Essay: The Boss of me

The National, January 28, 2009

Amusement was hard to come by in Aldenville, Massachusetts, in 1975, particularly for a boy a month shy of 13. You could loiter around the corner shop, pick up a copy of a rock lyric magazine and a pack of Newports. You could linger in the Aldenville Common, sit on a bench by the large stone fountain or make out near the bushes around the flagpole. If there were any breeze at all, the chain clanged in B-flat against the metal. On the opposite corner of Piotte’s Pharmacy was another convenience store, Cumberland Farms. I didn’t go there often on errands, even though it was only 100 yards farther from our house. It would have been like drinking Pepsi.

Instead, we hung out at Spiro’s. Spiro was a short Greek man whose hair and moustache were as black as a vinyl LP. His wife was tall and dark and thin and one of the reasons to hang around the place. Spiro didn’t mind our being there so much, and he even let us move the jukebox forward a few inches to sneak a hand behind and turn up the volume. Thirteen, 14, not old enough to smoke, though we did; kids in Queen T-shirts and blue jeans held up with wide belts and large buckles painted with album covers. We straddled life like it was a banana-seat three-speed bike and hurtled down the yellow lines of Grattan Street at midnight shouting out the words to “Pinball Wizard”. Some of us would, as our parents predicted, not amount to much.

But on a Friday night in August that year, at a square, Formica-topped table in that pizza house with Mike Girouard and Brian Clark, I entered into a lifelong, meaningful relationship. It was with a man named Bruce.

While the pizza baked in the oven, I stood at the jukebox and dropped in two quarters. I got six songs. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was the first, operatic and mysterious. The pizza came. Oil collected like puddles. The meatballs were small, dry and peppery. We heard the Eagles, Kiss, Bowie.

But when the opening guitar strains of the last song crashed through the speakers of the jukebox, Mike said: “What on earth is that?”

“It’s ‘Born to Be Wild’,” I said. “It’s what you wanted.” I tried to sing the lyric I heard to the music coming from the speakers. They didn’t match. I had made a mistake.

“You doofus.”

Brian and I walked over to the jukebox. This was not Steppenwolf. This was someone called Bruce Springsteen. The song was “Born to Run” and although I have heard it 500 or 1,000 times since then, I cannot and will not forget the first time I heard it.

That was 33 years ago. Springsteen is not the man he was then. And I am no longer that boy. But in some integral, vital way, the relationship has remained constant and true.

In his book This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin, an American cognitive neuroscientist, suggests that music is as much a part of one’s DNA as hazel eyes and a likelihood of growing to 175 centimetres. In that way, it is like language.

Our tongues and mouths, when we are born, are like blank slates; we are capable of learning whatever -language we hear with regularity. Our brains are a tabula rasa as well. We are what we hear, musically speaking. A swab of my musical DNA at infancy would have meant kitchen music, songs French-Canadians sang and played in the one big central family room while the snow melted off their boots near the old cast-iron wood stove. The origins of Québécois music are Breton, from the west coast of France, from which many of the province’s labourers, farmers and coureurs de bois came. It has a fast step, a light air; it’s roots music, and even now I can hear the clickety-clack train-on-the-track sound of spoons slapping against my uncle’s knee. If Springsteen’s “Darlington County” were in Quebec, the rhythm section would include spoons.

Brought up on a muesli of traditional and popular music, I was, I believe, predisposed to liking Springsteen. Before I married Denise, who was raised on Tchaikovsy and Brahms, we sat down and went through the Springsteen catalogue. “To understand me,” I said, “you’ve got to know Bruce.” She didn’t really get it until we got to Tunnel of Love, which she told me recently is one of the most profound, modern takes on love’s disappointments she has ever heard. Seventeen years later, it’s her favourite album still. Though The River runs a close second.

A good while after that night in the pizza shop, having heard more of it on one of the local AOR FM -stations, I bought Born to Run. One night I put the eight-track into my stereo, turned the volume down low and played it as I slept. I woke to “Jungleland” at three in the morning: “And the poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all. They just stand back and let it all be.” I drifted back to sleep with images of a street-fight opera in my mind. Outside, not a car passed on Grattan Street. When my father woke at 6.15 to make his breakfast before heading off to a day of welding, he tore a layer off me for having run my stereo all night.

I was in my sophomore year of high school when Darkness and The River came out, and in my first year at university on the release of Nebraska. I didn’t understand Nebraska initially. It was such a departure from the youthful breeziness of Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle and the straight-out rock of Born to Run and The River. It held together musically and thematically, that wasn’t my problem with it. Only as I grew as a writer and started thinking about writing critically did I begin to see each of his albums as part of a larger body of art, see Springsteen as not just a musician and singer, but as an artist with a vision as wide as the horizon.

At my first newspaper job in Holyoke, a city of shuttered mills and scrapbook pages of glory days, just north along the Connecticut River from where I was raised, the city columnist was Barry Werth. He regularly won awards and after the paper closed he published books and wrote articles for The New Yorker. Soon after Born in the USA came out, however, I overheard Barry say that everything he’d ever learned about writing he’d learned from Springsteen. Wow. I can see a writer saying Hemingway or Kerouac was an influence, but Springsteen? I came to believe as well. A journalist can learn from his economy of words, the well-chosen image and smart detail, the use of narrative.

What remains fascinating and important to notice about Springsteen’s writing is how it changed as his themes changed. Form in many ways equals content and nowhere is that clearer than in his early albums, where story and song structure bear resemblance to folk and jazz. By Born to Run, however, Springsteen was moving towards shorter, more traditional pop structures, a transition made complete with Born in the USA, perhaps the best pop-rock album he ever wrote.

In 1997 or so, with the 25th anniversary of Born to Run approaching, I felt moved to honour the artist as a writer. I approached several well-known US writers and publishers about creating a short-story anthology called Born to Run, in which nine writers would each compose one short story using a line from one of the songs on the album, a glosa of sorts for perhaps the most image- and character-driven rock album around. Alas, with Andrew Greeley, the sociologist-novelist-priest-Springsteen fan from Chicago, the only writer to sign on, the idea was lost. Two years ago, a New York publisher said he was disappointed he hadn’t known about the idea earlier. He’d published another book about Springsteen and it had failed miserably.

I had also approached Springsteen’s management company. Legally, I supposed I needed permission to use even bits of his work in an anthology. To gild the proposal, I suggested that the profits be given to a charity of Springsteen’s choice. What hubris to be giving away money I hadn’t even earned yet! The company politely declined. Disappointed and a bit angry, I also realised that Springsteen, since 1984 when Born in the USA came out, has probably been inundated with requests, some even more lame than mine.

He said yes to a recent one: to perform at the Lincoln Memorial Concert that kicked off the inaugural ceremonies for Barack Obama. Springsteen had performed during the campaign, just as he had done for John Kerry in 2004. The singer has over the years performed at benefits for a variety of causes, including policemen’s unions, hard-hit steel towns, and the revitalisation of Asbury Park, the New Jersey boardwalk town where he got his start. He drew the ire of policemen when he wrote “41 Shots,” about a young black man shot to death unjustly by New York’s finest, but earned the respect of firefighters after September 11 and his performance at a fundraiser of “My City of Ruins.”

In the long tradition of folk singers, Springsteen is, like Bob Dylan, with whom he was initially -compared, considered a political songwriter. Springsteen’s songs are at their base sociological, even journalistic. He is a Jungleland poet, observant. But unlike the poets of “Jungleland,” he has not been content to stand back and let it all be.

Yesterday in the United States, Springsteen released his latest album, Working on a Dream, the single of which was available in December. Despite the fact that the album comes hard on the heels of Magic and material that proceeded from those anti-Bush sessions, the single, at least, is not angry. It speaks of hope despite the rain and troubles that are here to stay. It is a pop song in the Springsteen mode: a chirpy jukebox tune whose bridge is a whistle reminiscent of the Troggs’ “With a Girl Like You,” but which remains rooted in the work, lives and dreams of normal people. It is a song for our times.

Of course, his songs have always been for our times. They’ve fit my times, even when I was 13.

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