‘I Made It All Up’: Bruce Springsteen and the Art of Invention

‘We are ghosts or we are ancestors in our children's lives. We either lay our mistakes, our burdens upon them, and we haunt them, or we assist them in laying those old burdens down and we free them from the chain of our own flawed behavior.'

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Springsteen on Broadway’

I recently watched ‘Springsteen on Broadway’ (Netflix), the film record of Bruce Springsteen’s 2017-18 residency at the Walter Kerr Theatre, New York.

I’ve always been an admirer of Springsteen. As a youngster I fell for the romantic picture he painted of blue collar America. He sang about his family and friends, home and hometown; about cars and girls, escape and the open road; about dancing in the dark and racing in the streets; about broken promises, burnt out Chevrolets and the land of hope and dreams. He was a sentimental storyteller, a soulful troubadour. He was the future of rock’n’roll.

‘Springsteen on Broadway’ is not a conventional gig. The singer weaves stripped down versions of some of his more famous numbers around a spoken narrative about his life and career. For the most part he stands alone on stage, in dark jeans and t-shirt. Lean and tanned, face chiseled, eyes beaming, a smile never far from his lips, he commands our attention.

He explains what his hometown, Freehold, New Jersey, meant to him when he was growing up.

‘There was a place here. You could hear it, you could smell it. A place where people made lives, and where they worked and where they danced, and where they enjoyed small pleasures and played baseball, and suffered pain; where they had their hearts broken and where they made love, had kids; where they died and drank themselves drunk on spring nights; and where they did their very best, the best they could to hold off the demons outside and inside that sought to destroy them and their homes and their families and their town.' 

Springsteen speaks with a preacher’s zeal, testifying to the ties that bind. He prompts us to recall why we loved the United States in the first place; reaffirms the fundamental dignity of the working class; reminds us that masculinity doesn’t have to be toxic; restores our faith in the transformative power of rock’n’roll music.

‘The joyful, life-affirming, hip-shaking, ass-quaking, guitar-playing, mind and heart-changing, race-challenging, soul-lifting bliss of a freer existence… All you had to do to get a taste of it was to risk being your true self.’

Springsteen’s emotive themes resonate particularly in a contemporary setting, when there’s so much doubt about America and its place in the world – when there’s a darkness on the edge of town.

‘These days some reminding of who we are and who we can be isn’t such a bad thing.’

There’s a compelling moment early in the show when Springsteen comes clean about the source of his classic blue collar narratives.

'I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged with just a bit of fraud. So am I … I’ve never held an honest job in my entire life. I've never done any hard labor. I've never worked nine to five… I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about. Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which he has had absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up.'

Though Springsteen had little first hand experience of working class struggle, it becomes clear, nonetheless, that his storytelling gift was rooted in observation of the community he grew up in, awareness of its strengths and passions, sensitivity to its trials and tribulations. Moreover, many of his songs were inspired by his father - ‘my hero and my greatest foe’ - a complex man of Dutch Irish descent, who was haunted by depression and drink and struggled to find work.

‘Now those whose love we wanted but didn’t get, we emulate them. It’s the only way we have in our power to get the closeness and the love that we needed and desired.’

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It is conventional to characterize composers and storytellers as lonely, isolated souls, as outsiders struggling to articulate their unique personal vision and experience. Springsteen’s narrative, by contrast, expresses an intense sense of belonging - to family, community and country – harnessed to acute observational skills. He has profound empathy and emotional intelligence. He feels for other people. And this equips him to tell their stories.

Springsteen should prompt all of us working in creative industries to interrogate our own roots, background and community: How have my history and culture made me? How have I been influenced by my parents and siblings? How am I a product of my hometown?

When confronted by a taxing brief or a blank sheet of paper, when struggling for a creative spark, the inspiration may be close to home.

 

'I met her on the strip three years ago
In a Camaro with this dude from LA.
I blew that Camaro off my back and drove that little girl away.
But now there's wrinkles around my baby's eyes
And she cries herself to sleep at night.
When I come home the house is dark,
She sighs "Baby did you make it all right."

Tonight, tonight the highway's bright,
Out of our way mister you best keep.
'Cause summer's here and the time is right
For racing in the street.'

Bruce Springsteen,’Racing in the Streets

No. 213

The Definition of Empathy: Aretha, The Queen of My Soul

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'The moment I wake up,
Before I put on my makeup,
I say a little pray for you.
While combing my hair now,
And wondering what dress to wear now,
I say a little prayer for you.'

 Aretha Franklin, ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ (Burt Bacharach / Hal David)

Once when I was at school I read an interview in the NME with Kevin Rowland (of Dexy’s Midnight Runners) in which he declared that he couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without listening to Aretha Franklin singing ‘I Say a Little Prayer.’

I knew what he meant. The gently swaying piano intro, Aretha’s confident gospel tones, the tight backing vocals punctuating her thoughts, the mounting intensity at the chorus - and then that point of clarity:

'My darling, believe me.
For me there is no one but you.
Please love me too.'

Aretha seemed to reach out to me across an ocean, across a great divide of experience, ethnicity, gender and age. The soaring vocals, the spirituality cut right through me. Her voice demolished the distance between us. It was immediate, urgent, gentle and kind.

'Sometimes, what you’re looking for is already there.’

Aretha Franklin

Born in Memphis in 1942, raised in Detroit, the daughter of a famous preacher, Aretha learned to sing and play the piano in church. But her recording career was initially only moderately successful. Then she teamed up with producer Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, and in 1967 they went down to record at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. There followed a cascade of luminous soul classics: ‘I Never Loved a Man,’ ‘Respect’, ‘Natural Woman’, ‘Chain of Fools,’ ‘Think’ – variously expressing ardent affection, enduring love, self-righteous anger and bitter regret. She was hugely successful, universally acclaimed, justly lauded as ‘The Queen of Soul’.

Yet things were never easy for Aretha. She had a tough childhood and a challenging youth. She was unlucky in love and struggled with health issues. In her rare interviews she seemed shy, wary and a little awkward. She wasn’t a natural celebrity and, as she had a fear of flying, she seldom traveled abroad in later life.

Aretha’s warm mezzo-soprano articulated the breadth of these experiences, embracing all the joy, heartache and pain. She could be weak sometimes, and at other times compellingly strong. She always communicated an intense humanity.

'All I'm askin'
Is for a little respect when you come home (just a little bit).'

Aretha Franklin, ‘Respect’ (Otis Redding)

Of course, for the most part Aretha didn’t sing her own words. She was channelling the thoughts of the lyricist, inhabiting the character of the song. But she had a special talent for expressing real feeling, true emotion. When I listen to ‘Don’t Play That Song’, ’Aint No Way’,’ Until You Come Back To Me’, I feel what Aretha feels. I second that emotion.

We talk a good deal about empathy in business nowadays. We define it as the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. But what does this really mean?

Aretha teaches that empathy is not a rational condition. It’s not a cold calculation of other people’s circumstances. It is a profoundly emotional state. It’s the ability to identify shared human truths; to really feel for someone; to share their sentiments; to inhabit their triumphs, challenges and disappointments - despite differences of background and experience, regardless of race, colour or creed.

'Baby, will you call me the moment you get there?
Baby, will you do that, will you do that for me now?
Oh, call me, call me the hour, call me the minute, the second that you get there.
Oh, call me, call me, call me, call me, call me, call me, baby.'

Aretha Franklin, 'Call Me'

One of my favourite Aretha performances was on her own composition, ‘Call Me’. In the song she pleads with her departing partner to phone her the moment he arrives at his destination. (It was inspired by an overheard conversation on Park Avenue, New York.) She also seems to me to be expressing a lover’s patience: the willingness to wait until the object of her affection reaches the same level of understanding – until he finally gets there. I have always found this deeply moving.

I was never quite sure Aretha understood how much she meant to others - to people with very different personal narratives. If she were here now, I’d want to replay to her the words she sang so tenderly on ‘Call Me’:

'My dearest, my dearest of all darlings,
I know we've got to part.
It really doesn't hurt me that bad,
Because you are taking me with you,
And I'm keeping you right here in my arms.'

 Aretha Franklin, 'Call Me'
 

(Aretha Louise Franklin, 1942 - 2018, RIP)

No. 193

Are You a Cowboy or a Farmer? Managing the Tension Between the Pioneering Spirit and the Need to Cultivate The Land

Frederic Remington 'A Cold Morning on the Range'

Frederic Remington 'A Cold Morning on the Range'

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! features a song called ‘The Farmer and the Cowman.’ This jaunty number explores the musical’s central tension between the farmers, who have an instinct to settle and cultivate the land, and the cowmen, who naturally want to move on and pioneer new territories. Brian Eno, the master musician, producer and artist, has observed that this tension, between cultivating and pioneering, is fundamental to our understanding of creativity.

‘I often think that art is divided between the farmer and the cowboy: the farmer is the guy who finds a piece of territory, stakes it up, digs it and cultivates it – grows the land. The cowboy is the one who goes out and finds new territories.’

It’s a thought provoking distinction. And perhaps all of us in the field of commercial creativity should ask ourselves: What kind of creative am I? Am I more adept at pioneering or cultivating? Am I a cowboy or a farmer?

I suspect most of us would like to imagine ourselves as cowboys or cowgirls; as experts in reframing, redefining, reinventing; as intrepid adventurers intent on discovering new frontiers. It’s the more romantic choice. Indeed this is Eno’s own understanding of himself.

‘I would rather think of myself as the cowboy, really, than the farmer. I like the thrill of being somewhere where I know no one else has been.’

But let’s not be too hasty.

Many of the world’s great artists could perhaps be described as more farmer than cowboy. Think Mondrian, Giacometti, Rothko or Pollock. They worked within a coherent conceptual space, repeatedly revisiting a relatively narrow terrain; making it their own through variety and depth of expression. They ‘grew the land.’

Grant Wood 'American Gothic'

Grant Wood 'American Gothic'

Moreover, in the world of commercial creativity ongoing brand success requires high levels of consistency and coherence: campaigns that build a positioning; initiatives that sustain and evolve a theme; executions that nurture an idea with imagination and freshness.

My former boss Sir Nigel Bogle would often talk of a brand needing to ‘move it on without moving it off.’ This task can be just as critical and just as challenging as complete reinvention. It requires the calibrated embrace of context, a more nuanced understanding of past success, a respect for ideas that were not invented here. But do we properly appreciate, celebrate and reward the ability to evolve, nurture and cultivate? Do we really acknowledge the worth of the creative farmer? Or will we always prefer our creative cowboys and cowgirls and their mastery of the blank piece of paper?

Perhaps a little predictably, I’m inclined to say that a healthy creative business needs both cowboys and farmers. We need to be able to pioneer as well as to cultivate; to reinvent as well as to refine. And critically we need to know when to adopt each of these two modes; when to stick and when to twist.

As Rodgers and Hammerstein put it, ‘the farmer and the cowman should be friends.’

‘Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a
cow,
But that's no reason why they cain't be friends.’ 

The Farmer and the Cowman, Rodgers and Hammerstein

No.115

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 9

A Creative Business Is No Place for a Recluse

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I’ve been listening to the piano works of Charles-Valentin Alkan. Romantic and intense, thoughtful and complex, sensitive and slightly troubling.

Alkan was a friend of Chopin who lived, composed and performed in Paris in the nineteenth century. He was clearly something of an eccentric. His works included The Song of the Mad Woman on the Sea Shore and Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot.

Alkan had been a child prodigy and was a popular concert pianist.  But, after the age of 35, he became progressively reclusive. There are only two photographs of him and in one of them he has turned his back on the camera. Alkan died in 1888 at the age of 74, reputedly when a bookshelf fell on top of him. One obituary rather cruelly observed: ‘Alkan has just died. It was necessary for him to die so that we could be sure of his existence.’

I think most people that have worked in the creative industries have at some point yearned to give it all up and get away. Creativity is all about self-expression and purity of intent. But business is all about listening, adapting, negotiating. There’s an inherent tension here, a source of daily frustration.

However, whilst the reclusive life is available to the fine artist, the commercial creative needs to engage with the world, to be in tune and in touch with culture. The best commercial creatives in my experience watch film, play music, visit galleries, read books, carve spoons. They have interests outside work. They have a hinterland.

 

Denis Healey RIP (1917-2015)

‘I have always been as interested in music, painting and poetry as in politics.’
Denis Healey, The Time of My Life

I should mark the passing of Denis Healey.

Healey was a towering political figure in my youth. He was Defence Secretary in the '60s as Britain adjusted to life after Empire; and he was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1974 to 1979 when the economy was fragile and politics were turbulent.

Healey was fit for this combative environment as he had seen active service during the Second World War. He’d been beach master during the allied invasion at Anzio. Fiercely intelligent, eloquent and argumentative, Healey didn’t suffer fools and didn’t go out of his way to make friends. This may explain why he never quite made Prime Minister. He was a rarity in British politics: a robust moderate.

Healey also popularised the use of the term ‘hinterland’ to indicate depth of experience, interests and character. He argued that the absence of culture compromised politicians’ judgement.

I’m sure this could be said of business people too.

 

Celts: An Aesthetic for the Networked Age?

I recently attended Celts, an exhibition of art, armour and decorative craft at The British Museum.

It transpires that the idea of a unified Celtic identity is rather misleading. The word ‘Celt’ was used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans to describe various neighbouring European tribes. It was only in the eighteenth century that antiquarians applied the term to the early inhabitants of Britain and to the modern peoples of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. The curator suggests that the one consistent theme across all uses of ‘Celt’ was a sense of ‘otherness.’

Certainly you get a sense that the Celtic aesthetic was completely at odds with the classical beauty of the Greeks and the hard, straight lines of the Romans.

There are copper cauldrons embossed with curling, curving coils; there are knotted, twisting, turning tendrils; decorated armlets, anklets, war horns and neck rings. There are shields etched with spiralling serpents and sinuous snakes; bronze boars and birds, basket weave broaches. There are richly wrought Christian croziers and carved stone crosses.

I couldn’t help thinking that this beguiling, looping, patterned aesthetic is appropriate to the networked age. It suggests that within our maddeningly complex, connected world there can be beauty, order, design.

I wonder should we consider Celtic PowerPoint?

No. 52