Guest Column: My good friend Gavin Evans pays tribute to Bruce Springsteen, who proved to be a remarkable companion on Gavin’s emotional and political journey.
I always was a sucker for prolonged crushes, but this one, well, it has survived longer than most and is unlikely to fade: we’ve been through a lot together, you see. Time then to shout if from the rooftops (though, come to think of it, I haven’t exactly held back previously). So…. on your 60th birthday, take a bow, rock-n-roll’s finest lyricist.
Oh, I know there are other songwriters who possess wonderful ways with words but Bruce Springsteen is a lyricist of a different kind: a story-teller who spins yarns with a profundity few can match. Bruce’s writing hero is Philip Roth, but his own deceptively simple approach is closer to Raymond Carver: little stories about big things, and he tells them in the voice of characters on the edge, who embrace cliché only to turn it on its head, who feel at once unique and for all time.
Lyrics are not the same thing as poetry, and those who pretend they are – by, say, giving students Bob Dylan to read alongside WH Auden – are silly (I prefer the approach of the poet Simon Armitage, who gives Dylan to his students as an example of how not to write poetry). The need to relate words to tunes imposes restrictions that do not exist in poetry. Still, within these confines, Springsteen’s writing has so often expanded the horizons of its chosen form.
In rock-n-roll mode the tale-telling is mediated through the rousing chorus, reaching maturity in Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), where every song is a gem, none better than the much-covered Racing in the Street , which is as good as it gets in his early theme of the car as expression of alienation. The choice is bleak: ‘Some guys they just give up living / And start dying little by little, piece by piece / Some guys come from home from work and wash up, / And go racin’ in the street.’ Even at his lightest, this Bruce can produce writing that bites. Take Brilliant Disguise, the poppy chart-topper on Tunnel of Love, where he drops in the killer couplet, ‘God have mercy on the man/ Who doubts what he’s sure of.’
His other string is the contemporary folk song, and here, unencumbered by the demands of a pulsating chorus, he reaches heights few have approached. His apex in this genre arrived in 1982 with Nebraska , famously recorded in the kitchen with just a guitar and four-track tape recorder. It never puts a word wrong: stories about small lives that capture the spirit of a nation. While none of his subsequent work has quite the same consistent brilliance, the more overtly political Ghost of Tom Joad (1995), comes close: so specific and yet so wonderfully universal.
Bruce was raised in a Catholic, New Jersey family, his Dutch-Irish father a frequently unemployed bus driver, with whom he had a fraught relationship. He was closer to his Italian-American mother and speaks of his strong female role models (he also has two sisters). In stark contrast to most other male lyricists, the women in his songs are strong and real — friends as well as lovers — with issues of their own. (I once had a misguided girlfriend who complained Bruce was always calling his women ‘babe’ and ‘baby’. “No!” I yelled’ “You’re confusing Bruce with his characters’ — ‘and she said: “Baby if you wanna be wild/ You got a lot to learn..’ …” )
Moving on …aged seven he saw Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show and from then-on, as he put it, ‘ I learnt more from those three-minute records/ Than I ever learnt in school’. He bought his first guitar and in 1965 became lead guitarist and singer of his first band, adding piano and harmonica to his repertoire. In the later 1960s he played the eastern club circuit until signing with Columbia. His first album Greetings From Asbury Park received critical acclaim despite its wobbly production values, but bombed commercially (although Blinded by the Light , became a Manfred Mann hit). His second, The Wild, the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle was also released to press approval and also failed commercially. Then the music critic (and subsequent Spingsteen manager) John Landau, saw one of his high-energy marathon concerts and wrote: ‘I saw the future of rock and roll and its name is Bruce Springsteen’. ‘Born to Run ’ was a massive commercial success, capped by Bruce appearing on the covers of Time and Newsweek the same week in 1975.
This was my moment of discovery, aged 15. On the English service of Radio South Africa a late night, vaguely alternative music programme was fronted by a man called Mike Littellier who spoke in the slow tones of what passed in South Africa as post-60s cool. One evening he diverged from his usual Roxy Music dross and offered us ‘something a little different.’ Born to Run burst out of the speakers of our ancient gramophone-radio, and that was that. I devoured my father’s Time magazine and wanted more: more of that rich baritone, more of those words.
Bruce’s timing was perfect: it was a horrible spell for popular music. ‘Rock’ had lost its capacity to roll, becoming this stolid, pretentious thing — full of light shows by overblown super-groups with their drugs, orgies and hairdresser’s appointments, devoid of any capacity for self-deprecation. Soon punk would sweep them away (in Britain and New York, anyway), but in the gap between Pink Floyd and the Sex Pistols there was only Bruce, and he was there to stay. He just grew and grew from the same base, honing his writing, allowing it to absorb new influences, his observations sharper, his characterisation more real.
After three years of touring and legal disputes he came out with Darkness.., which I first heard driving across west Texas, and, again, ecstasy. As much as I loved Thunder Road and everything else about Born to Run , it was clear that Bruce had developed hugely as a writer. It paints a dark picture of a fractured, alienated, despairing working class — unblinking in its analysis and never descending into platitudes of false hope. The fast cars are a desperate escape, not a genuine source of joy and the working life is hard (And you just better believe, boy/ somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight/ It’s the working, the working, just the working life’). In the opening track, Badlands , his narrator tells how the system works: ‘Workin’ in the fields/till you get your back burned/ workin’ ‘neath the wheel/till you get your facts learned/ Baby, I got my facts/ earned real good right now/ Poor man wanna be rich/ rich man wanna be king/ And a king ain’t satisfied/ till he rules everything.’
Bruce once said the last candidate he felt able to vote for was the liberal George McGovern in 1972. ‘I want to try and work more directly with people; try to find some way my band can tie into the communities we come into I guess that’s a political action, a way to bypass the whole electoral thing,’ he added. Still, his first public political step was a curious one: the 1979 No Nukes concert, a worthy event that inadvertently exposed the telling contrast between, say, the daft fluffiness of David Nash fretting that his son might eat a nuked fish before playing the silly Our House, and the raw power of Springsteen singing The River (a heart-breaker, even if it includes the iffy rhyme, ‘I got a job working construction/For the Johnstown company/But lately there ain’t that much work/On account of the economy’).
Springsteen began using his three-hour concerts as vehicles to support striking workers and raising money for food banks, war veterans and trades unions (and he made a fat personal donation to the British Mineworkers’ strike). He’d speak from the stage and beyond about causes close to his heart — castigating Americans for their ‘racist paranoias’, for their ‘degrading attitude to women’, for their ‘knee-jerk fear of the Soviet Union’. Sometimes he went into detail — such as telling concertgoers how the interests of America’s United Fruit company prompted the Dominican Republic’s dictatorship. When Ronald Reagan was elected he called his economic policy ‘a form of racism’ and later declared his own admiration for European social democracy.
This was hardly the going rate in rock-n-roll at the time. After the 60s, most who dressed to the left became wildly inconsistent. Neil Young, for instance, flip-flopped from singing about ‘six dead in Ohio’ to backing Reagan in 1980 and back to Jessie Jackson in 84. More typically, the era was epitomised by the thrusting, misogynistic, a-political narcissism of, say, The Eagles, and there was also a rightist current creeping in, including ardent Republican Party reptiles like Joey Ramone, Sonny Bono and the NRA frontman Ted Nugent. In Britain, it went further…
Exhibit A: Eric Clapton . The chinless wonder who learnt guitar at the feet of the black blues giants, came out at a concert in Birmingham in 1976, talking of ‘wogs’ and called on the crowd to ‘stop Britain becoming a black colony’ and for the Asian immigrants who fled Idi Amin’s Uganda to be ‘sent home’. He went on to say: ‘I used to be into dope; then a foreigner pinched my missus’s bum. Now I’m into racism. It’s much heavier, man.’ Complaining that England was overcrowded he called on the audience to back the openly racist Enoch Powell. Later, putting his other foot in it, he said these drunken remarks were prompted by ‘an Arab’ feeling his wife’s bum by and by an ‘upsurge of Arab money-spending and their lack of respect for other people’s money’. Interviewed about all this in 2004 he called Enoch Powell ‘outrageously brave’, adding: ‘My feeling about this has not changed really.’
Exhibit B: David Bowie, who, in the mid-1970s declared Britain ‘was ready for a fascist leader’, called Hitler ‘one of the first rock-n-roll superstars’ and gave a fascist salute at London’s Victoria Station, although he later apologised, blaming it on drugs.
Exhibit C: Brian Ferry . For many years the velvet-attired Roxy Music frontman stayed on the fringes of politics — marrying into the aristocracy, sending his son, Otis, to Marlborough College and enthusiastically backing awful Otis’s civil disobedience campaign for the right to kill foxes as he pleased. But aside from calling his home ‘Fuehrerbunker’, he kept his more disturbing views to himself until 2007 when he told a German newspaper: ‘The way that the Nazis staged themselves and presented themselves, my Lord. I’m talking about the films of Leni Riefenstahl and the buildings of Albert Speer and the mass marches and the flags – just fantastic. Really beautiful.’
I should add that rightist leanings aren’t limited to dinosaurs of 70s ‘rock’. In 2002, Dannii Minogue , (Kylie’s sister) delighted the British National Party by complaining about asylum seekers and Gypsies and praising French fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen, saying his attacks on Asians ‘struck a chord..’. Speaking of Asians in Australia, the European-speaking Dannii said: ‘Even some of the street signs are in Asian!’
And then there’s Morrissey whose ‘Bengali in Platforms’ had the line, ‘Life is hard enough when you belong here…’ – and he has since given a clearer sense of what he meant by belonging. In 1992, this white working class-obsessed son of Irish immigrants, appeared at an Irish festival in London wearing bovver boots and draped in a Union Jack. All ironic (like his ‘National Front Disco’)? Perhaps, but in an interview soon after he said everyone was inherently racist: ‘I don’t really think black people and white people will ever really get on or like each other.’ Then in 2007 Rome-based Morrissey told NME he wouldn’t live in Britain because of the ‘immigration explosion’, adding that the ‘gates are flooded …’ He complained: ‘If you walk through Knightsbridge on any bland day of the week you won’t hear an English accent. You’ll hear every accent under the sun apart from a British accent.’
Back to Bruce : In 1982 he released Nebraska , which, aside from its lyrical brilliance, provided an oblique hint at his political views. Johnny 99, for instance, is about a worker who loses his job when a factory closes, gets drunk and shoots a clerk. He tells the court: ‘Now judge I got debts no honest man could pay/ The bank was holdin’ my mortgage and they was takin’ my house away/ Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man/ But it was more ‘n all this that put my gun in my hand’.
But his next move seemed to take him on a different course. Born in the USA (1984) sold 15-million copies in the USA alone, producing seven top 10 singles and for a long time making Springsteen passé among those who favoured style over substance (it’s only over the last decade or so that he’s fully recovered his reputation for cool). Concerts became stadium events, bringing in hordes who adored this blue-collar rocker with his new set of muscles, new California home, new model/actor wife, with his American flag on the cover and his anthem-like choruses.
I recall writhing with impotent outrage on being detained by the apartheid police and having to endure my detainer playing Born in the USA while driving me to jail, and, another time, spotting a security policeman at a traffic light, with Glory Days blaring forth. ‘Bastards!’ I wanted to yell. ‘Look at My Hometown — all about the cost of Reagan’s policies: ‘They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks/ Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back to your hometown’. How could they get it so wrong?’ And yet Reagan declared: ‘America’s future rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.’ He even wanted Born in the USA to be his ‘84 campaign tune — a remarkable request (firmly refused), given its content. ‘Got in a little hometown jam/So they put a rifle in my hand/ Sent me off to a foreign land/to go and kill the yellow man/Born in the USA…/ Had a brother at Khe San/fighting off the Viet Kong/They’re still there, he’s all gone’
In response, Bruce introduced Johnny 99 at one concert: “I don’t think Ronald Reagan’s been listening to this one.” He explained: “I think people need to feel good about the country they living but what’s happening is that this need is getting manipulated and exploited, and that’s why when Reagan mentioned my name I felt it was another manipulation and I had to dissociate myself from his words. I don’t know if he’s a bad man, but there’s a large group of people in this country whose dreams don’t mean that much to him, that just get indiscriminately swept aside.”
He joined the 1985 ‘I ain’t gonna play Sun City’ anti-apartheid drive, headed by his lead guitarist Steve van Zandt, but much of his focus was on his own country. For instance, he introduced into his repertoire a magThis Land is Your Land , talking of it as an ‘angry song’ written in answer to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America’, linking its spirit to the loss of hope in parts of America. He added Guthrie’s ‘extra’ verse: ‘In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple/ By the relief office, I’d seen my people/ As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking/ Is this land made for you and me?’
Another aside: In 1978 I missed a Springsteen concert in Austin, Texas — all to do with a girl I desired and bad timing (as ever). A decade on, I had another chance. Bruce took part in the 1988 Amnesty International series, and so I shamelessly used my ANC connections to secure an interview. We drove to Harare, eating cannabis cookies along the way, and just before the border, decided to stop for breakfast – watching with dazed fascination as thousands of cars drove past. And so we found ourselves at the back of a six hour queue. I missed my interview and instead received a bollocking from the ANC. The best I managed was a backstage chat with Bruce’s manager, John Landau. I implored him to ask Bruce to give a message to the thousands of South African army conscripts in the audience. Landau asked me to write it out but Springsteen wisely diverged from my script.
After condemning the ‘systematic apartheid of South Africa’ along with the ‘economic apartheid of my own country,’ Bruce introduced his anti-war song, ‘War’ with a tale about avoiding the Vietnam War draft, ending on a poignant note of how his ‘join the army’ dad simply said ‘good!’ on hearing that Bruce failed his medical. ‘Now I know they processed 15 000 South African visas for the show tonight and I want to say welcome,’ he continued. ‘I’m glad you came. I guess there’s a lot of young guys that are of conscription age. Well, I guess there can’t be much worse than living in a society at war with its own people — and being required to support that government, and I just want to say to you young people that I do not envy your positions. My prayers are with the young men here to use your hearts and voices in the struggle for the dignity and freedom of all the African people. There can be no peace without justice and where there is apartheid — systematic or economic — there is no justice and where there is no justice there is only WAR!’
Shortly before this tour, his marriage broke up and his relationship with band member, Patti Scialfa, became public. The feminist-oriented Scialfa has continued to work with the band while pursuing her own recording career. They have three children. His next album, the introspective Tunnel of Love, reflected this period of his life. It makes no reference to personal experience but the context is clear – what happens when what you think is love turns out to be something less. Take Cautious Man, a story about those polar opposites, love and fear. Its build-up appears quaint: a folksy tale about a man striving for domestic steadiness — which makes it denouement that much more devastating: ‘One night Billy awoke from a terrible dream callin’ his wife’s name/ She lay breathing beside him in a peaceful sleep, a thousand miles away/ He got dressed in the moonlight and down to the highway he strode/ When he got there he didn’t find nothing but road.’ He returns but hardly in triumph. ‘Billy felt a coldness rise up inside him that he couldn’t name/Just as the words tattooed ‘cross his knuckles he knew would always remain…’
Springsteen returned to New Jersey but it was only with Ghost of Tom Joad in 1995 that he found his writing voice again. Taken in isolation, some of the verses hint at the activist preacher, starting in the title song when his vagrant protagonist quotes the hero of Grapes of Wrath: ‘Now Tom said Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy/ Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries/ Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air/ Look for me Mom I’ll be there/ Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand /Or decent job or a helpin’ hand/ Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free/ Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me."’ In Youngstown , his character says: ‘These mills they built the tanks and bombs/ That won this country’s wars / We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam /Now we’re wondering what they were dyin’ for.’ In Sinaloa Cowbows , the Mexican dad warns: ‘My sons one thing you will learn, for everything the north gives, it exacts a price in return.’ And, from the other side of the border, his patrolman learns that ‘hunger is a powerful thing.’
It’s an album that confirms his standing as the true successor to Woody Guthrie — a songwriter who tells stories not just about people but for them. He continued along this path with American Skin (41 Shots ), inspired by the NYPD’s shooting of Amadou Diallo. It deals with the status of immigrants but also shows sympathy for the cops– ‘we’re baptized in these waters /and in each other’s blood’ — although the Patrolman’s Benefit Association called for a boycott of his shows.
Perhaps his most politically interesting album is The Rising , released in 2002 in the wake of 9/11, which affected Springsteen profoundly at a personal level, drawing close to some of those in mourning. None of the songs refer to 9/11 specifically but several concern loss after tragedy, and one, World’s Apart (featuring the Pakistani singer Asif Ali Khan and his group), is a plea for love across the divide.
He became a vocal critic of the Iraq war and in 2004 broke his self-imposed boycott of electoral politics to campaign for John Kerry. His 2004 album Devils and Dust (featuring Springsteen singing falsetto, playing the autoharp, and writing graphically about sex with a prostitute while dreaming of a wife he’d lost), begins with the theme of the uncertain soldier: I got my finger on the trigger/ But I don’t know who to trust /When I look into your eyes / There’s just devils and dust’. Starbucks had planned to co-release the album but they objected to some of the content.
Springsteen had long been enamoured with Guthrie (in addition to This Land is Your Land, he contributed two Guthrie songs to a Folkways tribute album in 1988) but his next offering, released in 2006, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions , took this to a new level — 13 traditional folk songs with Bruce playing guitar, mandolin, organ, piano, harmonica and percussion. What was most remarkable about this venture was that he took a form considered uncool and dedicated the album to perhaps the least cool of all the folkies and gave it new life.
His 2008 album, Magic, heralded a return to rock-n-roll and overt politics (prompting a boycott from some radio stations). Its combination of nostalgia and despair offers magnificent moments that grow with each play – an air of sadness beneath the joy, reflecting disillusionment with contemporary America: ‘There’s bodies hangin’ in the trees/This is what will be, this is what will be.’ Its most poignant song is Long Walk Home about the distance his country had moved from the images represented by the flag flying over the courtroom. The Iraq war hangs heavy in Last to Die , with its chorus, repeating John Kerry’s words of 35 years earlier, ‘Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake’ and adding, ‘Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break.’ Gypsy Biker is about the return of a soldier killed in war — ‘The speculators made their money on the blood you shed’ and Springsteen has since said the backdrop for Livin’ in the Future is ‘extraordinary rendition’ and illegal wiretapping.
And so to the present. After a spell campaigning for Barack Obama he returned to touring and came out with the jauntily a-political Working on a Dream – not one of his great albums (more on the level of ‘The River’ or ‘Human Touch’ than ‘Nebraska’ or ‘Darkness’). Inevitably, there’s a bleak edge: ‘Why do the things that we treasure most, slip away in time / Till to the music we grow deaf, to God’s beauty blind/ Why do the things that connect us slowly pull us apart? / Till we fall away in our own darkness, a stranger to our own hearts…’. But it also delights in eulagising mature love: ‘With you I don’t hear the minutes ticking by/ I don’t feel the hours as they fly/ I don’t see the summer as it wanes/ Just a suble change of light upon your face…’
This album, like the man who created it, is flawed but beautiful. There’ve been failures and bad decisions along the way — of course there have: depression, infidelity, neglect, creative cul de sacs. And yet, through all this, he’s remained heroically steady. Nearly 35 years after my undersized gramaphone speakers were nearly blown out of the box by Born to Run , he still inspires, makes me think, surprises me. Back then, in 1975, he wrote: ‘I’m no hero, that’s understood’. Well, all I can say to this 60-year-old is: pull the other one.