Bruce Springsteen’s Redemption Song
Bruce Springsteen broke a guitar string about halfway into one of his early songs, “Spirit in the Night,” the first time I ever saw him perform, in April 1974. The show, billed as a “dance concert,” was held in the cafeteria of the student center at Seton Hall University. I’d heard good things about Springsteen from older friends in our mutual home state of New Jersey—one of his early bands, Steel Mill, had played at my buddy Doug’s eighth-grade graduation party—but my expectations were still low. After all, this was just a dance show by a Jersey Shore bar band in a college cafeteria.
The rhythm section kept up the tune’s loping jazz-funk groove while Springsteen walked off-mic to his guitar case and got out a replacement string. There were no roadies on the side of the stage. There was no stage. While he attached the new string, Springsteen told a long, casually paced story about growing up in Freehold, a blue-collar town by the Jersey Shore. He talked about trying to tune his first guitar, alone in his bedroom, while his father hollered at him through the vent in the floor between his room and the kitchen. He described how his dad would turn up the gas range to try to smoke his son out of the house. The tale was poignant, funny, and vividly detailed—an impeccable little narrative that came off as earnest and utterly spontaneous. He wrapped up the story just in time to test the new string by strumming the downbeat chord of the song’s chorus. I curled up in the palm of Bruce Springsteen’s hand.
Over the next few years, I saw Springsteen perform more than a dozen times, mostly in other small venues: in the gym of Cedar Crest College in northwest Pennsylvania, a short bus ride from my hometown in northwest Jersey; and at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, where I watched him play two consecutive sets to a room of 40 or 50 people for three nights straight. In nearly every show, he told the same anecdote about his first guitar and his father, usually placing it neatly in the middle of the song “Growin’ Up.” He developed and embellished the anecdote, show by show, eventually working up a version that ended with both his parents giving him career advice. His father would exhort him to give up the “goddamn guitar” and learn to do something more practical and remunerative, like practicing law. His mother would reply, “No, no, no—he should be a author [sic]. He should write books. That’s a good life.” (One version of this monologue, from a concert in 1978, is captured on the recording of “Growin’ Up” included in the Live/1975–85 boxed set issued by Columbia Records in 1986.)
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Over the three decades since that early phase in Springsteen’s long career, he has had a very, very good life without writing books. There was only one hardcover title credited to him until this year. In November 2014, just in time for winter-holiday sales, Simon & Schuster published a glossy-stock edition of the lyrics to one of Springsteen’s story songs, “Outlaw Pete,” with illustrations. By that time, though, he had begun work on what would slowly take form as a memoir, writing longhand in notebooks that he carried with him on the road. Inevitably titled Born to Run, it was published this fall to instantaneous success on the best-seller lists, providing Springsteen with his first No. 1 hit in a couple of years.