Greasy Lake

Born to Play

Published 2017-03-13
Alexander Bisley
By Alexander Bisley
“I had no idea he [Springsteen] was such a thoughtful reader”, The LA Times books editor once said. The Boss brings literary chops to his frank autobiography Born to Run, with influencesincluding John Steinbeck and Richard Ford.  The blood, sweat and tears that make its unghosted 508 pages compelling are similarly vibrant seeing Springsteen and the E Street Band at New Zealand’s Mount Smart Stadium.

 “Democracy in rock bands, with very few exceptions, is often a ticking time bomb,” Springsteen writes, arguing for a benevolent dictatorship. “I also wanted the live, rambunctious gang feeling only a real rock n’ roll band can deliver.” The opening couple of tracks seem flat, off, tired; but ‘Glory Days’ sees high spirits, and a strong collective rhythm. About 22 of the 26 tracks in the 2hr 50 concert zing.  As the evening falls, Springsteen and the E Street Band have definitely still got it.  Tracks like ‘The River’, ‘Dancing in the Dark’, ‘Because The Night’, and ‘Born to Run’ are blissful: sensational, scorching stadium rock.

“Joe Strummer, Mick Jagger and many of the great rock n’ roll and punk front men did not possess great voices but their blood and guts conviction, their ownership of their songs, made up for it and lent them deep personal style,” Springsteen pens. Tonight, his songs emotional weight resonates through the Auckland stadium.

 “Steve had an aggressive, bold style as a bassist, and he added some nice vocal harmonies.”  Recalling his iconic Sopranos role as Sil, Steve Van Zandt is an imposing presence, slashing like the best of them. ‘Bobby Jean’ is a paean to friendship (and rock n’ roll bonding), and it’s abundantly clear watching Van Zandt and Springsteen perform it together.

Always deeply felt, and often beautifully written, Born to Run overcomes its jarring overuse of ellipses.  The Boss opens up about the mental illness he inherited from his complicated father, a violent and inarticulate man afflicted with manic depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia. Booze too often meant “a flood of [paternal] self-pitying rage and a ferocity that turned our home into a minefield of fear and anxiety.” As a child, Springsteen once struck his father with a baseball bat to protect his mother. (Later, Bruce apologises for his own “gross, bullying, violent and humiliating behaviour”.)

Springsteen’s learnings from his father get at why surprising amounts of white blue-collar workers could vote for a cruel plutocrat like Donald Trump. “The rigidity and the blue-collar narcissism of “manhood” 1950s-style. An inner yearning for isolation, for the world on your terms or not at all.”

The iconic liberal, politicised under Reaganism, isn’t myopic about the left’s Seventies stupidity. “The dumb and destructive shit I saw done in the name of people trying to “let it all hang out and be free” was legion…I was never gonna get a first-class ticket to see God the easy way on the Tim Leary clown train. ” His honesty extends to romance. “I operated best within a semi-monogamous (is there such a thing?) system… “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.”

Springsteen made it, like he makes it on stage now, through cunning and hard work.  He was determined to be a transcendent long-haul artist. “The exit in a blaze of glory is bullshit.”

The book makes a sharp, zeitgeisty dig at the US entertainment media’s overriding approach, versus elsewhere.  “Our usually politicized press conferences were peppered by celebrity questions and a vacuousness that sometimes made me feel embarrassed.”

1992’s LA riots further politicized, and politicizes, Springsteen: “The prescription for many of our ills are in hand— child day care, jobs, education, health care— but it would take a societal effort on the scale of the Marshall Plan to break the generations-long chain of institutionalized destruction our social policies have wreaked. If we can spend trillions on Iraq and Afghanistan in nation building, if we can bail out Wall Street with billions of taxpayer dollars, why not here? Why not now?”

Though ‘Wrecking Ball’— about capitalism gone wild and plutocracy and 2008’s economic meltdown— stirs, my one disappointment is nothing from Magic, Springsteen’s sweltering response to George W Bush’s failed presidency. (I’m not really a sign guy, but “The Boss for President” has its note).

Springsteen’s respect for workers and unions moves through the evening’s setlist.  In this age of pernicious media consumerism and vulgarisation, this big-hearted man nails his performances of both ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ and ‘My City of Ruins’, the song he performed the week after 9/11, 2001. “Of the many tragic images of that day, the picture I couldn’t let go of was the emergency workers going up the stairs as others rushed down to safety. The sense of duty, the courage, ascending into...what?” he writes in Born to Run. “the breath in your lungs, the ground beneath your feet, all that is life, and... the next, flooded my imagination.”  
Alexander Bisley is a leading cultural journalist in New Zealand who kindly let us republish this piece. You can follow Alexander Bisley on Twitter.

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