Bruce Springsteen, who persuaded his mother to buy him a guitar after he saw Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show, devoted his life to affirming the twin promises of rock and America. But in the last two decades, digitisation has collapsed the music industry and young appetites have been diverted from sounds to screens. Once, rock music scandalised the adults with sex and revolution. Today, it is a dead art played by dying men. Springsteen, still banging out four-hour shows in his sixties, is very much alive. But he, like the music he loves, has become epically trivial.
This is one reason why Born to Run, unlike the ornate and joyous 1975 song from which it takes its name, is a monody in a minor key. Another reason is that Springsteen’s success seems to have made so little difference to him. Even a four-hour show leaves twenty hours to fill, and Springsteen still struggles not to fill them with non-specific guilt. He wonders if ‘Born in the USA’, on the maladjustment of a Vietnam vet, reflects his ‘survivor’s guilt’ as a draft dodger. But the deeper sources of his guilt are closer to home.
Born in 1949, Springsteen was raised in the working-class neighbourhoods of Freehold, New Jersey. His mother, Adele, was of Italian background; her father was a ‘theatrical, self-mythologizing’ immigrant from Naples who served time in Sing Sing prison. Springsteen’s father, Doug, was a Dutch-Irish boozer who worked in a rug factory