Born to Run
Posted on Jan 20, 2017
By Allen Barra
“Born to Run”
When I was a boy, our family lived in Bruce Springsteen’s hometown of Freehold, New Jersey. “A crap heap of a hometown,” he once called it, “that I love.” In Birmingham, Alabama, I once got Bruce to give me an interview for the local paper by summoning up memories of Freehold. “We called it the horsiest town in New Jersey,” I told him, “and there were so many horses they had hitching posts downtown.” He got a kick out of that.
In the video for his Oscar-winning song “Philadelphia,” he strolls through the Italian section of South Philly where my father grew up. Bruce and I both spent our early teens in a New Jersey obsessed with rock ’n’ roll — an AM radio paradise — and baseball. (In a great Vulture piece, Caryn Rose quibbled with Bruce’s lyrics in “Glory Days”: “It’s called fast ball, not speed ball.” Actually, Caryn, it isn’t, or at least it wasn’t. In Old Bridge, New Jersey, when Joe Casamento blew one by me in 1964, we called it a speed ball.)
I once produced a Springsteen album — actually a bootleg — in the early 1980s, of the 1978 shows at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. Alas, the FBI grabbed part of the shipment when it came across the Mexican border and hole-punched the discs. I kept one of the wrecked records as a memento and gave one of the sets to drummer Max Weinberg, then the unofficial librarian of the E Street Band’s bootleg recordings.
My father kept my life from becoming a Springsteen song when he falsified his high school transcripts to show he graduated, enabling him to get a white-collar job and move us up to the middle class. By the time Springsteen’s first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.,” was released in 1973, the lives of the people in his songs were vastly different from my own. So why did I identify so powerfully with his grease monkeys, cops, drug dealers, Vietnam vets, laid-off textile workers and diner waitresses? I’m not the first person to ask that question about Springsteen’s work.
In my own case, it’s because I recognize that he’s writing about friends and family who didn’t make it out of their Freehold, who got left behind when the American dream moved on without them. When I hear Springsteen’s songs, I recognize a version of myself that might easily have been.
Bruce was never an innovator. He was a community college dropout who reveled in Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, Dion, Marvin Gaye, and Phil Spector records. He was a synthesizer of all this music and, as he got older and smarter, of American literature from Steinbeck to Flannery O’Connor to Nevins’ and Commager’s “A Short History of the United States.” In the process he went from Jersey Shore dives to Madison Square Garden. The scope of his achievement is unprecedented in American pop and rock; someone, I don’t know who, quipped that Bob Dylan “wanted to be Elvis, but there was an opening for Woody Guthrie so he took it.” But Bruce is not only closer to being Elvis than Dylan, he has, at some times in his career, been closer to being Woody Guthrie.
Along the way, the stories in his albums, taken as a whole, have achieved a thematic cohesion approached by no one else in rock and pop except Dylan (though Hank Williams, given another 10 years, might have done it). Springsteen may be the greatest novelist rock has ever produced, which is probably the reason so many writers — T. C. Boyle, Nick Hornby, Bobbie Ann Mason, Tom Perrotta, Frederick Reiken and even Walker Percy – have seen in Bruce a kindred spirit.
(Hint to the Swedish Academy: If you give the Nobel to Bruce, he not only might show up but bring his guitar and play a set.)
Like Dylan, Springsteen has written an excellent autobiography, “Born to Run,” that reads better than most of the books written on him. Like Dylan’s “Chronicles, Volume One,” “Born to Run” is part memoir, part life and times, and part position paper in which Bruce sweeps away myths about his life and clarifies his stance on some issues.
He is still Catholic, sort of. “Going to Catholic school as a boy left a mean taste in my mouth and estranged me from my religion for good.” But “I know somewhere … deep inside … I’m still on the team.”
He stayed out of Vietnam by making a mess out of the forms, mumbling and bumbling and slurring his words and having a “bad enough motorcycle accident to scramble your brains. …” He got a 4-F. In the end, the man who would practically lead a national movement for Vietnam vets felt, “All I know is when I visit the names of my friends on the wall in Washington, D.C., I’m glad mine’s not up there.”
He was never a part of the flower child culture. “I was a faux hippie. … The counterculture stood by definition in opposition to the conservative blue-collar experience I’d had. I felt caught between two camps and I didn’t really fit in either, or maybe I just fit in both.” He never connected with Woodstock: “For me, it was a weekend like any other.”
Many of the girls whose names he used in those early songs weren’t taken from his life: “Sandy [from ‘Fourth of July, Asbury Park’] was a composite of some of the girls I’d known along the shore.”
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