Friday, November 4, 2016

Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run

Bruce Springsteer, Born to Run
Simon & Schuster © 2016
ISBN 978-1-5011-4151-5

A fairly lengthy autobiography of one of the great pop songwriters and performers ever.  Like all autobiographies, it leave out a lot, but Springsteen if fairly open about things that have gone wrong (his first marriage), his ambition, and his very pronounced efforts to make sure we realize that it’s BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN and the E Street Band—that this is not a partnership, however close they might be personally and professionally, it’s his band, and, ultimately, his career.

What remains unclear, perhaps even to him, are a couple of things. 

Where did the ambition come from?  Lots of people played music, lots of people even started bands.  But few of them have the sort of ambition that he apparently had, from the very beginning, from age 15 or 16.  Was it a consequence of the sort of childhood and family life he had?  Maybe, but if it was, he does not show us how, or why.  The only role models, if you will, were the people, the bands, who had made it, and even that is a fairly muted part of the story.  The Beatles, the Stones, Roy Orbison, and more were there, and are a part of the background, but the sense that “If they can do it, so can I” is not really a part of the story.  Maybe that part of his life is still something of a mystery to him.

And where did the songwriting skills—the words, maybe, more than the music—come from?  He makes it clear that he was an indifferent student.  He says nothing about being much of a reader (there is, for example, no mention of any particular feeling for the rhythms and language of poetry).  But if you look at even the first album (Greeting From Asbury Park), yopu find things like this (“Growin’ Up” © 1973):

I stood stonelike at midnight suspended in my masquerade
I combed my hair till it was just right and commanded the night brigade
I was open to pain and crossed by the rain and I walked on a crooked crutch
I strolled all alone through a fallout zone and came out with my soul untouched
I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd but when they said `Sit down' I stood up
Ooh-ooh growin' up

The flag of piracy flew from my mast my sails were set wing to wing
I had a jukebox graduate for first mate she couldn't sail but she sure could sing
I pushed B-52 and bombed `em with the blues with my gear set stubborn on standing
I broke all the rules strafed my old high school never once gave thought to landing
I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd but when they said `Come down' I threw up
Ooh-ooh growin' up

I took month-long vacations in the stratosphere and you know it's really hard to hold your breath
I swear I lost everything I ever loved or feared I was the cosmic kid
Well my feet they finally took root in the earth but I got me a nice little place in the stars
I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car
I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd but when they said `Sit down' I stood up
Ooh-ooh growin' up
Ooh-ooh growin' up

Or this (“It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City” © 1973):

I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra
I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova
I could walk like Brando right into the sun
Then dance just like a Casanova
With my blackjack and jacket and hair slicked sweet
Silver star studs on my duds like a Harley in heat
When I strut down the street I could feel its heartbeat
The sisters fell back and said "Don't that man look pretty"
The cripple on the corner cried out "Nickels for your pity"
Them downtown boys sure talk gritty
It's so hard to be a saint in the city
I was the king of the alley I could talk some trash
I was the prince of the paupers crowned downtown at the beggar's bash
I was the pimp's main prophet I kept everything cool
A backstreet gambler with the luck to lose
And when the heat came down it was left on the ground
The devil appeared like Jesus through the steam in the street
Showin' me a hand I knew even the cops couldn't beat
I felt his hot breath on my neck as I dove into the heat
It's so hard to be a saint when you're just a boy
And the sages of the subway sit just like the living dead
As the tracks clack out the rhythm their eyes fixed straight ahead
They ride the line of balance and hold on by just a thread
But it's too hot in these tunnels you can get hit up by the heat
You get up to get out at your next stop but they push you back down in your seat
Your heart starts beatin' faster as you struggle to your feet
Then you're outa that hole and back up on the street
And them South Side sisters sure look pretty
The cripple on the corner cries out "Nickels for your pity"
And them downtown boys sure talk gritty
It's so hard to be a saint in the city

(And I’m not even going to think about “Blinded by the Light” or “Spirits in the Night.”)

And the songwriting only deepened; until you get something like this (“The River” ©1978):

I come from down in the valley
where mister when you're young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done
Me and Mary we met in high school
when she was just seventeen
We'd ride out of this valley down to where the fields were green

We'd go down to the river
And into the river we'd dive
Oh down to the river we'd ride

Then I got Mary pregnant
and man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse
and the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle
No flowers no wedding dress

That night we went down to the river
And into the river we'd dive
Oh down to the river we did ride

I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain't been much work on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don't remember
Mary acts like she don't care

But I remember us riding in my brother's car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I'd lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she'd take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don't come true
Or is it something worse
that sends me down to the river
though I know the river is dry
That sends me down to the river tonight
Down to the river
my baby and I
Oh down to the river we ride

And while that is (maybe) what I think is (maybe) his best song, the following 30 years have seen a lot more high points.  Well, maybe there are no answers.

Springsteen does tell his story well, if episodically, and, as it is an autobiography, we are left, not in the middle of a life, but without an ending.  And maybe the ending is, finally, the music.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry abut the line spacing and formatting, but I wrote this in Word, and it just would not paste properly into blogger.