‘I think the idea of scholarship being brought to the Springsteen phenomenon is a great idea,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Princeton University professor Paul Muldoon, who directs the Lewis Center for the Arts at the university.
“Glory Days: A Bruce Springsteen Symposium” will bring together hundreds of academics, DJs, performers, and other music business people, as well as just plain fans of the Boss for three days and nights of celebration of the man and his music, Friday through Sunday, September 25 to 27, at Monmouth University. Springsteen, who appears on the cover of the September AARP magazine with the headline, “The Boss Turns 60,” celebrated his birthday on September 23. He performs starting Wednesday, September 30, at the Meadowlands in a series of sold-out concerts running into October.
The symposium and series of concerts is the brainchild of professional conference organizer Mark Bernhard of Virginia Tech. In September, 2005, he organized a similar conference.
“The whole thing sounds very interesting,” Muldoon says, “and I do think he’s quite a wonderful writer.
“There’s essentially no difference between the activity of writing poems and writing songs,” Muldoon continues, “and the sooner we accept the song tradition is part of the same urge, I think the happier we’ll all be. Popular music is just that, it’s popular, and while poetry is very strong in this country, it has never exactly been a popular sport. There’s always some alchemy at work when words and music conjoin.”
One of Muldoon’s songs, which he co-wrote with late rock ’n’ roller Warren Zevon, “My Ride’s Here,” was performed by Springsteen a few days after the singer-songwriter — famous for tunes like “Lawyers, Guns, and Money,” and “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” — died from mesothelioma on September 7, 2003.
“That was a particularly thrilling moment,” Muldoon says, though it was tempered by the loss of his friend, Zevon. “In general, I felt quite proud of myself that somehow that was the song that Bruce Springsteen chose to commemorate Warren Zevon.”
Muldoon, whose own band, Rackett, performs frequently in the greater Princeton area, got to know Zevon after he arrived at Princeton in 1987 by writing him a fan letter. “I’d always felt very strongly that Warren didn’t quite get his due in terms of the esteem in which he might have been held,” Muldoon says, “and in some ways he was his own worst enemy of course, but I think he was a brilliant writer.”
As a result of his letter, Zevon asked for a meeting with Muldoon after one of Zevon’s concerts, and the two became friends. “I’m a great believer in writing fan letters and saying ‘I think you’re great.’ It turned out that he asked me to write some songs with him,” Muldoon says. One of those songs was “My Ride’s Here,” about everyone’s eventual transition into the next realm.
Muldoon, born in 1951 in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, is the son of a truck farmer father and school teacher mother. His background includes working for the BBC in Belfast as a radio and television producer.
Asked what drew him to poetry as a child, Muldoon says simply “laziness.” He was 15 and he had a weekend assignment to write an essay for Monday. Rather than write an essay, he wrote a poem, and his school teacher thought it good enough that he asked him to write another one for the following week, which Muldoon did.
“I started writing poetry very young and never got out of the habit of writing since I was a teenager,” he says.
Muldoon says there are really just small differences between songwriting and poetry, but they are essentially the same. “Bob Dylan was one of the first to say that his songs are not poems. There’s something missing in the song lyric that needs that other magical component to body it out. The poem, as they say, brings its own music, it’s sort of complete in itself.
“I don’t think Bruce Springsteen is pretending to be writing poems, but if you look at his lyrics they do stand up on the page in ways they don’t necessarily have to,” he continues. Muldoon thinks that also holds true of the song lyrics of other songwriters like Zevon, Dylan, Paul Simon, and especially Leonard Cohen.
The first Glory Days conference, held at Monmouth University in September, 2005, drew more than 300 participants, according to organizer Bernhard, who is director of continuing and professional education at Virginia Tech.
Not surprisingly, Bernhard is an avowed Springsteen fanatic and has traveled around the country to attend more than 50 of his concerts. The genesis of the conference came to him about six years ago when he realized he could combine his vocation, organizing conferences and short courses, with his avocation, his fascination with the music of Springsteen.
“When I put this together four years ago, we didn’t know what to expect. But we came to realize there are a lot of people in this country and internationally who have taken an interest in teaching Springsteen in the classroom and are interested in his lyrics, his music, and some people would go so far as getting into the psychological aspects of his music,” Bernhard says. After the conference four years ago, Bernhard really wasn’t interested in doing another conference, “but I figured when he’s got a lot of fresh material out, then we can have another one. Sure enough, he did not disappoint.” In the ensuing years, Springsteen released more thought-provoking albums and sold out more stadiums across the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
But how does Springsteen — who dropped out of Ocean County College — figure into the business of higher education, teaching poetry, and all things Jerseyanna? “In some sense, I think Bruce Springsteen invented New Jersey,” Muldoon says. “That seems a rather grand thing to say, but Oscar Wilde used to say, ‘there were no fogs before Dickens’ and ‘no sunsets before Turner [the painter].’ On some level it’s only when art makes sense of the world and the place we live in and our place within that place that it actually comes into being.
“It’s kind of crazy in some ways, but there are those who say, ‘There really wasn’t a Dublin before James Joyce,’ and the place exists in some strange way in Joyce’s mind, which we partake in and in which we’re allowed to romp around,” Muldoon continues. “I think that as creatures we tend to take what’s on either side of us and immediately before us for granted. There’s nothing like the joy in hearing the place where we live commemorated in some way in a poem or a song. I think Bruce Springsteen falls into that very basic human impulse.”
At the conference more than 100 people will be presenting or lecturing on Springsteen’s life and times and music, and there is a chance the Boss himself may show up at one of the days of seminars, or at least at his friend Joe Grushecky’s 4:30 p.m. Friday afternoon concert at Pollak Auditorium, or the Saturday “Songwriters by the Sea” show, same venue, 4 to 6 p.m.
Papers being presented include “Springsteen: The Road to Resilience in Hard Times” by Steven Southwick, a professor at Yale Univeristy School of Medicine; a panel on “Springsteen and Social Consciouness”; and a panel, “We Shall Overcome,” presented by lawyer and record company head Jim Musselman of Appleseed Recordings of Pennsylvania.
Jackson Township-based drummer and bandleader Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez will share his colorful reminiscences of E-Street keyboardist Danny Federici and Springsteen’s first manager, Carl ‘Tinker’ West of Atlantic Highlands, and will also tell stories from the early days of Springsteen’s career, 1968 to 1971, when all three lived together in West’s surfboard factory in Asbury Park.
“I think, even for casual fans, the conference and individual shows are great events. It’s not just for academics. If you’re a Springsteen fan, you’re going to enjoy yourself,” Bernhard predicts.
Glory Days: A Bruce Springsteen Symposium, Friday through Sunday, September 25 to 27, Monmouth University, Route 71, West Long Branch. Tickets for musical programs at Pollak Theater, West Long Branch and Stone Pony, Asbury Park are still available, $15-$25. 540-231-5182 or www.cpe.vt.edu/glorydays/index.html.