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‘Mary Climbs In’ authors survey the inner landscape of Springsteen’s women fans

Bruce Springsteen (pictured touching the hand of a fan) and the E Street Band performed at TD Garden in March.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Quick, what’s the line that comes after “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night?” Even casual Bruce Springsteen fans know the answer to that, from the street opera “Thunder Road”: “You ain’t a beauty but hey, you’re all right.”

That song was recorded more than 40 years ago, near the outset of what has become one of the truly epic careers in rock ‘n’ roll. Over time, some fans — particularly female fans — have questioned whether there’s a hint of misogyny in the singer sizing up the looks of the young woman he’s propositioning.

Lorraine Mangione and Donna Luff are the cowriters of a scholarly new book called “Mary Climbs In: The Journey of Bruce Springsteen’s Women Fans.” They have differing opinions on a lot of Bruce-related things — the high prices of resale tickets on his current tour (which hits Gillette Stadium this week), for instance.

But they thoroughly agree that “You ain’t a beauty but hey, you’re all right” is “the best line ever,” as Luff, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, puts it with a smile.


The authors are on board with the #MeToo movement; they both identify as feminists. But they also appreciate the fact that the narrator of “Thunder Road” is self-deprecating — he’s well aware he’s “no hero.” And they believe Springsteen himself has evolved in ways that account for the women in his life, including his female fans.

The cover of "Mary Climbs In."HANDOUT

Based on survey results — Mangione is a professor of clinical psychology at Antioch University New England — the authors have determined that many of Springsteen’s female fans aren’t enamored with his propensity to call women “little girls,” especially during his earlier years as a performer. Multiple respondents took exception with certain songs, such as “Reno,” a quiet acoustic ballad from 2005′s “Devils & Dust” that describes an appointment with a prostitute.


Despite such specifics, the overarching theme of “Mary Climbs In” is that plenty of women love Springsteen every bit as much as guys do.

Springsteen fandom is profound enough to have inspired several projects about the fans themselves, including the books “Tramps Like Us” (1998) by Daniel Cavicchi and “Bruce Springsteen’s America” by Robert Coles (2003); and the 2013 documentary “Springsteen & I.” After watching the latter together, Mangione and Luff developed their premise for a book about their fellow female “tramps” (as Springsteen fans refer to themselves).

Both women hold doctorates in their respective fields — a fact, they note, that dovetails nicely in terms of Springsteen’s songwriting style.

“One of us frames the world in more individual and small-group interactions,” as they explain in the book, “and the other in larger group and society-level phenomena.” Coincidentally, it’s Springsteen’s juxtaposition of songs that dig down internally (“State Trooper,” say) with others that address the community at large (“We Take Care of Our Own”) that gives him the ability to offer his listeners the full range of human emotion.

Springsteen’s music, says Luff, the sociologist, doesn’t merely provide a trip down memory lane.

“I think he takes you back to emotions, relationships, deeper things that happened in your life,” she says on a video call. “It’s a confluence of the really deeply personal and emotional, and also the world you live in. It’s the two, the personal and the political, that he brings together in his work. I think that layering really speaks to people.”


Authors Donna Luff (left) and Lorraine Mangione.Handout

“I do think there are certain writers who have a capacity for empathy,” adds Mangione. “He digs into people and gets something out of them. He does have that incredible sense of empathy, and I think it’s been broadening through the years.”

She mentions Springsteen’s cover of the Commodores’ 1985 hit “Nightshift,” which appeared on his most recent studio album, “Only the Strong Survive.” It’s about the singers Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, both of whom died in 1984.

“I can’t even say the name of the song without tearing up,” Mangione says. “Those two guys are right there in front of you, and that’s not even [Springsteen’s] song.”

Luff, who lives in Brookline, moved to America from her native England about 20 years ago. As a teenager, she was a big fan of British post-punk and New Wave bands — the Police, the Specials — when she heard Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” in the car with her father in 1980. To this day, she’s amazed by how hard it hit her.

“For me, he was the face of America that I identified with,” she says. “He was the America that I wanted to believe in, and I think that’s probably gotten more true now.” As she points out, several contemporary female singers have expressed their admiration for Springsteen, including Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo, and Lana Del Rey.

Luff has plans to take the concert train to Gillette for the show on Thursday. Mangione, who lives in Western Massachusetts, is catching the tour in Syracuse, and they’ll both be in Albany for a makeup date in mid-September.


On the call, Luff tells Mangione about her idea to have a T-shirt made with the cover of their book on the front and a QR code on the back.

“I’m definitely doing that,” she says.

For both women, Springsteen’s music is meant to be listened to in the foreground, always. It’s not just “soundtrack” music.

On a recent drive north into New Hampshire, Mangione pulled out a CD copy of Springsteen’s breakthrough album, “Born to Run,” which she hadn’t listened to in a while. It was, she says, an experience as intense as ever.

“I wrote a note to myself that I could really feel the desperation in some of those songs,” she says. “I felt like I was listening to it in some ways for the first time. It was hitting something really deep inside of me.”

She and her family recently saw Springsteen and the E Street Band play at the Circus Maximus in Rome. As he delivered one of his signature monologues (in this case about loss), the Jumbotron offered a translation into Italian.

“That was very moving to me,” Mangione recalls.

Raised Catholic, as Springsteen was, Mangione admires the fact that he brings religion into his performances.

“The definition of spirituality that I love is ‘the search for the sacred,’” she says. “I feel like he’s always doing that. And that might resonate especially in this day and age, when a lot of us don’t have a solid church or synagogue.”


One of the respondents to the author’s surveys mentioned “Land of Hope and Dreams” as a good example of the reverent quality of Springsteen’s music.

“It always lifts me up, makes problems feel minimized, conveys a positive message of hope and redemption,” the woman wrote. “A Bruce live show is almost like a religious revival — there’s a lot of release and joy, hope and brotherhood.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.