I learned English from Bruce Springsteen. It all started in the seventh grade, when my best friend showed me his older brother’s collection of American LPs.
At this time in Sweden AOR was deep, deep underground, and bands like Journey, Foreigner, Styx, and of course the Boss were known only to a very few die-hards. One of those die-hards was my best friend’s older brother. He had all the albums.
He also was a complete prick about me and my friend listening to them. Our grubby little hands were not to be trusted with the precious.
Despite Evil Elder Brother’s best attempts, we surreptitiously taped his albums and listened to them. Obsessively. I don’t really know what it was that made them so magic—that they were forbidden fruit, that our Walkmans were loaded with something nobody else listened to or even knew about, or that they capital-R Rocked. But while Journey, Styx, and those kinds of bands were a lot of fun, they did not hold a candle to the magic that was Bruce Springsteen.
I remember to this day how one chilly September night we were out stealing apples1, ending up sitting in a cold playground with our bags and bags of stolen apples at our feet and the harvest moon shining down, trying to figure out what it was about Springsteen that moved us so much.
The thing is that in Sweden we started learning English in the fourth grade, so at this point we had three big years of English under our belts, barely enough to ask where the bathroom was, but when Springsteen sang, man, we knew he was saying something. We were unclear on exactly what he was talking about, but whatever it was mattered. So we would compare notes about the lyrics, puzzling through things like:
All of the old faces ask you why you’re back
They fit you with position and the keys to your daddy’s Cadillac
In the darkness of your room your mother calls you by your true name
You remember the faces, the places, the names
You know it’s never over it’s relentless as the rain
—Adam Raised a Cain
I spent many, many an evening with my dictionary and English books from school, until I had at least figured out the literal meaning of the lyrics and had a gleaning of the power and poetry behind the words. And Springsteen belonged to me and my friend, nobody else. We were the only ones who knew about and understood him.
It was a powerful feeling: physically we were in a dreary Swedish small town, but in our heads we were cruising an endless Jersey freeway.
So thanks, Bruce, for showing a snotty-nosed seventh-grader it’s a big world of wonder out there.
Yup, really, stealing apples. To this day I have no idea why. ↩
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