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Picking Up The Pieces

Joe Breen

Born To Run, by Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Schuster, 528 pp, £6.95, ISBN: 978-1501141515

In the final chapter of this monumental autobiography, Bruce Springsteen finds himself back in his old home town of Freehold, back in the old neighbourhood, seeking out the foundations of memory, the home that lay in the “shadow of the steeple” of the Church of St Rose of Lima, and the “great towering copper beech tree” that he had loved as a young boy in 1950s New Jersey.

But the tree has gone:

A square of musty earth, carved into the parking lot blacktop at pavement’s edge, was all that remained. It still held small snakes of root slightly submerged by dust and dirt, and there the arc of my tree, my life, lay plainly visible. My great tree’s life by county dictum or blade could not be ended or erased. Its history, its magic, was too old and too strong.

He then lists the names of those close to him who have departed, adding that though they’ve gone, though strangers now fill those houses, “we remain in the air, the empty space, in the dusty roots and deep earth, in the echo and stories, the songs of the time and place we have inhabited. My clan, my blood, my place, my people.”

And then, in the shadow of the church, “as I stood feeling the old soul of my tree, of my town, weighing upon me, the words and a benediction came back to me”. He recites the Our Father, the old version, word for word as he was taught it growing up in his Catholic blue-collar Irish-Italian family. And we are brought back to his more casual admission at the beginning of the book: “However, as I grew older, there were certain things about the way I thought, reacted, behaved. I came to ruefully and bemusedly understand that once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic.” (Strangely I recall Phil Lynott making a similar declaration with the addition of the ethnic specific “Irish”.)

The “Our Father” is a moment among many moments of high drama in a narrative that pulses with rock ’n’ roll intensity, confessional intimacy and insight born of many hours spent on the psychiatrist’s couch. It is an intensity accentuated by the staccato chapter structure – short, condensed stories/chapters with terse headlines such as “My Street”, “My House”, “The Church”. These chapters are in turn organised into three “books” – “Growin’ Up”, “Born To Run” and “Living Proof”, all titles of songs/albums but also major landmarks in his career which approximate to: first, stretching out beyond his family/local community; second, embracing fame, nationally and then internationally; third, learning to live with himself, with family, with fame, and with his demons. These periods also determine changes in style: first young, loquacious, spirited, a world of possibilities; then a darker, deeper-etched dirty realism; finally, more mature, reflective, a gradual coming to terms with age and insecurity.

The book tells us a lot about him, his working class background, his struggles both personal and professional, but it also reveals a sense of the ruthlessness of the music business, his control issues, the numbing routines, the endless tours, his need for validation that drove him relentlessly to extended sets, marathon recording sessions, the initially paltry returns, the dodgy contracts, the king’s ransom when luck and labour find common cause. The memoir was written over a long period, as its use of language reveals. At times, it is rich and revealing, mature and reflective, aware of self in context and in time. There are also chapters, particularly in the early pages, where Springsteen writes embarrassingly of his “gals” and his youthful escapades with uncharacteristic laddish enthusiasm.

But what dominates the book is his fraught relationship with his father and the burden of depression which he says he inherited from him and his Irish ancestors:

We are the afflicted. A lot of trouble came in the blood of my people who hailed from the Emerald Isle. My great-great-grandmother Ann Garrity left Ireland at fourteen in 1852 with two sisters, aged twelve and ten. This was five years after the potato famine devastated much of Ireland, and she settled in Freehold. I don’t know where it started, but a serious strain of mental illness drifts through those of us who are here, seeming to randomly pick off a cousin, an aunt, a son, a grandma and, unfortunately, my dad.

It is a grim story. Being sent into the bar to get his father to come home; confrontations and conflict after the “nightly religious ritual of the ‘sacred six-pack’” in the cold dark kitchen of their basic home.

He loved me but he couldn’t stand me. He felt we competed for my mother’s affection. We did. He also saw in me too much of his real self. My pop was built like a bull, always in work clothes; he was strong and physically formidable … Inside however, beyond his rage, he harboured a gentleness, timidity, shyness and a dreamy insecurity. Those were all the things I wore on the outside and the reflection of these qualities in his boy repelled him. It made him angry. It was “soft”. And he hated “soft”.

But there is redemption. Many years later, when his son had become rich and famous and was about to become a father for the first time, Doug Springsteen drove five hundred miles down to his Los Angeles home.

I invited him in, and at eleven o’clock in a small sun-drenched dining area, we sat at a table nursing beers. My father, in his normal state, had little talent for small talk so I did the best I could.
Suddenly, he said, “Bruce, you’ve been very good to us.” I acknowledged that I had. Pause. His eyes drifted over the Los Angeles haze. He continued, “… And I wasn’t very good to you.” A small silence caught us.
“You did the best you could,” I said.
That was it. It was all I needed, all that was necessary. I was blessed on that day and given something by my father I thought I’d never live to see … a brief recognition of the truth.

I first saw Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band live in May 1981, at the relatively small capacity (about four thousand) Brighton Centre in Brighton. One of two shows at the venue, they were considered warm-up gigs for the prestigious Wembley Arena shows two days later, the set piece for the British leg of The River tour. (They would not play in Ireland until Slane, 1985.) This was the first time Springsteen had played in Britain since 1975, when over-enthusiastic publicists has angered him and irritated many others with posters brashly declaring “Finally London is ready for Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band.”

This time Springsteen was determined to be ready for London. The Brighton shows, on May 26th and 27th, were viewed as rehearsals for the real thing. If that was the case nobody told him or, more likely, he didn’t listen. The first night they played twenty-six songs, opening with “Prove It All Night” and closing with John Fogerty’s “Rockin’ All Over the World”. The second night kicked off with “Born To Run” and ended with Jerry Lee Lewis’s “High School Confidential”. I’m indebted to setlist.fm for this information because in truth I don’t remember exactly what he played or even on which night we attended though I suspect it was the Tuesday. What I do remember is that it was one of the great gigs of my life. How he and the band kept going I will never know. Nor how we, the audience, kept up. I do recall lots of sweaty shirts and worse, the whole place a sea of gyrating bodies with moisture peeling down the walls. And while Springsteen’s reputation for extended dramatic performances was well established by then, this was truly extraordinary – over four hours on stage and in no hurry to leave.

A few weeks later we returned to Britain for the band’s Birmingham show on June 8th at the NEC Arena. It was another great performance, albeit one more indicative of the future. This was a bigger venue (capacity sixteen thousand) by a factor of four, and it felt like it. Yet he worked the hall with stories and songs, guitars and grimaces, laughter and drama, a performance of seductive charm and unbridled energy to win hearts from row A to row Z. But the intimacy, the connection, the oneness of Brighton was lost; it was the price that was paid for those extra seats. There would be no going back. The economics of the music business dictated it. Ever bigger shows, with ever bigger audiences and ever bigger returns beckoned. Slane in 1985 (capacity 75,000 plus) would be the first of the really big outdoor shows. In the book he recalls the horror he felt when he saw the swaying masses there. He was so concerned for their safety that at the break he wondered should be continue.

None of his fear made it to the audience. His stagecraft, honed in the raucous bars of New Jersey, carried the day, as it had done many times in the past and would do again in the future. He and his band learned the hard way as they gradually earned their stripes on the road before and after the release of their debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ in January 1973:

On stages across America we were cheered, were occasionally booed, dodged Frisbees from the audience, received rave reviews and were trashed. Mike [Appel, then manager, later to be replaced acrimoniously by writer and longtime producer/mentor Jon Landau] booked us at car shows and Sing Sing prison. It was all in a day’s work and as far as I was concerned, it was the life. There would be no nine-to-five world for me, just a long, often arduous but who’s-kidding-who free ride of a seven-day weekend.

This romantic notion of the rock ’n’ roll life infused his songs. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”, from his second album, The Wild, the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle, from late 1973, captured that sense of wide-eyed youthful abandon and ambition while name-checking his local world, the only world he knew at the time:

Jack the Rabbit and Weak Knees Willie, you know they’re gonna be there
Ah, Sloppy Sue and Big Bones Billie, they’ll be comin’ up for air
We’re gonna play some pool, skip some school, act real cool
Stay out all night, it’s gonna feel all right
So Rosie come out tonight, baby come out tonight
Windows are for cheaters, chimneys for the poor
Closets are for hangers, winners use the door
So use it Rosie, that’s what it’s there for.

But he couldn’t stop there. With the music building behind him he launched into the meat of the matter:

Now I know your mama she don’t like me ’cause I play in a rock and roll band
And I know your daddy he don’t dig me but he never did understand
Papa lowered the boom, he locked you in your room
I’m comin’ to lend a hand
I’m comin’ to liberate you, confiscate you, I want to be your man
Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny
But now you’re sad, your mama’s mad
And your papa says he knows that I don’t have any money
Tell him this is his last chance to get his daughter in a fine romance
Because the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance
My tires were slashed and I almost crashed but the Lord had mercy
My machine she’s a dud, I’m stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey
Hold on tight, stay up all night ’cause Rosie I’m comin’ on strong
By the time we meet the morning light I will hold you in my arms
I know a pretty little place in Southern California down San Diego way
There’s a little cafe where they play guitars all night and day
You can hear them in the back room strummin’
So hold tight baby ’cause don’t you know daddy’s comin’.

It was no accident that this song served as the centrepiece of his live show for many years. Of course the discourse is liberally sprinkled with stereotypes. But with its sense of drama and humour, its promise of deliverance from a numbing blue-collar existence to the idyll of a “pretty little place in Southern California”, its rejection of tired old values and its vindication with the news that “the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance”, “Rosalita” resonated with an audience that yearned for that glorious escape.

Springsteen has a special affinity with his fans. He has nurtured them over the forty-plus years of his career. Indeed, the book, if it can be said to address anyone, speaks to them. It is, of course, a symbiotic relationship. But it is his magic that this relationship works across generations, class, creed, intellects and borders. Perhaps not always, but enough to make his career truly remarkable. The great and the good find common ground with the ordinary in their appreciation. Remember Enda Kenny’s air guitar in Croke Park. Or how writer Richard Ford, who forswore book reviewing, such was his distaste for the genre, made an exception last year for Born To Run because of his longtime admiration for Springsteen.

He is not alone. The same people who went to his 1981 shows will turn up at his 2017 shows. Fidelity is key to understanding the man and his success. He is loyal to his fans and they in turn are loyal to him. He is loyal to his E-Street Band and they in turn are loyal to him – a special relationship grounded in the local. He is also faithful to his characters and the changes they have gone through over the years. And those characters have been good to him. Today his shows draw on material from his first album to his most recent studio collection, 2014’s High Hopes, and all albums in between. There is a strong sense that the Marys, Roslitas and Weak Knees Willies have grown with him, suffered with him, felt life’s harsh blows and embraced the kinder moments as well. These characters may have originated in the backstreets of New Jersey, but they have stretched out beyond to represent some kind of universal figures, the good Americans, dealing with difficult issues constructively and able to laugh with people and not at them.

This sense of continuity is clearly important to him. The core of his band has been with him, through darkness and light, since the early days. He dwells long and sensitively on those who have fallen along the way, saxophonist Clarence Clemons aka “The Big Man” and keyboard player Danny Federici. In addition to being key to the Springsteen sound and image, Clemons provided a necessary and important semblance of racial inclusivity. Racial divides were much greater in the 1970s, though in view of recent events, racial equality clearly still has some way to go. Indeed Springsteen states that he should have done more to reach out to African-Americans. This is particularly apt as so much of his music has roots in black soul and gospel. Of course the same was true of Elvis and he wasn’t exactly an African-American pin-up.

Springsteen is a Democrat supporter. He is more politicised and more aware than most but equally he realises that his success puts him in a bind of sorts. “As my success increased, there was something about that ‘rich man in a poor man’s shirt’ that left an uneasy taste in my mouth surrounding this type of writing.” He added:

But drawing on my own young history … you lay claim to your stories; you honour, with your hard work and the best of your talent, their inspirations and you fight to tell them well from a sense of indebtedness and thankfulness. The ambiguities, the contradictions, the complexities of your choices are always with you in your writing as they are in your life. You learn to live with them …

And mostly he has had to learn to live with himself. Thirty years ago, after a particularly harrowing depressive episode, he was referred to Dr Wayne Myers in New York:

I began to map a previously unknown internal world. A world, that when its showed its weight and mass, its ability to hide in plain sight and its sway over my behaviour, stunned me … In all psychological wars, it’s never over, there’s just this day, this time, and a hesitant belief in your own ability to change. It is not an arena where the unsure should go looking for absolutes and there are no permanent victories. It is about a living change, filled with the insecurities, the chaos, of our own personalities and is always one step up, two steps back. The results of my work with Dr Myers and my debt to him are at the heart of this book.

The late Dr Myers (he died in 2008) shares this accolade with two women, Springsteen’s mother, Adele, and his wife, Patti Scialfa, (his short-lived first marriage to Julianne Phillips gets sympathetic mention but is put down as a casualty of his condition). Adele gets her own chapter, “My Mother”:

My mother showered me with affection. The love I missed from my father she tried to double up on and, perhaps, find the love she missed from my dad. All I know is she always had my back. When I was hauled into the police station for a variety of minor infractions, she was always there to take me back home. She came to my countless baseball games, both when I stunk up the place and the one season lightning struck and I turned into a real fielding, hitting player, with my name in the papers. She got me my first electric guitar, encouraged my music and fawned over my early creative writing. She was a parent and that’s what I needed as my world was about to explode.

Scialfa has had to deal with the later darkness while also raising three children and holding down her spot in the E-Street Band. She too gets a dedicated chapter, “Redheaded Revolution”, but her presence is constant as his life evolves, helping him fight his demons, picking up the pieces when it goes wrong. After one episode she

coaxed me out of bed and tried to get me moving. She steadied me, gave me the confidence to feel I’d be all right and that this was something that was just passing. Without her strength and calm, I don’t know what I would have done.

In the unrepentantly cynical world of show business even your own story is commoditized. Some, like Dylan, deliberately blur the facts in an attempt to retain ownership but celebrity always demands something in return. It’s the price to be paid, whether you’re a barely recognisable Z-leister on reality TV or a world-renowned gladiator like Springsteen. The only issues at play are the degree of exposure, the price, and, of course, the rewards.

But Springsteen and his team are masters of the game. For over forty years, through accumulating fame and its attendant riches, they have managed to retain the construction of an honest man, speaking truth as he knows it to power, the voice of an ordinary man, decidedly not perfect, vulnerable, ever learning – indeed one of most remarkable aspects of Springsteen is his autodidacticism and his search for meaning. He has leavened that message with music and, particularly, performance – long, glorious invocations of his soul-filled rock ’n’ roll gods, James Brown, Otis Redding, Roy Orbison, Elvis, Dylan and more. Some will argue that this volume is just another marketing project – and the rather dodgy album of mostly previously released tracks which coincided with the publication tells its own story – but at day’s end Born To Run reads like an honest reflection of a very difficult but ultimately remarkable life and career.

At the close of the book the singer sums up the pitfalls of autobiography:

Writing about yourself is a funny business. At the end of the day it’s just another story, the story you’ve chosen from the events of your life. I haven’t told you “all” about myself. Discretion and the feelings of others don’t allow it. But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise: to show the reader his mind. In these pages I’ve tried to do that.

That is just one of the many statements in the book that ring true.

1/10/2017

Joe Breen has written on popular music for The Irish Times for forty years. He is currently co-editing, with Mark O'Brien, a book on the history of Irish Sunday newspapers.

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