Bruce Springsteen is a Class Act
Words flowed like a storm surge, crashing into one another with no regret.” That’s Bruce Springsteen in his new memoir, writing about his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., but he might as well be writing about the memoir itself. Springsteen the musician has also been an artist of the word, and this book confirms his artistry in that second medium. Few literary genres can be as inane as stars’ autobiographies, and while Born to Run has enough concert anecdotes to satisfy the curiosity of any fan, it is a sustained, satisfying, and thoroughly readable self-portrait.
Like other autobiographies that put the protagonist in a wider context, Springsteen’s book is also the history of a time and a place, beginning with his hometown, Freehold, New Jersey, and the houses of families like his own—places where, he writes, “people make lives, suffer pain, enjoy small pleasures … and do their best to hold off the demons that seek to destroy us.” Music is Springsteen’s way of guiding us into this world, but this world is also a key to understanding his music. The ostensible euphoria in so many of his songs—cars, girls, the beach, the night—gains depth and ambivalence when we see the people in his lyrics against the background of their working lives and communities. Sometimes they escape from that world (“I took a wrong turn and I just kept going”) but are pulled back if not in fact, at least in memory and feeling, by inescapable “ties that bind.”
Here, in a perfect interweaving of musical and sociological analysis, Springsteen writes about the people he grew up with:
It took the dark, bloody romanticism of doo-wop, the true-to-life grit and soul and just that small hint of possible upward social mobility embedded in Motown to define what this crowd’s lives were all about. Except for their Top 40 hits, the bohemian poses of the Stones or their other sixties brethren had little relevance to these kids’ experience. Who could afford that? You had to fight, struggle, protect what was yours, remain true to your crew, your blood, your family, your turf, your greaser brothers and your country. This was the shit that would get you by when all the rest came tumbling down—when the bullshit was washed away in the next fashion trend and your gal was pregnant, your dad went to jail or lost his job and you had to go to work.
Later, with the unabashed awe of a teenage fan getting to meet his idols, Springsteen tells his readers about his encounters, friendship, and collaborations with the Rolling Stones. They are a measure of the road he has traveled: “the acne-faced fifteen-year-old kid with the cheap Kent guitar from Freehold, New Jersey,” who “ended up standing between Mick Jagger and George Harrison, a Stone and a Beatle.” “My parents were RIGHT!” he exclaims. “My chances were ONE, ONE in a MILLION, in MANY MILLIONS. But still … here I was.”
A satisfying autobiography, besides situating the protagonist in a rich context, should be a narrative of change, an explanation of that road traveled. Springsteen’s most memorable lines, the opening verse of “The River,” seem to deny this possibility: “I come from down in the valley / Where mister when you’re young / They bring you up to do like your daddy done.” In this intimate song about his own origins and the lives of his sister and brother-in-law, even the “possible upward mobility” imagined in Motown music is a “dream” that turns into a “curse.” Yet, on listening again to “The River” after reading Born to Run, one senses a more personal layer of meaning. He tells us about the valley where “I come from,” the place where he was born, raised, and taught, but now he is “here,” and this combination of familiarity and distance enables him to sing and write about other people’s lives that might have been his own with a sensitive realism unattainable to those who remain caught inside.
How did it happen? “I was not a natural genius. I would have to use every ounce of what was in me—my cunning, my musical skills, my showmanship, my intellect, my heart, my willingness—night after night, to push myself harder, to work with more intensity than the next guy just to survive untended in the world I lived in.” Like Edison, who is supposed to have said that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, Springsteen writes: “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.” “I always love the feel of sweat on my shirt,” he sings. And sweat, writes British cultural critic Simon Frith, is “the basic sign of Springsteen’s authenticity.”
This is the working-class ethic turned into music (the sound of his early band, the aptly named Steel Mill, was “blue-collar, heavy music with loud guitars and a Southern-influenced rock sound”). But Springsteen’s tools include intelligence too—an intelligence, moreover that is not only his own, but a shared cultural capital, sustained and circumscribed by his blue-collar roots. “My Asbury Park,” Springsteen writes, “was an island of misfit, blue-collar provincials. Smart, but not book smart.” Not smart enough to read between the lines of his first manager’s manipulative deal, but smart enough (and he did become book-smart, too) to keep growing and say goodbye to all that.
Yet, sweat and smarts are not all. They do not explain how Bruce Springsteen became that one in many millions who made it. It is always misleading to try to explain an artist’s achievement by his life (the recent controversy over Elena Ferrante’s identity is a case in point). Events in the artist’s life may at times reveal the occasion that originated the art, but not how that occasion became art. We may discover the seeds of the song “Wrecking Ball” (“all our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots”) when we read: “My house, my backyard, my tree, my dirt, my earth, my sanctuary would be condemned and the land sold, to be made into a parking lot.” Or we may recognize “Cautious Man” (“Alone on his knees in the darkness for steadiness he’d pray / For he knew in a restless heart the seed of betrayal lay …”) in a nocturnal scene of doubt and self-doubt after his first marriage. Yet, between the lived experience and the created work there is an intangible something that no biography can account for. The 1 percent that Edison called “inspiration” and Springsteen calls “talent” remains a mystery. The role of art, to be sure, is not to provide answers, but to raise questions and leave them open. Our respect for all kinds of art, “highbrow” or “lowbrow,” requires, in the words of country artist Iris Dement, that we “let the mystery be.”
On a more tangible plane, one mark of the road traveled is the gap between Springsteen’s blue-collar background and the much broader composition of his audience. One does not become a planetary icon by addressing a blue-collar audience exclusively, and there are many reasons why middle-class listeners (this writer included) should respond to the triumphant sound of his music and its message of hope and belief. As George Lipsitz pointed out many years ago, the very history of rock and roll is the history of how a proletarian, marginal form of expression rose to occupy the center of the cultural mainstream. Sometimes, the mainstream audience forgets where the music they enjoy came from, and simply responds to its life-giving power without a sense of its history. Yet, one of Springsteen’s achievements is how he manages to weld so much heterogeneity into a shared sense of community in his concert audiences and, at least to some extent, in his fans. Which is perhaps why in this autobiography he always writes about his audience in generic terms, without showing any interest in its composition.
This ambivalence also reflects the changes in Springsteen’s own class position and personal experience (after Born in the U.S.A., he devoted three albums to the complexities of human relationships with hardly any class reference). Springsteen has always spoken from where he stood. As he got older, he never pretended he was forever young, and when he moved up from the working class he never feigned that he was still part of it. Yet, to paraphrase his song about steelworkers in deindustrialized Youngstown, he is now “rich enough” but still remembers their names. Throughout his career, he has always retained and conveyed a sense of emotional and intellectual closeness to the much-maligned white working class. Springsteen’s subjects are supposed to be Donald Trump’s constituency, but he speaks a different language to them and offers different ways of facing their problems (also, as opposed to Trump, his people do include immigrants). During the Kerry-Bush campaign, he was one of the very few American voices who talked about “economic justice.” Springsteen is never ideological, yet his politics are clear and consistent: unions and food banks, support for veterans as an anti-war position, an early awareness that black lives matter, a male anti-chauvinist sensibility, solidarity with immigrants and their demands.
The book does not detail the growth of this progressive conscience. Springsteen comes from an anti-intellectual environment, yet a good deal of his thought emerged from the anti-war, non-racist youth culture of the 1960s, combined with a working-class kid’s awareness of how the anti-union policies of local corporations damaged the lives of people like his own father. Later, his manager and sometimes mentor Jon Landau would help him put it all into shape and expand his native “smarts” into “book smarts” by providing him with the necessary cultural background and “language for discussing [his] ideas and the life of the mind” and for integrating rock and roll’s “primal world of action” with “the world of thought and reflection.”
Interestingly, in his songs about American workers Springsteen never seems to evoke nationalist protectionist panaceas. In fact, one turning point in his development was Springsteen’s internationalization. He has often mentioned in interviews that it was his first experiences abroad that sent him back to reading American history and thinking about American identity. He has become an even bigger star for European audiences (especially in countries like Spain, Sweden, and Italy) because he manages to bridge the big dilemma of European progressives: a passionate love for American culture (music, film, TV, literature) and an equally passionate dislike of American politics.
As an Italian, I share with other Europeans a different vantage point from that of Springsteen’s American fans. Here’s an American who in our most beloved American form of expression—rock and roll—voices some of our concerns about American society and America’s role in the world. One cannot help but be intrigued by the sight of 100,000 Romans in the Circus Maximus raising their fists and singing happily that they are “born in the U.S.A.” Yet we have an unmistakable feeling that he is also singing about us. The America that Springsteen’s worldwide fans love is not the physical and tangible United States of Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, or even Hillary Clinton, but an ideal place of the mind—“not another country,” as the Italian writer Cesare Pavese put it in the 1940s, “but the great theater on which, more frankly and openly, everybody’s drama [is] being staged,” allowing us to see “our own drama develop on a much larger screen.” Pavese was referring to the writers of the Great Depression. But so was Bruce Springsteen in 2016, when in his Rome concert he took a request from a workers’ cooperative from the small town of Monterotondo, and sang “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”
Finally, one expects from an autobiography also a search for self-awareness, a dialogic exploration of one’s own subjectivity through writing. Springsteen makes an honest effort at self-discovery, and the result is occasionally predictable and even bland, but more often daring and surprising. An unexpected word returns again and again in the book: “rage.” It’s a rage that is bred from his childhood (“When I became of school age and had to conform to a time schedule, it sent me into an inner rage …”); is mirrored in his father’s temper (“my poor old pop tearing up the house in an alcohol-fueled rage in the dead of the night”; “all passive anger until he’d break and rage, then return to his beer and moonlike silence”); is vented in his own behavior (“I would use speed and recklessness to communicate my rage and anger”); and poisons his relationships (“I was sliding back toward the chasm where rage, fear, distrust, insecurity and a family-patented misogyny made war with my better angels”). There is also a happiness, he writes, that is “the bright brother of my depression.” Just as the euphoria of his youthful songs stands in relief against a backdrop of class struggle and family tensions, likewise the athletic and irrepressible Bruce Springsteen we see on stage has emerged from a depression that he has exorcised with psychoanalysis and medicines, and with the work of writing this book.
“I fought my whole life,” he concludes, “because I wanted to hear and know the whole story, my story, our story, and understand as much of it as I could. I wanted to understand in order to free myself of its most damning influences, its malevolent forces, to celebrate and honor its beauty. … I don’t know if I’ve done that, and the devil is always just a day away.”
Bruce Springsteen has come a long way and taken us along for the ride. Yet, the old “demons that seek to destroy us” haven’t disappeared. The hellhounds are still on the trail, and music and words are the weapons we have to hold them off.