The Meaning of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’

Bruce Springsteen performs during the closing ceremony for the Invictus Games in Toronto, Canada, in 2017. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)
The Bard of authenticity salutes cheesy Seventies style.

In 1975, I was nine. Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” was the first song I was ever obsessed with, the first 45-rpm single I ever bought. The price of a song then was 100 percent of my weekly income, which was one dollar. Costly, but worth it. As “Rhinestone Cowboy” was making its way to No. 1, which it reached on September 6, 1975, another single was sputtering on the charts. Released on August 25, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” didn’t do so well. It peaked at number 23. Victory for Glen Campbell.

“Rhinestone Cowboy” sounds very much like 1975, and “Born to Run” doesn’t; it’s difficult to place. It doesn’t sound like the Sixties, Eighties, or Nineties either. It’s beyond the constraints of time. That’s one reason it’s an enduring classic, it still gets played on the radio, and is always a highlight of Springsteen’s fabled concerts. Springsteen looked beyond the moment and created timeless art. In the documentary on the making of Born to Run the album, there’s a priceless scene in which Springsteen is listening to one of the early mixes of “Born to Run,” and just for a few seconds it sounds like the Seventies. Springsteen winces. We’re all glad he cut out that interlude and made something that didn’t get stuck in 1975.

Born to Run turned out to be one of the greatest rock albums ever made, a deathless slate of eight spellbinding, essential songs. Rock radio stations have been playing all eight for decades. Springsteen is an emperor of the stage who sells out stadiums and caused a frenzy when he took up residency in a Broadway theater for a year; Campbell, when he died a couple of years back, was semi-forgotten. His image forever adhered to the unfortunate tastes of the American masses in the Nixon era, when his hokey, meretricious, down-home cornball variety show The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour was a top-20 television hit.

And yet here is Springsteen covering “Rhinestone Cowboy” in the closing credits of his new documentary Western Stars, which he made to promote the album of the same name. Bruce hardly every sings others’ songs (it’s the only cover in the movie). He doesn’t sing this one with a smirk or a wink. Why did he choose this one to wrap up the movie? I think it’s a sly confession. Glen Campbell and Bruce Springsteen are not so far apart as they appear.

One of these two men lived a reckless rock-and-roll life as though he expected never to see 40. The other was a relative Romney. As a British tabloid once put it, with delightful concision: “Glen Campbell’s dark side: Cocaine binges, booze addiction, three failed marriages and eating squirrel to stay alive.” Campbell had eight children with four women, one of whom he married when she was 15 (and pregnant by Campbell, who was 17). That’s straight out of “The River.” Campbell was more of a Springsteen character than Springsteen.

At the time of “Rhinestone Cowboy” Campbell was a cocaine fiend. He was freebasing, too. Sometimes he would snort the white stuff while he had the Bible open on his table. In the Eighties, his relationship with Tanya Tucker was chaos; during his affair with her he busted up his room at the Plaza Hotel in New York and did $1,200 worth of damage. Tucker said he hit her so hard he knocked out two of her front teeth. In 1981, after a dispute on an airplane, he told an Indonesian gentleman, “I’m going to call my friend Ronald Reagan and bomb Jakarta.” Campbell became a born-again Christian and said he kicked the bad habits, but they kicked back. As late as 2003, he earned himself ten days in prison after being busted for drinking and driving in Phoenix. When asked his name, he said, “Glen Campbell, the Rhinestone Cowboy.” He insisted he wasn’t drunk but had merely been “over-served” via a Coke he did not know also contained rum. He tried to knee a cop in the thigh.

Campbell’s songs (which he didn’t write) were not about desperation and woe, but his life was. For Springsteen it was the reverse; the darkness in his songs is strictly make-believe. This would have been obvious to anyone paying attention, but should you doubt it, I refer you to Springsteen on Broadway, in which Springsteen admits he made it all up, using the following words: “I made it all up.” He went to the movies and borrowed from features such as Thunder Road (1958) and Badlands (1973). In 1987, his album Tunnel of Love reflected frankly on his (brief, unwise) first marriage, to Julianne Phillips, and in his 1992 song “Better Days” he drops a reference to being “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt,” but for the most part what Springsteen has been doing his whole career is speak through fictional characters — gangsters and losers and Tom Joad. He never raced cars. He was never a street punk. He never saw the inside of a factory. “Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something about which he has had absolutely no personal experience,” he said in the Broadway show. How could it be otherwise? He’s been a rich man since his early twenties. He lives on a 380-acre estate in New Jersey, when he isn’t at his $60 million property in Benedict Canyon. His daughter is an equestrian. If Springsteen were being frank, “The River” would be about a Mississippi of money.

No one should feel cheated, though. Springsteen is a creative artist, and he spent most of his career carefully refining his greatest creation: “Bruce Springsteen.” Seemingly an introspective, confessional writer, Springsteen was in reality more akin to a novelist or an actor. In the film Western Stars he talks about creating his “character” for the album — a faded cowboy actor who makes a living doing Haggar commercials and performing in rodeos. There’s been a load of compromisin’ on the road to his horizon.

Springsteen’s take on “Rhinestone Cowboy” brings it all back home: It’s a confession by a phony, a poser, a guy in sparkly fake gems who, far from working the rodeos, instead walks “the dirty sidewalks of Broadway.” Its author is neither a Westerner nor a cowboy, nor even cowboy-adjacent: Larry Weiss is a Jewish guy who grew up in Queens. Glen Campbell, the Arkansas country boy who grew up eating varmints, reached his zenith channeling the words of a New Yorker who wrote of yearning to make it big as a fake buckaroo. Everyone trying to make it in showbiz has an act; Springsteen is happy to admit that for many years authenticity was his act. His signature character may have been the turnpike desperado, but he is the Garden State version of the Rhinestone Cowboy.

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