Bruce Springsteen's recently published memoir Born to Run is a book that, while you're reading it, feels a little bit like being at one of the legendary Boss & the E Street Band concert marathons. It has the excitement, the poetry, the despair, the elation, the transformative power (and the length) of one of those concerts…and when it's over you wish it could still go on!
While I was reading it, especially the early part of the book where Springsteen describes growing up in a working class neighbourhood in Freehold, New Jersey, it fell almost like reading my own autobiography. Not because the details of our lives are the same, nor that our preoccupations were the same – I know nothing about cars, guitars or dressing like a 'greaser' – but because Springsteen has long been the poet of the ordinary, the troubadour of working class America.
And reading about his childhood in New Jersey, growing up in the shadow of his Irish and Italian heritage, and living on the edge of poverty, there is much here for readers to identify with in their own backgrounds and their own stories.
Working class music
He writes, "The grinding hypnotic power of this ruined place and these people would never leave me. I visit it in my dreams today, returning over and over, wanting to go back […] It ruined me and it made me." That one sentence – "It ruined me and it made me" – could be the organizing principle of the book. Springsteen takes a very dialectical approach to his music and to his life.
The book, not surprisingly, is organized around the making of his music. Although he does share details of his life – he says he realized it would be impossible to write such a book without being willing to share some of the events and relationships that shaped the man and the artist – it's not a tell-all biography, but the story of his and his band's musical journey.
From his first attempts at being a rock 'n roll musician at a high school dance (a miserable failure), through the many incarnations of his musical career, with the E Street Band from 1972 onwards, then mostly without them for a period of 15 years, and then again rejoined with them from 1999 until the present day, Springsteen describes his quest this way, "My music would be a music of identity, a search for meaning and the future."
Springsteen's search for meaning has always been rooted in material reality and his growing up as a working class kid in New Jersey: "Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie: here was music that emotionally described a life I recognized, my life, the life of my family and neighbors. Here was where I wanted to make my stand musically and search for my own questions and answers. I didn't want out. I wanted in. I didn't want to erase, escape, forget or reject. I wanted to understand. What were the social forces that held my parents' lives in check? Why was it so hard? In my search I would blur the lines between the personal and psychological factors that made my father's life so difficult and the political issues that kept a tight clamp on working-class lives across the United States."
Springsteen asserts at another point in Born to Run that the 'personal is political' and vice versa. This melding of his personal experience with the life of his country and of the vast majority of working class Americans is one of the main reasons his music has continued to speak to huge audiences, not just inside the US, but the world over.
Whether it's the haunting stories of the lost and the losers of his 1982 album Nebraska, the disenfranchised working class Americans of the recession of the early 1980s' in The River (Springsteen acknowledges that the title song of this album was written in honor of his sister and her husband, who were victims of that recession) or the angry reaction to yet another economic meltdown borne by those at the bottom of society in 2012's Wrecking Ball, his music comes from a personal, and at the same time collective, deep well of lived experience.
But, in spite of the hardship his songs often describe, the music also comes from a joyful place. He relates the effect of seeing Elvis Presley perform for the first time on the Ed Sullivan show on Sept 5, 1956, when he was only six years old, and how this opened up the possibilities of a new kind of music for a whole generation: "Elvis's great act of love rocked the country and was an early echo of the coming civil rights movement. […] He was a singer, a guitar player who loved black musical culture, recognized its artistry, its mastery, its power, and yearned for intimacy with it."
The theme of race runs throughout the book as it does throughout the history of America. Springsteen acknowledges that he and the E Street Band haven't always had the mixed audience they would have liked: "Since the inception of our band it's been our ambition to play for everyone. We've achieved a lot but we haven't achieved that. Our audience remains tribal…that is, predominantly white. On occasion—the Obama inaugural concert; touring through Africa in '88; during a political campaign, particularly in Cleveland with President Obama—I looked out and sang "Promised Land" to the audience I intended it for, young people, old people, black, white, brown, cutting across religious and class lines."
His relationship with Clarence Clemons, the legendary saxophonist and Big Man in the E Street Band, who played alongside Bruce Springsteen for over 40 years, and who died in 2011 from complications from a stroke, formed another part of Springsteen's learning about race relations in the US: "The first time I'd seen C's massive form striding out of the shadows of a half-empty bar in Asbury Park, I'd thought, "Here comes my brother." Yet as solid as the Big Man was, he was also very fragile. And in some funny way we became each other's protectors; I think perhaps I protected C from a world where it still wasn't so easy to be big and black. Racism was still there and over our years together, occasionally we saw it. Clarence's celebrity and size did not always make him immune. I think perhaps C protected me from a world where it wasn't always so easy to be an insecure, weird and skinny white boy either. Standing together, we were badass, on any given night, some of the baddest asses on the planet. And we were coming to your town to shake you and to wake you up."
He describes writing the song "American Skin", a song about the police shooting of Amadou Diallou, an African immigrant, by plainclothes police officers as he was reaching for his wallet. The refrain "41 shots" underscored "the danger and deadly confusion of roaming the inner-city streets in black skin that still existed in late-twentieth-century America."
Springsteen was referred to on the front page of the New York Post as a "dirt bag" and a "floating fag" by the then head of the New York State Fraternal Order of Police. But, as he writes, "My sweetest memory of the whole fiasco is that as I sauntered down Monmouth Avenue in Red Bank one afternoon, an elderly black woman approached me and said, 'They just don’t want to hear the truth.'"
The one word that stays with me after reading Springsteen's book is the word 'collective'. Now, of course, he had to have an incredible amount of drive, persistence, ambition, ego and luck to become the mythic rock star he became, but he also came to an understanding that his work only meant something if it could speak to the people who came out to hear him and the people from whom he came: "I determined that there on the streets of my hometown was the beginning of my purpose, my reason, my passion. My music began to have more political implications; I tried to find a way to put my work into service. I read and studied to become a better, more effective writer. I harbored extravagant ambition and belief in the effect of popular song. I wanted my music grounded in my life, in the life of my family and in the blood and lives of the people I'd known."
After the phenomenal success of his 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. you get the sense that Springsteen was set a bit adrift by the level of fame and fortune he had attained. He disbanded the E Street Band and went his own separate way for some 15 years. Of course he continued working, making music and doing concerts during those years, but I think the music is much more individualistic and doesn't speak to us in the same way. It's no coincidence that Springsteen decided to reunite the band in 1999. This coincides with the Battle of Seattle (the successful shutting down of the WTO) and a political reawakening across the country and globally. Coming back to that sense of the power of the collective and of his political place in the world gave a new vigor to his work. He was speaking for the same people he had always written for and about.
When the economic meltdown of 2008 happened and many Americans lost their jobs, their homes and their hope, Springsteen struck back with Wrecking Ball: "After the crash of 2008, I was furious at what had been done by a handful of trading companies on Wall Street. Wrecking Ball was a shot of anger at the injustice that continues on and has widened with deregulation, dysfunctional regulatory agencies and capitalism gone wild at the expense of hardworking Americans. I knew this was the music I should make now. It was my job. I felt the country was at a critical juncture. If this much damage can be done to average citizens with basically no accountability, then the game is off and the thin veil of democracy is revealed for what it is, a shallow disguise for a growing plutocracy that is here now and permanent."
Springsteen is surprisingly humble about his own talent: "About my voice. First of all, I don't have much of one. I have a bar-man's power, range and durability, but I don’t have a lot of tonal beauty or finesse. So I figured if I didn't have a voice, I was going to really need to learn to write, to perform and use what voice I had to its fullest ability. Your blessings and your curses often come in the same package."
But through his involvement with the members of the E Street Band, most of whom have been with him for decades, Springsteen brought together a group of individuals who would create something bigger and more meaningful than the sum of their parts:
"I've left enough sweat on stages around the world to fill at least one of the seven seas; I've driven myself and my band to the limits and over the edge for more than forty years. We continue to do so but it's still "playing." It's a life-giving, joyful, sweat-drenched, muscle-aching, voice-blowing, mind-clearing, exhausting, soul-invigorating, cathartic pleasure and privilege every night. You can sing about your misery, your most devastating experiences, but there is something in the gathering of souls that blows the blues away. Something that lets some sun in, that keeps you breathing, that lifts you in a way that can't be explained, only experienced."
It's this catharsis through music, poetry, sharing and struggle that comes through beautifully and movingly in his memoir, which he wrote over a period of seven years. It's this gift that he bestows on the reader: "This I present[…] as my long and noisy prayer, my magic trick. Hoping it would rock your very soul and then pass on, its spirit rendered, to be read, heard, sung and altered by you and your blood, that it might strengthen and help make sense of your story. Go tell it."