PHILADELPHIA — Toward the end of the National Constitution Center exhibit “From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen,” which opens on Friday, there’s a section called “Book of Dreams.”
To get there, you walk by the 1960 Chevrolet Corvette that Springsteen bought in 1975 after the success of “Born to Run,” and pass through rooms lined with fliers advertising gigs by early Springsteen bands like Steel Mill and Dr. Zoom & the Sonic Boom. There are trophies like the 1994 best-song Oscar for “Streets of Philadelphia,” and artifacts such as the jeans and T-shirt the Boss wore on the cover of 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.”
One morning last week, exhibit installers from the Constitution Center and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where the exhibit originated, were busy unpacking guitars, like the black Takamine acoustic used during the recording of the 1982 album “Nebraska.” Grammys were lying around in bubble wrap, and the faded red baseball cap Springsteen had stuffed in his rear pocket on the cover of “Born in the U.S.A.” was still in its box.
Meanwhile, back in the Book of Dreams section, Constitution Center chief executive officer David Eisner was checking out a display of Springsteen’s spiral-bound notebooks, which included scribbled drafts of the lyrics to “The Rising” and “No Retreat, No Surrender.”
“So much of his thematic territory is really about the American Dream and the distance between where the American Dream is and what our aspirations are,” Eisner said in response to the question, what’s a Bruce Springsteen exhibit doing at the Constitution Center? “And when you read the lyrics to songs like ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ and ‘The River’ you can really see that that sense of chronicling where we are in the evolution of the American Dream is just dead center for him.”
James Henke, the chief curator of the Rock Hall of Fame who selected 160 or so pieces of memorabilia in the exhibit from a warehouse somewhere in New Jersey (“I can’t say where”) where the Boss keeps his stuff, agrees that if any rock songwriter belongs in the Constitution Center, which is the only institution this exhibit will travel to, Springsteen is the one.
“Bruce is a very American musician,” Henke says, on the phone from the I.M. Pei-designed Rock Hall pyramid in Cleveland. “His songs deal with a lot of American themes, much as, say, Woody Guthrie’s do. His songs talk about the working class and the things that they go through. So if you were going to pick a rock artist to do there, he makes sense.”
The Springsteen show is essentially the same in Philadelphia as it was in Cleveland. There are the childhood photos of Springsteen growing up in Freehold in Monmouth County, N.J., cutely labeled “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come),” after the song Springsteen gave to Dave Edmunds in 1982.
There are the listening stations with audio selections, such as Springsteen’s 1972 and 1973 auditions for Columbia Records A&R man John Hammond, and the 1974 Cambridge, Mass., show witnessed by Springsteen’s soon-to-be-manager Jon Landau, who famously (and awkwardly) wrote later, “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”
It’s uncertain whether one planned element will be in place for the show. The Fender Esquire guitar Springsteen holds on the “Born to Run” album cover is meant to be one of the final artifacts in the show. But before it arrived at the Constitution Center, Springsteen decided he wanted to play it on the Grammy telecast Sunday. It will make the trip from L.A. to Philadelphia this week, but there’s no telling whether the Boss will want it back for his “Wrecking Ball” tour.
There are key additions to the Philadelphia version of the show. One is New York’s Morrison Hotel Gallery photo exhibit “From Darkness to a Dream,” featuring the work of Springsteen shutterbugs Frank Stefanko and Danny Clinch. Their pictures, including a Stefanko shot of the Boss posing with the Corvette on the snowy streets of Haddonfield, N.J., in 1978, will be hung outside the exhibit entrance.
The other difference is how the introduction to each section of the show, put together by exhibition developer Erin McLeary, stresses what a political animal Springsteen has always been. (Though the Boss was reluctant to endorse a presidential candidate until he aligned himself with John Kerry with the “Vote for Change” tour in 2004, the exhibit contains a handwritten flier from a 1972 Red Bank, N.J., benefit for George McGovern.)
The “Book of Dreams” section leads with a pair of Springsteen quotes.
“I’m interested in what it means to be an American. I’m interested in the kind of country that we live in and leave our kids. I’m interested in trying to define what that country is,” he says in a quote from a 2007 interview on “60 Minutes.” “I got the chutzpah or whatever you want to say to believe that if I write a really good song about it, it’s going to make a difference. It’s going to matter to somebody, you know?”
In a “Today” show interview in 2007, Springsteen said: “I try to make music that’s both — you know, you can kind of vacuum the floor to it, or you can sit down and somewhere in there should be a comment on the events of the day. And I like the songs to be read both personally and politically.”
Having an exhibit running in its only East Coast location for seven months, in a year when Springsteen will be touring with the E Street Band behind a new album, “Wrecking Ball,” also means big news “from a marketing perspective,” Eisner says.
The most popular Constitution Center exhibit thus far was the 2005 show “Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World,” which drew 187,000 visitors.
“We’re being conservative, but we are very excited about box office expectations,” Eisner says. “We’re hoping this takes first place.”
Before Eisner arrived at the center in 2009, it hosted traveling shows less connected to the American experience than this one, focusing on the likes of Princess Diana and Napoleon. That doesn’t mean Springsteen will appear to be a no-brainer to everyone.
“I think there are people who see us promoting an American rock-and-roll star and think, ‘What the heck does this have to do with the Constitution Center?’ “ says Eisner, who jokes that he’s “humble in calling myself a Bruce fan, because I’ve seen maybe 15 shows, and I know so many people in the Philadelphia area who’ve seen 150.
“It’s on the edge where a lot of people will say, ‘This is about freedom of speech, the American Dream, the artist as a protester,’ and others will say, ‘What does rock-and-roll have to do with the Constitution?’ The fact that we’re on that cusp and able to engage in that debate, that’s actually really constructive for us. Because it puts us in a position where we can talk about the extent of the contemporary values of the Constitution, and how it really is relevant in a broader scope of life than people might think.”
It doesn’t bother Eisner, either, that Springsteen — an active campaigner for Barack Obama in 2008 — is a self-styled left-leaning populist.
“There’s no question that he’s staked out a very partisan position on the political landscape. For us, that really is a strong example of the role an artist can play in politics, and I think it’s really interesting that the party he opposes has in many cases embraced his music and used it at rallies,” he says, referring specifically to Ronald Reagan’s attempted co-opting of the song “Born in the U.S.A.” in 1984.
“There are so many interesting side tributaries you can go down around this artist with music and politics. It’s the soundtrack of the American story.”
// Notes from the Road
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