The music in my head (part 1): recycled and new this year

The music in my head (part 1): recycled and new this year

There’s a programme on Radio 4 that I hear sometimes when I’m driving in the car. Called Recycled Radio, it chops up old BBC programmes and recycles the snippets into something new. That made me think of all the recycled music I listen to, with album tracks often reassembled into new playlists. As I get older, I listen to a lot of recycled music – but not all the time. Every year brings exciting new sounds. In this post (the first of three) I want to round up some of the music – recycled and new – that I’ve enjoyed in 2015 but never got round to writing about. Continue reading “The music in my head (part 1): recycled and new this year”

Highway 61 Revisited at 50: we never engaged in this kind of thing before

<em>Highway 61 Revisited</em> at 50: we never engaged in this kind of thing before

Unlike Bruce Springsteen, I can recall no revelatory experience on first hearing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. Indeed I cannot recollect the first occasion when I first heard the song – or any other track from Highway 61 Revisited, the album with which it opens. I can, however, relive the exact moment when I first heard ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ off Dylan’s next album. Such are the vagaries of memory. Continue reading Highway 61 Revisited at 50: we never engaged in this kind of thing before”

When Springsteen played East Berlin

When Springsteen played East Berlin

In one of those curious coincidences that seems to happen to me frequently, the morning after we returned from our short break in Berlin BBC Radio 4 broadcast a drama based on the moment in July 1988 when, improbably, Bruce Springsteen performed before an audience of 300,000 people from all over the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in East Berlin in a concert watched live on state television by millions more. Continue reading “When Springsteen played East Berlin”

Blessed be the Nation: the story sung by Pete Seeger

Blessed be the Nation: the story sung by Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, photo by Anthony Pepitone (Wikipedia)

Pete Seeger, photo by Anthony Pepitone (Wikipedia)

Following the death of Pete Seeger I came across reviews of an album put out in 1998 by Appleseed Recordings, an idealistic independent music label set up by Jim Musselman, a lawyer and activist who once worked with  Ralph Nader.  Musselman has devoted the label to releasing socially conscious contemporary and traditional folk and roots music by established and lesser-known musicians.  On the Appleseed website, Musselman speaks of the years when he worked with Ralph Nader:

I travelled the country for eight years, criss-crossing America in a Guthrie-esque way, seeing the nation and its citizens up close, learning the best ways to listen and to communicate. When I was organizing local communities to fight back against multinational corporations, I would start our open public meetings with a song, figuring that unifying people in singing was an important first step to unifying them in political action.

In 1997, for Appleseed’s first major project, Musselman approached numerous well-known musicians, along with writer Studs Terkel with a request to each record a song written, adapted or performed by Pete Seeger for a tribute album to highlight Seeger’s musical contributions and his tradition of mixing songs and political activism. The resulting  double CD Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger was the one I stumbled across as I followed internet references to Seeger in the days after his death.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone cover

It’s a terrific album from which you gain a holistic sense of the man and the causes he embraced. Jim Musselman also did a great job choosing songs from Seeger’s vast repertoire and matching each tune with an artist ‘based on either the philosophical fit between the artist and the message of the song and/or their unique musical style’, as he writes in the accompanying booklet. As an example of this approach, take the opening track – ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ – sung by Irish songwriter and peace activist Tommy Sands with Bosnian Vedran Smailovic (‘the Cellist of Sarejevo).  Bear in mind that this was recorded in 1997, before the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland and only months after the lifting of the siege of Sarejevo.

The album includes 37 versions of Seeger-related songs specially recorded by luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Ani DiFranco and many others.  The material is wonderful, every song reinforcing the picture of Seeger as both an interpreter of musical tradition and as a crusader for social justice.  The performances are first-rate, with many highlights. Bruce Springsteen’s gentle reading of ‘We Shall Overcome’, for example, precedes the version he recorded for his album, The Seeger Sessions many years later, while Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt offer a lilting reggae-inflected account of ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’.  There are the songs that reflect Seeger’s later commitment to environmental issues and his campaign (entirely successful) to clean up his beloved, polluted Hudson river, such as ‘Sailing Down My Golden River’.

Lisa Kalvelage report

A remarkable, if less musical interlude comes with Ani DiFranco singing ‘My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage’, Pete’s adaptation of the words spoken in May 1966 by Lisa Kalvelage, one of four women who stopped a shipment of napalm to Vietnam by standing on a loading platform and refusing to move. Seeger’s words come from the statement she made in court after being arrested. Kalvelage likened her protest to lessons she learned from being raised in Nazi Germany – never to keep silent:

If you live in a democratic country where the government is you, you cannot say, ‘I followed orders,’ ” she told a reporter. “If you recognize that something is wrong, you have to speak out to set it straight.

But the words I really wanted to pass on in this post come from one of the two recitations on the album by the late Studs Terkel. It’s a reading of ‘Blessed Be The Nation’, verses Seeger left on a rock on an island where he had camped with his youngest daughter.  He elaborates in the CD booklet:

In 1964 I took my youngest daughter canoeing on a beautiful lake in Maine.  We camped on a little island and were dismayed to see the beach littered with bottles and cans.  We picked ’em all up.  I had a marker with me and wrote this graffiti on a flat stone.  I never wrote a tune, but someone else can try.

Seeger never put music to these words.  I’d like to share them here:

Cursed be the nation of any size or shape,
Whose citizens behave like naked apes,
And drop their litter where they please,
Just like we did when we swung from trees.

But blessed be the nation and blessed be the prize,
When citizens of any shape or size
Can speak their mind for any reason
Without being jailed or accused of treason.

Cursed be the nation without equal education,
Where good schools are something that we ration,
Where the wealthiest get the best that is able,
And the poor are left with crumbs from the table.

Blessed be the nation that keeps its waters clean,
Where an end to pollution is not just a dream,
Where factories don’t blow poisonous smoke,
And we can breath the air without having to choke.

Cursed be the nation where all play to win,
And too much is made of the colour of the skin,
Where we do not see each other as sister and brother,
But as being threats to each other.

Blessed be the nation with health care for all,
Where there’s a helping hand for those who fall,
Where compassion is in fashion every year,
And people, not profits, is what we hold dear.

There’s a recording of Studs Terkel reading the words on YouTube:

In another song on the album – ‘False from True’, sung by Guy Davis – Seeger ruefully observes the limits of protest in song.  But, as he remarks in the verse, he continued to sing our story for as long as he had breath within.  For that we can be thankful, for the words continue, inspiring succeeding generations:

No song I can sing will make a politician change his mind,
No song I can sing will take the gun from a hate-filled man;
But I promise you, and you, brothers and sisters of every skin,
I’ll sing your story while I’ve breath within.

Pete Seeger: he surrounded hate and forced it to surrender

Pete Seeger: he surrounded hate and forced it to surrender

Pete Seeger

‘He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass.’

Four years ago, Pete Seeger celebrated his 90th birthday party with a sell-out concert at Madison Square Garden.  Characteristically, it was a fundraiser for a campaign to which he’d dedicated years of his life: cleaning up New York’s Hudson River.  That night, Bruce Springsteen introduced Seeger with these words:

He’s gonna look a lot like your granddad that wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself.

And that’s the truth.  Pete Seeger, who died yesterday aged 94, opposed McCarthyism, and worked tirelessly on behalf of civil rights movement, making his first trip south at the invitation of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1956. One of the seminal political events in his life, and the one which solidified his intent to make actively combating racism a lifelong pursuit, was the 1949 Peekskill race riots. In this video, Seeger recounts his experiences:

Seeger is the only singer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who was convicted of contempt of Congress. In 1955, he refused to testify about his past membership in the Communist Party. He had quit the party in 1949 though, he later admitted, should have left much earlier. ‘It was stupid of me not to…I thought Stalin was the brave secretary Stalin and had no idea how cruel a leader he was’.  His conviction was overturned on appeal in 1961, but Seeger continued to be blacklisted by American TV networks until 1967. CBS censored parts of his anti-Vietnam War song, ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’, when he sang it on the Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour.

Poet Carl Sandberg dubbed Pete Seeger ‘America’s tuning fork’, and there’s little doubt that Seeger helped introduce America to its own musical heritage, devoting his life to using the power of song as a force for social change. He went from the top of the pop charts (‘Goodnight Irene’) to the blacklist and was banned from American commercial television for more than 17 years. In his nineties, Seeger continued to invigorate and inspire the musicians – most notably Bruce Springsteen, whose album We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions was a tribute, comprising songs popularized by Seeger. Three years later, Springsteen persuaded Seeger to sing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ with him at Obama’s inaugural concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Seeger sang the two ‘radical’ verses of the Woody Guthrie song that invariably get cut when it is sung in public, or in American schools:

As I was walking – I saw a sign there
And that sign said – no trespassing
But on the other side …. it didn’t say nothing!

Now that side was made for you and me!

In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumbling and some are wondering
If this land’s still made for you and me.

He sang the song again last September in one of his last public performances at a Farm Aid concert in Saratoga Springs, New York state.  As well as Guthrie’s ‘radical’ verses, Seeger inserted another verse of his own that protested fracking in New York state – through the decades he has campaigned on environmental issues, leading a successful crusade in the 1970s to clean up New York’s Hudson River, which was so heavily polluted that there was nowhere on its course that was safe to swim in. He built a boat, the Clearwater, that travelled the Hudson River, drawing attention to the polluted condition of the river. He founded the Clearwater organization which supports environmental education programmes in schools and campaigns for tighter environmental laws.

Pete Seeger came from a wealthy, yet highly politicised radical family. He was born at his grandparent’s estate in Patterson, New Jersey in 1919, the son of musicologist Charles Seeger and his wife, Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, a violin teacher. Both parents could trace their ancestors to the Mayflower.

His father was a pacifist during World War I whose pacifism, while teaching music at the University of California, cost him his teaching position.  In the 1930s Pete was attending Harvard, hoping to become a journalist.  In 1936, at  a folk song and dance festival he heard a five string banjo for the first time and his life was changed forever.  By 1938 he was passing out leaflets for Spanish civil war relief on the Harvard campus and had joined the Young Communist League. He left Harvard in the spring of 1938 without taking his exams.

He went to New York where he found work with the Archives of American Folk Music. Seeger sought out legendary folk song figures including Leadbelly. Inspired by these people and learning much about folk music, he began working with the five string banjo and soon became an accomplished player.

In 1940, Seeger met Woody Guthrie and together they formed the Almanac Singers, a musical collective including Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Sis Cunningham, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and others. They recorded union songs, such as ‘The Talking Union Blues’ which they wrote as an organizing song, as well as pacifist songs. Drafted into the Army in 1942, the FBI was already building a file on Seeger because of his left-wing activities.

In 1945, after his discharge from the Army, Seeger founded the People’s Songs collective but by 1949 it had gone bankrupt.  On 4 Sepember 1949, Paul Robeson was scheduled to perform with Seeger at the Lakeland Picnic Grounds in Peekskill.  A large mob of anti-communist vigilantes stormed the venue, attacking performers and members of the audience. While trying to drive away from the scene, Seeger’s car was attacked by vigilantes. His wife Toshi and their three year old son Danny were injured by flying glass.

In the late 1940s, Seeger and Lee Hays wrote ‘If I Had a Hammer’. In 1950 Seeger, Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert formed the Weavers. They achieved great success, especially with their recording of the Leadbelly tune ‘Goodnight Irene’.

However, blacklisting in the McCarthy era put paid to commercial success for the Weavers. During the 1950s Seeger occasionally performed with the Weavers but mainly paid the bills with his appearances on the college circuit, and with recordings for Folkways Records (including albums of songs for children, two of which our daughter would play repeatedly when young).

In 1956, after writing ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ Seeger, Arthur Miller and six others were indicted for contempt of Congress by the House of Representatives. He was found guilty of contempt in 1961 and sentenced to ten years in prison. He was released from prison in 1962 when his case was dismissed on a technicality.

During the folk music revival of the early 1960s, the TV networks occasionally invited Seeger to appear on folk music shows like Hootenany, but quickly dropped him when they discovered that he had been blacklisted.

Pete Seeger singing If I Had a Hammer at SNCC rally in Greenwood, MS, 1963

Pete Seeger singing If I Had a Hammer at SNCC rally in Greenwood, MS, 1963

Seeger became involved in the civil rights marches in the South, both as a marcher and as a performer for the marchers. One notable occasion was at Greenwood in Mississippi in the summer of 1963 when there were voter registration drives underway in various communities, one of which was in Greenwood. On 2 July, Seeger performed at a SNCC rally before a small gathering of civil rights workers,  singing ‘If I Had a Hammer’.  Bob Dylan sang ‘Only A Pawn in Their Game’, written following the murder of Medgar Evers less than a month earlier, on 12 June.

Pete Seeger’s version of ‘We Shall Overcome’ became the anthem of the movement.  He discussed the origins of the song in an interview in 2006:

Seeger was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War. In September 1967 he appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS-TV where he was scheduled to sing ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’, an attack on the war, but the song was cut by the network censors.

‘Songs won’t save the planet’, Seeger told his biographer David Dunlap, author of How Can I Keep From Singing? ‘But, then, neither will books or speeches…Songs are sneaky things. They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons.” He liked to quote Plato: “Rulers should be careful about what songs are allowed to be sung.’

I have been singing folk songs of America and other lands to people everywhere. I am proud that I never refused to sing to any group of people because I might disagree with some of the ideas of some of the people listening to me. I have sung for rich and poor, for Americans of every possible political and religious opinion and persuasion, of every race, colour, and creed.

Pete Seeger on The Johnny Cash Show in 1970 complete and uncut

It takes a worried man to sing a worried song….

Pete Seeger with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee: ‘Down by the Riverside’

In 2012 Pete recorded a hearty version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ for an Amnesty International fund-raising album:

surrounded hate and forced it to surrender

‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’

John Nichols’ closes a fine elegy on The Nation website (which reminds us that Seeger played a banjo inscribed with the message ‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’) with these words:

He showed us how to do our time with grace, with a sense of history and honour, with a progressive vision for the ages, and a determination to embrace the next great cause because the good fight is never finished. It’s just waiting for a singer to remind us that: ‘The world would never amount to a hill of beans if people didn’t use their imaginations to think of the impossible’.

As I mentioned earlier, the fine biography of Pete Seeger written by David Dunaway is entitled How can I keep from singing? – taking its title from an old 19th century hymn revived and adapted by Pete in the early 1950s

My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ’round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble sick with fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging,
When friends by shame are undefiled
How can I keep from singing?

So long, Pete.  It’s been good to know you.

American Masters: Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (PBS)

Seeger at his home in Beacon, New York state in March 2009

The baton passed to another generation

See also

Pete Seeger

Don’t you know it’s darkest before the dawn
And it’s this thought keeps me moving on
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning

Some say that humankind won’t long endure
But what makes them so doggone sure?
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing

And so keep on while we live
Until we have no, no more to give
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger

So though it’s darkest before the dawn
These thoughts keep us moving on
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows

‘Springsteen and I’: the inseparable bond between artist and audience

‘Springsteen and I’: the inseparable bond between artist and audience

Bruce and fans

Bruce Springsteen generally opens a show with this invocation to the crowd: “We’re here tonight because what we need to do we can’t do by ourselves. We need you. We need you”. Then he’ll chant, “Can you feel the spirit? Can you feel the spirit now?”  Before he’s sung a note, audience and performer are united in an inseparable bond.

Is this sort of thing unique to Springsteen? Maybe. What is certain is that there is something very special about Springsteen’s relationship with his audience, and his own perception of what the nature of that relationship should be. This is what hits you repeatedly in the new documentary film Springsteen and I that I saw at one of the national preview screenings on Monday night.

The film – which sets out to document the special relationship between Springsteen fans and The Boss – is built around videos made by fans themselves in which they talk about what he means to them and recount an experience that has defined their connection.  Over 2000 Springsteen fans submitted videos; mercifully, less than ten made the final cut.  But those that do are often extraordinary: heartfelt, moving, and sometimes very funny.  Interspersed with the personal video footage are rarely-seen clips of live performances from every stage of Springsteen’s career, making the experience even more enjoyable – at least if you’re a Bruce fan.

The fans’ segments, edited by director Baillie Walsh and produced by Ridley Scott, feature footage shot by the fans themselves, sometimes simply stating which three words they think best describe Springsteen, while the more interesting ones tell the story of how Bruce has made an impact on their life.  Some feature footage of themselves with Springsteen, such as one lucky street musician with whom Springsteen sings and plays in an impromptu street jam.

Bruce with street busker
Bruce with street busker
Street busker with memories of Bruce
Street busker with memories of Bruce

I must admit that my heart sank during the first ten minutes or so: the film opens with diehard fans cataloguing the three words that sum up Bruce for them – none particularly interesting or insightful – followed by a very strange section in which a woman who is clearly one disc short of a box set embarrasses her ten year old son with the recollection of how, when he was an infant, she’d hold up a picture of Springsteen and repeat the word ‘Daddy’ several times.

But, after this unpromising start the film simply gets better and better as genuinely moving moments and remarkable stories pile up.  Not only do these sequences capture all the absolute devotion of Springsteen fans, they also reveal the main reason why this artist means so much to so many. In the words of one contributor: “You trust Bruce. He isn’t going to let you down. You believe in Bruce, and Bruce believes in you”.  That Springsteen does, genuinely, believe he shares a bond with  his audience, their lives and daily concerns, is borne out time and again – and especially in the heart-warming epilogue.

As Laura Barton points out in an article published to coincide with the film’s premiere, part of Springsteen’s appeal lies in the intimacy of Springsteen’s songs:

His willingness to paint the lives of ordinary people, blue-collar workers in small-town New Jersey, struggling to make ends meet, to shoulder their responsibilities, yearning for the simple escape of youth and rock’n’roll and a fast car. There are nicknames, recurring characters, streets, venues, specific screen-doors, specific porches, specific moments in a life rendered so real you could touch them.

As if the embodiment of Springsteen’s celebration of working class life, hard work and struggle, in the documentary Kitty, a graduate with an MA who was unable to find work in her field and so became a truck driver, explains how she finds dignity in the lyrics of Nebraska; listening to Bruce, she says, makes her feel that “the more physically demanding my job is, the more important I am”.  The reason that this film has so many great moments and has such a big heart is that it allows ordinary people to speak freely and passionately about their lives and those things that move them.

There is the couple, together for 28 years and living in a small New York apartment, who admit they have never been able to afford  to see Bruce in concert; they film themselves dancing around their kitchen to ‘Radio Nowhere’. There is the factory worker from Manchester who saves up for a holiday with his wife to see a Springsteen show at Madison Square Garden, only to discover they had the worst seats in the house. He tells of their encounter, as they made their way to their seats, with Springsteen’s famed “man in black,” who strolls through venues offering fans the ultimate prize: front row seats.  “I was so excited I bought my wife three glasses of champagne,” he remembers, eyes shining. “At seven dollars a glass.”

John, a groundsman at Denmark’s Roskilde stadium, films himself in the stadium where he recalls seeing Springsteen as a boy on the Tunnel of Love tour. He was 9, and on an old Walkman recorded the whole show on cassette tapes which he has still.  In one of the film’s funniest episodes, a man agrees to be filmed by his Springsteen-worshipping wife who he has followed to concerts every major city in Europe.  She asks him if there is anything he would like to say to Springsteen; quick as flash he responds: “Shorten your concerts.”

Another guy recalls his girlfriend leaving him the day before a Springsteen concert and how, holding up a sign at the show that read ‘I’ve been dumped’, Springsteen called him up on the stage and gave him a big hug.  Remarkably, the film makers have found footage of the moment, just as they have for what probably counts as the film’s funniest and most heart-warming moment when an Elvis impersonator leaps on stage at a Philadelphia show and almost upstages Bruce as he performs ‘All Shook Up’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. “I don’t know where he came from”, gasps Bruce as Elvis leaves the stage.

Bruce with the Elvis impersonator

In her Guardian piece, Laura Barton writes that, for many of his fans, Springsteen has come to represent ‘something upstanding and wholesome’:

He is politically engaged, left-leaning, with a passion for the underdog (this week he dedicated a song to Trayvon Martin, for instance) and seems to set out an example of what can be achieved by kindness, consideration and pure hard graft. He tours often and long, his shows frequently last past three hours; on stage he works hard as an entertainer: covering all areas of the stage, playing sometimes obscure requests, and frequently channelling the role of a kind of southern Baptist preacher. “Where we wanna go, we can’t get there by ourselves,” he tells the crowd. “We need YOU! Can you feel the spirit?” he asks, and hands are lifted aloft and waved in this new kind of church.

The nub of the special relationship between Springsteen and his fans is that he is a special kind of star, a huge celebrity who seems human, even modest, with a commitment to honesty that resonates with people. He seems to understand the average person’s life, even if he is anything but average, and couples this with a belief in himself as embodying the redemptive power of rock’n’roll.  Something of this comes across, too, in Peter Ames Carlin’s recent biography, Bruce.  In her article, Laura Barton recounts a story told her by rock critic Greil Marcus:

“Bruce can seem warm, open, friendly – an ordinary guy, someone you can imagine being friends with – because he is genuinely interested in other people,” [says Marcus]. “And because he acts consciously to set himself apart from the arrogant, entitled, dismissive rock star, both because he doesn’t want to be like that and because he is aware of how damaging to the – let’s not say image but the sense-of-self – his fans hold of him and hold him to.”

Marcus cites as his favourite example a day in 2000, when Springsteen visited a seminar he was teaching at Princeton on Prophecy and the American Voice. “My older daughter had run into him at a party in New York … and told him about the class,” he explains. “He said he’d like to take it – she said, I’d tell him he’d have to do the reading.”

The reading that week was no mean feat – Allen Ginsberg’s Wichita Vortex Sutra from 1966, accompanied by a recording of Ginsberg performing the entire, very long poem with an orchestra of downtown New York musicians. But characteristically, Springsteen put in the hours.

“Bruce arrived early, and we went in together,” Marcus recalls. “I introduced him – everyone knew who he was – and he sat down around the seminar table and for the next three hours carefully, subtly, took part in the conversation. He had, he told me later, been very affected by the poem, and had an argument he wanted to make about it, but he did this by speaking only in terms of something a student said, responding, and eliding his statements into questions. People then took up things he’d said, so that he was able to turn the discussion without ever appearing to.

“That’s a very specific situation, but I think many fans glimpse that sense of self in Bruce’s music, songs, self-presentation – and can imagine, and even do imagine, themselves and him interacting in their own lives. Certainly for some people that crosses over into the kind of identification and obsession that some people outgrow and some people don’t.”

The special screenings on Monday didn’t quite run to the generous length of a Springsteen concert, but in addition to the main feature we were treated to bonus live footage of the notorious Hyde Park concert in 2012 when the power was cut by bureaucrats just as Springsteen was jamming with Paul McCartney. After that came an epilogue in which some of the fans featured in the film got to meet Bruce in person at Roskilde stadium. There are warm hugs and amusing comments from Springsteen, before he is evidently lost for words, moved when he discovers that the Danish guy who, as a nine year old, first saw him perform there is now working at the stadium as a groundsman, and will be clearing up after the show the next morning.

In 2007, the writer Sarfraz Manzoor (who is glimpsed in the 2012 Hyde Park crowd during the bonus footage) published Greetings from Bury Park, his  account of the impact of Bruce Springsteen’s music on his own life, and its role in helping him leave his home town of Luton. He tells Laura Barton that Springsteen and his music still means a great deal:

“In my 20s and 30s, I believed being a Springsteen fan meant travelling the world and clocking up as many concerts as I could manage. I was wrong – the point of loving his music is not to become obsessed by him but to make the best of your own life so you don’t let the best of yourself slip away.”


See also

Reading Mr. Springsteen

Reading Mr. Springsteen
Bruce and sister Ginny, circa 1955
Bruce and sister Ginny on the Jersey shore, circa 1955

For Christmas my daughter bought me a copy of Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin, the first biography of Bruce Springsteen in 25 years to have been written with the co-operation of the singer.  Books of this genre tend towards the adulation of the dedicated fan,  notably, in Springsteen’s case, Dave Marsh’s Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story (1979) – the work of an unabashed partisan and friend whose wife has for some time been a member of Springsteen’s management team.

Which raises the question – why do we read books like these?  Is it to bask further in the warm glow cast by the star we adore? Or is it a prurient interest in what dirt the writer might have dug up from the subject’s personal life?  Carlin’s book steers a fairly steady course between these extremes: it doesn’t read like hagiography, and it’s not an authorized biography (though Springsteen did meet with and talked to Carlin on the phone a few times). Carlin writes, ‘Bruce Springsteen made it clear that the only thing I owed him was an honest account of his life. He welcomed me into his world, spoke at great length on more than a few occasions, and worked overtime to make sure I had all the tools I’d need to do my job.’  Yet, despite his access to Springsteen, members of his E Street Band, his family and past lovers, Carlin has not been blinded by standing so near the light.

So then there’s a further question: will a long-term Springsteen fan like myself learn anything new here?  The major events of Springsteen’s life have been so thoroughly explored by journalists in magazines like Uncut, in documentaries and interviews, and by fans on the Web that it might seem there would be little to add.  Furthermore, Springsteen’s songs are often read as a memoir written in verse, the lyrics mining his life whilst brilliantly mythologising it.

The answer to the question, surprisingly, is yes.  Carlin’s account does offer new insights, and will be read with interest who loves Springsteen’s work, though some of the personal history that inspired his lyrics was already revealed in the personal introductions to each album’s worth of songs which Springsteen wrote for the magnificent edition Songs, published in 2003 and now out of print (another gift from my thoughtful daughter).

Bruce-Peter Ames Carlin

Carlin focuses his account on Springsteen’s early life and the early stages of his musical career, with 21 of the 27 chapters devoted to the period up to 1989 during which he painstakingly built and established his legend.  As for the rest – well, Carlin reveals aspects of Springsteen that differ from the one we think we may know.  It’s a portrait of a man who in recent years has overcome personal doubt and insecurities with anti-depressants and psychotherapy, who is more than a little narcissistic and can sometimes be bad-tempered, and who at times in the past has treated women badly, his band members heartlessly, and driven everyone around him mad with his perfectionism. Well no-one’s perfect.

Carlin explores Bruce’s antecedents at some length in the opening chapter, telling how Joosten Springsteen left Holland for New York in 1652, and sometime in 18th century a branch of the family drifted out to the farmlands of Monmouth County, New Jersey.  Right into the 20th century, Springsteens worked as farm labourers and, as industrialization came to New Jersey, as factory workers in Freehold, the town where Bruce was born in 1949.  On his mother’s side were Irish immigrants from Kildare who migrated to America in 1850, settling in Monmouth County and working the fields.  This was the working life that Bruce has placed at the heart of many of his songs.

Bruce makes clear that material deprivation was indeed a fact of life in a childhood where neither heat, hot water, nor the certainty of a roof over the family’s heads could be taken for granted. Until Bruce was six years old the family – Bruce, sister Virginia and parents Adele and Douglas – lived with Doug’s parents in their rundown home of peeling paintwork and crumbling ceilings.  In Songs, Springsteen speaks of how later, after the success of Born to Run, he wanted to write about his own experience:

I was the product of Top 40 radio songs.  Songs like the Animals’ ‘It’s My Life’ and ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ were infused with an early pop class consciousness.  That, along with my own experience – the stress and tension of my father’s and mother’s life that came with the difficulties of trying to make ends meet – influenced my writing.  I had a reaction to my own good fortune.  I asked myself new questions.  I felt a sense of accountability to the people I’d grown up alongside. […] Most of my writing is emotionally autobiographical.  You’ve got to pull up the things that mean something to you in order for them to mean anything to your audience.  That’s how they know you’re not kidding.

Indeed, traced through Carlin’s account in Bruce, is a portrait of a young man who, from his late teens, had developed a very clear sense of what he wanted to achieve through a career in music: to weave lyrics rooted in his own experience into the various currents of American popular music – blues and folk, rhythm and blues and doo wop, rockabilly and rock – to create music that spoke to the lives, work and dreams of ordinary Americans.

Speaking of the recording sessions for The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle that began in May 1975, Springsteen observed (in Songs) that:

I was drawing a lot from where I came from.  I’m going to make this gumbo, and what’s my life?  Well, New Jersey.  New Jersey is interesting.  I thought that my little town was interesting, the people in it were interesting people.  And everyone was involved in the E Street shuffle: the dance you do every day just to stay alive.  That’s a pretty interesting dance, I think.  So how do I write about that?  I found it very compelling, and I also wanted to tell my story, not somebody else’s story.

One of the elements of that story concerned his troubled relationship with his father, and Carlin builds a disturbing picture of Bruce’s father, whose crushed life and conflicts with his son was to be the subject of many songs and concert monologues:

Douglas Springsteen spent most of these years huddled inside himself, handsome in the brooding fashion of actor John Garfield, but too lost in his own thoughts to find a connection to the world humming just outside his kitchen window.  Often unable to focus on workplace tasks, Doug drifted from the Ford factory to stints as a Pinkerton security guard and taxi driver, to a year or two stamping out obscure doo-dads at the nearby M&Q Plastics factory, to a particularly unhappy few months as a guard at Freehold’s small jail, to occasional spurts of truck driving.  The jobs were often bracketed by long periods of unemployment, the days spent mostly alone at the kitchen table, smoking cigarettes and gazing into nothing. […] When dinner was over and the dishes were done, the kitchen became Doug’s solitary kingdom.  With the lights out and the table holding only a can of beer, a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, and an ashtray, Doug passed the hours alone in the darkness.

According to Carlin, Bruce’s life was changed the day he picked up a guitar after seeing Elvis Presley on television.  Another key moment was hearing ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ on the car radio in 1964.  The following Christmas, his mother borrowed $60 to buy Bruce a shimmering black and gold electric guitar.  By 1965, Springsteen was playing in bands that performed in bars and beach clubs along  Jersey Shore. For seven years he played in bands with names like The Castiles, Child and Steel Mill, before auditioning for John Hammond at Columbia Records in 1972.   It was a tough, but essential apprenticeship, performing a repertoire that leaned mostly on Top 40 radio hits with an emphasis on the harder-edged singles by the Stones (‘Satisfaction’ and ‘The Last Time’), the Kinks (‘All Day and All of the Night’), Ray Charles (‘What’d I Say’), the Who (a furious ‘My Generation’), and Hendrix. At the same time, Bruce was honing his guitar technique, for which he was gaining a local reputation, and beginning to write a few of his own songs with ‘thump and snarl’ and ‘fist-in-the-air lyrics’.

But Bruce was already seeking a new direction, searching for new sounds.  Enraptured by Van Morrison’s Street Choir album , he decided that Van’s meld of rock, blues, jazz, Celtic, and gospel music should be his new band’s defining sound:

The swing of old-fashioned rhythm and blues; the lockstep funkiness of James Brown; the seemingly endless possibilities that went along with a larger lineup of musicians, sounds, and inspirations.  Asbury Park overflowed with musicians capable of playing all of it…

So was born Dr Zoom and the Sonic Boom, an outsize band ‘whose real mission revolved around fun and just the right touch of strangeness’.  Soon renamed the Bruce Springsteen Band, the band would appear in either nine-piece or five-piece (Bruce, Steve Van Zandt, Gary Tallent, David Sancious, and Vini Lopez) configurations.

Bruce, Carlin writes, was consciously straining toward the creation of a music that would describe his neighbourhood ‘in a dying city’ struggling through the aftermath of riots and economic depression:

Long segregated along racial lines – the African-American community and other non-whites lived almost exclusively on the town’s tumbledown west side – Asbury Park’s beachside businesses were notorious for keeping African-Americans from all but the lowest-echelon jobs.  Tensions had been on a low boil for years, but the combination of a heat wave, cutbacks in social programs, and a jobs shortage touched off days of on-and-off rioting that burned significant pieces of the west side before turning on the city’s business district.  The wave of destruction, and the racial and social conflicts that remained unresolved, reduced Asbury Park to a scorched shadow of its once-prosperous self.

Yet Asbury Park still burst into life on Friday and Saturday nights, down by the boardwalk, in bars and nightclubs.  The songs on the first two albums reflected that community through characters that were part real, part imaginary.

Carlin spends a lot of time in this book detailing the twists and turns in Springsteen’s relations with record companies, producers and publishers.  Not surprisingly, he tells at great length the story of Bruce signing up with – and eventually spending two long years fighting a protracted legal battle to extricate himself from his contract with – his old buddy and New Jersey musician turned music publisher Mike Appel.  Caplin quotes Springsteen:

Mike was for real.  He loved music. His heart was in it. … That’s part of what attracted me to him, because it was all or nothing.  I needed somebody else who was a little crazy in the eyes because that was my approach to it all.  It was not a business. … It was an idea and an opportunity, and Mike understood that part of it very, very well.

It was Appel, after all, who got Bruce his Columbia Records contract.  Two albums – not particularly successful in commercial terms – followed.  But whenever Bruce listened to the first two albums he wasn’t satisfied:

All he could hear were the things he wished he’d done differently.  The overstuffed lyrics, the stilted sound, the distance between what he needed to say and what came out of the speakers.

Springsteen’s notorious perfectionism is revealed in Carlin’s account of the grim and tortuous process of recording the next two albums – Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. It was a saga of ‘unplayable parts, unfixable mistakes, and unmixable recordings’,  hours and hours, days and weeks of driving himself and members of the the band to exhaustion, and frustration: ‘the hardest thing I ever did’.

This is the period when Jon Landau enters the story – first with his historic review of a Springsteen show in Boston in May 1974 in which he exclaimed that he had seen ‘rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen’, adding:

Springsteen does it all. He is a rock’n’roll punk, a Latin street poet, a ballet dancer, an actor, a joker, bar band leader, hot-shit rhythm guitar player, extraordinary singer, and a truly great rock’n’roll composer. He leads a band like he has been doing it forever.

Landau’s endorsement was critical for Springsteen’s standing with CBS – the ‘rock and roll future’ line was appropriated by CBS in marketing Springsteen. More importantly, it led Springsteen to seek out Landau as a sounding board for his ideas as he prepared his next album. Born to Run made Springsteen a star, and Landau’s contribution was so great Springsteen decided he would be the man to guide him through his career as manager and producer – not just his right-hand man, but his right hand.

Carlin describes in some detail the Born to Run campaign run by CBS ‘like a D-Day invasion, with multiple forces poised to attack in calibrated waves’.  Central to the campaign were the posters that featured Springsteen, back to the viewer, ‘bearded, curly-haired … looking like a poet biker in his black leather and jeans’, Elvis button on his sleeve, clutching a weathered Fender and a pair of Converse sneakers hanging from the guitar neck’.

Springsteen - Born to Run - Columbia Promotional Poster

Carlin describes the album cover, with Bruce leaning on saxophonist Clarence Clemons’ shoulder, as ‘the visual union of Elvis, Dylan, and Marlon Brando, with a touch of  Stagger Lee looming over his shoulder for bad-ass measure’.

Springsteen BornTo Run poster

Carlin tells the familiar story of Springsteen being conflicted over the hype – it just got in the way of the reality and authenticity of what he was trying to express. For Springsteen the problem was exemplified by his arrival in London in November 1975 to find the capital plastered with posters on which Columbia had featured Landau’s  ‘future of rock ‘n’ roll’ quote.  Before the show at the Hammersmith Odeon, he ripped down all the posters he could find.

Promotional poster for the November 1975 shows at the Hammersmith Odeon

Carlin describes how Bruce gave in to some of the marketing pressures, compromising on aspects of the packaging and selling of Born to Run, though he did resist the idea for a shorter, radio-friendly edit of the single. At this point, too, he rejected stadium shows, even though the album’s success meant that the theatre venues that he’d barely filled months before were incapable of holding the audiences that now craved to see and hear him.

Despite the hype, in Carlin’s words, ‘Born to Run lived up to every promise ever made about Bruce Springsteen’:

From the breezy opening moments of ‘Thunder Road’ … the album stood as a summary of the previous twenty years of rock ‘n’ roll, a portrait of the moment, and the cornerstone of a career that would reflect and shape the culture for the next twenty years, and the twenty to follow.  ‘It was the album where I left behind my adolescent definition of love and freedom,’ Bruce wrote.  Born to Run was the dividing line.’

There follows the tortuous story of Springsteen’s infamous legal battle to escape from his contract with Mike Appel, a struggle that signified Bruce’s determination to retain complete control of his work.  It would be two years before he was able to record a follow-up record.

When that album – The River – finally appeared,  Springsteen was doing it again: passing on songs that he deemed too pop, too lightweight.  ‘Because the Night’ and ‘Fire’ were tossed to others to make into hits – almost, even, ‘Hungry Heart’.  Steve Van Zandt and others finally persuaded him out of that one, and it became the breakthrough single that lifted The River to the top of the album charts in autumn 1980.

Carlin rightly describes The River as an album that combines ‘the simple joys of rock ‘n’ roll’ while tracing ‘the human toll of economic and social inequity’.  The River was also the album where Springsteen first attempted to write about the commitments of home and marriage.  In the title song, Springsteen takes the story of his brother in law and sister Ginny who had fallen on hard times during the recession of the late ’70s, and turns it into something mythical:

The story of a young couple bound – by an accident of teenage conception, social expectations, and the absence of opportunity – to the same working class grind that had consumed the lives of their parents, and their parents’ parents.  [It was] a word-for-word description of the life that Bruce’s sister Ginny had lived since her accidental pregnancy, at eighteen, and early marriage.

In his book, Carlin traces Springsteen’s growing commitment to questioning the American dream.  In the words of ‘The River’, is it a dream, a lie, or something worse?  He quotes Bruce as saying that, as a child, he heard little talk of politics in his neighbourhood, but does recall coming home from school one day and asking his mother whether they were Republican or Democrat: ‘She said we were Democrats, because they’re for the working people.’  Now he was reading American history, and had been particularly affected by Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, both of which, like the unedited version of Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’ which Springsteen had begun performing in his shows, offered a portrait of the underside of the American dream.

Bruce had also read Born on the Fourth of July, the memoir of the maimed Vietnam vet and anti-war activist Ron Kovic, and now began performing benefits for the Vietnam Veterans’ organization.  It was around this time, too, that – as Ronald Reagan took over the American Presidency – Bruce began to feature at his concerts spoken introductions to certain songs that drew attention to the America of the vulnerable and downtrodden, combined with personal reminiscences of his own blue collar upbringing.

This is, perhaps, the abiding impression left by Carlin’s survey of Springsteen’s career: the sense of a man who has, right from the outset, formed a clear perception of where he stands in relation to music and his life and times:

I had an idea, and it was an idea that I had been working on for several records … through Nebraska, The River, Darkness, and right there on Born to Run.  I was a strange product of Elvis and Woody Guthrie …I was fascinated by people who had become a voice for their moment.  Elvis, Woody Guthrie, Curtis Mayfield, Bob Dylan, of course.  I don’t know if I felt I had the capacity for it or just willed my way in that direction, but it was something I was interested in.  Probably because it was all caught up in identity. You cannot figure out who you are if you don’t understand where you came from, what were the forces that work on your life as a child, as a teenager, and as a young man.  What part do you have to play?  How do you empower yourself?

With the trio of albums that began with The River and continued with Nebraska and Born In The USA, Springsteen’s reputation as the ‘blue collar troubadour’ was sealed.  Carlin’s account demonstrates very clearly that there has been nothing happenstance about this.  Each step of the way (perhaps only with the exception of a period in the 1990s) Springsteen has had a clear sense of his course and has kept to it. Steering between the poles of majestic stadium anthems and the quiet reflections on the American social fabric revealed on albums such as The Ghost of Tom Joad, he has become the embodiment of the American experience.

So much so, according to Carlin, that reading the New York Times obituaries of those killed on September 11, Springsteen was struck by how frequently his name was mentioned. Thomas H Bowden Jr, of Glen Ridge, NJ, was ‘deeply, openly, and emotionally loyal to Bruce Springsteen’. Christopher Sean Caton, of Glen Rock, NJ, was a Kiss fan as a boy. ‘But he soon moved on to Bruce Springsteen.’ After his death, his sister ‘found 35 ticket stubs to Springsteen concerts in his bedroom’. And on it went. Springsteen was so moved, Carlin writes, that he called up many of the victims’ families to offer his condolences.

More than any other contemporary artist, he had made himself synonymous with the cause of the common man; a fellow traveller on the same path trod by Woody Guthrie, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain and Pete Seeger.

And always there is that dedication to precise storytelling.  On albums like Nebraska and Tom Joad Springsteen’s voice disappears into the voices of those he has chosen to exemplify the American story.  In ‘Galveston Bay’, for example, off the Tom Joad album, Springsteen gets to the nub of the ironies and deadly tensions pursuant on American men being sent by their government to fight men in Vietnam required to do the same.  The song originally had a violent ending, Bruce noted in Songs, but it began to feel false. ‘If I was going to find some small window of light, I had to do it with this man in this song.’

The song asks a question.  Is the most political act an individual one, something that happens in the dark, in the quiet, when someone makes a particular decision that affects his immediate world?  I wanted a character who is driven to do the wrong thing, but does not.  He instinctively refuses to add to the vioolence in the world around him.  With great difficulty and against his own grain he transcends his circumstances.  He finds the strength and grace to save himself and the part of the world he touches.

In the last decade it seems as if Springsteen has become, in the words of political analyst Eric Alterman quoted by Carlin, ‘sort of the president of an imaginary America – the other America, so the rest of the world could admire the country the way they wanted to, without having to accept the fact that Reagan or George Bush spoke for America’.  By the late 1990s, as Carlin points out, Bruce had moved away from earlier reservations, and become increasingly explicit about his politics.  But, writes Carlin, while his sensibility flowed largely from New Deal liberalism, his working-class idealism came with bedrock principles on the virtues of work, family, faith and community:

None of which would be considered partisan had the collapse of American liberalism in the late 1970s and 1980s not included a large-scale redefinition of mainstream values as being conservative.  That Bruce neither accepted nor acknowledged the politicization of traditional values could be seen in his own work ethic and the symbolic communities he formed with the E Street Band and the fans who bought his records and attended his shows.  And even when his songs decried ruling-class greed and the fraying of the social safety net, they still cam bristling with flags, work, veterans, faith and the rock-sold foundation of home and family. […]

Just as he’d synthesized gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, folk, jazz and carnival music into a sound that echoed the clamour of the nation, Bruce’s particular magic came from his ability to trace the connections that hold the world together, even when it seems to be on the verge of flying apart.

Bruce offers a solid and interesting account of the arc of Springsteen’s career. But, for all its emphasis on contracts, tours and recording sessions, it lacks argument or deep analysis of Springsteen’s work. The man himself offered more in the incomparable Songs.  Carlin’s work is certainly very different to another book I have just begun reading – Ian Bell’s Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan.  Now that’s a different kettle of fish entirely, consisting exclusively of sceptical analysis directed, not to reconstructing Dylan’s life (for Dylan is ‘a writer who turned himself into a character to give voice to other characters’) but to trying to work out ‘who the hell he really is’. But more of that in future.

If there is a recurring implicit theme in Carlin’s book, it is the question of integrity.  From the start, Springsteen has set himself the alchemist’s task of transforming the lives of working class Americans into the gold of poetry and myth.  More than that, he has consciously set out to remain true to his roots: a difficult – some might say impossible – task given that he is a fabulously rich and famous celebrity.  But, on the evidence here, he has largely conducted himself with shrewdness, humility and generosity, never forgetting where he came from.  He’s still riding that train in the company of saints and sinners, losers and winners, fools and kings, whores and gamblers, lost souls, the broken-hearted and sweet souls departed whose dreams will not be thwarted, whose faith will be rewarded:

You’ll need a good companion for
This part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past

Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams

This Train
Hear the steel wheels singin’
This Train
Bells of freedom ringin’