Quote for Discussion: Posnanski and Springsteen

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This quote is just beautiful writing, and a fascinating question I cannot answer about greatness.

I watched Springsteen very closely when he performed “Born to Run” toward the end of the show. I watched the close-ups of his face on the video screen, and I watched the way he moved around the stage, and I listened carefully to the pitch of his voice. My God, how many times has Bruce Springsteen performed this song by now? The album “Born to Run” came out in 1975, almost 33 years ago, and he performed the song even before the album came out. So has he performed it live 5,000 times? I’ll bet it’s been more. Maybe 7,500 times? Maybe 10,000 times?

There are certain professional things we have all done thousands of times. I know truck drivers who have driven more than three million miles. We all do. We know doctors who have delivered thousands of babies, and mechanics who have fixed thousands of cars, and chefs who have grilled thousands of steaks and all that. But Springsteen’s repetitions is a little different, and not just because Springsteen gets paid a lot more money to sing “Born to Run”, and not just because he gets many more perks and shrieking women and whatever. It’s because every single time Bruce Springsteen performs that song, there are thousands and thousands of people in the crowd that want a transcendent moment. That’s his song, but it’s also our song, it has meant something important to countless people. We will know if he means it.

And yet … how can he mean it? How many times can a man sing, “It’s a death trap. It’s a suicide rap,” and mean those words like he did when he was 22 years old? Springsteen is a much different man now. He’s rich. He’s famous. He’s had letdowns. He’s had triumphs. He’s had children. He’s political now. He’s an icon now. He’s a lot of things now that he was not 33 years ago. And yet people still have a hunger for that song and for the feeling we had when we first heard it. Girls comb their hair in rearview mirrors and the boys try to look so hard. We don’t want Bruce Springsteen to grow old for that most cliche of reasons. We want him to sing Born to Run like he wrote it yesterday. We want it to BE yesterday.

I watched him. I listened to him. And I have to tell you – he played the hell out of that song in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the end of a long American tour. I kept looking at him, trying to figure out his motivation. It could be money, I suppose, though he has plenty. It could be the cheers, but honestly, has any man ever heard more cheers? It could be a generosity of spirit; a sense that he still wants to make people feel. Isn’t that at the heart of music? Sports too? Pete Rose used to tell people – like Joe DiMaggio said before him and Michael Jordan said after – that he had to give everything because there was someone in the crowd (some father and son probably ) who were seeing him for the very first time, and he could not stand the thought of leaving them cold. Maybe there is some of that driving Springsteen.

Or maybe there is something else driving him, something that we would not understand. Motivation is a tricky thing. I asked Pete Rose why he played so hard for so long, and he said that came from his father who had told him that the way to win a fight is to hit first. Maybe that makes sense to you. Maybe it doesn’t. I thought about Rose and how much baseball mattered to him as I listened to Springsteen wail those familiar words for the 10,000th time in his life – runaway American dream, stepping out over the line, guide your dreams and visions, strap your hands ‘cross my engines, baby, I’m just a scared and lonely rider, I want to know if love is real. I can’t say he sang it like it was the first time, but he sang it like he meant it, he still hit first, and I just think there’s something inspiring about that.

Joe Posnanski, Roses and Bosses, from his blog

Posnanski is a treasure of a writer.  If you like baseball, you owe it to yourself to read his blog.  If you don’t love baseball, read it for the writing sometime.


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  1. ..pointed out by Tyler Cowen (I think – not sure I remember correctly), is that greatness is generally something fleeting.    The number of bands who wrote a single, fantastic song only to go on to be one hit wonders, the number of authors who write one great book and never achieve anything like it again, et cetera.  Even Springsteen is no longer writing songs like “Thunder Road”.

    Which is part of what makes sustained greatness so incomprehensible to us mere mortals.  

    • kj on May 17, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    i know that is so devoted to editing and cutting… he’s damn near down to one word, you know what i mean?  he saves it all for the performance, and he is perhaps the finest person i’ll ever hear perform. he strikes people who’ve never heard him before to say to complete strangers, “I think I’ve just heard the voice of an ancient.”

    he is excellent at all that he does.  but he drives me nuts because i’ll give him four lines, cut and honed with all i have, and he’ll cut it to three.  his eye “sees” where i’ve indulged, however minutely or even, of course in my mind, beautifully, and he recommends it be cut.

    sigh. a great teacher. he’ll even go with the one imperfection so as not to anger the gods Navajo/Persian rug thing, but his view of art is entirely one of service.

    • kj on May 17, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    one of those “Greatest Deadliest Catch” fishing shows once.  this one guy was flawlessly, perfectly, beautifully, skillfully, utterly completely in ‘flow’ doing this thing with a rope and something else and something else, maybe a hook, whatever, it was dangerous.  thank god for tivo because we played it back several times just to see the art.  in this case (as race car drivers and others) one moment of being bigger than the art could mean death.  

    i know that someone once said to me, “You’ve lost some of your  early lyricism” and i thought i’d been hit with a hammer. what i didn’t realize what he meant i was moving into something new. i can either accept that my old work bores me now (not to read, but to try and re-create) and accept that what comes with the new is the not-knowing jack about what i’m doing (and i have problems with that, i like to know what i’m doing!) and go with the flow, where ever it’s taking me, or just stop and stew (which is what i usually do).

    i think what keeps great artists great is they don’t stop, or they don’t stop for long, and they don’t re-create what they’ve already done, however similar it might look to someone else.  each action is somehow kept new and fresh and i think that takes the courage to stay in the moment instead of trying to control the moment.  me, i try too hard to control the moment.

  2. to wonder how Springsteen can sing a song five thousand times and still feel it when he does.

    S’funny, though…I’ll bet I’ve sung “Over the Rainbow” at least that many times and I still feel the emotion when I do.  

    Some songs just never wear out.  Think “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

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