Bruce Almighty

wegman springsteen1v Bruce AlmightyGREETINGS FROM BURY PARK
By Sarfraz Manzoor
Vintage, 269 pages, $13.95

Among the vast library of written material produced in the wake of Bruce Springsteen’s three-plus decades of superstardom—biographies, hagiographies, magazine profiles, fan testimonials, academic treatises, lyric exegeses, blog and private journal entries—Greetings From Bury Park may be the first to blame Mr. Springsteen for the writer’s inability to get laid.

“If not for Bruce,” Sarfraz Manzoor writes near the end of his sadly unilluminating memoir, “I might have grown up and settled for the love of a sensible girl.”

Alas, he discovered that “in hoping for the kind of love found in the songs of Bruce Springsteen, at the age of thirty-three I found myself single and alone: a rebel without a clue.”

A British radio and newspaper journalist who grew up in a working-class Pakistani family near London, Mr. Manzoor does struggle mightily with his own identity—he refers to himself as “comfortably British, occasionally Pakistani, and only technically Muslim”—but it hardly seems sporting to take it out on Mr. Springsteen.

 

AFTER ALL, MR. Manzoor declares that “everything significant that I did or achieved in my life … had its roots in the emotions I experienced” the first night he heard Mr. Springsteen’s music, at age 16. That’s a big statement, and reflective of the sort of absolutism that courses through the book.

For instance, he recounts interviewing the author Elizabeth Wurtzel, a professed Springsteen fan, for a newspaper article. When she turns out to be friendlier than he expects her to be, it simply confirms his “long-held theory that anyone who likes Bruce Springsteen is by definition a nice person.” It’s unfortunate that this scene comes very early on, because it’s difficult to take seriously someone who says such things.

To be fair, his absolutist style may be in part a reaction to his strict Muslim upbringing. His parents, hardworking immigrants who disapproved of the permissiveness of Western culture, could not understand their son’s obsession with this strange, sweaty man screaming about being born in the U.S.A.

But the obsession was, and is, very real. Mr. Manzoor and his best friend, Amolak, a Sikh who introduced him to Mr. Springsteen’s music, call themselves “disciples of Bruce” and quote lyrics “as if they were psalms.” (The religious analogy is often employed by Springsteen fans, and there’s no shortage of it here.) The young men repeatedly ask whether they can call themselves true believers if they fail to follow the values in Mr. Springsteen’s music. Amolak takes the first and most dramatic step, removing his turban and shaving his beard—an act he says is about being true to himself.

For his part, Mr. Manzoor grows dreadlocks, which predictably horrifies his parents, but he promptly cuts them off upon his father’s death. This is one of the more touching moments in the book, an acknowledgment that son and father are more alike than either is able to admit. Or, as he later translates it into Springsteenese, “These days I am a willing prisoner of my father’s house.”

That line is a winking reference to a Springsteen song title—perhaps an inevitable gimmick in a book such as this, but Mr. Manzoor feels compelled to do it at the end of every chapter. Besides being annoying, this manages to turn the very nature of Mr. Springsteen’s brilliance on its head. Mr. Springsteen often begins with a cliché—say, a guy and a girl driving down the highway—and then complicates and personalizes it with precise, unforgettable details (“Fried chicken on the front seat, she’s sittin’ in my lap/ We’re wipin’ our fingers on a Texaco roadmap”); Mr. Manzoor, in contrast, takes what is often a rich personal story and boils it down to a cliché.

He also has an odd and frustrating knack for leaving out the best part of an anecdote. The most unpardonable instance occurs in a London courtroom, where Mr. Springsteen has come to testify in a case against bootleggers. Mr. Manzoor’s editors are kind enough to send him to cover the proceedings, but of course we know why he’s really there. During a break in the action he approaches Bruce, who has been momentarily left alone by his lawyers, and sits down next to him. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for—indeed, some of us have imagined it all our lives. So, what happens?

Bruce sees that he is reading The Grapes of Wrath, and says, “‘That’s a great choice. You’ll learn more from that than any newspaper.’” And here I relate, in near-totality, Mr. Manzoor’s account of the rest of the conversation: “We talked for about twenty minutes. It was strange and yet it didn’t feel strange.” Sorry, did you say twenty minutes?

These sins would be more forgivable if the book were more insightful. Bruce Springsteen’s importance to Mr. Manzoor is no doubt profound, but it takes nothing away from this feeling—well documented by many others—to observe that Mr. Manzoor still does not seem to have absorbed some of his hero’s most important lessons.

Take for instance that woman problem: Mr. Manzoor refuses to date a Pakistani because, he sniffs, she would never understand the meaning of “Born to Run.” Maybe so. But when he insists on this simplistic, idealized notion of love, Mr. Manzoor overlooks Mr. Springsteen’s own recognition, at age 25, of the intrinsically imperfect nature of romantic relationships. “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night,” the protagonist in “Thunder Road” pleads to the woman he wants to run away with. “You ain’t a beauty but, hey, you’re alright/ And that’s alright with me.”

So sayeth the Boss.

 

Jesse Wegman is managing editor of The Observer. He can be reached at jwegman@observer.com.