5 1/2" x 8 1/2"
Biography & Autobiography
Walk Like a Man
Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen
certain songs, they get so scratched into our souls
You know those mornings where you wake up and feel paralyzed, crushed by the weight of the world? I had one of those mornings the other day. It was a perfect storm of things: my job at the bookstore always goes nuts in September, and I was scrambling, falling further and further behind. I was also behind in book reviews I had committed to, both in the reading and in the writing. My new novel would be coming out in about a month, and I was a mess. And then there was the usual stuff: the grind of a merciless schedule, trying to balance family and work and writing with too few hours in the day, all with too little money in the bank and too many bills outstanding.
A gnawing sadness and sense of desperation clung to me as I worked on the morning’s writing, as I got ready for work, as I left the house.
And then it got worse.
It was raining. Not a hard rain, more of a heavy mist, with a strong enough wind that an umbrella would have been no use. Not that I could find mine.
There was something appropriate about standing at the bus shelter, cold and getting wetter by the minute. They call it pathetic fallacy when an artist uses the external conditions of the world to comment on a character’s inner state; when it happens in real life, it just feels . . . right. I was miserable, and everything was conspiring to keep me that way.
Well, almost everything.
One thing you should know about me, right off the top, is that music is absolutely central to my life. I’m almost always plugged in. I’ve got a stereo at home and one down at the rented office space where I spend most of my time. I’ve got a stereo in my office at the bookstore and about 400 CDs there; the bulk of my collection—probably 2,500 CDs—is at the Treasury. I’ve always got music playing.
Especially on my commute.
So that morning, mired in funk (and not the good James Brown/Parliament/George Clinton kind), I was plugged in. And over the course of the bus trip, things started to get a little better. An old Tori Amos song came up on the rotation, and I smiled. Lissie’s cover of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness” perked me up.(2)
And then, as I’m getting off the bus . . . here come the drums.
I had never heard of the Rogue Traders before watching Doctor Who’s third-season finale. I still don’t know much about them, except that they’re an Australian band.
But I broke out into a huge grin. I did a little shuffle-bop across the sidewalk. The rain stopped, and the clouds parted,(3) and the world was right again.
It was “Voodoo Child.” The song itself is a catchy, hooky little number, percussive and danceable.(4) But the boppiness of the song alone wasn’t the main reason my day turned.
I started renting my office space, a basement suite down the street from our house, a couple of years ago. My wife, Cori, and son, Xander, began referring to it as the Treasury.(5) Most weekend mornings, Xander comes down to the Treasury to hang with me while we give Cori a few hours to sleep in. It’s one of my favorite parts of the week. It’s our time, his and mine. I’m supposed to be writing, but we end up hanging out, watching TV shows on DVD. We’ve gone through Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: The Series several times each. The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother.
And Doctor Who.
Our second or third time through that show’s latest series, Xander developed a fondness for a song that played in the season-three finale: the Rogue Traders’ “Voodoo Child,” with its refrain of “Here come the drums, here come the drums.”(6) It comes at a big moment in the show, and he started to sing along, then asked if we could find it on YouTube. Which we did.
He fell in love with it.
Ten years old, and my son was falling in love with music through a song from a semi-cheesy British sci-fi TV show.(7)
Whenever I hear that song, I can’t help but think of Xander, those weekend mornings hanging out with him, that look of sheer joy he had on his face when he listened to the song for the first time.(8)
How can that not make me smile? How can that not bring me joy?
That’s what music does for me.
This book is about the way certain songs accrete meaning for me, layer upon layer, like how a pearl forms. In particular, it’s about the songs of Bruce Springsteen, songs that have acquired the power, the resonance, to stop me in my tracks.
But before I go any further, I have to get a bit of housekeeping out of the way: Mom, Dad? You were right.
It’s a painful moment when an almost middle-aged man has to admit that, in print.
I don’t know whether it was my mother or my father—or both—who informed me, when I was at a highly resistant age, that there’s a fine line between foolishness and idiocy. I’ve spent the intervening three decades or so demonstrating the validity of their point. I’ve done some foolish things, and I’ve been an idiot.
This book manages to straddle that fine line nicely.
It’s foolish, on the face of it, to even consider writing about Bruce Springsteen. He’s perhaps the most written-about figure in contemporary music, neck and neck with Bob Dylan. Every stone, it seems, has been turned. You can’t write a biography (although I’ve included a short one here, for context), straight music criticism, lyric analysis, political or social perspective: they’ve all been done before. Hell, even the subject of Springsteen’s fans has been done to death.
And then there’s the idiocy factor. No one is sure who said it first (I lean toward Charles Mingus or Frank Zappa), but it’s been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s a clever phrase, with a Zenlike clarity. And you don’t realize just how true it is until you try to describe a song. You can pile on the metaphors, you can distil things down to fundamentals, you can apply theory, but the song always eludes your grasp.
Given that, why bother trying?
Well, there are two reasons.(9)
First, because it’s Bruce Springsteen. Plain and simple. Springsteen and his music have been a touchstone in my life—literal, emotional, and psychological—for more than twenty-five years now, and aside from a few newsgroup posts and a couple of record reviews, I’ve never written about him.
The second reason gets to the heart of things, and it goes some distance in obviating both the foolish and the idiotic aspects of this whole endeavor. The second reason has to do with songs, and their significance in our lives.
All of us have songs that touch our souls. Everyone. Even if it’s the national anthem at a hockey game, or the song played at your father’s funeral, there will be a song that affects you somehow.
That individual response to a song, that resonance, is at the root, I think, of the power of music.
It’s a delicate balance, recognizing those individual responses, and writing about my own. Because let’s face facts: I’m nothing special. I’ve written a few books that some readers liked, and I know some cool people, but when it comes right down to it I’m as ordinary as it gets: a smalltown kid living in a small city, a guy with a job and a wife and a son. Hell, we own a minivan.(10) I’m not famous, I’m not in recovery, I’m not bouncing back from a scandal, and I haven’t triumphed over crippling odds. I’m just a guy with a laptop and a record collection.
And that’s the point, really. This book is about me only because it has to be. If you want to read a redemptive tale about a guy who lost a fortune and a career on hookers and blow, this isn’t the book for you. That’s not my story.
These are my stories.(11)
And they revolve, in some way or another, around the music of Bruce Springsteen.
I’ve been a Springsteen fan since I was barely a teenager. By most people’s definition, I’m a fanatic: following tours through the Pacific Northwest to see multiple nights of shows in a row, standing in line all day in the pouring rain or the baking sun to get close to the stage, watching setlists develop in real time via the internet, ordering bootlegs from shady vendors in Italy, that sort of thing.(12)
It’s deeper than fandom, though. I’ve grown up with Springsteen as the soundtrack to my life. From my often painful childhood and youth in Agassiz, British Columbia, dreaming of escape, to finally getting out of town, falling in love, becoming a husband, becoming a father, finding a place in the world, the music of Bruce Springsteen has been there.
And I’ve decided the best way to demonstrate what those songs mean to me is by putting together a mix-tape.
I know that dates me, in this age of CDRs and iPod playlists. The term “mix-tape” is a bit of an anachronism, but the spirit behind it isn’t.(13) How many teenagers have attempted to woo the boy or girl of their dreams with a carefully composed mix-tape, using somebody else’s words when they were too afraid to use their own? How many road trips have had their own personalized soundtracks? How many hours have been spent in darkened bedrooms, surrounded by albums and scraps of paper, making notes and getting the flow of the music absolutely perfect, balancing the highs and the lows before committing the results to tape?
The mix-tape is a means of communication, a code at times so intricate its true intentions might never be known.
Mix-tapes can also serve as repositories of personal meaning. Writer-director Cameron Crowe(14) apparently has a closet full of aging mix-tapes. Every few months he’d compile what he’d been listening to lately, writing the date on each tape case. Thus, each collection is a snapshot of a moment in time, not only of the music, but of the meaning, a glimpse—like a fading journal—of the past. Mixtapes such as these are touchstones, repositories of memory and experience, with each listening drawing forth events and emotions with Proustian clarity.
A month or so ago, Peter and I found one of my old mix-tapes in his mom’s car.(15) We figured out, eventually, that I’d made it for him twelve or thirteen years before. Playing it was like opening a door, stepping back into our earlier lives.
That’s what writing this book has been like: opening a door into the past. And I’ve had to resist the almost overwhelming temptation to slam it shut again as quickly as I can, because along with the good memories, there are ghosts behind that door, things I’ve spent a lot of years running from.
We can’t control what meaning attaches itself to songs, and sometimes the feelings elicited by a piece of music aren’t the sort to make the clouds part and the rain go away. That’s all right, though. Any mix-tape is gonna rise and fall. They’re like life that way.
So here’s how this book works. I’m going to start with a brief biography of Springsteen himself. Nothing too in-depth, but enough to get everyone on the same page as to where he comes from and what’s happened to him along the way. Bruce 101, if you will.
And then we’ll get to the meat of the thing: Walk Like a Man. A mix-tape. Liner notes by yours truly.
Just to be clear, in no way is this intended as a generic “greatest hits” package. It’s not just a collection of my favorite Springsteen songs either. “Incident on 57th Street,” for example, is easily in my top five songs from the man. But it’s not here because it doesn’t resonate for me the way “My Hometown,” a song I don’t particularly care for, does. The version of “Born to Run” here isn’t the anthem most people would recognize, and “Dancing in the Dark” appears in a later, guitar-driven live version rather than the familiar, synth-heavy top ten hit from 1984. There are also a handful of lesser-known songs, including “Living Proof” and “Thundercrack,” that are among the most meaningful of Springsteen’s oeuvre, for me.
I’ve added enough information about each song to allow you to make a copy of Walk Like a Man for yourself. I hope you do. I hope you load the songs onto your mp3 player and have them playing as you read. And I hope my stories add a little something to your own.
1. Unless otherwise noted, all lyrics quoted in this book were written by Bruce Springsteen. These, however, were composed by The Hold Steady
© 2011 D&M Publishers Inc.
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