Catching up: Reflections on 80s rockers

I’ve been keeping a short stack of magazines that I thought I might write about, which led to a juxtaposition between two 80s rock icons that has been haunting me.

The backstory: The first album I remember my parents buying was Michael Jackson’s Thriller, followed not long after by Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. The variety of the music and how relevant it was made them different from all the other vinyl in the record cabinet. I remember being entranced by the politics of “Born in the USA” — he was allowed to say stuff like that in a song?? I don’t remember my parents making any other musical choices that I considered remotely cool.

The photo below was featured in “We Are Alive: Bruce Springsteen at sixty-two,” by David Remnick (July 30, 2012). It shows Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons, “Springsteen’s saxophone player and onstage foil and protector,” on stage in 1984, about the time I was learning the words to “Born in the USA.” 

Springsteen and Clemons on stage on 1984

In the print edition, directly below the photo is an account of Springsteen’s eulogy for Clemons.

While the profile is very much about loss, it’s also about commitment and inspiration. Springsteen is a vibrant artist, in great shape, and fiercely thoughtful and engaged in his work.

Remnick writes, “The ultra-sincere interchange between Springsteen and his fans, which looks treacly to the uninitiated and uninterested, is what distinguishes him and his performances. Forty years on, and an hour before going onstage yet again, he was trying to make sense of that transaction.” You really have to just read the profile; there’s just not a good way to summarize it.

Except for that photo, which captures part of it for me.

That issue was still on my desk, open to that photo, when I came across Bill Wyman’s reflections on Michael Jackson’s legacy (Dec. 24 & 31, 2012).

Illustration by Stamatis LaskosMichael Jackson would have been 55 this year. There’s less inspiration to find in his life, but there is certainly plenty to reflect on. (This was another of those New Yorker “book reviews” that seems more like an excuse to write an essay.)

I appreciated the broad context, which considers his life as the embodiment of the challenges of being a “crossover artist:” “Jackson had become the biggest black star ever, in part by shedding the conventional images of blackness.” One could understand some of his inexplicable choices in that context, or his strange family situation. Or one could simply look on with sympathy.

But Wyman also reminds us why we care in the first place. “That any aspect of his career had been neglected seems hard to believe, and yet Jackson may be the most underappreciated pop songwriter of his era.”

I certainly underappreciated his music — how could you appreciate it properly, if you weren’t 12 anymore and could understand all the crazy news stories? Part of the weird concoction of feelings that swept the country at his death was relief. We could finally, un-ironically and without guilt, love his music. Just as I did when I was a kid and my parents unwrapped our copy of the best-selling album of all time.

So why has this pair of articles haunted me?

It’s not often that a youthful memory is confronted point-blank with the complex and unexpected things that life does to us, or that we do to ourselves. This could have been a simple morality tale of rock stars making good and bad choices. But Remnick’s poignant images of Springsteen aging and coping with loss, plus Wyman’s sensitive portrait of Jackson, make it a lot more complicated, and a lot more interesting.

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