It’s a bright autumnal day in London and we, the European press, are at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, undergoing a crisis of faith and collectively wondering if he still has “it”. Would Bruce Springsteen take us jaded journalists where we want to be and make us feel that joie de vivre again?
At this invitation-only event the one-time “future of rock ’n roll” is offering a reading of his autobiography, Born to Run.
Gallic journalist Antoine de Caunes settles into his host’s chair. Suzanne Baboneau, of the publishers Simon & Schuster, tells us that within 120 hours of its release Springsteen’s book went to number one in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Springsteen enters, light on his feet down the stairs, smaller than his rockstar persona; he is 1,77m, and looks older, but not 67 years old. He’s dressed in dark jeans, a light grey T-shirt, black boots and a leather jacket. His grey hair appears darker and his stubbled chin, tan and pierced ears provide a rebel with a cause kick.
De Caunes asks: “Bob Dylan, the father of your country, has just received the Nobel Prize of Literature. Do you think this helps or hurts your chances for next year?”
Springsteen replies: “No, I’m done. I’m not going there.
“I think the first time I heard Bob’s music was on radio, 1965. I heard Like A Rolling Stone. I think it was the first time … I heard a version of my country that felt tangible and real.”
De Caunes pushes: “Still, do you understand people who say: ‘He is not a serious writer, he is only a songwriter?’”
Springsteen drawls: “No, I think he has been such an influential writer [that] long after all of us have [been] forgotten, you know, Bob’s work is going to be ringing out loud and clear.”
De Caunes raises the book: “So you have been writing this autobiography, Born to Run. Did you get the same feeling in writing as you can get in the music?”
Springsteen replies: “Yeah. Yeah, I mean there is nobody applauding it when you’re finished.”
Then Springsteen puts on his gold-rimmed spectacles and leans closer — there’s an intimacy — and in his raspy voice he begins to read from his life story.
Time slips away, back, back to another time, another place and I recall a road trip in the early 1980s to Nongoma in deepest KwaZulu-Natal. We are in a VW Beetle and my friend, Jonathan Holman, puts on Springsteen’s song Badlands, from Darkness on the Edge of Town (released in 1978). A rock chorus belts out of tinny speakers and consumes me:
Trouble in the heartland …/ Talk about a dream,/ Try to make it real …/ Workin’ in the fields/ ’til you get your back burned …
The blue-collar lyrics suited our activist ideals in conflict-ridden South Africa. Springsteen’s biblical imagery from his Catholic childhood appealed to a few local liberation theologists. He caught the thrilling urgency and edgy fear of the time. Candy’s Room and Racing in the Street; The Promised Land; Streets of Fire. After hearing Born to Run (1975) I was hungry for more.
Many a steamy night was spent dancing in Crown Mines and Yeoville, Johannesburg, with “revolutionaries” singing Springsteen’s punchy refrains. The United Democratic Front (UDF) was born in August 1983 and we the righteous were going to make the country ungovernable.
We avoided Born in the USA because the security police had claimed it, playing it on car stereos as they raced about the country detaining activists. They weren’t the only ones who misunderstood the song’s indictment of the Vietnam War: Ronald Reagan tried to commandeer it for his 1984 presidential election campaign song, but Springsteen distanced himself from the incumbent US president. The album Born in the USA (1984) went mainstream and sold 27-million copies worldwide.
Even with this success we never doubted “our” Bruce’s views on South Africa. In 1985 he joined the “I ain’t gonna play Sun City” cultural boycott.
His angry songs War, Born in the USA and the much earlier Lost in the Flood, collided with my own raw grief at the sudden death of my conscript brother, Stephen. He died, aged 18, on “the border”. All I have of him are photographs and a note handed to the inquest court. It states that on December 23, 1977 Rifleman SVP Devereaux RFN 76609213BG was found dead in a military camp in Okankolo, on the Namibian-Angolan border.
In his book, Springsteen describes how he was a draft dodger in 1968: “One fall morning, I popped the metal lid of our mailbox and saw a letter addressed to me. It read, ‘Congratulations, you have been chosen to serve your country in the United States Armed Forces.’ I had decided I was not going to go.”
Springsteen pleaded incapacity to the draft board in Newark. Later, he met the US Vietnam Veterans, Ron Kovic and Bobby Muller, who returned from the war in wheelchairs. “I felt a connection,” said Springsteen. “All I know is when I visit the names of my friends on the wall in Washington DC, I’m glad mine’s not up there.”
Springsteen tells us his mission: “A lot of what the E Street Band does is … shtick transformed by will, power and an intense communication with our audience into something transcendent.”
I felt this transcendence watching Springsteen and the E Street Band perform in Harare stadium at the Human Rights Now tour in 1988.
A few years earlier, I had joined the End Conscription Campaign (ECC), allied to the UDF. Its focus was anti-conscription, and as the South African Defence Force (SADF) marched into the townships, young men began to rebel against army service. Not many know about Springsteen’s part in the ECC. He was slipped a note backstage to call on white conscripts not to serve in the SADF, but there was no need. Springsteen was already with us.
On stage, he said: “I know they processed 15 000 South African visas for the show tonight and I want to say welcome. I’m glad you came. I guess there’s a lot of young guys that are of conscription age for the South African army. Well, I guess there can’t be much worse than living in a society at war with its own people … and I just want to say to you young South Africans that I do not envy your
“My prayers are with the young men here to use your hearts and voices in the struggle for the dignity and freedom of all the African people. There can be no peace without justice and where there is apartheid … systematic or economic … there is no justice and where there is no justice there is only WAR!”
I left Harare feeling half the battle had been won.
Back to Springsteen, who is telling us how he had to retrieve his father from bars. “She would point and say, ‘Go in and get your father.’ Entering my father’s public sanctuary filled me with a thrill and fear. I had been given licence by my mum to do the unthinkable: interrupt my pop while he was in sacred space.”
This fraught relationship with his father is drawn in The Mansion on the Hill and My Father’s House tracks on Nebraska (1982).
On fathering, he says: “We honour our parents by straightening out … the things they had difficulty with, so we don’t pass them on. The difficult thing is not having the role model to learn how to be a very present and good parent. But with Patti’s [Scialfa, his wife and fellow band member] help, I have a good relationship with all my kids.”
He is candid about his “black dog” depression, inherited not from his Italian mother, Adele, but from his dour, heavy-drinking Dutch/Irish pop, Douglas. “I’ve had a long history of it in my family, and it just kind of came down, and picked off certain people … my father … and it did get passed on to me…”.
Ending the reading, Springsteen jokes: “This may be my swan song.” We laugh, then jostle to get selfies and his autograph.
His life’s work is not yet over. Later, in headlines and on radio, he lambasts would-be president of the US Donald Trump for “undermining the entire democratic tradition” and he warmly supports Hillary Clinton.
And, yes, I can confirm Mr Springsteen still has “it”, that magic, that energy, that courage, which speaks for us all in the face of tribulation.
Pat Devereaux is a former South African journalist now working for the Guardian newspaper in London.