Springsteen gives fans a good hard look at himself, writes Carlos Amato for the Sunday Times
Born to Run
Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster)
He ain’t gonna bag a Nobel with his lyrical output – or with this rollicking autobiography – but if he ever did, The Boss would hurl his medal deep into the crowd, beyond the golden circle. Springsteen aims his musclebound artistry at the lowest common denominator, in the best sense of the phrase: the committee he cares about can be found at the barroom jukebox, on the factory floor, in the motel parking lot.
The book is as lucid as his music – and fans will savour its accounts of his emotional and musical formation in Freehold, New Jersey. He was a worried kid (nicknamed “blinky” for his jumpy eyelids) with a drunken Irish-American dad and a formidable Italian-American mother. He got her mighty will, and his seeping darkness. Rock ’n roll balmed the adolescent Springsteen’s frayed nerves: not as an escape into decadent revolt (afraid of his dad’s fate, he was a teetotaller) but as a sanctuary of creative labour.
He cut his teeth on the Jersey bar circuit with soul rockers The Castiles, who straddled the frontier between the soul-digging Italian “greasers” of deep Jersey and the Wasp-dominated surfer kids of the Shore. Through the ’60s, his soundscape was brewing: the Beatles and the Stones colliding with Motown, Roy Orbison and Dylan.
Springsteen spins plenty of comical anecdotes, but he is best when analysing the wiring of the music itself. He repeatedly chews on the open secrets of his power: a considerable but by his own admission unspectacular talent that he elevated with an obsessive devotion to the mechanics of songwriting, performance and working-class decency.
And he scorns the other route, of glamorous abandon. “The rock death cult is well loved and chronicled in literature and music, but in practice, there ain’t much in it for the singer and his song, except a good life unlived, lovers and children left behind, and a six-foot hole in the ground. The exit in a blaze of glory is bullshit.”
Instead, we are shown the inner workings of sustainable glory. There is a terrifying account of his first gig abroad, at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975, where the hyperbole of his billing as a rock demigod made for a doubt-stricken performance, the footage of which he couldn’t bear to watch until 40 years later. “Inside, multiple personalities are fighting to take turns at the microphone while I am struggling to reach the ‘fuck it’ point, that wonderful and necessary place where you set fire to your insecurities, put your head down and just go.” But it was a stellar show, saved by his refusal to collapse.
Things got a lot worse on the eve of the release of Born in the USA, when a full-blown breakdown made landfall. He took the step that working-class heroes don’t like to take: “I walk in; look into the eyes of a kindly, white-haired, mustached complete stranger; sit down; and burst into tears.”
As with everything he does, he followed through. Springsteen is still in therapy, still married to his former backing singer Patti Scialfa, still redeeming the mythologies of ordinary Americans. He is the antidote to the Trump nightmare; a rabble-rouser of reflective white masculinity.
To be frank, much of Springsteen’s music bores me. But his presence defies resistance. I was up in Row Z when he played the SuperBowl halftime gig in Tampa in 2009 – a performance so preternaturally huge it prompted him to write this book, in an effort to fathom his own power. It comes pretty close to doing so.
Follow Carlos Amato on Twitter @CarlosBAmato
- Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
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Image: Art Maillet