Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Lean and the Hungry

As I'm coming out of an off-grid sabbatical and gearing myself up for teaching again, I've been thinking more about autobiography, and that dovetails nicely with reading Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run. I doubt I'd use it in the classroom; Springsteen's memoir isn't particularly artful, which is just as well; the earnestness I feared, and which mars far too many of Springsteen's songs for my taste, doesn't show up in his prose much, mostly elbowed out of the way by a true music fan's gushing, hyper-hyphenated, elipsis-breathless, ALL CAPS, half-grin bemusement at his life and career and the folks he's met over the decades. The cliches are forgiven because that's how we talk most of the time. This book is conversational.

As I discovered last year while reading Elvis Costello's memoir, I'm more interested in the leaner, hungrier days than in fame and success. I don't know if that's odd or not. I should want a fly-on-the-wall perspective on elite popularity and the attendant riches and and upper-echelon lifestyle it brings, that life being so removed from my own existence, but that point of view often bores me, perhaps because it's beyond my ken and so I have little purchase on it; I tell my students over and over, the success of autobiography doesn't depend on the degree to which the reader can "relate" to it. Springsteen's hungry ("glory") days—wearying battles with his uncommunicative, resentful, Schaefer-beer pounding old man; the geeky Catholic boy's disarming and thrumming crushes on the dark, giggling Jewish girls next door; playing a bar in front of no one for ten bucks to split among his band; traveling out to California first as a non-licensed, petrified driver, later on a non-stop ride crammed in the trunk, fearing that the luggage and band equipment might topple over and flatten him; the terror and hysteria of draft day; homeless and living on the Jersey beach while cutting Greetings From Asbury Park; spinning 45s on a piece-of-shit turntable in a rented cottage in West Long Branch, New Jersey while he was writing "Born to Run"—are more more entertaining, insightful, and valuable to read than the sealed, backstage comforts, a millionaire's various, non-urgent dilemmas, pulling off the logistics of a first arena or Super Bowl halftime show, playing with Sting and Pete Townshend, well-heeled equestrian training, and how to keep a marriage and family healthy while living among mansions and sold-out international arena touring.

Perhaps I'm being unfair. Springsteen's admissions of his essential lonerness and lifelong depression, untempered by material successes, and frank acknowledgement of the surcease brought on by antidepressants and regular visits to his shrink, complicate his late-life (and late-book) accomplishments in an engrossing way. Yet two moments struck me: in the early 1980s, flush off of the commercial success of The River album and tour, Springsteen takes a cross country drive with a friend. The passage is wonderfully written, hauntingly evocative of the kinds of low-rent, anonymous, blue-collar neighborhoods Springsteen grew up in, escaped, and is committed to writing about in songs; but I couldn't help acknowledging to myself as I read that Springsteen's 3 A.M. departure from these towns now is easily, wealthily assisted, with much less at stake; he's not slumming, but in a way he is. And there's a moment in the days following the 9/11 attack when Springsteen, pulling out of a parking lot in New Jersey, hears someone yelling from a passing car, "We need you, Bruce!" A remarkable instant that dramatizes Springsteen's fame and larger-than-life iconic status as a coveted, mythic eastern seaboard truth-teller—yet I feel removed from it. Is it wrong that I'm more interested in hearing from the skinny Bruce on the boardwalk in his teens who might imagine achieving that kind of impossible, local/national heroism through hard work and some luck? After all, that's where the vast majority of us stay: dreaming. Probably. Neither of these passages I cite are Springsteen's fault, of course, and I am a self-admitted fameist. As I wrote about Costello's book: fame and success aren't the writer's problems, but they may be his memoir's problems.


Art affects us: we look up and the world's altered. Springsteen's greatest songs—such as "Thunder Road" and "Tunnel of Love," to name the two in highest rotation in my music room these days, the codas in each still absurdly moving—do that to me: as I'm out in the world listening, the folks around me at the Y or the Hy-Vee morph into characters in his songs and, just as wonderfully and magically, vice versa. Unsurprisingly, Springsteen's a great story teller, his nutty, freaky misbehaving (including, though coming startlingly late in life, drunken misbehaving) in Born to Run packed with details and humor. Among my favorite songs of his are the ones that have beginning-middle-ending narratives, that tell a tale over time, eschewing figurative language, abstractions, and lyric bursts for pure story. Here are two of my favorites, one darkly funny, the other grimmer, each alive with round characters following or betraying urgent impulses, desires, and crazy conflicts—each, that is, full of life. Minor greatness in Springsteen's catalogue, perhaps, but minor greatness is still great.

"From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)" 
(The Essential Bruce Springsteen, 2003; outtake from The River, 1980)

At sixteen she quit high school to make a fortune in the Promised Land
She got a job behind the counter in an all-night hamburger stand
She wrote faithfully home to mama, "Now mama don't you worry none
From small things, mama, big things one day come"

It was late one Friday, he pulled in out of the dark
He was tall and handsome, first she took his order then she took his heart
They bought a house on the hillside, where little feet soon would run
From small things, mama, big things one day come

Oh but love is fleeting, it's sad but true
When your heart is beating, you don't wanna hear the news

She packed her bags and with a Wyomie County real estate man
She ran down to Tampa in an El Dorado Grande
She wrote back, "Dear mama, life is just heaven in the sun
From small things, mama, big things one day come"

Well she shot him dead on a sunny Florida road
And when they caught her all she said was she couldn't stand the way he drove

Back home dear Johnny prays for his baby's parole
He waits on the hillside where the Wyomie waters roll
At his feet and almost grown now, a blue-eyed daughter and a handsome son
Well from small things, mama, big things one day come

"Spare Parts" 
(Tunnel of Love, 1987)

Bobby said he'd pull out, Bobby stayed in
Janey had a baby, it wasn't any sin
They were set to marry on a summer day
Bobby got scared and he ran away
Jane moved in with her Ma out on Shawnee Lake
She sighed, "Ma, sometimes my whole life feels like one big mistake"
She settled in in a back room, time passed on
Later that winter a son come along

Spare parts and broken hearts
Keep the world turnin' around

Now Janey walked that baby across the floor night after night
But she was a young girl and she missed the party lights
Meanwhile, in South Texas in a dirty oil patch
Bobby heard 'bout his son bein' born and swore he wasn't ever goin' back

Janey heard about a woman over in Calverton
Put her baby in the river, left the river roll on
She looked at her boy in the crib where he lay
Got down on her knees cried till she prayed
Mist was on the water, low run the tide
Janey held her son down at the riverside
Waist deep in the water, how bright the sun shone
She lifted him in her arms and carried him home
As he lay sleeping in her bed Janey took a look around at everything
Went to a drawer in her bureau and got out her old engagement ring
Took out her wedding dress, tied that ring up in its sash
Went straight down to the pawn shop man and walked out with some good cold cash

Photo of "Bruce Springsteen Writing Desk" by Pamela Springsteen via Morrison Hotel Gallery

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