our lives.
Brooks goes on to enumerate some of the things he has learned from The Boss: “In Springsteen’s universe, life’s ‘losers’ always retain their dignity. Their choices have immense moral consequences, and are seen on an epic and anthemic scale…. There are certain prominent neighborhoods on his map — one called defeat, another called exaltation, another called nostalgia….. ”
Then there is the man himself. Like other parts of the emotional education, it is hard to bring the knowledge to consciousness, but I do think important lessons are communicated by that embarrassed half-giggle he falls into when talking about himself. I do think a message is conveyed in the way he continually situates himself within a tradition — de-emphasizing his own individual contributions, stressing instead the R&B groups, the gospel and folk singers whose work comes out through him.
Well, my first reaction has to echo one of the 160 people who have so far commented on the column: “Who would ever have guessed that an elitist, conservative, intellectual, middle aged pundit has been emotionally awakened by Bruce Springsteen–a liberal, working class, wildly anti-war humanist? Not me, that’s for sure!!!” As “soso” from Canada succinctly put it, “Springsteen would be happy to have influenced, but sad far from enough.
One man sings the praises of the market economy; the other despises it. One had a twitchy trigger figure for Iraq and seems to want to pull something again; the other abhors war. Who would have thought they would have a meeting of the minds?
Gigi (who has seen Springsteen probably about 50 times–starting, like Mr. Brooks, in ’75) probably wouldn’t agree, but I don’t begrudge Brooks his Bruce-love. His appreciation is obviously sincere, and for him, music seems to exist apart from politics. (The Boss has notably reduced his political comments at recent concerts, presumably in response to the vocal minority of Brookseans who boo them.) Anyway, Brooks’ word “dignity” is certainly on target, and so is the bit about the respect Springsteen shows to all who came before—as in his unforgettable and, yes, giggly, Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame induction speeches for the likes of Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan. (On the other hand, the self-effacing take on Bruce overlooks the truly massive ego anyone would have to have to greet 50,000 screaming fans night after night.)
But the valuable part of the column is Brooks’ point about our emotional education. I would actually narrow the focus—emotional education is something we get everywhere we go, from the playground, to the family dinner table, to the middle school cafeteria, to … well, everywhere. What he’s talking about is the experience of being inspired and instructed by artists, very often musical artists, and it sure is important.
Coincidentally, and maybe not that unusually, for me much of this came during my college years, when I was introduced to classic American cinema by the Yale Law School Film Society, and to the still-living links to the blues tradition by Mance Lipscomb and the other musicians presented by Prof. Bill Ferris, when I saw Doc Watson and the late Merle Watson sing “Peach Pickin’ Time in Georgia” in a college dining hall, when I read “Puddinhead Wilson” deep in the stacks of the library, when Whitney Balliett’s columns in the New Yorker inspired me to see Duke Ellington, Ellis Larkins, Mary Lou Williams, Dave McKenna, and Teddy Wilson, and when I traded my Joni Mitchell tickets to Carlos Alvarez for the right to journey to Madison Square Garden one night in 1974 and see Bob Dylan and The Band play an electrifying “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine.”
Nothing has been the same since. And please don’t get me wrong—Joni rules.