A whole damn city crying
The timely autobiography of an American mythologist
The Economist | Oct 1st 2016
Born to Run. By Bruce Springsteen. Simon & Schuster; 528 pages; $32.50 and £20.
LIKE much great art, Bruce Springsteen’s finest songs transmute the particular into the eternal. The more tightly local their focus—those boys from the casino dancing with their shirts open in “Sandy”, that Tilt-a-Whirl down on the south beach drag—the more universal they magically become. As he puts it in “Born to Run”, his new autobiography, he sings about “the joy and heartbreak of everyday life”, of humdrum defeat and defiance, the pull of home and the road’s allure, familiar dichotomies somehow elevated, in his ballads, into a new American mythology.
As “Born to Run” recounts, those songs feel authentic because they are. At the heart of his oeuvre, and of his book, is his painful relationship with his father, a sometime pool shark whom, as a child, Mr Springsteen fetched from bars in Freehold, New Jersey, for his long-suffering mother. He records their wars over his lengthening hair, which culminate in Springsteen senior calling in a barber when his son is incapacitated by a motorbike accident; the simmering silences and boozing; but also his unexpected, curt relief when Bruce fails his army medical (“That’s good”), and the old man’s crumpled awe when his son produces the Oscar he won for “Philadelphia” (“I’ll never tell anybody what to do ever again”). Mr Springsteen explains how he tried to dodge his inheritance of self-destruction and depression, treating the latter with counselling, pills and the self-administered therapy of music. “I’m a repairman,” he says of his craft.
His mother rented his first guitar after, aged seven, he saw Elvis, “a Saturday night jukebox Dionysus”, on “The Ed Sullivan Show”. Theirs was a house without hot water or a phone, in a neighbourhood of other Irish-Italian families where “I never saw a man leave…in a jacket and tie unless it was Sunday or he was in trouble.” The Springsteens scavenged radios for his grandfather to repair and sell to migrant labourers. He hitchhiked with “every sort of rube, redneck, responsible citizen and hell-raiser the Jersey Shore had to offer”. A grandmother smothered him with “horrible unforgettable boundary-less love”; Catholicism imbued a spirit of rebellion and the ghost of faith.
In the end, for all the young men busting out of town in his lyrics, it was his parents who left him, moving to California in 1969 when he was 19. His younger sister Virginia also stayed in Jersey. Soon, though, he too rode out of Freehold, perched in the dark on an old couch on the bed of a truck.
In these passages the formula of his success begins to crystallise: a dark alchemy of indulgence and neglect, “the Fifties blue-collar world and Sixties social experience”, freedom and hardship. He slept in a surfboard factory and sometimes on the beach. This was the Vietnam era: an early drummer was killed by mortar fire, a manager mutilated a toe to avoid the draft. All those tensions, plus a staggering work ethic. His bands played “firemen’s fairs, carnivals, drive-ins, supermarket openings and hole-in-the-walls”, and countless bars where fistfights and police raids were common. He understood his limits (“My voice was never going to win any prizes”), but knew and honed his talents, namely songwriting and live performance.
He laid down the law to wayward band members and predatory managers. “The buck would stop here,” he decided, “if I could make one.” After a long apprenticeship, an American picaresque that encompassed a flop in California, he was signed by Columbia Records. The album “Born to Run” made him a star. “Born in the USA” launched him into the stratosphere.
The origin of poetry, thought William Wordsworth, was emotion recollected in tranquillity. That motto describes both Mr Springsteen’s memoir and the appeal of his songs, many of which look back on youthful traumas from a mature perspective and for older audiences. These days many in their ranks are as mature as Mr Springsteen himself, who at 67 still crowd-surfs his way through three-hour shows. “The exit in a blaze of glory”, he says of other rockers’ early combustions, “is bullshit.”
The stories his songs tell, though, have not aged: on the contrary. His great theme is “the distance between the American dream and American reality”. He is the bard of deindustrialisation, of dreams murdered, escapes thwarted and accomplished, fates mastered and predetermined, and factories closed, such as the rug mill where his father once worked in Freehold, a place, in his memory, defined by the stink of its furnaces. “Lately there ain’t been much work,” he sings timelessly in “The River”, an ode to his sister’s struggles, “on account of the economy.”
The race and class fissures that today seem so urgent rend his characters’ lives along with this slow-motion economic blight. The landscape of his youth, and of his music, has the peculiar worldliness that American parochialism can grittily contain: in the cults and tribes of the Jersey shore, the college-bound “rah-rahs” who spat at him at a beachside gig, the leather-clad “greasers”, all those toughs and crooks, the ethnic tensions and race riots. In his book, as occasionally in his lyrics, he writes frankly about race, though his deepest statements on it were made in the make-up of his band, his partnership with Clarence Clemons, his longtime black saxophonist—relations with his bandmates are chronicled like Platonic romances—and above all in his sound, which blends R&B and soul with folk, country and rock.
People come to rock concerts, Mr Springsteen writes, “to be reminded of something they already know and feel.” That the problems America faces are old ones is among the consoling reminders of his albums and his book. More than that, though, they model an alternative response—one in which blue-collar woes are recognised and honoured by the white-collar fans Mr Springsteen has always attracted, the millions who chant “Thunder Road” despite never having encountered the skeleton frame of a burned-out Chevrolet. That transformation of the particular into the universal, experience into art, is also a spell that turns difference into compassion. It is a lesson in empathy for artists of all kinds, and not only artists.