The music of Bruce Springsteen is rooted in place. The boy-meets-girl and hitting-the-highway are not abstract stories but name-check the limits and limitations of his upbringing and New Jersey small-town neighbourhood. His autobiography ‘Born to Run’ (2016) confirms a narrow experience but one where his personal geography is keenly understood.
Yet his family and schooling (or lack of) contribute towards a powerful sense of dislocation,
“I desperately want to fit in but the world I have created with the unwarranted freedom from my grandparents has turned me into an unintentional rebel, an outcast weirdo misfit sissy boy. I am alienating, alienated and socially homeless… I am seven years old.” (p.15)
He indicates much on his enthusiasm and single-minded drive during the early hardships… and the passion (I like this on loving what you do),
“I was twenty-three and I was making a living playing music! Friend, there’s a reason they don’t call it “working,” it’s called PLAYING!” (p. 186)
Bruce Springsteen didn’t really fall into my musical orbit in 1973 with the first two albums. Both are explicitly drenched with locations and experiences of his youth. They are sparse recordings compared to the full-on rock-and-roll versions more familiar, to me, from the subsequent live albums. It is interesting about his years of ‘local band’ rock’n’roller before gaining a contract for these ‘singer-songer’ tracks – and the way the record label refused to promote the second album which has many non-single length tracks.
Of course, 1975’s “Born to Run”, is a very different album. It’s really great to be able to hear these album so readily using Spotify.
“a music of identity, a search for meaning and the future“
Springsteen recounts how he signed a punishing contract without reading or understanding it and later escaped but at with the loss of the manager who had made the first record label deal. This stands uncomfortably with his repeated intention to be a solo artist. The E Street Band is his band. He calls the shots. “The Boss.” With a better education he might have avoided the contractual-shafting but this part is a story repeated by many who later make it big.
“Finally, the piece of me that lived in the working-class neighbourhoods of my hometown was an essential and permanent part of who I was. No one you have been and no place you have gone ever leaves you. The new parts of you simply jump in the car and go along for the rest of the ride. The success of your journey and your destination all depend on who’s driving. I’d seen other great musicians lose their way and watch their music and art become anemic, rootless, displaced when they seemed to lose touch with who they were. My music would be a music of identity, a search for meaning and the future.” (p.255)
He tells a good story about searching for the coins to pay the toll to get into New York City, the precarious hand-to-mouth flat-sharing and serial relationships ring true. However, there is a big leap into multiple-properties, buying land and horses without any real reflection. It is clear that increased wealth didn’t buy him a permanent state of contentment as the introspection focuses on his mental health and bouts of depression. Unsurprisingly it links with his relationships, with his father, a failed marriage, fatherhood and learning to be a family man directed by Patti. There is some humility but it seems he regards his purpose as musician to excuse all that.
He agonises over dissolving the E Street Band and, later, reforming them. Steve Van Zandt goes and is replaced by Nils Lofgren who, highly praised, later makes way quietly for Steve to return a decade later, 1999. When Clarence Clemson, the distinctive saxophone sound of the E Street Band, dies Bruce lays out the importance of their long bromance. Full credit is given to his wider team, including Jon Landau, the people who look after his frailties. The Boss knows he needs other people.
I didn’t buy any Bruce Springsteen until the late eighties and, with my love of a live album, it was “Live 1975 – 1985”. This what I said about it in My Music – Shifting Sands, “Once again a later joiner but a real favourite – and triple album at that – and preview of the powerful and political albums that followed. The solid power of guitars (see Nils Lofgren) and finest use of saxophone in rock anywhere.”
He produced “Tunnel of Love” as a solo album in 1987. Although he doesn’t mention it as such “Human Touch” and “Lucky Town” (both 1992 and on audio-tape) were somewhat derided, perhaps unfairly, and include the marvellous track ’57 channels (and nothin’ on)’. I missed the “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (1995) made where he is struggling with the question “where does a rich man belong?” (page 400.) I have six of the later CDs and in this period Bruce Springsteen adds a stronger political dimension to his songs.
Indeed, earlier while struggling with ‘The River’ (1980) he says, “I wanted playfulness, good times but also an underlying philosophical seriousness, a a code of living, fusing it all together and making it more than just a collection of my ten latest songs.” and
“I wanted something that could come only from my voice, that was informed by the internal geography of my experience.” (p277)
It is evident that “Born in the USA” is widely misunderstood but Bruce “truly pissed people off” with the track “American Skin” about a police killing. (p 436) He provided a powerful response to the 9/11 destruction with “The Rising” album. Interestingly, The Pete Seeger Sessions were actually recorded in 1997, and then in 2005 and 2006. It also has to be appreciated that Bruce Springsteen always published lyrics with albums although he doesn’t mention this point. (Contrast this with, say, REM.)
If you haven’t caught Bruce’s music this decade, I recommend 2012’s “The Wrecking Ball” as very strong album musically and on changes in the American and global economy. Bruce Springsteen, geographer.
I have enjoyed listening to the entire musical catalogue on Spotify or my CDs while reading the book. It’s a large body of work. I certainly like his line “no place you have gone ever leaves you” and this is captured by his autobiography. I have enjoyed quite a few musician biographies, Elton was one of the first, and autobiographies including the excellent one by Keith Richards (2010). Bruce admits that it took him seven years to write this autobiography.
Topically, and in the ‘you can’t make it up’ vein, the Trump team tried to arrange for a Bruce Springsteen tribute group, the B Street Band, to play at the Presidential inauguration. This has been followed by a series of singers and bands registering their refusal to accept such a prestigious request. The tribute band accepted and then bowed out saying they didn’t want to disrespect Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Right decision.
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