Battle of the Fans: Professors Michael Dowding and Gary Sheffer Fight For Their Favorite Rock Bands

Anyone who knows Professor Michael Dowding, a master lecturer in the College of Communication, knows that his love U2 is undying. Others might know more about Professor Gary Sheffer, the Sandra R. Frazier Professor of Public Relations, and his impeccable admiration for Bruce Springsteen. The question is, “Who is the biggest fan?” We sat down with both professors to find out, but we’ll let you decide.

Caitlin Burke: When did you first listen to U2/Springsteen, and what inspired you to continue listening?

Michael Dowding: I first discovered U2 in 1984. I was dating a girl who was really into the band. She introduced me to them and we went to a show in Worcester in 1985. I pretty much haven’t missed a show since. What’s inspired me to keep listening to them? I guess it’s because they’re the same age as me. I feel like I’ve sort of grown with them. I love their music. I love their approach to living and how they are spending their fame.  

Gary Sheffer: The first time I heard Springsteen was probably when I was 18 years old in 1978. I was a sophomore in college, and someone had their window open in their dorm room. They were playing the Born to Run album, and it was the song “She’s the One.” It was different than anything else I’d ever heard. I’ve always looked for him after that. I’m drawn to him— his ability for telling stories in three minutes is incredible. He creates a complete narrative in three or four minutes.

CB: How many U2/Springsteen concerts have you been to?

MD: 32. I’ve seen them in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.  Gillette Stadium a few times and Boston Garden for a few shows.  

GS: 10. My work life made it difficult to travel to many shows.

CB: Out of all of the concerts you have been to, which one was the most memorable?

MD: That’s a hard question, it’s almost like asking, “Which child do you like the most?” I think 2015 with my son and my nephew, just a few rows from the stage.  At one point, Bono was playing and I knew it was coming because I know his moves. I go, “Hang on we’re about to get splashed.” He took his water bottle and threw it out at us. We all got soaking wet from Bono’s water. So we called it our Bonotism like a baptism. Another time might have been better just in a different way. In 2018, I stood in the Red Zone, which is sort of like a special section where the tickets are very expensive and the proceeds go to their charity foundation.  I always try to engage with their Red campaign when I can.  

Professor Michael Dowding (center), his son, and nephew at a concert in 2015

GS:  I would say Gillette Stadium in 2017 on The River Tour was the most memorable one. It was the last American show they did on that tour. They seemed to be in a really great mood and played for four hours. They performed “Growin’ Up” and talked about his childhood in the middle of the song—it was very biographical. He talked about his entry into the music business and it was around the time when his biography was coming out. I also went to his broadway show three times at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York City. It was amazing to see him up close like that because it was a personal and honest performance.  

CB: Which U2/Springsteen song is your favorite?

MD: It’s a song called, “The Little Things That Give You Away.” Honestly you could pull 10 songs out of a hat and I’d like any of them. It’s from their most recent album, but it might be my favorite of all time. It came out in 2017 and it’s just perfection.

GS: “Born to Run” is unassailably the best pure rock and roll song of all time. The narrative is really extraordinary. I am completely a “Born to Run” fan. I just think it’s pure rock and roll at its best.

A poster of Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show hanging in Professor Gary Sheffer’s office.

CB: Is U2/Springsteen the greatest band/artist of all time? Why or why not?

MD: They are definitely the greatest band of all time. Bono is an underrated lyricist. When you think he’s talking about God, he’s talking about girls. And when you think he’s talking about girls, he’s talking about God. I love that sort of misdirection he does in a lot of his work. They say that rap music is all about the absence of the father. The source and soul of rock music is the absence of the mother. Bono’s mother died when he was 14, then he lost his father 15 years ago. I’ve lost my parents too, and there are always these parallels.  

I feel like they are saying things I wish I could say. I don’t always agree with every single thing that they do or say, which I think is healthy—but, I have tremendous admiration for the way they go about their business. I joke with my friend Tom that I could listen to them read the phonebook and I’d be thoroughly happy. You don’t read about these guys in the gossip pages. I look at their faith too. What I love is that they struggle with it and they aren’t unwilling to talk about it.  

In 2018, Bono walked out after his brain was literally displayed on a 150-foot screen. And then he said, “I shouldn’t be here ‘cause I should be dead.” He’d just emerged from an undisclosed, existential health crisis. And so what does he do? He lays it all out there for everyone to see. They are trying to figure it all out too—and that feels really nice. You never feel like they’ve lost touch with what people are doing. I don’t mean like a Bruce Springsteen every man working at the factory kind of way.  They still have a grip on humanity that is easy to lose when you get into that atmosphere. These guys are still hungry, still want to do this, and that’s cool.

GS: No, Springsteen is not the greatest artist of all time. There are seminal people who I think created the model. He adapted and molded different models into who he is. He adapted different styles into his own. He saw Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show and knew that it was what he wanted to do. He was probably 8 years old. I think the Beatles are the best because of the revolution that they started. I don’t think he’s the best but he is in the list of top five. It’s just that other artists are more groundbreaking as well. I will say, he is not about subtlety. He’s in your face with rock and roll. He’s not purposefully trying to create a brand for himself. He just burst on the scene like a supernova (I’m borrowing some of his lyrics now). He is authentic and unafraid to open his eyes to different issues. The lyrics are so raw, fantastic, and capture different moments in his life.  

There is a stereotype surrounding him and he disproves it by his versatility, sense of vulnerability, and style of music. I think he stands apart. He is in the rock and roll category but they also created a category. I think the sound is different than most common rock and roll bands, especially with Clarence Clemons on the saxophone. They wanted him to be the next Dylan, a songwriter/poet, but he was smart enough to know that wasn’t him. The poetry of his music, in an era of vapid music when I first started listening to him, is what sets him apart still today. He made his music his with the soul of a Jersey Shore rock and roll band.

Why does Bruce Springsteen ever feel the need to play for four hour shows at this point in his career? It’s because he genuinely enjoys what he is doing. I tend to migrate to those with honest personalities and those enjoying who they are.  

CB: How would you describe U2/Springsteen with only one word?

MD: Irreplaceable.

GS: Powerful.

CB: Why would you consider yourself to be the winner of this Battle of the Fans?

MD: Randy Pausch taught at Carnegie Mellon and he delivered “The Last Lecture.” He was dying of pancreatic cancer, so he delivered his last lecture on things that mattered to him. I decided long ago, that my last lecture is going to be all about U2 and transferring this virus that I have to as many people as possible in one setting. My last lecture will be about U2 and we will go deep on this, people—we will go song by song. I’m going to explain why it’s important and explain the significance. Also, I have 1,600 different songs and recordings on my phone. Let’s see you top that Gary! 

GS: I have to be the biggest fan. Thinking that U2 is the greatest band of all time is sort of like saying the Red Sox are the greatest baseball team of all time.  The Red Sox are a fine team but they’ve only won a handful of World Series, while the Yankees have won 27. They’ve had a couple great moments, but Springsteen is like the Yankees. But I don’t have to push down U2, my guy speaks through his record of achievement. 

Caitlin Burke, Staff Writer

Caitlin Burke is a junior studying public relations in the College of Communication at Boston University.  She has over two years of experience studying public relations and media-based communication in the College of Communication, as well as two years of experience studying liberal arts in the College of General Studies January-London Program.  Singing and writing are Caitlin’s greatest passions because they are hobbies that embrace individuality and creativity. Inspired by her love for literature and the arts, Caitlin enjoys studying mass communication because she views it as another way to create with a purpose while connecting with other people. 

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