I tried to buy tickets for the legendary Hammersmith Odeon shows, but for once, I was unsuccessful, instead having to settle for the album, which sounded like nothing I had ever heard before, and the distillation of everything I had heard before at the same time. The master musical alchemist at work creating ethereal magic from mundane earthly materials. That was 1975. Forty -three years later the legend that is Bruce Springsteen endures and flourishes, one of a handful of American Rock stars who still mean something. With Tom Petty gone, only Neil Young remains as a peer. Some ten years my senior, he felt like an elder brother. He looked cool. The cover photo of him and Clarence Clemons was striking, even then. The scrawny white guy flanked by a saxophone toting black behemoth. Bruce himself looked like an extra straight out of Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”.
I love and loathe American rock simultaneously. At its best, with the likes of Springsteen, Young, Petty, Dylan and Lynyrd Skynyrd, it has a pivotal place in modern Western popular culture. At its worst, with the likes of Foreigner, Journey, Kiss, Toto, Aerosmith, REO Speedwaggon, and Boston, it is an empty, soul less derivative shell. Springsteen pretty much defines what the best of American Rock is. His influences oblique and well chosen.
I approached his biography with caution. Rock biographies, and auto biographies, are generally dreadful. My fingers had been well and truly burned recently with Steve Jones, David Bowie, and Morrissey biographies, each desperately disappointing for different reasons. It took me two years to buy a copy. Why? I did not want to be let down. The genre is flawed. I did not want my high estimation of the man sullied. But perhaps most of all, through his music I felt that I already knew him. That he had said all that he had to say through his songs. I was wrong.
At just over five hundred pages, this is not a quick read. Yet not a single page is wasted. We do not reach “Born to Run”, the commercial year zero for the man, for some two hundred pages. As a rule, I skip artists descriptions of their childhood, they do not interest me. This one did. Springsteen combines a colourful, insightful prose style with the vernacular. It quickly becomes apparent that this is no ordinary auto biography. Reading the words are like reading the lyrics of his songs. His personal insights become universal ones. His gift as a songwriter is drawing you in, you believe what he says because he is articulating either how you feel, or how you would feel if you were him in that situation.
Kiss and tells, excess, drink, drugs, sex, wasted money, sharks and victims are the lingua franca of most successful rock books. Here Springsteen demonstrates enormous restraint. Some might harbour a grudge with a manager who essentially took the band for half a million dollars. Not Springsteen. Instead he goes out of his way to tell things from ex manager Mike Appel’s perspective. His first wife? Not a bad word to say about her. Miami Steve’s departure from the band? He understands. What we find is a man at peace with himself. The only conspicuous indulgence is summonsing Sony’s private jet to take him and his family to New York after an LA earthquake. Not once does he talk about security guards, instead only of when the NYPD refused the band a post gig escort because of their umbrage at “American Skin”. Instead he hops on a motorbike with friends, connecting with the landscape and the people that inhabit it.
As a fan, particularly a young fan, the process of writing and recording music is taken for granted. It should not be. Great music on its own is not enough. Production is all. What impresses is his fanaticism at producing the best song, vocal, arrangement and production possible, even if that process takes years and swallows up as much money as he is making. It also become clear that this is HIS band, the rest hired hands, loyal and essential, but hired nonetheless. Not in a superior sense, his appreciation of the band members is fulsome, but in an understanding that he needed the job done, his way.
He does not have a bad word to say about anyone, and his appreciation of deceased band members Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons is warm, poignant and respectful. Sometimes you have to read between the lines. Miami Steve’s ego is handled respectfully, Federici’s addictions, sympathetically. Lavish entertainment for his family, and looking after his parents is implicit, rather than explicit. Memorably his explanation for the consistently high octane shows that the band delivered is explained in three words, “I make them”. In his flirtation with Jake Clemons to join the band the demands he puts upon all who play with him are uncompromisingly laid out, as is his understanding of what every song, every guitar and sax solo, means to the fans. His depression is laid out starkly, the depths previously unmentioned. There was also a tacit admission that the highs and lifestyle of the road are so intoxicating that ordinary life just doesn’t suffice – when even the kids no longer need to give you a lift in the car. Yet it is that everyday description, that any empty-nester will recognise, which is a secret of his success. At all stages of his life he can communicate the human experience in lyrical prose, with broad brush strokes that anyone can recognise and associate with. Bruce reveals himself to be a man who you could have a beer with, shoot some pool with, ride the trail with, or just sit on the boardwalk and pas the time with.
He does not spend much time telling the story behind the songs, I suspect that will be in another book, but he tantalisingly reveals that there is more music in the vaults from the “Tracks “era. He also makes no mention of the Jim Steinman connection with whom he reputedly used to visit the opera with and for whom Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg played on the huge hit album “ Bat out of Hell”. When Bruce yells “There is an opera out on the turnpike, there is a ballet being fought out in the valley” in “Jungleland”, it allegedly acknowledges Weinberg. Is it a case of stories being held back? Or of “if you don’t have anything good to say about someone say nothing at all”? Roy Bittan is not nearly as prominent as I would have anticipated, Gary Tallent fleetingly namechecked. But perhaps that is the point? This is Bruce’s band, Bruce’s book. He also clearly needs the fame, the adulation and the popularity. His least popular “Lucky Town” and “Human Touch albums, which I think have considerable merit, are passed over
When I reluctantly turned the last page on this book I was sad it was over. I felt as if Bruce had been speaking to me for five hundred pages. I felt as though I had grown to know him better