Books

Springsteen: A lesson in myth-making

Lloyd Gedye

You get a glimpse of the man behind the myth in Peter Ames Carlin's biography, "Bruce", chronicling the life of rock 'n roller Bruce Springsteen.

Bruce Springsteen on stage in Johannesburg. (Gallo)

When it came to rock 'n roll myth-making, the young Bruce Springsteen clearly had a talent.

Just like the Woody Guthrie-aping Bob Dylan, the awkward ladies-man poet Leonard Cohen and the druggy proto-punk Lou Reed, Springsteen moulded and shaped his myth from day one – paying careful attention to how his fashion, albums, gigs and public life contributed to the greater narrative of Springsteen as an artist.

And like Dylan, Cohen and Reed, with increased global fame that myth would eventually take on a life of its own, swallowing him up in the process.

But while they sprang from the turbulent creative decade of the 1960s, Springsteen rose to fame in the early 1970s and the politics of the time affected his myth-making in a different way.

Springsteen became the all-American boy, the working-class hero, the kid done good – a living embodiment of the American Dream.

By the time he released Born in the USA in 1984, this myth had grown to such epic proportions that many took the title track for a proud patriotic statement rather than the damning indictment of how America treated its military vets.

American politicians tried to claim him, the media tried to define him, some of his fans misunderstood him. And in the process Bruce Springsteen, the person, got lost.

Deconstructing the myth
As an act of deconstructing the Bruce Springsteen myth, Peter Ames Carlin's new Springsteen biography – plainly titled Bruce and published by Simon & Schuster – works a treat. 

You get a glimpse of Springsteen the man in the biography's 474 pages, good qualities and bad. You get to see the isolated, withdrawn child fascinated by rock 'n roll, the highly ambitious twentysomething determined to be a star, the rocker on the top of the world, the egomaniac that resulted from the global success, the misogynist who treats women like shit, the manically depressed star in decline, the husband, the father, the son and the rock 'n roll survivor.

The American dream/myth is there, writ large in the narrative of Bruce Springsteen. And perhaps Springsteen understands that more than the rest of us, which explains his responses to the war on migrant labourers (The Ghost of Tom Joad), the events of September 11 2001 (The Rising), the second Gulf War (Devils & Dust), George W Bush's presidency (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions) and the 2008 economic decline and banking crisis (Wrecking Ball).

Carlin's biography deals with the myth-making at length, both Springsteen's role in it and the larger national narrative.

In one of the most revealing sections he talks about Springsteen being photographed by Paparazzi in Italy with band member Patti Scialfa, who Bruce was in a relationship with soon after separating from his wife Julianne Phillips. Carlin picks up the story as the scandal breaks in the press in 1988.

Righteousness gone awry
"At the moment, and with memories of Bruce and Juliannes's wedding still fresh in the public mind, photographic evidence of his material two-timing struck at the roots of the moral righteousness he seemed to carry on to stage," writes Carlin. "The vast majority of the popular culture media had come to know Bruce since he'd taken on his clean-cut working-class hero image."

Carlin describes the "it humanises him" fan-boy rationalisation that resulted but points to the conflicts between sin and grace that are so evident in most of his music, claiming that none of it absolves Springsteen of guilt.

What is clear is that the Springsteen myth took a severe blow. With hindsight, Springsteen admits that a public announcement of the separation would have protected Phillips more. "I felt overconcerned about my own privacy," Springsteen admits. "I handled it badly and I still feel badly about it."

They say hindsight is 20/20, but it's in these moments, which shatter the Bruce Springsteen myth, that we see Bruce as never before. Just a regular messed up guy with a talent for songwriting, a born entertainer.

Bruce Springsteen the human is a lot better than Bruce Springsteen the working-class hero. Because at the end of the day he is merely that, a human, like the rest of us, caught in this dance of life. He just graciously offered up a killer soundtrack.


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