I’m reading Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run, and as much as I admire the Boss, I have to admit at first I was somewhat put off by his prose, which seemed mannered in that it was a bit too wham bam for my ear – too self-conscious — or as Richard Ford puts it in his Times review, “a tad more rock ’n’ roll highfalutin” than I [Ford]” needed.”
One example: “There, even that great tragedian Roy Orbison, a man who had to sing his way out of an apocalypse waiting around every corner, had his ‘pretty woman’ and a home on ‘Blue Bayou.’”
Not that it’s bad prose– not at all – how inconceivable would it be for the lyricist of “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” to produce lousy prose:
Oh, and a press roll drummer go, ballerina to-and-fro
Cartwheelin’ up on that tightrope
With a cannon blast, lightnin’ flash, movin’ fast through the tent, Mars-bent
He’s gonna miss his fall, oh, God save the human cannonball
And the flyin’ Zambinis watch Margarita do her neck twist
And the ringmaster gets the crowd to count along, ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven
However, 165 pages in, I’ve grown accustomed to his narrative voice and am completely immersed in his story, especially now that Springsteen’s bittersweet childhood has come to an end – though bittersweet might be a bit too cheery a descriptor for what amounts to living in a series of ramshackle rental houses with a father who considered his son “an intruder, a stranger, a competitor [. . .] and a fearful disappointment.”
Truth is, the late 60’s weren’t all that conducive for filial felicity given the zeitgeist of revolution, sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, longhair, and lawlessness (not to mention bralessness). Some mothers and fathers throughout the land were slow to concede that their sons and daughters were beyond their command. It took my old man a couple of years to get the picture, and several of Springsteen’s descriptions of his father could very well describe the man for whom I’m named:
At our house, there were no dates, no restaurants or nights out on the town. My father had neither the inclination, the money, nor the health for a normal married social life. I never saw the inside of a restaurant until I was well into my twenties [. . .] My father was a misanthrope who shunned most of humankind.
Springsteen does a spectacular job for depicting the sociological tribalism of Central New Jersey with the rah-rahs (preppies), greasers (northeastern rednecks), blacks, and working class kids, and also, he’s really good at creating tangible settings for the dramas he cinematically recreates. The dramatization of his rise from garage guitarist to regional phenom is especially instructive. We’re talking grit – crashing beneath a boardwalk on the Jersey Shore, shivering in the back of a truck racing through the frigid heartland, living at nineteen on his own in commercial spaces where his “bedroom” consisted of a mattress lying on cold, hard concrete.
What I have discovered about Springsteen himself so far is that from the very beginning he was tremendously ambitious, straight-edged (no booze or drugs ever), meticulous, and obsessive when it came to producing a genre of music he had studied with the profundity of a scholar possessing an encyclopedic historical knowledge of his subject matter.
I’m only a quarter of the way through, but I can assure you that the Springsteen has paid his dues and remained true to the workingman ethos of his background. He doesn’t claim to be a genius – and I agree he’s not a genius the way I consider Tom Waits a genius – but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, I can’t think of any rocker’s body of work that can compete with his in light of Matthew Arnold’s criteria for greatness, i.e., the total number of superb works produced in light of the breadth and significance of those works’ themes.