Way back in the misty beginnings of the blog, I wrote this piece based upon my notion that Springsteen is, in fact, the American Bowie. Hardly anyone read it then as I had about 10 followers and it was a pretty long piece. I reposted it last year and again – though my audience had grown considerably – very few people showed any real interest.
That might be because it isn’t a very interesting subject to most people or it may be that it just wasn’t that good of a piece. Whatever the case may be, I was asked recently (obviously by someone who had not read said piece) how it is that my two all time favourite musical artists are so very different from one another? That got me thinking all over again about the similarities I see at every turn between these two.
I’m guessing that part of the problem people may have with seeing the similarities is the quite opposite energies these two project. Bowie’s is much more feminine while Bruce exudes an undeniably muscular male energy.
And don’t get me wrong, I can certainly see that they are miles apart when it comes to the particular individual aesthetics they each embody. Springsteen has worked hard to project a very homespun, authentic, working man image. Whilst Bowie was always mercurial in his adoption of twitchy avant-guard and bleeding edge personas.
All of that, however, can be considered mostly surface gloss. These carefully constructed artifices were simply their way in to their respective audiences. It was what they had to say having won those audiences that showed where their true similarities lay.
Both Springsteen and Bowie have had a lifelong fascination with the outsiders, the outliers, the alienated. Bowie chose to use metaphor to express that alienation, often presenting his character as an actual otherworldly being, a literal alien.
Ziggy the main character from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was the most obvious example of this. However, right to the end, the theme peppered his recordings. One of his outtake Tracks from his penultimate album The Next Day is a song called Born in a UFO. And the Blackstar album (and accompanying video) is also permeated with such metaphorical extraterrestrial imagery.
And so, yes, it’s fair to say that Bowie was ‘weirder’ than Springsteen. Ultimately, however, the two artists are dealing with different takes on a very similar idea. Both are asking the question; what is it like to live on the outside of a society that largely ignores or even denigrates its fringe dwellers?
Springsteen writes about aliens too but his come from a little closer to home, illegal aliens from across the border populate many of his songs. This is especially true of his solo albums The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils and Dust. Tracks like Across the Border and The Line deal very heavily with the issues of transplantation and the desperate need to find a better life that so many poor people feel.
In The Line, even Springsteen’s Border Patrol Officer lives in a state of emotional isolation.
Of course, Bruce was writing about alienated anti-heroes long before those solo albums. Darkness on the Edge of town is a lone loser album par excellence. And the operatic Born to Run is all about the dream of escaping from a town where you simply don’t fit in.
Since writing the original post, I keep turning up unexpected links between the two artists. The fact that long-time E Street pianist Roy Bittan played on such iconic Bowie tracks as Station to Station, TVC15, Ashes to Ashes, and Up the Hill Backwards still kind of blows my mind. And recently I discovered that drummer Zachary Alford, who played with Bowie during his ’95 tour with Nine Inch Nails and drummed on The Next Day album, was also the drummer in Springsteen’s ‘other’ band (the one we don’t mention in polite conversation because it wasn’t E Street). Zach is a phenomenal drummer as should be apparent from these two clips.
For two musical giants who never actually collaborated (though Bowie, of course, did cover two of Bruce’s songs very early on in both their careers), the threads that bind them seem pretty numerous.
Since I wrote that original blog, this article has come out. It kind of treads the same ground but with a slightly different take.