Springsteen's fans: 'You believe in Bruce; Bruce believes in you'

As new documentary Springsteen & I is released, Laura Barton explores the extraordinary devotion of The Boss's fans

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The stall is jumbled high with T-shirts: short-sleeved grey marl, and white and black, all printed with album covers, with live photographs, tour dates set out against red, white and blue. It is one of many stalls that line Via San Carlo tonight, and the proprietor is a short, dark mollusc of a man, sharp eyes watching the steady stream of people rolling down the street.

"How much?" asks the loud, slow voice of the tourist to my right. "Quanto costa?" he says, louder, and points towards a Wrecking Ball shirt. His head is large and square and buzz-cut at the sides, and he wears the loose, nondescript clothes of the American abroad. "Ten," says the vendor, and splays both his palms. The American unfolds a crisp pink note from his wallet.

By the fountain in the square, a crowd has gathered. Police officers lean against their vehicles and look on, unruffled. Spectators – young, old, the fervent and the merely curious, press their faces to the barrier; a middle-aged woman stands on tip-toes and strains to see, chattering to her friend in excitable German. The night is warm. People lean out of windows and spill on to balconies; they dance and chant and whistle, and it feels as if the whole of the Piazza del Plebiscito is bathed in a peculiar golden euphoria, a giddiness that stretches from the Royal Palace to the church of San Francesco di Paola. Because tonight, Bruce Springsteen plays Naples.

To attend a Springsteen concert (and I have attended many) is quite unlike attending any other show. There is the music itself, of course – over three hours of hits and rarities and crowd-pleasers from a 40-year career played quite impeccably. And then the tireless spectacle of a stadium performance that is honed and polished, yet still somehow feels effortless and intimate. But then, there is also the fans.

Springsteen fans are an unusual breed, marked by their unwavering dedication, by their bright-eyed belief. You see them on the tube to his London shows, with their matching bandanas, their blue jeans and white T-shirts, grown men with their bald heads painted in stars and stripes, fervently discussing setlists and encores. You catch them down the front of his shows, in the legendary "golden circle" – the space before the stage, reserved for the most devoted. You find them on messageboards, debating the minutiae of Bruce footage from Phoenix in 1978. It is a level of fandom that goes far beyond record collections and band T-shirts, beyond concerts attended or even the long, low chorus of "Bruuuuuuuce" that precedes every live show. This isn't the giddy, squealing obsession of the teenage girl, but a kind of slow-cooked, long-steeped love for an artist. And it is rooted not just in his music, in his lyrics, but in the idea of Bruce Springsteen himself, in what he has come to represent.

This remarkable kind of musical faith is now the subject of a new documentary, Springsteen & I, a film made up of self-recorded fan-footage – from the Danish guy with Glory Days tattooed on his arm, to Kitty, the young American trucker, finding dignity in the lyrics of Nebraska, and the couple together for 28 years, dancing around their kitchen to Radio Nowhere. Not to mention the long-suffering husband, forced to attend countless shows by his Boss-loving wife ("What would you say to Bruce if you met him?" she asks. "Shorten your concerts," he replies.) It captures all the pure, absolute, wonderful devotion of the Springsteen fan, and offers some inkling as to why this artist means so much to so many. "You trust Bruce," says one contributor. "Bruce isn't going to let you down. You believe in Bruce; Bruce believes in you."

I find the T-shirt-stall tourist near the beer stand. Mike is here from Pennsylvania. He is 52 and tells me he works in an office job – "white collar, shuffling papers," he sighs. He has come to Italy with his brother, and the pair will attend two Springsteen shows – Naples tonight and Padua in a week's time. It is not the first time Mike has travelled overseas to see The Boss – in 2006 he followed the Seeger Sessions tour to Ireland. And, of course, he has seen him play countless times back home in the States.

"I found Bruce right around the time I got divorced," he says. "I mean, I knew him before then, but that was when I first heard Tunnel of Love. I put it on and it was immediate. I thought: this guy knows what I'm going through." For a while, he says, his Springsteen infatuation took over: every conversation in every bar he ever drank in seemed to drift back to Bruce; he tried to tell co-workers, friends, family about the transformative power of this music; he remembers once bursting into tears on a date as he tried to describe the importance of the song Tougher Than the Rest. "I was like a missionary, preaching Bruce to anybody I found," he laughs.

Nowadays, the fever has abated somewhat. Though he is still a massive Springsteen fan, he no longer tries to convert strangers, and he keeps his old tickets and programmes and memorabilia in the garage. Mike's second wife is understanding. "It's like I got this old war buddy or something, and she's good with me spending time with my buddy. She knows we've been through something together."

This is a common feature in many Bruce fans' testimonies – the idea that his music somehow helped them through a difficult time in their own lives, through breakups, unemployment, health problems, or simply coming of age. In the documentary, Kitty, the college graduate who was unable to find work in her field and so became a truck driver, explains how listening to Bruce makes her feel that "the more physically demanding my job is, the more important I am". One fan who wrote to me recently explained how the song Born to Run had got him through high school. "That song was so exciting and invigorating, it gave me a new lease of life – rather, a new purpose in life."

Part of this appeal lies in the intimacy of Springsteen's songs, and his willingness to paint the lives of ordinary people, blue-collar workers in small-town New Jersey, struggling to make ends meet, to shoulder their responsibilities, yearning for the simple escape of youth and rock'n'roll and a fast car. There are nicknames, recurring characters, streets, venues, specific screen-doors, specific porches, specific moments in a life rendered so real you could touch them. As one fan puts it in the film, listening to Springsteen's lyrics "is like looking through someone's family photo album and looking at their life and smelling their coffee … and feeling their sadness … and they're triumphing." And then he cries.

In 2012, the New York Times writer David Brooks headed to Europe on a Bruce pilgrimage of his own, following the Boss to Spain and France. "The passion among American devotees is frenzied, bordering on cultish," he wrote in a subsequent article. "The intensity of the European audiences is two standard deviations higher." He noted, in particular, the peculiarity of seeing 56,000 Spaniards singing along to Born in the USA, of the bafflement at seeing so many people in thrall to Springsteen's tales of small lives in New Jersey. "How is it they can be so enraptured at the mere mention of the Meadowlands, or the Stone Pony, an Asbury Park, NJ nightclub?" he wondered.

Craig Finn is the lead singer of the Hold Steady, a Minneapolis-born band that wears its Springsteen influence on its sleeve. Their sets will occasionally incorporate a Bruce cover – Atlantic City, say, or Girls in Their Summer Clothes, and on one occasion they had the honour of performing Rosalita with the man himself at a tribute concert in New York.

But Bruce's influence upon Finn has run deeper than a few cover versions and an echo of the E Street Band sound. "Springsteen's lyrics have influenced me a lot, especially his use of characters," he explains. "When I heard about the Magic Rat or Weak-Kneed Willy, I wanted to know more about them. When I started writing songs myself, I used characters and tried to go back to them, satiating my wish for more info on those guys."

Finn also pins part of Springsteen's appeal on his evolution as a songwriter, with the fact that, unlike many of his peers, he has "grown with his age … he writes songs for adults. Adults today have been listening to rock'n'roll their whole lives. They often turn to it for comfort and guidance. Bruce is still there for them, not all nostalgic, but current too."

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Perhaps this extraordinary canon of work, this range of experience, this willingness to grow as a songwriter, is what has allowed such a range of fans to connect with his songs. There are tales of being hard-up as well as of victory, songs that are politically charged or heartbroken, longing for the past or hoping for the future – these can capture the imagination of the factory worker and the mechanic as well as the high-paid executive and the housewife. I was struck, while researching this piece, by the breadth of his appeal – the tearful little boy hauled from the crowd in Naples to sit in his arms and sing Waiting on a Sunny Day, the twentysomethings who emailed me to share their Damascene Bruce moment, the lifelong fans, the recent converts, the Poles, the Brits, the Jersey girls.

For Natasha Khan, who records as Bat for Lashes and produced a memorable cover of I'm on Fire, part of Springsteen's appeal has always been a certain mutability, and his songs' ability to apply to both men and women. "Dancing in the Dark and I'm on Fire were always my favourites because they are at once really sexy and melancholic," she explains. "I chose to cover I'm on Fire because I love to tell a man's story from a girl's perspective. I wanted to pull out the darkness of the lyrics, the yearning."

Even since the early days, Springsteen has inspired a striking level of infatuation. Long before he was The Boss, long before he launched the E Street Band, Bruce fronted a group named the Castiles. Last year, in an extensive profile in the New Yorker, David Remnick recounted how the band would play everywhere from sweet-16 birthday parties to rollerdomes. One day, they were booked to perform at a psychiatric hospital in Marlboro, New Jersey. "A gentleman dressed in a suit came to the stage," Remnick wrote, "and, in an introductory speech that ran some 20 minutes, declared the Castiles 'greater than the Beatles'. At which point a doctor intervened and escorted him back to his room."

Peruse the talk threads of Backstreets.com, a website dedicated to all things Bruce, and you will have a taste of the depth of his fans' devotion. Backstreets began in 1980 as a magazine for fans of The Boss and the music of the Jersey Shore, but today its website allows devotees to discuss not only setlists and favourite songs, but also the size jeans Bruce might wear, shared MP3s and video footage from 35 years ago.

Tim Hiley describes himself as "a prominent member of the Bruce Springsteen forum". He posts under the name Part Man Part Monkey – a reference to a track on Springsteen's 1998 archive release Tracks. "I've posted 7,182 times on the forum," he says, "and have set up various game threads like the Guess the Setlist Competition and the Song Cup (Where I draw all of Bruce's songs against each other in an FA Cup style format)."

Hiley, who is British, devotes a lot of time to the thread and the competitions, but by far the biggest draw on his time is the Setlist Threads, where he works out the setlist from Twitter and posts it onto the forum in a live play-by-play update. "For the US tour last autumn and spring, I did pretty much every show and it often meant staying up until 5am UK time in order to post the setlist on the forum," he says. "While this may seem sad to some – probably many! – to me, it's simply following something that has touched my life on such a profound level. I find comfort and joy in his music. By posting on [the forum] with similar minded and dedicated people is a pleasure and if I give up several hours a day to post about The Boss and his legendary shows with the E Street Band, then I consider that a very enjoyable few hours."

Another Backstreets forum contributor, Nothing But Road, recounts how his love for Bruce fell into obsession in 2008, when he began to collect bootleg recordings. "I began to connect the tours and albums with that particular time in Bruce's life and drew new connections between my life and his," he explains. "When I was in my first relationship and it all turned sour, Tunnel of Love was the album I turned to. When things got better and I found a new girl it was Lucky Town. When I couldn't find a job and get out of [working] nights it was Dancing in the Dark: 'I get up in the evening and I ain't got nothing to say/ I come home in the morning feeling the same way.' Or Open all Night: 'The boss don't dig me so he put me on the night shift.'" He first saw Bruce live at Hyde Park in 2009 and was moved to tears. "It felt so overwhelming," he recalls, "because this was the guy whose music I allowed into my life … to become my life."

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The blurring of the man and the music is something that is often found among Springsteen fans. Although he has weathered his own personal struggles, Springsteen has come to represent something upstanding and wholesome to many. He is politically engaged, left-leaning, with a passion for the underdog (this week he dedicated a song to Trayvon Martin, for instance) and seems to set out an example of what can be achieved by kindness, consideration and pure hard graft. He tours often and long, his shows frequently last past three hours; on stage he works hard as an entertainer: covering all areas of the stage, playing sometimes obscure requests, and frequently channelling the role of a kind of southern Baptist preacher. "Where we wanna go, we can't get there by ourselves," he tells the crowd. "We need YOU! Can you feel the spirit?" he asks, and hands are lifted aloft and waved in this new kind of church.

"I think Bruce is a special rock star because he is indeed a huge celebrity but seems human and modest, even," says Craig Finn. "He has a commitment to honesty that resonates. He seems to understand the average person's life even if he is anything but average. I think his belief in himself and the redemptive power of rock'n'roll inspires (almost) everyone who comes across it."

"Bruce can seem warm, open, friendly – an ordinary guy, someone you can imagine being friends with – because he is genuinely interested in other people," says the legendary rock critic Greil Marcus. "And because he acts consciously to set himself apart from the arrogant, entitled, dismissive rock star, both because he doesn't want to be like that and because he is aware of how damaging to the – let's not say image but the sense-of-self – his fans hold of him and hold him to."

Marcus cites as his favourite example a day in 2000, when Springsteen visited a seminar he was teaching at Princeton on Prophecy and the American Voice. "My older daughter had run into him at a party in New York … and told him about the class," he explains. "He said he'd like to take it – she said, I'd tell him he'd have to do the reading."

The reading that week was no mean feat – Allen Ginsberg's Wichita Vortex Sutra from 1966, accompanied by a recording of Ginsberg performing the entire, very long poem with an orchestra of downtown New York musicians. But characteristically, Springsteen put in the hours.

"Bruce arrived early, and we went in together," Marcus recalls. "I introduced him – everyone knew who he was – and he sat down around the seminar table and for the next three hours carefully, subtly, took part in the conversation. He had, he told me later, been very affected by the poem, and had an argument he wanted to make about it, but he did this by speaking only in terms of something a student said, responding, and eliding his statements into questions. People then took up things he'd said, so that he was able to turn the discussion without ever appearing to.

"That's a very specific situation, but I think many fans glimpse that sense of self in Bruce's music, songs, self-presentation – and can imagine, and even do imagine, themselves and him interacting in their own lives. Certainly for some people that crosses over into the kind of identification and obsession that some people outgrow and some people don't."

In 2007, the writer Sarfraz Manzoor published Greetings from Bury Park, an account of the impact of Bruce Springsteen's music on his own life, and its role in helping him leave his home town of Luton. Today, he has not outgrown his obsession (he is currently writing a screenplay of his book) but it has shifted somewhat. "In my 20s and 30s, I believed being a Springsteen fan meant travelling the world and clocking up as many concerts as I could manage," he explains. "I was wrong – the point of loving his music is not to become obsessed by him but to make the best of your own life so you don't let the best of yourself slip away."

But for others, the enthusiasm has yet to mellow. And perhaps it is even Bruce's own dedication and work ethic that makes his fans put in their own hours. Jeff Paterson has attended more than 40 Springsteen shows over the past 33 years. This week, Paterson wrote to tell me about a time he showed particular dedication to his musical hero: having bought tickets for two successive shows in St Paul, he flew to Minnesota from his home in California, with the intention of meeting up with his daughter Shannon, who would be flying in from Bismarck. When Shannon's flight (and the next one) were cancelled, Paterson told his tearful daughter: "I've got a rental car and I'm coming to get you." The trip was 440 miles one-way and took in a blizzard and a highway closure. Making it back to St Paul for the first show, the following day Paterson was hit by a nasty bout of food poisoning, but still he made it to the second show and spent much of it in a wheelchair in the first aid zone. But it was worth it, he says, since it was at this show that Shannon was pulled up on stage to dance with Bruce to Hungry Heart. "My adrenaline must have kicked in [then], I rush back to the floor to see my baby crying, tears of joy and tears of worry! Then she sees me and everything is alright!"

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Back in Naples, I am crushed down the front of the crowd, pressed right up against the barrier in the golden circle. It is raining now, the warm night turned to drizzle and then to torrential downpour, the moon near-full, obscured by clouds and umbrellas. Still they hold their signs aloft – American flags, a detailed depiction of the Springsteen family restaurant not far from the city, and song requests for Rosalita and I'm Goin Down and the polite query "Can I dance with Stevie?"

The mood, even rain-soaked, even drenched, is rapturous. Faces upturned, hands aloft, a complete stranger wraps his arm around me and together we sing Prove It All Night in an Italian lilt. At the end, Bruce comes to the stage alone to play an acoustic encore of Thunder Road, a song he remembers playing here on his very first visit to Naples.

The crowd spills out up the Via San Carlo, past the T-shirt stalls and the ice cream shops, still floating, still on fire, still singing those final notes of their song of devotion. And as I walk back to my hotel in my head I hear Bruce's voice addressing the rain-sodden crowd: "We're here tonight because what we need to do we can't do by ourselves," he'd bellowed, as he always did. "We need you. We need you. We need you," he cried. "Can you feel the spirit? Can you feel the spirit now?"


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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