By Sarfraz Manzoor
23 September 2014
Bruce Springsteen turns 65 today. This barely seems believable; I was 16 when I first discovered his music so that would make me 43, which also does not seem possible.
In my book Greetings from Bury Park, I have written about how Springsteen exerted a huge influence on my young life. When I was a teenager, he was a role model because his songs carried the promise of an optimistic future, a promise that would be honoured if you worked hard, stayed true to your ideals and, in the words of one song, were prepared for the price you pay.
His music was not suffused with cynicism; these were songs that provided a map that I believed could guide all of us who hailed from unprivileged families in unpromising towns towards the Promised Land.
Springsteen inspired me in my youth, but unlike so much of what I listened to then, Springsteen has not been discarded; he has more to say to me now I am a middle-aged man than he did when I was a boy.
I recently had some bad news and I was feeling pretty low. The future seemed uncertain, and not in a good way. I was wondering if my best days were behind me. What could I do?
I had written and performed a one-man show which argued that it was possible to find the answer to all of life’s questions by consulting the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. That had been a cute pitch for the show, but was it true? I rifled through my Springsteen albums and eventually settled upon the title track to his 2012 album Wrecking Ball.
That album has been described as Springsteen’s most political record, but listening to it I heard something else. "Bring on your wrecking ball," Springsteen sings. "Come and take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got, bring on your wrecking ball."
This was a song about a man declaring he is not going to lie down and let life kick him around. The wrecking ball could be an employer, a former lover or maybe time itself. I listened to that song and it made me feel better and it got me off the floor.
In youth Springsteen’s songs offered hope; in middle-age they offer defiance.
They say that the story is not yet fully written and there is time to still add new chapters. Springsteen has in the last year directed a short film, has been involved in writing a children’s book based on one of his songs, and has made his first cameo appearance in a television drama. He seems less worried now about trying new things than he did in when he was in his twenties and thirties.
In music, he is more productive than ever: in the last 12 years he has released seven albums - the preceding 12 years produced only three. The quality of the work has not been as astonishing as during the Seventies, but the best of it can easily stand alongside his earlier work, and as a live act he remains unsurpassed.
He could easily spend his days in his big house counting his money, so what drives him to keep pushing? I think it is the same reason he continues to look ridiculously good for his age.
It is a desire to be the best version of himself at any given time. That means remaining creatively and politically engaged with the moment. His music charts the changing fortunes of the United States during the last four decades - the eighties recession produced Nebraksa, the Presidency of (the first) George Bush led to The Ghost of Tom Joad, 9/11 inspired The Rising and the most recent recession was depicted in Wrecking Ball. He has not become a nostalgia act, content to, in the words of another song, give his audience nothing more than "boring strories of glory days".
When I was young, Springsteen’s love songs gave me a glimpse of what love could feel like. That hyper-romantic stuff does not quite ring so true these days, but what now appeals to me are the songs about a more mature love. In 1975’s Born to Run he was telling his lover "we can live with the sadness, I'll love you with all the madness in my soul". By 1992 he was acknowledging that "everyone dreams of a love lasting and true, but you and I know what this world can do." That was in a song called If I Should Fall Behind, about the promises we make to each other when we commit. It was one of the readings at my wedding.
By 2009’s Kingdom of Days, Springsteen’s writing on love had evolved still further. "When I count my blessings and you’re mine for always," he sings, "we laughed beneath the covers and count the wrinkles and the grays". Springsteen is the perfect role model for the middle-aged because his music has detailed how love changes over time.
Springsteen has been married to Patti Scialfa for 24 years. He lives close to the town where he was born and is, based on every account and story I have read, a thoroughly decent and grounded fellow. He has managed the trick - one that we all aspire to - of making his work and his passion one and the same, and when gets on stage he is accompanied not only by his wife but by band-members who have been with him since they were all kids growing up on the streets of New Jersey. There are some figures who can only be admired if one separates the glorious work from the less than glorious individual; Springsteen is an exception.
It is one of the pleasures and terrors of youth that so much of the future is uncertain. Middle age holds other terrors, and other pleasures. The pleasures are in the memories of the life one has led; the terror is in the thought that the best has already been.
In youth we latch onto charismatic figures - musical, literary, even religious - who can accompany us as we stumble towards maturity. These guides are often discarded in adulthood, and rightly so.
Springsteen, however, remains. In the way he has lived his life, the work he has created and the influence his work has had, Springsteen remains an inspiration. When he was recently asked what explained his relentless productivity, he said, "There is nothing like the light of the coming train to focus the mind."
The train will eventually come for all of us, but Bruce Springsteen remains a heroic role model of how to make the most of the time we are here. I do not listen to his music today to be reminded of my glory days; I listen because his music offers the hope that there are still better days ahead.