More Honest than Honest: On Springsteen and Storytelling

When I was in graduate school, I took a seminar on autobiography. We read Rousseau, Malcolm X, Zora Neale Hurston, and a ton of others. As we crawled closer and closer to contemporary autobiography (we read Mary Karr and Michael Ondaatje), our conversations turned to how those writers represented their lives in more and more subjective ways–some even going so far as to invent aspects of their stories in order for the narrative to be more compelling or to approach a more clear thesis.

This revelation led the class discussion toward something that only humanities students would come to–a distinction between fact and truth. In other words, even though autobiography is, by definition, a recounting of the events of a person’s life, can that person take some artistic or creative liberty in how they represent that life if it allows them to better reach a truth? In art, we seemed to ask, is truth more important than fact?

Don’t get it twisted. I believe that in most aspects of life, representing things factually is absolutely imperative. But art has always struggled with representations of the real. Artists have long acknowledged that no matter how hard we try to represent reality, we can only ever create a simulated version tainted by our own experience.

At the same time, art is more ambitious than fact sometimes. While the sciences are interested in explaining objective reality and fixing tangible problems, the arts have always intended to mine human experience for meaning. To that end, the minutiae is less important than the big picture result–the facts are less important than the truth. And artists will bend the facts of their stories to make them fit the truth they are trying to reveal.

Which is a long way of saying that I wanted to talk about Bruce Springsteen.

Originally, I wanted to write this article as a review of Springsteen’s newest album–Western Stars–which has garnered significant critical praise from all over. I wouldn’t be able to say much about that album that hasn’t already been said, honestly. So, I want to look at The Boss from a slightly more zoomed out perspective.

If you zoom out from his current release just a little, you’ll bring into focus his stint on Broadway and his memoir, Born to Run, from which the Broadway show borrows heavily. Here is where I want to start with my analysis of Springsteen–the creation of a persona in his music, and how he used that persona (and other characters he’s created) to tell decades worth of compelling and human stories.

Born to Run

I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I. By twenty, no race-car-driving rebel, I was a guitar player on the streets of Asbury Park and already a member in good standing amongst those who “lie” in service of the truth . . . artists, with a small “a.”

Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run, page xv

That is how Springsteen chooses to open his memoir. Those are the first sentences. And so begins a confessional chapter in the career of the Boss. He was admitting something that long-time fans probably knew–he was not the protagonist of his music.

When we read novels, we know that there may be elements of the author’s life scattered throughout, but we never assume the author is telling us his story. That assumption–the the writer is the main character–is something that plagues poetry and, by extension, lyrics.

Springsteen admits in his book and in his Broadway special that the protagonist of his music was meant to feel familiar–a sort of “Everyman.” But he also admits that he drew significant inspiration for the narratives of his music from his father. His monologue during “My Father’s House” includes the following:

“Now those whose love we wanted but didn’t get, we emulate them. That’s the only way we have, in our power, to get the closeness and love that we needed and desired. So when I was a young man looking for a voice to meld with mine, to sing my songs and to tell my stories, well I chose my father’s voice. Because there was something sacred in it to me. And when I went looking for something to wear, I put on a factory worker’s clothes, because they were my dad’s clothes. And all we know about manhood is what we have seen and what we have learned from our fathers, and my father was my hero. And my greatest foe.”

Bruce Springsteen, Springsteen on Broadway, “My Father’s House”

So, even though Springsteen never held down a 9-5 job, even though he didn’t race his car in the street, and even though he didn’t ever really “run” away from home (he jokes in the special that he currently lives 15 minutes from his hometown), he still was able to tell beautiful and probing stories that resonated with millions of people all over the country and all over the world.

His confession here does not weaken his music or cheapen it. If anything, it makes it somehow more powerful, more mythical (if that’s possible). He calls it his “magic trick,” and it’s something all of us–if we intend to tell lies in service to the truth–must have.

“Thunder Road”

“Thunder Road” is the opening track of Springsteen’s second album, Born to Run. According to Adam Gold at American Songwriter, “Under the threat of losing his deal with Columbia, Springsteen’s future was riding on the success or failure of Born To Run, and he meticulously wrote, and re-wrote, and re-wrote its verses, and obsessively recorded, and re-recorded, and re-recorded every detail in aim of perfection – working his E Street soldiers like a general entrenched in a fight for life.” The Boss had been accused of being too wordy on his debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., and the album was far from a hit. But legend has it that when the studio executives heard the epic “Thunder Road,” they felt they had something in Bruce.

“Thunder Road” is (maybe) my favorite Springsteen track. I cite it here as an example of excellent storytelling.

First, there is the structure of the song. It defies typical pop music structural expectations by moving in a straight line from beginning to end. There is no refrain that is repeated at the end of each verse. There is something of a chorus in the middle, but it’s never repeated.

Then, there are the two main characters–the unnamed protagonist and the object of his affection, Mary. They are living in a dead end town and the protagonist is here to convince Mary to run away with him. She can spend all summer waiting for a “savior to rise from these streets,” or she can “take that long walk, from your front porch to my front seat.” It’s a town full of losers, after all, and they are pulling out in order to win.

In this song, Springsteen gives us setting, character, motivation, plot, conflict, and climax all in the lyrics. The resolution, if it’s there, is in the long musical outro. He doesn’t tell us here what the two will do, but he’s given us enough in the story about them for us to frame our own opinions about the fate of our protagonists.

Western Stars

So what is there to say about the newest album from Bruce Springsteen? It’s a solo album, so don’t expect typical E Street Band musical arrangements. Instead, expect cinematic orchestral scores. The Boss has spent the last number of years in confessional storytelling mode, so don’t expect that here–at least, not in the way that he has done in the past.

Instead, Springsteen has written a short story collection–a series of character studies set against the backdrop of the American West. A stunt man, a hitch hiker, and many other characters populate this album.

You’ll read that the musical arrangements propel this album–that, for once, Springsteen’s lyrics take a backseat. While that is a justifiable observation, epic narratives and brilliant metaphor aren’t needed for lyrics to propel an album. Sometimes, especially in Americana (I would argue), the beauty is in the simplicity.

On Western Stars, we see a Bruce Springsteen painfully aware of his own mortality, but just as hesitant to face it head-on as anyone else might be. Instead, he explores mortality and the pains and failures of the mostly-lived life through his characters. No life is without its regrets, and I think Springsteen explores some of his own through the stories he tells here. He also gives the listener room to explore some regrets and failures of his own.

But the album isn’t without hope. Don’t think that. The Boss, for his gritty take on blue-collar America over the years, has never left his listeners without hope. Hope on Western Stars most often takes the shape of negative space left in the tracks in the form of long musical interludes. The arrangements themselves offer these characters the hope they need at the ends of their journeys.

In these ways, Springsteen carries on his life’s work–to lie in service to the truth. These stories aren’t about Bruce Springsteen, but they are–and by extension, they are about all of us.

And that is art. And art is more honest than honest.


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