Peter Chianca: Must-see Springsteen exhibit closes Sept. 3

Peter Chianca

Anyone wondering what an exhibit devoted to the life and work of Bruce Springsteen is doing in a history museum need look no further than the ratty notebook pages on the walls at “From Asbury Park to the Promised Land,” now at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center.

Seeing Springsteen’s classic songs in their primordial form – written longhand, complete with inserted words and scratched-out phrases – does more than just smack of history. As you read them, you can practically feel the songs coming in to being; it’s history in the making. (Having the tiny desk Springsteen sat at to write his earliest compositions a mere few feet away doesn’t hurt.)

As Springsteen brings his “Wrecking Ball” tour back to the U.S. after a celebrated run in Europe, the Constitution Center is winding down its Springsteen exhibit, which originated at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It closes Sept. 3, and any Bruce fan who skips it will have missed out on a comprehensive collection that celebrates the man and his music and, perhaps more importantly, what rock music can do to enrich us personally and further the national debate.

The lyrics sheets, while perhaps the most fascinating aspect, are far from all the exhibit has to offer. There’s an undeniable appeal to seeing classic instruments like the guitar pictured on the cover of “Born to Run,” most recently played by Springsteen at the 2009 Super Bowl. If you’ve seen Springsteen beat up his guitars in concert, you probably have an idea of what it must look like these days – but close up it’s actually even worse than you’d think.

There’s also plenty of interactive video and audio, including unreleased early tracks, interviews and rare concert footage, along with lots of do-dads, from WNEW’s carton of “Bruce Juice” to Springsteen’s own collection of hotel keys from his early touring days, which he apparently never felt a compunction to return upon checkout.

And then there are the clothes, perhaps the one element of the exhibit that feels vaguely like overkill … Even the most ardent Springsteen fan probably doesn’t need to be ogling his pants. That said, you don’t get more iconic an outfit than the one from the cover of “Born in the USA,” and Springsteen’s “Born to Run” motorcycle jacket is noteworthy if only for its surprising tiny-ness – he was one skinny dude.

Even with everything else the exhibit has to offer, though, it’s hard not to come back to the songs and the thrill of seeing them in Springsteen’s own hand. Some of his early work in particular seems written in paragraphs rather than stanzas, like a novel, and his casual spelling (“first remove the cookey jar”) and lack of punctuation seem to indicate that the songs were just bursting to get out.

Taking Springsteen’s words one step further is a segment called “Decoding the Lyrics,” in which guides help guests delve into some of Springsteen’s more misunderstood – and arguably most important – compositions, like “Born in the USA” (Sorry, Ronald Reagan) and “American Skin.” And visitors can add to a wall of yellow stickies with a note on the Springsteen song that’s meant the most to them.

The sheer number and breadth of those notes speaks to Springsteen’s personal impact, as does another item: A letter to Bruce from a state trooper in honor of Springsteen’s 38th birthday. “Much of the sanity I have left is because of you,” the trooper writes, and many a fan who’s been helped through a tough time or been forced to confront an uncomfortable truth by a Springsteen song would no doubt agree.

It’s those fans for whom “From Asbury Park to the Promised Land” is a must-see, but anyone who’s appreciated his music over the years, and who believes in the redemptive power of rock ’n’ roll, should make the trip to Philly before time runs out.

Peter Chianca writes about Bruce Springsteen for Gatehouse Media's Blogness on the Edge of Town. For more information about the Springsteen exhibit or the National Constitution Center, visit