Greasers and Rah-Rahs

John Lahr

  • BuyBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen
    Simon and Schuster, 510 pp, £20.00, September 2016, ISBN 978 1 4711 5779 0

OK, there are some things Bruce Springsteen and I don’t share. I haven’t sold 120 million albums; my net worth isn’t calculated by Forbes and, in any case, hasn’t yet reached $345 million; I haven’t rocked the planet for forty years; and Ex-President Obama has not hung the Medal of Freedom around my neck and said in my presence: ‘I’m the president, but he’s “the Boss”.’

Nonetheless, Bruce and I have one big thing in common. On 9 September 1956 we were both in front of our family television sets when Elvis appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, a musical wallop that changed forever American life as we knew it. For both of us, the experience was visceral. Bruce felt his ‘mind on fire’; I fell laughing off my parents’ chaise-longue. The next morning I went out and bought ‘Hound Dog’; Bruce, who had no extra spending money, dragged his mother to a music store to rent a guitar. To Bruce, raised among the bottom-feeders of ‘redneck ugly’ Freehold, New Jersey, Elvis sounded a new message: ‘we the great unwashed, the powerless, the marginalised, THE KIDS! … would want … MORE. More life, more love, more sex, more faith, more hope, more action, more truth, more power.’

Fifty-one minutes and 32 miles away on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, I already had more. In Elvis I saw only a great act; Bruce saw a revolutionary, ‘a jukebox Dionysus’, the precursor of a new social order that would set his confused, stalled, sorry, blue-collar Irish-Italian arse free. Elvis, he writes in his astute, rollicking memoir Born to Run, was ‘a new kind of man, of modern human, blurring racial lines and gender lines and having … FUN! … FUN! … the real kind. The life-blessing, wall-destroying, heart-changing, mind-opening bliss of a freer, more liberated existence. FUN … it is waiting for you, Mr and Mrs Everyday American, and guess what? It is your birthright.’ To me, Elvis was a delirium; to Bruce, he was a destiny.

Bruce was a self-proclaimed Greaser whom rock’s renegade energy flushed out into the open and legitimised on the American scene. Greasers, he writes, ‘were the kids destined to live the decent hardworking lives of their parents … the future farmers, homemakers and baby makers, if they could scoot through these few years of wild pounding hormones without getting hurt or hurting someone else’. I was a preppy, a person Bruce would have sneered at as a Rah-Rah – a clean-cut, college-bound kid full of an optimism born of abundance, who never threw a punch in his life. ‘You were either in or out. I was way out,’ he writes. I was way in. I wore khakis, white bucks, herringbone tweed jackets and ties. ‘I never saw a man leave a house in a jacket and tie unless it was Sunday or he was in trouble,’ Bruce said. ‘If you came knocking at our door with a suit on, you were immediately under suspicion.’ On the other hand, Bruce could not come knocking at my door because the doorman would never have let him in.

Greasers were scary. Their disdain masked envy at our promise; our contempt masked envy at their sex lives. All you had to do was take one look at the gum-chewing, cigarette-smoking Greaser Girls on the back of their motorcycles with bouffant hair, white lipstick, eyeshadow and dive-bomber bras: they flaunted it, they were asking for it; and, in our imagination, the Greasers, in their black leathers and with T-shirt sleeves rolled up to hold their cigarettes, gave it to them on a regular basis. Greasers were reckless. They could knock up girls because they had no careers to ruin; they had no fear of being ostracised because exclusion was part of their tribe’s glory. They were headed to Hell in gasoline sports coats; Hog Heaven was our promised destination. Greasers might be able to fix cars; for us, as we kind of knew from our teachers and parents, the fix was in. The preppies were on a path; the Greasers were going nowhere. That’s what made them so dangerous: they had nothing to lose. We preppies, on the other hand, had everything to lose. We lived with blue balls and regret.

These thoughts came to me as I sat in the second row at the ICA on an uncommonly warm October midday, so close to the leather-jacketed, blue-jeaned rock idol (the ‘love child of Bob Dylan and James Brown’, as Jon Stewart joked) that we could almost have fist-bumped. To get this close, we journos had to bring specific photo ID (‘driver’s licence or passport’), be searched, undertake to make notes only with pen and notepad, refrain from filming, recording or photographing, and ‘for security reasons to keep details of this event confidential until after it has taken place’. In other words, this was some kind of presidential séance.

Springsteen has a profound knowledge of music’s voodoo – he calls it his ‘magic trick’ – and of how to whip an audience into ecstasy. Even in his first gig with the Castiles (1965), often dubbed the first Bruce Springsteen band, ‘we made raw, rudimentary, local but effective magic,’ he recalls. The bars of the Jersey shore were the vaudeville circuits of his day, where youngsters learned to play both the guitar and the audience. ‘I would address you, excite you, and play guitar like a demon, demanding that you respond,’ he writes. Whether for his solo act or, later, with his E Street Band, the crowds grew exponentially from the ‘shot-and-beer audiences’ of the Jersey roadhouses to arenas of sixty to eighty thousand paying customers. (In East Germany, he and his band played to 300,000.) ‘His tours are not so much concerts – they’re communions,’ Obama said at the Medal of Freedom induction. The words were apt. Catholicism, Springsteen says, has ‘walked alongside me as a waking dream my whole life’; and with the hot-rod rumble of the band around him, he struts among the multitude like some kind of Jersey Jesus with an R&B juju, while his sacrifice of extraordinary energy is received by the crowd and by him as deliverance. (‘I had to bring it all to take us where I wanted us to go.’) The stage, he writes, ‘is a place where miracles occur,’ and he himself dubs these raucous, ‘steam-roller strong’, three-to-four hour work-outs ‘my service’. ‘It’s something I’m heavily invested in, and my audience is heavily invested in. I take it pretty seriously,’ he said from the ICA stage. ‘I have no other skills,’ he added. ‘It’s the one thing I can do. It’s the one place where I get to validate my existence on earth for a short period of time.’

What separates a star from a talented performer is the need for an audience – the urgency to be seen. Stars, after all, have to glow and the public subliminally picks up this extra amperage. Frank Sinatra, another New Jersey boy and one of Springsteen’s idols, referred to the paying customers as ‘Mother Audience’ as he sought to rediscover in the public the silent, adoring, devoted, all-defining gaze of the mother. In ‘Growin’ Up’, Springsteen’s anthem about his rock’n’roll rebirth, he uses the same idiom to admit the same ancient maternal yearning. ‘I hid in the mother breast of the crowd,’ he sings. He has called his relationship with his audience ‘a pathological opportunity’ – and it has kept him touring for most of his life. ‘I think the best way to look at it is this way: on stage, it’s me and it’s this person in the audience, right now, not later, not tomorrow, right now,’ he said in 2013, speaking of the crowd as a collective individual and the event as ‘a conversation’. ‘Our fans,’ he went on, ‘are immersed in a world that we’ve created. They let themselves go and trust someone … They feel safe and they reveal by their actions their hopes, their dreams, their fears, what’s hurt them, what’s given them joy.’ The sustenance of undivided maternal attention is evident in Springsteen’s epic, athletic performances in which he can’t – won’t – get off the stage. Like his ‘Hunter of Invisible Game’, the public’s thrilled gaze is the thing Springsteen is seeking, ‘the kingdom of love’ his songs seek to reclaim.

Springsteen’s street-party heroics owe their impulse to the perverse possessiveness of his paternal grandmother, Alice, to whom his parents surrendered Bruce’s care for the first six years of his life. ‘I was lord, king and the messiah all rolled into one,’ he writes, about being the replacement child for his morbidly depressed grandmother’s long-dead daughter, Virginia, killed at the age of five by a truck while riding her tricycle past the corner gas station. He adds: ‘I felt an ultimate security, full licence and a horrible unforgettable boundary-less love. It ruined me and it made me.’ For this contaminated and contaminating love, Springsteen writes, ‘I abandoned my parents, my sister, and much of the world itself.’

When Springsteen latched onto the guitar and to the idea of being a pop star, the self-described ‘boy king’ of Freehold found a way of leveraging his royal position in the family into a public reality, a grandiose co-production. Rock’n’roll was part of Springsteen’s defence against ‘the system’ – his ‘refusal of a world where I am not recognised, by my grandmother’s lights and mine, for who I am, a lost boy king’. From the outset, Springsteen, who admits to being born ‘a 100 per cent grade-A ham’, was only interested in ‘being great’. Grandiosity, as it usually does, signalled a cavernous emotional emptiness. Long before touring became his ‘trustiest form of self-medication’ – ‘each evening you’re a new man in a new town with all of life and all of life’s possibilities spread out before you’ – Springsteen’s exhausting bouts of playing acted as some kind of sensational anti-depressant. As he said from the ICA stage,

Exhaustion was my friend … You’re just too tired to be depressed … To be depressed, you’ve got to have a certain amount of energy to go searching through the weeds … There’s an element of catharsis in playing. There’s also a great cantering element, which wards off tricks of the mind … It hardens your centre, and you come off with a very solid sense of who you are, and what you do.

And that wards off a lot of the self-doubt, the sort of unreasonable, and unproductive, questioning that comes with some of the depression.

In his formative early years, Springsteen’s grandmother’s house was the place he called home – ‘the greatest and saddest sanctuary I have ever known’. The house was haunted. Above the family dining table was a photo of the dead daughter, ‘breathing a ghostly air into the room’. Springsteen recalls making weekly visits to the grave with his sister, who had been named Virginia in honour of her dead aunt. After the accident, the grandmother had taken to her bed for two years. She shipped off her neglected, rickets-afflicted son, Doug, Springsteen’s father, to live with relatives. ‘My birth returned her to a life of purpose,’ Springsteen writes: ‘She seized on me with a vengeance.’

The grandmother’s appropriation of him and what he calls ‘her blind single-minded devotion’ was a double psychological whammy. To Springsteen, his parents ‘became distant relatives’; to the hapless, misanthropic and friendless Doug, who could never find a place in the world or hold a steady job, his son became an object of envy. ‘He loved me,’ Springsteen writes, ‘but he couldn’t stand me.’ It’s not hard to see why. Springsteen was unwittingly at the centre of an Oedipal nightmare: he had usurped the love of both Doug’s mother and his wife. By the time, at the age of seven, Springsteen was reclaimed from his grandmother by his parents, he’d been betrayed by her over-indulgence, by his mother’s initial abandonment and by his father’s sullen, passive-aggressive indifference: ‘My father … uttered fewer than one thousand words throughout most of my childhood.’ Springsteen was fundamentally unseen both by those who claimed to love him and those who didn’t. Inevitably, he inherited the family sense of doom, a deadliness with which the subsequent clamour of rock’n’roll stardom did battle but never completely overcame.

The small, cramped Springsteen house, which had no telephone and not much heat, was dominated by Doug’s depression. He was ‘a one-man minefield’, whose silences imposed on the house ‘the deadly quiet of a war zone’. Sitting for hours in the pitch dark of the kitchen drinking beer, smoking, lamenting his joyless life, Doug sulked for keeps. ‘I’d walk into the house and find him already sitting, smoking, at the kitchen table looking like he’d never seen me before in his life,’ Springsteen writes. Poverty compounded by the almost lunar loneliness of his family life – ‘nothing to look forward to, nothing to look back upon, no future, no history’ – meant that Springsteen was never ‘at ease, or relaxed … in my own home’. The silence between father and son was as deep as wishes. ‘I was an intruder, a stranger, a competitor in our home and a fearful disappointment,’ he writes. ‘My heart broke.’ At other times, liquored up, Doug could be a wrecking ball. Once, at the age of ten, hearing a family fight downstairs, Springsteen attacked his father with a baseball bat. Although with time and psychoanalysis he came to understand and forgive his father, during his growing up, Doug was a menacing absent presence, the embodiment to his son of ‘physical threat, emotional chaos, and the power to not love’.

*

Around the age of 14, seven years after he’d tried and failed to learn the guitar for the first time, Springsteen bought an $18 guitar and tried again. ‘Everything from then on revolved around music,’ he said. ‘Once I found the guitar, I had the key to the highway.’ To the isolated and demoralised young man, rock’n’roll didn’t just hold out the promise of liveliness and motion, it made it. The sound was a call to action: to ‘shake it up, baby’, to ‘twist and shout’, to ‘let the good times roll’. The music was ‘designed to ward off the world outside and particularly adult life’, Springsteen said. It worked for him. Off stage, the past weighed him down; on stage, he said, ‘was where I master time’.

Springsteen bet his life on music. ‘Whatever it took, I was in,’ he said. He and his various early bands sucked up the rejection of audiences, record producers, promoters. His credo, as one of his songs puts it, was ‘no retreat, no surrender’. ‘They didn’t understand they were dealing with men without homes, lives, any practicable skills or talents that could bring a reliable pay check in the straight world,’ Springsteen writes of his overweening ambition. ‘We had nowhere to go … and we loved music! This was going to be it; we had come to liberate you, confiscate you … and all the rest.’ Springsteen gives himself credit for his guitar heroics, but his do-or-die single-mindedness, his Duracell Bunny resilience he puts down to the example of his mother, Adele, who worked as a legal secretary. If his father was never up, she was ‘never down’. ‘She willed we would be a family and we were. She willed we would not disintegrate and we did not. She willed we would walk with respect through the streets of our town and we did.’

By his own admission, Springsteen was not ‘an edge dweller’. He didn’t do drugs, he didn’t (for a long while) do drink, he didn’t do rock high jinks: he did music. He focused on the work. ‘It was my lifeline to the rest of humanity in the days when those connections were tough for me to make.’ Playing in a band blasted the blues away, dummied up a destiny, gave him something to live for and, of course, made him visible. For a decade before he became a superstar, Springsteen was a local hero. Along the way, he learned the limitations of his voice. ‘I figured if I didn’t have a voice, I was going to really need to learn to write, perform and use that voice to its fullest ability,’ he writes, adding: ‘I learned that the most important thing was how believable you could sound. How deeply you could inhabit your song.’ In other words, Springsteen became an actor. (‘I put my father’s clothes on and I walk out on stage and I present some version of him and myself to my audience,’ he told Desert Island Discs a few weeks ago. ‘Why am I doing that? I am trying to find the piece of it which would lead to a transcendence over the circumstances I grew up in.’) To make his presence and his music dynamic, Springsteen required other theatrical personalities around him. In 1972, he formed ‘the history-makin’, earth-shakin’, booty-quakin’, love-makin’’ E Street Band – ‘a little of your local bar band blown up to big-time scale’. (In 1999, both Springsteen and the E Street Band were elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

In 1975, the success of their third album, Born to Run – six million copies sold in the US alone – put Springsteen on the cover of both Newsweek (‘Making of a Rock Star’) and Time (‘Rock’s New Sensation’). By then he had defined his mission (‘I wanted to be a voice that reflected experience and the world I live in’) and his romantic singer/songwriter persona (‘the individual traveller, the frontiersman, the man in the wilderness, the highway man, the existential American adventurer connected but not beholden to society’).

Unlike the runic folk outpourings of Bob Dylan, or the sophisticated musical meditations of Paul Simon, Springsteen’s rocking songs sounded a new reportorial note of decline and defiance. ‘To move forward, we’d have to willingly wear the weight of our unreconciled past. A day of personal and historical accountability had arrived,’ he says of the strategy behind his writing, which was focused on ‘what it meant to be an American’. His ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’, for instance, bears witness to

Men walkin’ long the railroad tracks
Goin’ someplace here’s no goin’ back
Highway patrol choppers comin’ up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin’ round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the southwest
No home no job no peace no rest

Springsteen spoke for history’s left-overs, the losers in the Land of Plenty. The landscape of his songs – blue highways, amusement parks, bar-rooms, boardwalks, run-down factories, street corners, unemployment agencies, motorcycles, prison, tenements – is the territory of his own unmoored early life. ‘No one you have ever been and no place you have gone ever leaves you,’ he writes. His catalogue is one long epic poem of loss, a saga of desire laced with disillusion. ‘I had a brother at Khe Sahn, fighting off the Viet Cong,/They’re still there, he’s all gone,’ he sings in his ironic anthem ‘Born in the USA’. The songs bring news of a soiled, winded America where fine rhyme or good grammar have no place, a brutal new pop geography charted by a low-rider not a high-roller. ‘In ‘Born to Run’, for instance, the singer is a self-styled ‘tramp’, ‘a scared and lonely rider’, burning up Highway 9 with his girl on the back of a motorcycle, trying to outrun a sense of doom. ‘Together we could break this trap,’ he sings. Like so many of Springsteen’s stories, ‘Born to Run’ sussed a sense of dread in post-Vietnam America, where ‘the future would be forever uninsured.’ Or, as he puts in ‘Badlands’,

You wake up in the night
With a fear so real
You spend your life waiting
For a moment that just don’t come

In many of his best songs – ‘Thunder Road’, ‘Born in the USA’, ‘The Promised Land’, ‘The River’, ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’ – flight is a major trope, a desperate pedal-to-the-metal attempt to salvage meaning from a collapsing world, where motion is the only answer to a stalled life. The restlessness of Springsteen’s characters reflected his own metabolism. ‘I was not at ease, and to be at ease, I could not rest.’

His songs worked the same psychic ju-jitsu on his hungry heart. On stage, Springsteen is full of romantic swagger: variously the raffish sexual liberator (‘Rosalita’), the churning urn of burning (lonely) funk (‘Prove It All Night’, ‘Sherry Darling’), a hard-ass with a hard-on (‘Tougher than the Rest’), and a lover who doubts his loveability (‘Brilliant Disguise’) and sings to his partner:

So when you look at me
You better look hard and look twice
Is that me baby
Or just a brilliant disguise

For a long time, until he met and in 1991 married Patti Scialfa, a New Jersey girl who was part of the E Street Band, Springsteen could surrender to an audience much more easily than to a woman, a public seduction which kept people at once adoring and at arm’s length. ‘It infuriated and outraged me, someone having the temerity to love me – nobody does that,’ he writes of his habit of terrorising girlfriends with his reckless driving. ‘I wanted to kill what loved me because I could not stand being loved,’ he said. In the songs, love is mostly on the move, grabbed as an antidote to angst. When skating on thin ice, Springsteen discovered, his only safety lay in speed; touring lent the momentum and adulation took the place of love. ‘The show provided me the illusion of intimacy without risk or consequences.’ Before Scialfa whipped him into shape as a partner and parent, his early unexamined behaviour was a page from his father’s passive aggressive playbook: ‘There was a part of me,’ he says, ‘a significant part, that was capable of great carelessness and emotional cruelty, that sought to reap damage and harvest shame, that wanted to wound and hurt and make sure those who loved me paid for it.’

Born to Run deserves a place on the top shelf beside Dylan’s Chronicles and Keith Richards’s Life; it’s a performance in which Springsteen offers himself up on the page as authentically, unabashedly and excessively as he does on the stage. He wants to rock the reader’s soul and somehow he does. To show brilliance, he realises, you have to have shadow. Although he doesn’t use psychoanalytic language, psychoanalysis allows him to admit his self-destructiveness and his tyrannical will. After Clarence Clemons, a.k.a. the Big Man, the legendary African-American sax player who stood beside Springsteen for forty years and rooted the E Street Band in the authentic sound of black soul, died in 2011, Springsteen auditioned a young sax player who arrived late and unprepared. ‘Where … do … you… think … you … are?’ Springsteen reports himself saying. ‘If you don’t know, let me tell you. You are in a CITADEL OF ROCK’N’ROLL. You don’t DARE come in here and play this music for Bruce Springsteen without having your SHIT DOWN COLD! You embarrass yourself and waste my precious time.’ The scene is not pretty; but the memoir’s value is that it risks embarrassment.

Although the albums and accolades keep coming, so too do Springsteen’s depressions. At sixty, with his race won, his tours less frequent, his three children successfully raised and many close associates including his psychiatrist dead, Springsteen hit choppy internal weather, an incapacitating depression which left him virtually bedridden for a year and a half. ‘I was so profoundly uncomfortable in my own skin that I just wanted OUT,’ he writes, adding: ‘I felt myself dangerously slipping away. I became a stranger in a borrowed and disagreeable body and mind.’ He now manages his hauntedness chemically.

The book’s most compelling (and unremarked) drama is not the account of his climb to rock’n’roll supremacy, not the backstage tales of a bandleader wrangling his wayward players, not the snapshots of the famous movers and shakers met along the way, but the achievement of maturity. Springsteen has worked hard on himself as well as his art. ‘In analysis you work to turn the ghosts that haunt you into ancestors who accompany you,’ he writes: ‘I work to be an ancestor.’ He’s curious and thoughtful. Unlike almost any showbiz memoir I know, Born to Run fesses up to the spiritual struggle which bedevils most inspired performers: the internal (usually losing) battle between being great and being good.

At the end of the ICA interview, Springsteen lingered on the stage while the press filed out. The guards lined the aisle, politely but firmly filtering us towards the exit. A few journalists slipped under their ham hock arms and rushed back to snap a forbidden photo of the Boss and to say something, anything, to him. I didn’t. Now that I’ve read the book, I wish I had. Of course, on one level, Born to Run is a ‘me-moir’; but there’s much more to it than a rolling of credits. If I could hail him now up there on the stage, ex-Rah-Rah to ex-Greaser, two old guys full of gratitude, I’d say: ‘Rock on!’