There's a darkness on the edge of cool that's totally Boss

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The problem with trying to stay hip once you reach a certain (middle) age is that you find out that even the word "hip" is no longer hip.

And then where are you?

This came up recently when I suggested that I was reasonably hip for a person of a certain (middle) age, and a young person, in her 20s, rolled her eyes.

Hip, she said, was unhip (or beat, which apparently means unhip).

The scary thing was that the young people I asked couldn't find a good replacement for hip. One such person (age 22), after suggesting happenin' as an alternative, said: "What do I know? My time is past. I've already got a health plan."

It isn't that I'm totally unhip (or beat). I know "rad" is out. I knew that "bad" used to mean good. "Phat," I think, means cool. And "cool" is back in, but cool doesn't mean hip.

And instead of getting down, as we once did, people now say, "I'm down with that." I recently asked my wife if she could still get down. She said she thought she could -- but if she did, she didn't think she could get back up.

The reason I mention this is, of course, because of Bruce Springsteen, who is enjoying a comeback from rock purgatory, which is, I believe, somewhere near Cleveland.

You can't understand how important this is to me.

It isn't that I care about Springsteen, personally. I'm not that kind of fan. I don't write fan letters. I don't read fanzines.

I don't care who he's married to, or if Bruce and the Woodman (another of my cultural icons) are double-dating.

I love the music. I loved it early. I've loved it well.

Springsteen is the best live performer (sorry, Mick) in all of what we like to call the rock and roll era.

And I was with Bruce back when he was a cult figure, and before everything went wrong, starting with "Born in the USA."

You know that album. It's one of the best-selling albums ever. It was the album through which Ronald Reagan, not your basic rock-and-roller, tried to appropriate the Springsteen legend. It was when Bruce became mega-Bruce. It was the beginning of the end.

For one thing, it's hard to be that big and still be hip (the Beatles broke up, allowing them to remain hip forevermore).

For another, the music started to slip. How can you be a working-class hero when you're worth about $100 million?

Yet another theory, one which makes some sense, is that Bruce was a bad fit with the cool, cynical times. He was the John Steinbeck of rock (although I don't think Steinbeck ever wore an earring). Bruce's songs told long stories of longing and hope and how the working class was getting stiffed. Who wants to hear that stuff now?

But I don't think that's the answer. I think what happened was that Bruce became Elvis, and I don't mean the dead Elvis who is worshiped by many people who also buy velvet portraits. I mean the Elvis I hated as a kid because he belonged to the previous rock generation. It was years before I learned to appreciate the raw power of his early music. To me, he was just another guy in a sequined jumpsuit.

It happened all over again with Bruce. The hip people a half-generation younger -- for instance, those who were deeply into punk -- were also deeply anti-Bruce. Bruce was so, well, retro. Radio stopped playing him. His albums stopped selling.

By the '90s, hardly anyone would admit he liked Bruce.

You'd get into a music conversation, and people would start ripping Bruce, and what was I supposed to say? I had to leave, saying something like, "I'm off to a Nine Inch Nails concert."

An editor (the very definition of unhip) once said to me, "You can't be hip and like Springsteen, too."

Now he's back. He's big, he's huge. Maybe he's not hip, but at least he's been rehabilitated. I'm thinking it's no longer irrelevant to debate the relative merits of "Born to Run" and "Darkness on the Edge of Town."

Here's how big Bruce has become again: He has won an Oscar (which doesn't mean hip) and a Grammy (which certainly doesn't mean hip) for "Streets of Philadelphia," his best song in perhaps a decade. And he has a greatest-hits album out that's a great hit.

I even heard "Jungleland" -- where they wind up wounded, and not even dead -- on the radio for the first time in years. It was way cool.

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