Almanac Music: Springsteen – in his own words


Few of us will look back on 2016 with any particular affection. It was a year when Bowie floated away in his tin can, when purple tears were shed for Prince and Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques shut up shop permanently.


Even as Christmas came and went, and George Michael joined the long list of famous singers and actors to check into life’s departure lounge, there was further tristesse with the passing not only of Carrie Fisher at just 60, but her mother, Debbie Reynolds the very next day.


The latter’s passing struck a chord because I had just watched her perform with vim and brio in possibly the greatest-ever musical “Singin’ in the Rain”, where her youthful ebullience and effervescence provided the perfect counterpoint to Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor.


But the obituary-writers have never stopped working tributes in recent months and even when the news headlines haven’t been dominated by celebrity exits, this was the year of Brexit, of Donald Trump’s presidential victory, the slaughter of thousands of women and children in Aleppo and terrorist atrocities by Islamic State in various European cities.


In these circumstances, even Mr Micawber might feel better for a few tranquilisers and there will inevitably be an elegiac feel to any reviews of 2016, irrespective of the myriad feelgood stories provided by the Olympic Games in Rio and the remarkable success of personalities in the mold of Andy Murray, who boldly went where no Scot has ever threatened to go before.


Indeed, the temptation to wish a swift welcome to 2017 was palpable as last week progressed. No wonder: too much negativity eventually, inexorably, crushes the soul. But then, suddenly on Thursday night, a programme came along which lifted the spirits with a refulgent joie de vivre and it arrived in the unlikely guise of a puff for a new book.


Normally, these kind of projects are the equivalent of being force-fed warm peppermint creams. They have a product to promote and nothing else matters. Except, in the case of Bruce Springsteen, everything else mattered – to the extent that even an agnostic such as myself was left to acknowledge that The Boss really is a force of nature, whose Stakhanovite commitment to entertaining his fans is, if anything, increasing with age.


Obviously, Springsteen is as rich as Croesus and never has to arrange another gig in his life unless it is on his own terms. But this documentary was a massive breath of fresh air at a time when many of us were wondering whether the world had spun off its axis into the sort of mad spiral from the mind of Munch.


Unlike the traditional Christmas state of affairs, this was a New Jersey tale with a beautiful centre. It started with a dysfunctional father-son relationship, was unflinchingly honest about the effects of depression and schizophrenia on the Springsteen family and refused any sugar coating.


The youngster was no genius. On the contrary, he related his hapless efforts at playing the guitar as a six-year-old and admitted he made “a horrible noise”. And he also pulled no punches in his embarrassment at the bombastic PR campaign – “London is finally ready for Bruce Springsteen” – which preceded his 1975 concerts. There were even contrasting emotions fighting for supremacy as he awaited the birth of his first child.


His book has been crafted with a dedication to honesty and reality unlike most similar ventures from A-list stars. It often makes uncomfortable reading, because Springsteen has tackled mental health issues and addressed the problems which surrounded his own family as he grew up in the 1950s.


But this was a programme which transcended any gloom with a message which gloriously emphasised the power of art to forge an alliance between those who create  it and those who pay their hard-earned cash to watch the results.


Springsteen’s concerts are legendary for their energy and all-encompassing symbiosis with their audience, whether they hail from West Virginia or East Kilbride. And, while he was among the numerous Tinseltown and Tin Pan Alley icons who backed Hillary Clinton to no avail – it wasn’t a good year for celebrity endorsements – his personal account provided reasons to be hopeful as we approach another New Year.


Firstly, he demonstrated that the common touch needn’t be divisive or reactionary. Springsteen is, quite rightly, proud of his Asbury Park roots and he wears his New Jersey heart on his sleeve. Yet this has allowed him to reach out to millions of others with his songs, his performances and his words. He doesn’t build walls: instead, he breaks them down through an instinctive understanding that, wherever he ventures, there are people from every background with their own ambitions and dreams which deserve encouragement.


As he said, at one point: “When I’m out there [on stage], I’m part of them.” He wouldn’t exist without his fans and he knows it. He doesn’t take his aficionados for granted, because he used to be one of them, marvelling at the young Elvis Presley and the James Brown band.


Springsteen’s egalitarian philosophy was also refreshing at a time when too many people are inclined to heap abuse on the United States, as if Britain had any right to denigrate other countries’ political decisions. The E Street Band emerged as a truly democratic organisation, fuelled by disparate individuals with a common desire to make a difference. And Springsteen quite clearly still misses the late Clarence Clemons, with whom he established the sort of friendship which drives a juggernaut through any racial barriers.


Ultimately, he is “only” a famous rock musician. He might have given us anthems for a whole generation such as “Born to Run” and “Dancing in the Dark”, but Bruce Springsteen couldn’t force his fellow Americans to elect another Clinton into the White House.


But perhaps that says more about Western politics than the qualities of this man’s music. At 67, just regard his values: they are rooted in industry, inclusivity, a deep-rooted integrity and an innate determination not to short-change his audience.


How many of those seeking our votes can say likewise? Maybe a few of them should watch “Springsteen – In His Own Words” in the days ahead.


They might learn something!


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  1. Neil Drysdale says

    I hope everybody on the site has a happy 2017. The Almanac website is to be cherished. Best wishes from Scotland!

  2. charlie wells says

    I met Bruce some years back. He told me a funny joke. He’d heard it in Australia… He’s okay. Seems unaffected by his celebrity, as much as one could be given the success he’s enjoyed. Sadly, he’s become a bit maligned and saddled with the”Bruceness” of the born in the USA era. As opposed to the Wild and innocent, Nebraska, River, etc recccurds.(sic) Funny, i saw a posting celebrating the incredible Patti Smiths 70 th birthday. It calls her the original Riot Girl who challenged the male patriarchy of RAWK. Bruce is the first male image in the montage… Ironic, as he gave her her biggest song, because the night. At his core, like the incredible Joe Camelleri, he’s a fan. Joe introduce me to Joe Liggins, Don Covey, Willie Dixon and more. Bruce threw me Gary US Bonds, Joe Gruchesky, Edwin Starr, even the pointer Sisters. To quote Neil Young. “Long may you (he) Run.”

  3. Good one Neil. Springsteen’s autobiography “Born to Run” has been my Christmas read. Edges out Dylan’s “Chronicles” – brilliant but vignettes – and Keef’s “Life” – wonderful first half about growing up in post war Britain and the early Stones – but the latter half is appropriately and appallingly self indulgent – drugs shmugs.
    Springsteen’s introspection and ruthless self analysis is Ockham’s Razor intense. Bruce’s insights will resonate with any middle aged reader. And he is generous but honest with all his descriptions of others. The mark of the man.
    But the drive – the relentless drive to realise and perfect his vision – from 16 to 68. Extraordinary. Most of us would never have persisted for 5% as far and would long ago have retired to the rocking chair to contemplate a job well done. Not Bruce. The devil is still on his tail and the promise on the horizon.
    Thanks for the heads up on the Ch4 doco, Neil. Not on the horizon yet in Oz, but I will keep a lookout.

  4. also desert island discs bruce springsteen might be a good listen

  5. Thanks Neil. Will scour the Net to find the interview. I loved the book and getting an understanding of his troubled life through his lens. As a longtime and deep fan there were not many revelations but what was revealing was his candour and honesty. Especially regarding his memtal illness. Rock’n’roll really did save his life. He’ll be in Australia in a few weeks time and I’m looking forward to the two Melbourne shows. The best concerts I’ve seen are Bruce concerts (1985, 2013 and 2014). Ray Charles comes second and he was outstanding! Cheers

  6. Good on ya Neil, Bruce Springsteen has the touch of Woody Guthrie to him. Guthrie was more political but both came from the ranks of ‘ordinary’ Americans, not the indolent wealthy. They’d lived the same lives, having the same hopes and fears, not just mouthing platitudes to win votes.

    When you mention the term a common touch is very much the antithesis of being divisive or reactionary. Bruce Springsteen is also a veritable antithesis of Donald Trump.

    He has come from a working class background, done the hard yards, seen people doing it hard but supporting each other . The latter is a chronic bankrupt, bailed out over and over, able to usurp the rhetoric to ‘address’ the fears of ordinary Americans.

    The messages of songs like Born in the USA, Independence Day, Cadillac Ranch, Look but better not touch are about people working their way through adversity. They should be anthems for Americans over the next four years as what Trump promised,and what he will do, are not going to be the same.


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