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They don’t call him ‘The Boss’ for nothing

Bruce Springsteen.
Bruce Springsteen.Greg Allen/Greg Allen/Invision/AP

If you went to college in New England, September was the best month.

Frisbees and sunbathing. Music blaring from dorm windows, beckoning you to skip a class, and it was the one time of the year you could get away with it.

This September is different. Students are supposed to wear masks and keep apart. But they are no different than their predecessors. They want to learn, but also to socialize and be human.

Northeastern students were sent packing after partying at their hotel-cum-dorm. At UMass Amherst, they might as well release the tumble weeds. And at Boston College, a COVID-19 outbreak put everyone on edge.

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It has been an especially unnerving start at BC, so last week’s first-year convocation speech by Bruce Springsteen was a needed tonic.

Springsteen’s son, Evan, is a BC alum and the singer-songwriter remains part of the extended BC family.

First-year students received a copy of Springsteen’s 2016 memoir “Born to Run,” which was better than having to read “Beowulf” over the summer.

Because of COVID-19, the convocation was a virtual experience. Because it was Springsteen, it was a deep one.

Springsteen, the antithesis of the drug-addled rock star, has always taken care of himself, and, at 70, looks much younger. Despite his age, he knows how to get the attention of young adults who might not listen to his music as enthusiastically as their parents or grandparents did.

“If you completed your assignment and read my book,” Springsteen began, “you will know I got into rock and roll for the sex, the drugs, and the sex.”

Springsteen was joking, of course, but he wasn’t joking when he said he regretted, despite all his success, not going to college and getting a degree.

“What you’re about to embark upon will be the greatest adventure of your young life,” he said. “You can waste it, you can half-ass your way through it, or you can absorb every minute of what you’re experiencing and come out the other end, an individual of expanded vision, of intellectual vigor, of spiritual character and grace, fully prepared to meet the world on its own terms. To be young in this beautiful and accommodating city and to be engaged in the life of this school, is a great, great privilege.”

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He told students they were the first “coronial generation.” That would necessitate a spirit of sacrifice, figuring out how to remain safe during the pandemic.

And looking beyond their college years, he recommended finding a way to make a living that wasn’t about money as much as fulfillment.

Springsteen took questions from students, one of whom, Molly McGrane, noted his song, “American Skin (41 Shots),” which he first played 20 years ago, was about the police shooting of an unarmed Black man, Amadou Diallo, in New York City, after he reached for his wallet. McGrane asked if Springsteen was surprised or saddened the song remains so relevant.

“I’m sad that it remains relevant, but I’m not completely surprised because we, as a country, haven’t done the work necessary to address the systemic racism that pervades every corner of our society,” he said.

He said the relatively new technology of cellphone video has forced us to confront outrages that have gone unchallenged for generations.

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“We’re living in a moment of possibility,” he said. "I believe history is dictating that we move forward, but it will take every bit of conviction and action that we can muster as a people, to create real change. It’s an existential issue for the United States and one that’s going to need the deep engagement of all you folks here tonight and all of your elders. Along with this pandemic, it’s the issue of our times and we will be judged as a country as to how well we hold up our promise that all men are created equal. Your generation will be essential in this.”

Like Woody Guthrie and John Prine before him, Bruce Springsteen loves his country, but, like them and like a true patriot, knows it can do better.



Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.