New Jersey and the Boss Belt
Dike Blair

If I imagine I'm playing the TV game show "Family Feud" and the question is "Name five things associated with New Jersey?" I think "Bruce Springsteen" would be in the top three survey answers (The Sopranos and Atlantic City being the only others that spring to mind). Few musicians, even superstars, are so associated with a place-especially one that isn't particularly glamorous-as Bruce Springsteen is with New Jersey. Now, a gazillion words have been written about Springsteen, but I find one recurring trope particularly accurate: Springsteen is the hybrid incorporation of Elvis's body and Dylan's brain.

In the late 40s, the Presley family moved Elvis's body from Tupelo, MI, to Memphis while he was still in high school. In the public's imagination he remains located in either Memphis or Las Vegas-the Eastern and Western extremes of the bacon and cotton belts (those belts extending out into the Nevada desert because Vegas is where a lot of bacon/cotton belt folk vacation). Elvis was part of a generation when socio-economic geographic belts were more of a reality than they are today; and Elvis was metaphorically and literally a real belt guy, as his nickname "The Pelvis," and the superhero-size belts of his Vegas costumes (now enshrined in Graceland) attest.

In the early 60s, Dylan had the brains to beat it out of Minnesota and head straight to Greenwich Village, where he existed for a while in the popular imagination. Part of his being a New Yorker was that he didn't drive, he was either a pedestrian (walking down West 4th Street on the "Freewheelin'" album cover) or a passenger (as in Don't Look Now). But Dylan didn't remain in Greenwich Village and he didn't create a lower Manhattan Graceland. Dylan isn't part of a geographic belt; he jumps around both artistically and geographically. He belongs to American circuits, and this may go back to his artistic heritage, which includes Woodie Guthrie's migrant highways and byways. Dylan, being the brainy type, covered his body in armor-jackets, tab collars and sunglasses-I don't picture Dylan's belt any more than I can picture his driver's license.

In the early 70s, Springsteen's parents moved from NJ, where he was born, to California. Bruce rejected California and returned to the sleazy salt-water taffy strip to seek a recording deal, fame, and fortune. (When you think about the Boss' return to a home that was no longer his parents', it's stranger than Elvis staying in Memphis or Dylan's constant freewheeling.) Springsteen's geographic identity started at a very specific point-Asbury Park-on the diagonal line of the Jersey boardwalk. Springsteen's songs linked that diagonal line to the highways of the Northeast's suburban sprawl. Then the songs went horizontal; he made New Jersey the buckle of a blue-collar belt that connected Pennsylvania and Ohio's Rust Belts to Indiana and the Corn Belt (which his acolyte, John Mellencamp, also cultivated). Somewhat ironically, the song and album that allowed Springsteen's Belt to gird the globe was "Born in the USA" (1984). Looking at Bruce's blue jean covered butt and the flag on the cover you knew that The Boss, like The King, was (is) a belt guy. Springsteen's belts are simple Levi's-scaled straps of leather with sturdy (not Kingly ornate) buckles.

In reality those mythic industrial and agricultural belts were already dead and gone by the 1980s, replaced by the asphalt rhizome and the service industry. Springsteen was writing songs about the pain caused by their passing and the melancholy of the new economy. The pain, yearning and joy he sings about feels real-not much bigger or different than our own. What Springsteen got from Dylan was the poetic license to write intelligent contemporary folk songs. His song writing is inspired, and his stage and televisual presence are awesome. But, in my opinion, it's his voice that makes his art. That he's stumbling and inarticulate when speaking doesn't contradict this-rather it's part of his whole silent type package. His voice-which is not NJ-centric-gets Woody, Elvis, Bob and more. When Springsteen's voice arcs and aches along a melody line it can carry honey and sand. It carries self-pity, tears, sneers and rage. And he can shift through these textures and emotions within a few bars and, sometimes, over one lyric note. Often Springsteen hits a particular tonal range, a softening of the voice that a man adopts, consciously or not, when seducing or placating a woman he loves. Like some Hollywood leading men, Springsteen's popularity is based on his cross-gender appeal. Men want to be like him, women want to be with him.

Never having owned a Springsteen record, tape or CD, I've been downloading and listening to his stuff while writing this. His songs encourage nostalgia and they evoke this memory: In 1981 I was driving east on Rt. 80, bound for NYC, and I lost my transmission just on the Jersey side of the Delaware Water Gap. I was towed to a service station in Hope, New Jersey. The tow-truck driver-a guy about my age who worked at the station-wore the Springsteen sleeveless shirt and jeans, and he didn't have much to say. Anyone who's sat in the passenger seat of a tow truck knows the difficulty and desire to bond with the guy who's dragging your car's broken body. I didn't feel I'd done too well. When the proprietor of the service station wanted $25 to have one of his mechanics drive me to the bus station, which was about 10 miles away, I said I'd rather hitch. Standing by the side of the road in rural New Jersey, looking every bit the East Village arty twit that I was, I stood rideless for over two hours. It was after 5pm and starting to get dark when an orange GTO pulled over to pick me up. The driver was the tow-truck driver. He said, "Sorry, my boss can get a little greedy. I didn't figure you'd get a ride around here," and he drove me to the bus station.

In retrospect, I imagine a lot of things about this guy. I imagine that he loved Springsteen. I'd also like to imagine that Springsteen has a similar kindness and decency as that guy possessed. And as I write this, a Boss-esque masochistic/romantic fantasy blooms: What if, rather than traveling alone, I'm traveling with a girlfriend? Maybe our relationship isn't making it and we feel the end is near. We're silent and we're sad, and the car's breakdown becomes symbolic of our wrecked relationship. Rather than take the bus back to NYC with me, she decides to stay in the GTO with the towtruck driver. That way, as the fantasy goes, I can return to Hope, NJ, a name now steeped in poetic irony, pick up my Buick, and on my drive back to Manhattan, suddenly leap into the future and listen to my current favorites, "Tunnel of Love" and "Nebraska"-albums that weren't yet released. That way, I get that awful ache in my gut; I get to feel that I'm part of The Boss Belt.