Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen
Edited by Jonathan D. Cohen and June Skinner Sawyers
Rutgers University Press
He’s called the Boss—and a new book out from Rutgers University Press aims to answer why. Through a series of essays—some historical accounts, some academic assertions, all highly personal—editors Jonathan D. Cohen and June Skinner Sawyers (a Chicago writer who teaches in the Newberry Library’s adult education program) have compiled 26 essays on how the artist from New Jersey has inherited, evaluated, and transformed American popular culture, for five decades and counting.
So why are still talking about Springsteen? Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen lays it out in its introduction—his story seems to contain the heart of the American narrative. Springsteen has been there for all of America’s catastrophes and triumphs, often commenting directly on the climate of the day with his albums. Springsteen turned 70 on September 23, of this year, and as he says in his memoir Born to Run “I work to be an ancestor.”
The essays are loosely categorized in sections, from personal stories to the political and sexual implications behind the music, and range from a single page to almost 20. We encounter a broad picture of Springsteen as a people’s poet, as an example of an artist who can work on multiple levels simultaneously, and a craftsman who deserves thoughtful appraisal.
The book makes multiple references to Springsteen’s string of knockout albums in the mid 70s and early 80s, but attention is also given to his recent creative output: A bestselling memoir. A sold out Broadway show. And albums that continue to add to an already monumental songbook. What begins to emerge is Springsteen as a singularly important rock and roll artist. Whereas the story of the Beatles mostly involves the alchemy of four personalities and the musical invention of studio misfits, while the continuing tale of Bob Dylan seems intentionally ambiguous, Bruce Springsteen’s account is honest and deliberate, dealing with ambition, desire, purpose, and death at all stages through the lens of one American life.
The editors admit that the cross-section of writers is unfortunately mostly male and white, though the stand out essays manage to highlight the universality of Springsteen’s oeuvre—a piece about viewing the Boss’ work through a lesbian lens, calling him a “Butch mother” is insightful and entertaining, and another piece that attempts to reconcile Springsteen’s reliance on black music with his failure to deliver a suitably diverse backing band is uniquely engaging. Elsewhere, an essay from the New York Times’ A.O. Scott aims for a similar point in reference to Springsteen’s fanbase, as it relates his experience of seeing white male concertgoers turn their backs to the stage when “American Skin (41 Shots)” (a song that details the death of an African American man) was played in concert. They returned to enjoying the set once Bruce began playing the hits again. Elsewhere essays by Irish and Australian authors demonstrate his international appeal, and continue to dismantle the Springsteen-as-shallow-patriot myth from the Born in the USA days.
But for all his personas, it’s the arena rocking showman that’s most etched into the public consciousness, and the most illuminating accounts from Long Walk Home are of Springsteen live. They paint a vivid, muscular portrait of an unrivaled performer, and will make you want to seek out bootlegs of the famous shows detailed by the authors, such as the 1978 Roxy recording, ASAP.
While it’s a consistently well-written collection, there is oftentimes a sense of throat clearing as certain essays get started; understandably, each author only has so much space to flex their writerly muscles. Even so, the writing is often too cute by half—a little clever winking goes a long way here, and the inserting of lyrics in the storytelling or moments of musical trivia expose the whole scattershot-ness of the book—a messy grab bag of reiteration and grand dramatic gesture (the aforementioned “American Skin (41 Shots)” is used to make the same point in so many separate essays that you wish the authors could have consulted with one another before picking topics).
Nevertheless, fans will find a lot to love here; the infectious nature of the writing is the collection’s strongest suit, and there is real insight to be mined from many of the authors’ accounts. Taking in the whole picture of the book, with its recitation of facts and fantasies, it reflects much of Springsteen’s career and the man himself. Modulation on the same cosmic and human themes for nearly 50 years, pulling into focus all the contradictions, foibles, and missteps of the long walk through life. Where at first some material might feel redundant, it eventually turns into a chorus of voices, all arriving at similar conclusions from disparate lives.
That’s the greatest joy of Long Walk Home—the little details from fan’s lives, intersecting with moments of historical and artistic significance. As a public artist, Springsteen is a populist in line with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Unburdened by the irony of John Lennon or the cynicism of Dylan, he’s managed to speak to millions of listeners around the world in a way that’s almost impossible to explain. And though the book’s title refers to the song of the same name, I had another song in my head in as I flipped through the pages: “Thunder Road,” with a line that seems emblematic of the life and work of the man we call the Boss—
“Well I got this guitar and I learned how it make it talk/And my car’s out back if you’re ready to take that long walk”.
Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen is available at most bookstores and through Rutgers University Press.