Before I asked my future wife to marry me, I sat her down in the living room of the apartment we were about to share and declared: “If you want to know me, you’ve got to know Bruce.”
Bruce is Springsteen, New Jersey’s most famous export before The Sopranos. This declaration to my wife was in 1992 and, to that point, he had released nine albums and an EP (his output has more than doubled since). Over the course of the next couple of weeks I proceeded to play, in order, the entire Springsteen catalogue.
We covered the early albums – the wordy, jazzy Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, and his breakout Born To Run; the dark trilogy that followed – Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River and Nebraska; the album that made him a household name from Freehold to Fujairah, Born in the USA; and the only one that she really loved, Tunnel of Love.
It turns out my partner isn’t much of a Springsteen fan. In fact, there’s a good chunk of popular music she can live without. And there I was: owner of countless LPs, cassettes and CDs, a prisoner of rock’n’roll, as Springsteen would say, someone who lived and breathed according to the ebb and flow of the weekly charts, who consumed music in all its forms. Her tastes went towards Brahms and baroque. Despite our musical differences, we married anyway.
Robert J Wiersema, a novelist, literary critic and bookseller from the western Canadian city of Victoria, has written the literary equivalent of my challenge to my wife: to know him, to understand him, you’ve got to know Springsteen’s music. Wiersema is a Springsteen fan sine pari; he collects bootlegs, follows Springsteen around the continent. He is what is known as a Tramp (after the lyric “Tramps like us, baby, we were born to run”). Walk Like a Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen is Wiersema’s third book and is equal parts memoir, biography and rock criticism.
Mostly, however, it is an examination of the creation of the public persona of an artist who has become such the social conscience of America that The New York Times recently could headline an article “What Would Bruce Do?”.
For Wiersema this examination begins with the introduction, where he presents himself as a literary critic who misses deadlines and a bookseller in the middle of the autumn rush. Then Wiersema cements his Charlie Brown persona this way: “It was raining. Not a hard rain, more of a heavy mist, with a strong enough wind that an umbrella would have been no use. Not that I could find mine.” Whether true or not, the detail is so specific, and so universal at the same time, that he’s achieved something that Springsteen himself is genius at: connecting with a broad audience through the use of a seemingly personal story.
In two subsequent chapters (which follow a 30-page biography of the artist), Wiersema layers on more details in his creation myth, recalling his parents’ breakup and his first viewing of Springsteen on MTV (archival concert footage of Springsteen and his E Street Band performing Rosalita), recounting his own life as an bespectacled, clubfooted and non-athletic teenager in a stultifying small town in interior British Columbia. Each of Wiersema’s chapters is titled for a Springsteen song (there are 13, plus a “bonus track”); he begins each with something like music criticism, then makes a connection between the song and his life. It’s in the third song of what Wiersema calls his “mix-tape” that the heart of the book is revealed. That song, and chapter, is It’s Hard To Be a Saint in the City and after examining the lyrics about the song’s suave narrator, Wiersema reveals its truth – the cool saint of the city is “just a boy out on the street.”:
“The song, save for that one line, documents the construction of a mask, a facade. It’s the first of Springsteen’s facade songs, and once you’re aware of the theme, and of Springsteen’s personal experience with hiding in plain sight as a child and teenager, you have to wonder: if he’s trying that hard to create an alternate persona, what’s that boy trying to hide? Who is he trying to fool?”
Wiersema begins his writer’s life as a teenager. Like Springsteen, he chooses words to create a mask. Like Springsteen, Wiersema chooses to hide in plain sight. He creates the persona of the smart alec, cracking wise in class, pushing the boundaries of the physically safe by verbally antagonising school bullies, and infuriating teachers. When the world proves overbearing, he retreats into fiction, writing thrillers, revenge tales and love stories.
Yet, as central as writing is to him, when he has the opportunity as an adult to tell one of his closest friends that he has just sent the manuscript of his first novel to a publisher, he chooses to remain quiet. By denying the centrality of writing to his being, Wiersema creates another mask.
In 2005, Springsteen went on stage of the VH1 television network and recorded the Storytellers DVD, a mini-concert during which he talks about his craft. His remarks about two songs, Devils & Dust and Blinded by the Light seem to Wiersema to be staged and deliberate. It is only in discussing Brilliant Disguise that, ironically, Springsteen opens up: “The song, which was the first single from Tunnel of Love has always been about the impenetrability and falseness of the faces we show the world, and the impossibility of true intimacy, even with ourselves. On the stage, it becomes a vessel for honesty and disclosure. ‘We all have multiple selves,’ Springsteen says. ‘That’s just the way we’re built. We’ve got sort of this public self, this public face we show to others. I’m wearing mine right now’.”
Wiersema footnotes this passage to observe that even Springsteen’s candidness about his public and private selves might not be candour at all but artifice and construct.
One could say the same of Wiersema the memoirist. Walk Like a Man is replete with dates and facts, but there is a lot we don’t know about Wiersema: Why does he drink so much? How did his parents’ separation when he was 13 make him feel? What was it about being an awkward teen that pushed him towards Springsteen? How can he possibly like Duran Duran?
We know about his friendships, with Peter, with Greg, about the concerts they’ve gone to, but this is all served up without analysis. In non-fiction as in fiction, characters – even if that character is the memoirist himself – and relationships must develop.
That doesn’t happen here, and it’s a little frustrating, but understandable at the same time. To provide that kind of depth of character would grow this book by more than 150 pages.
Instead, Wiersema has created a chummy pop memoir not an in-depth autobiography, the literary equivalent of a three-minute record.
The non-fan, someone curious about Springsteen, will get a short bio and something of a memoir and rock criticism that goes a long way to explaining what makes a Tramp. The fan, though, will see himself in this book. Music touches everyone and Springsteen’s in particular seems to resonate with the masses. Every Springsteen fan can create a “mix-tape” and tell his life story in a manner similar to Wiersema.
But that book won’t be this one, because what Wiersema has really created is his own brilliant disguise. Springsteen’s songs didn’t teach him how to walk like a man; no more than they did me. Rather they were there, as a soundtrack to his life, as he learned.