On my last birthday, my lovely daughter gifted me Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run. For any Springsteen fan, it’s an absorbing read and even though I had already consumed Peter Ames Carlin’s biography Bruce, I learned much about the man’s early life and family, and the grind of his early music-making days with his first bands playing along the Jersey shore – many details that only the man himself could know. Though the reviews focussed on the book’s revelations about the periods during which he has suffered from depression, for me the most enthralling sections were those where Springsteen describes a couple of hair-raising and eventful road trips across America.
I was reminded that I’d never got round to writing about Springsteen’s book when I read a report about President Obama bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom (America’s highest civilian honour) on Springsteen yesterday in a ceremony at the White House. Springsteen’s book is over 500 pages long. Here’s the concise version, courtesy of Barack Obama. It’s rather good:
He was sprung from a cage out on Highway 9. A quiet kid from Jersey just trying to make sense of the temple of dreams and the mysteries down in his hometown: pool halls, bars, girls and cars, alters and assembly lines and for decades, Bruce Springsteen has brought us all along on a journey consumed with the bargains between ambition and injustice, pleasure and pain, the simple glories and the scattered heartbreak of everyday life in American.
To create one of his biggest hits, he once said, ‘I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth – the last one you’d ever need to hear. One glorious noise – then the apocalypse.’ Every restless kid in America was given a story: ‘Born to Run,’
He didn’t stop there. Once he told us about himself, he told us about everybody else: The steel worker in ‘Youngstown,’ the Vietnam vet in ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ the sick and the marginalised on the “Streets of Philadelphia,’ the firefighter carrying the weight of a reeling but resilient nation on ‘The Rising,’ the young soldier reckoning with ‘Devils & Dust’ in Iraq, the communities knocked down by recklessness and greed in ‘Wrecking Ball.’ All of us, with our faults and our failings, every colour and class and creed, bound together by one defiant, restless train rolling toward ‘The Land of Hope and Dreams.’ These are all anthems of our America, the reality of who we are and the reverie of who we want to be.
The hallmark of a rock ‘n’ roll band, Bruce Springsteen once said, is that the narrative you tell together is bigger than anyone could have told on your own. For decades, alongside the Big Man, Little Steven, a Jersey Girl named Patti, and all the men and women of the E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen has been carrying the rest of us on his journey, and asking us all, ‘What is the work for us to do in our short time here?’
I am the President, he is the Boss. And pushing 70, he is still laying down four-hour live sets. If you have not been at them, he is working! Fire-breathing rock ‘n’ roll. So I thought twice about giving him a medal named for freedom, because we hope he remains, in his words, a ‘prisoner of rock ‘n’ roll’ for years to come.
In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway 9,
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin’ out over the line
Oh-oh, Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run
Though most reviews of his memoir focussed on Springsteen’s candour concerning his personal struggles with depression, something else drew my attention.
I was struck by his account of a teenage commitment to the grind, the hard work, of honing his musical skills in pursuit of what Springsteen defines as ‘naked desire for … fame? …love? …admiration? …women? …sex? …and, oh yeah …a buck.’
In Springsteen’s case, the music that burned in his soul was rooted in the place he grew up in: Freehold, New Jersey, a dirty industrial town of factories , poverty and ramshackle homes, but a place of work and vitality:
There is a place here – you can hear it, smell it – where people make lives, suffer pain, enjoy small pleasures, play baseball, die, make love, have kids, drink themselves drunk on spring nights and do their best to hold off the demons that seek to destroy us, our homes, our families, our town.
The offspring of Irish and Italian blood (and, further back, some ‘lost Netherlanders who wandered down from New Amsterdam not knowing what they were getting themselves into’), the kid Springsteen lived at 87 Randolph Street with his grandparents in the house owned by his great-grandmother.
We were pretty near poor, though I never thought about it. We were clothed, fed and bedded. I had white and black friends worse off. My parents had jobs … Our house was old and soon to be noticeably decrepit. One kerosene stove in the living room was all we had to heat the whole place. Upstairs … you woke on winter mornings with your breath visible.