Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen – Book Review

I’m not a big Bruce Springsteen fan. But at his best he’s written some transcendent pieces of music. He understands the redemptive power of rock’n’roll, that it can be life-changing. He grew up with it, he learned his craft playing in cover bands when that was the only way to get a gig anywhere. And in concert he performs as if every single moment might be the most important he’s ever known.

But that didn’t mean he could come up with a worthwhile book.

In my other life I’m a music journalist. It’s something I’ve done for over 20 years. Along the way, before that, I played in bar bands, I played solo. I had dreams of being a musician that never worked out, and probably just as well, for so many reasons. I’ve read plenty of books like this by musicians from all fields, and most aren’t worth the paper on which they’re printed.

Still, I’d glanced at a few extracts from Springsteen’s book that made it look a) that he could actually write, and b) that he was willing to reach deep and say something honest and worthwhile. I don’t often write books reviews, but for once, yeah, I’m going to. Never mind that this is going to be a huge seller no matter what anyone writes about it. I’m throwing in my two cents.

So yes, he can write, sometimes very well. And yes, there is an honesty about it. But he also, tellingly, knows that what he does is really a magic trick that the magician should not examine too carefully, because too much of that knowledge is a dangerous thing and in understanding the magic, it can leave you..

It’s not The Lives of the Saints, but it’s not exactly a full confessional, either. He’s not seeking absolution. It’s the development, the growth, of Springsteen, from the word-drunk young man trying to cram entire worlds into a single line to the artist who realises he can say more with less.

Born in 1949, he had his first awakening in ’56 with Elvis on TV, then in ’64 with the Beatles. His is an intensely American, blue-collar experience,right  down to the fractious relationship with a father who’s often withdrawn from his family, and that relationship, with its changes and resolution, is one of the cores here.

Springsteen, who’s always made his living from music, started out in covers bands, when playing Top 40 was the only way to get a gig. It was that era, and perfect for learning his craft, both as musician and frontman. Rock’n’roll (an important distinction from rock) was still young enough for him to absorb it all, along with plenty of soul music, and that all became part of the experience he’s called upon in his own writing. That’s something, as he acknowledges, that young musicians today can’t do; the landscape has altered beyond recognition.

His own maturity in writing, in subject matter and themes of albums, rather than just writing songs, is a subtext, alongside his own maturity as a person. But the love of music, its inspiration, remains crucial. He loves it and holds it close. He believes in the salvation music can bring, and he brings that joy beautifully to the page, whether he’s young and struggling or older and a global success. His gift has always been to articulate the American experience – and the way that experience has changed.

It’s a book of three parts, really. The rootedness his New Jersey upbringing and apprenticeship brings him, then the wanderlust, and finally settling down and family. And he is – at least in his own portrayal – very much a family man. There’s ego along the way, pain, some betrayal, and also the sorrows we all know as we age. Battles with depression, with the body growing older. He’s bloodied, he’s wiser, but still unbowed. A handful of songs might be his calling cards to most listeners, but he’s never let those define or limit him. Even now, he doesn’t coast on those triumphs. He’s still out to create, to turn that next corner in his art (not a word I use lightly) and try to go one better.

That’s something to admire. He reveals plenty, but he admits it’s not all, and why should it be? The art should be enough to represent that artist. We get a peek behind the curtain but he’s not going to show us all the goodies.

But along the way he does seem, like Dorothy, to realise that there’s no place like home, while acknowledging, for the artist, that the Promised Land always lies just beyond the next hill. And with that, the magic trick remains unexplained, thank God.

Imaginary America

America has become a polarised country. When I moved back to the UK, a little over eight years ago, it was edging that way, but since then it seems to have tumbled down a slope, to the point where there’s no common ground between the parties.

When I moved there in 1976 it didn’t seem that way. There were inevitable divisions, and I found myself in Ohio, a fairly conservative part of the country. But it was hardly extreme. It was, really, the place I’d seen on TV shows as I grew up. The houses were all detached, there were even white picket fences, and everyone had a car. Jobs were easy to come by and paid a damn sight more in real terms than I’d made in England.

There were FM radio stations that played rock, a breath of fresh air after living where I could only find what I liked on John Peel’s show or the Old Grey Whistle Test.

I learned to drive and passed my test in a month on the winter Cincinnati roads, where the snow stood a couple of feet deep on either side. I bought my first car, a two-year-old Mustang II with the hatchback, looking very sporty in mustard yellow. We rented an apartment, which was not only unfurnished but came with appliances and a laundry room – you had to have flat-hunted in England in the 1970s to understand.

It was a good place, a gentle place, really. I didn’t understand it at the time, but Cincinnati hadn’t quite dragged itself into the present yet. There were neighbourhoods that still lived in America’ Golden Age of the 1950s. But after what I’d experienced it still seemed like stepping into the future.

Part of my image of America had been born with Easy Rider. The freedom of the roads with a rock’n’roll soundtrack. Not something the Queen City could really offer. But I do recall when I stepped into my imaginary America. It must have been April of the year, a day that began chilly but quickly warmed up. I’d worn my brown leather bomber jacket and put it in the back seat of the Mustang as the temperature rose. I was on Interstate 75, cruising north somewhere, and Springsteen’s Born To Run came on the radio. It was the perfect moment, the one I’d been waiting for without even realising it. Quite suddenly it all came together, and I began to grin. I was in America, in the image that had lurked, half-formed, at the back of my mind. It was real; my imaginary America existed.

That was then, of course. The world’s a very different place now. Since I left I haven’t been tempted to return, even for a visit. These days, much of the America of my imagination is a dark, scary place.