Tramps like us: In Bruce Springsteen’s fearless memoir, his story becomes our story

First look at the first album. Photo from "Born to Run" (©Art Maillet)
First look at the first album. Photo from “Born to Run” (©Art Maillet)

Born to Run
by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster, pp. 510, $32.50)

Bruce Springsteen fans of a certain age have been living with his warm, sturdy, weathered voice in our ears for more than 40 years. The music has seeped into our DNA. The concerts are tattooed into memory. The lyrics, interviews and biographies have been parsed like holy scripture. We thought we knew all there was to know about our hero The Boss.

It turns out, we were right, and we were so wrong. We might have correctly intuited the shape of his life from the music. But as the 67-year-old Springsteen reveals in his new autobiography Born to Run, the details of that life are darker, tougher, more joyous and so much sadder than fans might have guessed. There are parts of this generous, fearless and gracefully-written book that will pierce your heart. Springsteen’s prose voice — like his songwriting voice, part-compadre, part-carney-barker, part-hardscrabble poet — is  so familiar by now, that his pain isn’t the pain of some remote celebrity, it’s the pain of a family member. And it hurts.

The story begins in Freehold, New Jersey, with a couple of stunning chapters about growing up in the bosom of an eccentric (sometimes poisonously so), blue-collar extended family of first- and second-generation Irish and Italian immigrants. He is doted on by his paternal grandmother, with whom he and his parents, Douglas and Adele, live. His grandmother Alice was long ago broken by the death of her five-year-old daughter Virginia. His grandparents’ house — “the greatest and saddest sanctuary I have ever known” — is dominated by the loss of the little girl. “Her portrait hovers, breathing a ghostly air into the room and shining her ill-fated destiny over our family gatherings,” he writes. “Her seemingly benign gaze … communicates, Watch out! The world is a dangerous and unforgiving place that will knock your ass off your tricycle and into the dead black unknown …”

Grandma Alice takes up little Bruce as a surrogate for her lost child. He is spoiled and protected, with no bedtimes, no rules. “The grinding hypnotic power of this ruined place and these people would never leave me. I visit it in my dreams today … It was a place where I felt an ultimate security, full license and a horrible, unforgettable boundary-less love. It ruined me and it made me. Ruined, in that for the rest of my life I would struggle to create boundaries for myself that would allow me a life of some normalcy in relationships. It made me in the sense that it would set me off on a lifelong pursuit of a ‘singular’ place of my own, giving me a raw hunger that drove me, hell-bent, in my music. It was a desperate, lifelong effort to rebuild, on embers of memory and longing, my temple of safety.”

The yearning for home recurs throughout the book; in a shiveringly evocative passage, he cruises the old neighborhood, even after his family has moved on and success has claimed him, driving slowly after midnight, parking on his old street, but not getting out of the car.  

By the time Bruce is elementary school age, his unorthodox family situation has rendered him “an outcast weirdo misfit sissy-boy … alienating, alienated and socially homeless.” He is unable to conform to the outside world and, especially, to Catholic school. Reclaimed by his parents, he is moved into a house darkened by the hulking silence of his father, a laborer with a boxer’s menace who will later haunt Springsteen songs like “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Factory” and “Independence Day.” As he once did in long, therapeutic stage raps, Springsteen lays out an eerie portrait of his father sitting at the kitchen table, seething and smoking cigarettes in the dark, waiting to lash out at his disappointing son: “He loved me, but he couldn’t stand me.”

Why did his sunny, lively mother submit to her husband’s passive hostility and madness, he wonders. “What penance was she doing? What did she get out of it? Her family? Atonement? … She loved my dad and maybe knowing she had the security of  a man who would not, could not, leave her was enough.” When Bruce is 19, Douglas packs Adele and their youngest daughter, Pam, off to start a new life in San Mateo, California, a last-chance power drive to lift the blackness in his mind. “Get out, Pops! Out of this fucking dump,” his son writes. “How much worse off can you be?” At the time that Bruce signs with Columbia Records, in 1972, he is essentially homeless, crashing in a surfboard factory. He has no credit card or bank account, has never visited a dentist and has yet to learn how to drive.

It wasn’t just the generation gap that had colored the mood inside the Springsteen home. “We are the afflicted,” is how Springsteen characterizes the “serious strain of mental illness” that plagues the Irish side of the family. In later chapters, he writes movingly of his father finally being diagnosed and treated for the depression, paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that had gone unnamed for so many years.

Springsteen candidly details his own depression and anxiety, which arrived in his 30’s around the time of his mid-eighties Born in the U.S.A. superstardom and his short-lived marriage to actress Julianne Phillips. Therapy helps, and also touring and playing. But it remains an ongoing struggle. He writes of antidepressants that stop working and bring on non-stop crying jags, unyielding depression kept secret while recording 2012’s Wrecking Ball (his greatest late-career record to date) and a terrifying six-week bout with “agitated depression,” during which, he writes, “I was so profoundly uncomfortable in my own skin that I just wanted OUT. … For the first time, I felt I understood what drives people toward the abyss.”

Knowing the extent of Springsteen’s battle with depression now brings deeper meaning to a song like “Your Own Worst Enemy” from 2007’s Magic (“There’s a face you know/ Staring back from the shop window/ The condition you’re in/ You just can’t get out of this skin”). Taken literally and not as a metaphor for economic hard times “This Depression” from Wrecking Ball (“I’ve been down, but never this down/ I’ve been lost, but never this lost”) becomes simply shattering.

In an extraordinarily revealing section, Springsteen traces the connection between his father’s and his own mental illness and “the rigidity and the blue-collar narcissism of manhood ‘50s-style … The hard blues of constant disaffection … A misogyny grown from the fear of all dangerous, beautiful, strong women in our lives crossed with the carrying of an underlying physical threat, a psychological bullying that is meant to frighten and communicate that the dark thing in you is barely restrained. You use it to intimidate those you love.” Springsteen describes himself during his marriage to Phillips as a “passively hostile actor” given to “cowardly” acts of emotional violence. “I wanted to wound and hurt and make sure those who loved me paid for it. It was all out of the old man’s playbook.”

Too many rock memoirs merely polish the image set in granite. In Born to Run, Springsteen tells us from the first sentence that he is tinged with fraud, and then, sets about showing us his fragility, his failures, his shame and finally, with almost palpable gratitude, the hard-won lessons that taught him how to be a caring, emotionally open modern man. The pumped-up physique from the Born in the U.S.A. days was, he ruefully explains, “a symbol of an imaginary commanding manhood and masculinity” akin to the ship captain’s hat his father took to wearing in California. “For me there’d be no captain’s hat! Just ‘THE BOSS!’. Bulging muscles, judo and the lifting of thousands and thousands of pounds worth of meaningless objects every … single … day.” Some folks who stopped listening to Springsteen in 1985 might be surprised at how forcefully he takes apart that guy in the red bandana and the muscle shirts.

One of the strengths and pleasures of Born to Run is how we can discern the origin of songs rising up through the narrative, without Springsteen even mentioning their names. The shaggy boardwalk stories recounted here cast your memory back to the bar-band, Jersey shore world of “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and “The E Street Shuffle” from his first two albums. The self-lacerating “Brilliant Disguise,” “One Step Up” and “Two Faces” from Tunnel of Love (1987) immediately spring to mind while reading his searing descriptions of his failures as a husband to Phillips. And he returns again and again to the class realities internalized from growing up poor in an economically depressed region in the 1960s, realities incorporated into his late-70’s-early-80’s albums Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska, and the song “My Hometown” from Born in the U.S.A..

The teenager from the wrong side of the tracks who played for the preppies in wealthy Rumson, New Jersey eventually bought a house there. But Springsteen tells of being acutely uncomfortable with being tagged as “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt” when he decides to write about the lives of Mexican immigrants and the rural poor on the 1995 solo album The Ghost of Tom Joad. His songs are “emotionally autobiographical,” he explains. “The piece of me that lived in the working class neighborhoods of my hometown was an essential and permanent part of who I was … No one you have been and no place you have ever gone ever leaves you. The new parts simply jump in the car and go along for the rest of the ride.”

Springsteen’s assessments of his talents swing between wry humility (“I was not a natural genius”) and a seasoned showman’s pride in knowing how to leave it all on the stage. Though he makes it clear that he is THE leader of the E Street Band (“Democracy in rock bands, with very few exceptions, is often a ticking time bomb”), he writes with appreciation and love for the men and women with whom he makes music; they are a long-running train filled with like-minded saints, sinners and lost souls (as he mythologized the band in the beautiful 1999 track “Land of Hope and Dreams”) and they’ve endured through time and age and even beyond death. As for his fans, he counts us as an essential part of the equation. Almost as if he’s breaking the fourth wall, he tells us of struggling to find a spark while rehearsing the band in isolation for its 1999 reunion tour, until some die-hards loitering outside the hall were let in and “suddenly there it was  … there’d been only one thing missing: you.”

Springsteen’s writing is as windy and wordy, funny and rich as his lyrics. There are a few patches of mere workmanlike prose when he gets into track-by-track roll calls of one album or another. But most of his insights into how particular songs came to be are essential. He angrily defends “American Skin (41 Shots)”, the song he wrote about the 1999 shooting death of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York City police as he was reaching for his wallet — a song that has proven to be sorrowfully prescient. He writes that no other song of his, including “Born in the U.S.A.” (famously misinterpreted as a patriotic ditty by then-President Reagan) “ever received as confused and controversial a reaction … it truly pissed people off. It was the first song where I stepped directly into the divide of race and in America, race cuts deep.” For writing “American Skin,” he was given a plaque by his local NAACP: “I was always glad that the song brought me just a little closer to the black community I always wished I’d served better.”  

If the soul of the book is Springsteen’s long road to making peace with his father and himself, its heart is his marriage to Patti Scialfa, the singer and Jersey girl who cracked the E Street Band’s boys club when she joined in 1984. Springsteen writes tenderly of Scialfa, who seems a patient, loving and no-bullshit-brooking soul. Under Scialfa’s guidance, Springsteen learns how to be a true partner, as well as how to be a father to their three children — no easy task, having grown up nearly feral himself. And becoming a father brings him closer to Douglas. When the latter lays dying, Springsteen makes a head-to-toe study of the elder man’s illness-ravaged body: “It was not shined or shaped into a suit of armor. It was just the body of a man … His feet … are the feet of my foe, and my hero. They are crumbling now at their base. … I feel warm breath as my lips kiss a sandpaper cheek and I whisper my good-bye.”

Just when you think Born to Run has hit its final emotional peak, out comes one last, house-lights-up encore, an autumnal last paragraph in which Springsteen once again speaks directly to us. He has worked and fought to understand his own life, he writes, to turn its peaks and valleys into music, into shared experience. “This, I presented as my long and noisy prayer, my magic trick. Hoping it would rock your very soul and then pass it on, its spirit rendered, to be read, heard, sung and altered by you and your blood, that it might strengthen and help make sense of your story. Go tell it.”

I heard my story writ large the first time I heard Darkness on the Edge of Town. It was 1978, I was 21 and it gave me the courage to believe that I wasn’t going to be stuck in this house of fear and this defeated Northeast town forever. I carried it with me to California. It inspired and comforted me through depression, parenthood, illness, middle age, loss. And whenever Springsteen comes to my town, I’m there, surrounded by my fellow aging fans, with our aches and pains of body and soul. We all have our own stories, but in every one of them is a chapter called “Rock and Roll Salvation,” subtitled “Bruce.” We are all part of that train that Springsteen set in motion, and now, with the bittersweet summing-up of Born to Run, he’s taking us home.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape 2016

Bruce Springsteen at City Arts And Lectures (10/5/16)


A few quick notes on Bruce Springsteen’s San Francisco stop on the Born to Run book tour …

The event was a 90-minute onstage interview for the venerable City Arts and Lectures series. It  was recorded for San Francisco’s public broadcasting station KQED-FM, and will air on KQED at 1 p.m. Sunday (Pacific time), Oct. 16. City Arts broadcasts also air nationally; check your public radio station for details.

The talk took place at the 1700-seat Nourse Theater. Before the doors opened, fans congregated at the stage entrance and posed for selfies in front of the poster advertising the sold-out show. It was a concert atmosphere, except for one thing: Bruce T-shirts were equalled by San Francisco Giants gear. This is after all, an even-year October.

Once doors opened, the line to purchase pre-autographed copies of Born to Run snaked outside into the courtyard. In the auditorium, fans posed in front of the sparse stage set — two empty orange wing chairs, a little table and a vase of tulips — cradling their copies of the book, or sang along to the Springsteen greatest hits mix blasting from the speakers while checking the National League Wild-Card game on their phones. We are Springsteen fans. We are Giant.

Springsteen shambled onstage looking like his off-duty self in spiffy leather jacket, gray T shirt, distressed jeans and biker boots. He acknowledged the roof-rattling ovation with an “Oh, stop” wave.

The interview itself, while enjoyable, offered little that differed from the Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and Terry Gross interviews. The problem was the interviewer, Dan Stone. Stone seems to be the go-to guy for City Arts’ interviews with rock musicians. I don’t know how his interview with Patti Smith the night before for the same series went, but he was overmatched for his interview with Elvis Costello last year (Costello, a superb interviewer himself, simply took control and steered the program in a more enlightening direction) and un-imaginative for Springsteen. Maybe he was going on the assumption that his audience was not made up of music fans, but this crowd — many of whom became members of City Arts and Lectures in order to purchase tickets at the member pre-sale — needed more than questions that covered the same well-trod ground. Also, dude — so many Dylan references!

Bruce read a few passages from the book, and did a lovely job of it — as soon as someone emerged from the wings to loan him a pair of drugstore reading glasses. Springsteen explained that he left his own readers “in the car … They’re weird and red, ’cause I only use them in bed.” Now there’s a mental image that was almost worth the price of admission.

The audience erupted in loud, long applause when Stone brought up Springsteen’s cancellation of the E Street Band’s North Carolina concert earlier this year in protest of the state’s anti-LGBT laws. “Folks that are real fans of our music will understand where I’m coming from,” said Springsteen.

Asked if he thought about creating a persona or stage name, like Bob Dylan did, when he was starting out, Springsteen deadpanned , “I did do that. It’s been so mysterious that nobody’s caught on yet.”

In response to a question about why he dropped the bar band sound of his early days when he signed as a solo artist with Columbia, Springsteen answered, “The degree of difficulty of the lyrics on Greetings from Asbury Park would have made people twice as drunk.”

One random but amusing tidbit about the night he first met producer Jon Landau at Joe’s Place in Cambridge, Mass. (the “I’ve seen rock and roll future” gigs): Organist Danny Federici played the shows with a huge white bandage on his forehead covering an injury sustained in a car accident. Federici happened to have been wearing a huge cowboy hat at the time of the crash. The hat,  says Bruce “saved him from disfigurement.”

Asked which current artist deserves to be called the “Voice of a Generation,” Springsteen talked up Kendrick Lamar.

Springsteen got a bit feisty when answering Stone’s question about writing from the working-class perspective after he attained wealth: Nobody “asks Martin Scorsese why isn’t he in the mafia.” Continuing on, Springsteen talked about how working-class roots never leave you, joking, “That’s how you get Howard Hughes naked in a chair in his 60’s saving Kleenex … which I hope I don’t end up that way.”

Ticket holders were given the opportunity to submit questions via email before the program, and Stone read a few of them to close out the evening. From this part of the interview we learned that, as a child, Springsteen’s favorite book was The Wizard of Oz. (“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” he chuckled.) As an adult, Springsteen really dug reading Moby Dick (“more than you ever wanted to know about whales”), the great Russian novelists and the dark fiction of Jim Thompson and Flannery O’Connor.

And that was that. Springsteen didn’t pull out a guitar and play (a long-shot hope, for sure), and there was no meet-and-greet, though some fans got lucky and caught him for an autograph while he was leaving the theater. But it was a chance for us to see Springsteen in an intimate venue, give him and his beautifully-written autobiography some love, and to assemble with fellow fans between concert tours. And the Giants won. Best of all worlds.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016






Bruce Springsteen turns 67 … and 30


What's New - Nov. 1979 (Springsteen photo by Andrea Laubach)
What’s New – Nov. 1979
(Springsteen photo by Andrea Laubach)

Bruce Springsteen turns 67 today, and he’s celebrating with a new autobiography Born to Run,  to be released Sept. 27. But as we all age along with Bruce, I’m thinking back to a landmark birthday he shared with an arena full of us in 1979. It was Madison Square Garden, Sept. 22, the first night of Springsteen and the E Street Band’s two-night appearance on the bill of the all-star MUSE concerts against nuclear energy. At midnight, as September 23 dawned and Bruce turned 30, he stopped the music to say, “Well, I’m over the fucking hill. I can’t trust myself anymore,”* and then threw a chocolate birthday cake into the seats down front.

Luckily, I was up in the rafters on my own dime, a baby rock critic covering the show for a free Boston music rag called What’s New. It was a wild night. The Boss was in a bit of a mood, and he was exorcising it all on stage. But this show was unforgettable for more than Bruce’s birthday, or the gigantic charity rock show vibe. This was the night Springsteen debuted “The River” from an album that wouldn’t be released for more than a year. He sang this new ballad at a deliberate pace, with immediacy and fierce passion, with no guitar in hand, no barrier, between himself and the audience. The performance was hypnotic and heartbreaking, and watching him, it was as if the thousands of souls around me slipped away; there was only the sweeping, piano-driven melody and the open-ended story of young lovers beset by accidental pregnancy and harsh economic realities.

One part of the song, in particular, grabbed me. It was the moment the narrator slips into a memory of the river as Eden, the lovers “tanned and wet down at the reservoir,” only to dissolve it in the next frame with a vision of the lovers visiting a dry riverbed: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse …” Did Springsteen become a poet that night, or was my 22-year-old self finally alive to the poetry that was there all along?

With the 2016 River anniversary tour just wrapped up, it seems like the right time to share this clipping from the vault and remember the night that journey started. Happy Birthday, Bruce Springsteen. Long may the river run.


*He’s quoting a saying we had back in the ’60s and 70s: “Don’t trust anybody over 30”.

(P.S. – I know it looks like the review says “his 11 hour set,” but, sadly, that was a typo. I think it was supposed to say “1 1/2-hour”. And love to my friend Holly Cara Price, who made this adventure happen.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

Here’s “The River” from the movie of those MUSE concerts.

Flower power

Passion vine from my backyard, tweeted to the Flower Report in June. ©Joyce Millman                        


2016 has often seemed like a march of brutal, hate-fueled events — terrorist attacks, gun violence, bigotry at home and around the world. What do you do when you’re overwhelmed by sadness, sickened by the worst humanity has to offer? How do you hold on to your last shred of optimism that the good in this world can outlast the bad and the ugly? It’s a small gesture, but an enriching one: You stop and tweet the roses.

Every Sunday since March 13, Alyssa Harad has been hosting the weekly Flower Report (#FlowerReport) on Twitter. Followers are invited to tweet photos of blossoms from their corner of the world using the FlowerReport hashtag, and Harad signal-boosts each photo with a retweet. Harad, the Austin-based author of the memoir “Coming to My Senses,” is cultivating a global community of Flower Report fans.  When your Twitter feed is filled with  pictures of blooms posted from Portland and Paris, Brooklyn and Melbourne, Hawaii and Barcelona, not to leave out England, Italy, California, Alaska, Saskatchewan, Japan, Kansas, Montana, Germany, Idaho, Massachusetts, Scotland and South Africa, you start to feel your pessimism drain away. For a while at least, the world is smaller, friendlier and filled with loveliness.

Some Flower Report contributors send photos taken at famous botanical gardens; others tweet pictures of their own backyards, or of urban sidewalk planters, or wildflowers by the side of the highway. Some tweeters are knowledgeable about the names of flowers, while others ask for help in identifying a juicy specimen snapped on a walk around the block. The variety of flowers on display is head-spinning: Hydrangeas, peonies, sunflowers, thistle, delphiniums, poppies, fuchsias, lilies, milkweed, daisies, lupines, sweet peas, hibiscus, bougainvillea and a riot of roses.

The Sunday Flower Report is a weekly reminder that there is beauty in this world. But, by coincidence, many of the awful events of 2016 have taken place on Sundays — on March 27, it was the terrorist attack in Lahore, Pakistan;  June 12, the mass shooting at Orlando’s gay dance club, The Pulse; July 3, the terrorist attack in Baghdad; July 17, the killing of three police officers in Baton Rouge.

Harad says that the Flower Report wasn’t meant to be a response to these terrible events, but it evolved into “a meeting point as we live through them. I try hard not to tweet or RT anything but the Flower Report on Sunday, even when there is breaking news. I try to hold that space open. But I do usually tweet something to connect the Flower Report to ongoing events, because I find it weird and upsetting not to acknowledge world events and collective pain. Connection is always better than suppression.”

Harad first made this connection when news of the Easter Sunday suicide bombing in Lahore broke during the Flower Report. “The attack took place in a park — a park! [Gulshan-e-Iqbal] So horrifying. And I thought, well, there must be photographs of this park. A park is a place where, among other things, people go to look at flowers. And I was right. There were many heartbreaking photos taken by people who had gone to this beautiful, popular park to look at the scenery. So I tweeted a few of them. It was a small thing, but sometimes small things help. It felt very important to me to see and know that park as something besides a site of terror.”

More Sunday horrors followed, and on those days, the Flower Report became a space of remembrance and peace. The following two tweets are from July 3, the day of the Baghdad suicide bombing that killed more than 300 people in the city center and a busy shopping mall.

On July 10, after a bruising week that included the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the sniper attack on police officers in Dallas and the arrest of more than 100 protestors at a demonstration against police brutality in Baton Rouge, Harad tweeted, “Friends, I am here for your flower report filings throughout the evening. We need extended blossom time this week.”

Judging from Twitter profiles, the majority of Harad’s contributors have been women. Which makes sense — Twitter can be a hostile environment, especially for women, but the Flower Report is an oasis of civility amid the never-ending fractiousness.

The alluring blooms, and the conversations that spring up about them, are also difficult to scroll past with just a cursory glance. These posts defy the lightning pace of Twitter, coaxing you to slow down and really look at the flowers. This Georgia O’Keeffe-like effect of the Flower Report lingers between Sundays. All week, you’re more alert to the flora around you, ditching selfies to focus on a velvety red rose glistening with raindrops, or a field of lavender bending in the breeze — little visual gifts to share with your fellow Flower Reporters. Says Harad, “I love the singular vision of individual tweets. Everyone has a different way of looking at flowers.”

Harad says it’s impossible to choose favorite posts, but “we definitely have some VIP correspondents who provide beautiful photos every week and really let us in to the floral life of their regions. I have a correspondent in Hawaii who always sends me something shocking that I’ve never seen before, and one in England who seems to be some kind of herbalist and sends flowers with glorious, hilarious names. I also get very excited when someone reports from a place we haven’t seen before.”

Harad is such an enthusiastic and committed caretaker of the Flower Report that it’s surprising to learn she did not plant this virtual garden. That honor belongs to writer Teju Cole. “Teju did many interesting Twitter projects,” says Harad. “In fact, he was so good at Twitter that he had to quit . . . Because I’m such a Teju Cole fan and have a much smaller Twitter presence than he did, I was nervous about trying to take on the report, but I did a search of the hashtag and turned up a bunch of tweets from people saying they missed it, including one from myself in 2015 wondering if I should restart it. So I figured, well, why not try it? Someone who knows Teju personally told him about the revival and he wrote me a very sweet note after the first round, which gave me a wonderful sense of official permission.”

And what happens when the frost comes? Harad says, “That is open for discussion. I originally intended it as a spring project, but people were very vocal about their need for it to continue [through the summer], so here we are. I would love it if we got more tweets from the Southern Hemisphere as their spring and summer arrive.” For now, Harad says, she plans to keep the Flower Report going at least through the fall.

I’ll add my voice to the call for Flower Report to stay with us year-round. We desperately need this little place of refuge to revive our battered spirits in a world that often seems determined to crush them. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

(To contribute to the Sunday Flower Report, use the hashtag #FlowerReport or tweet your flower photos to @alyssaharad.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016



Tales from the bargain bin: An embarrassing obsession


The Folk Years: Blowin’ in the Wind and Yesterday’s Gone (Time-Life). CD set found for $2.99 at Goodwill.

The first time I saw The Folksmen (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap fame in their guise as a 1960s folk trio), I laughed so hard I had an asthma attack. But I also had an overwhelming sense of deja vu. The Folksmen were a deeply sourced spoof of the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters, seminal, earnest folk groups of the pre-Beatles era. This was some of the earliest music I remember hearing on my parents’ radio and hi-fi, along with Peter, Paul and Mary and the Brothers Four. How dead-on an imitation was The Folksmen? Take a look.

Kingston Trio:

The Folksmen, from A Mighty Wind:

And here are the Limeliters, circa 1981, singing the obvious model for “Old Joe’s Place,” “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight.”

For the full Limeliters/Folksmen comparison, this nine-minute European TV performance is pretty much a condensed version of A Mighty Wind. Enjoy, ye of stout heart!

Born on Saturday Night Live, the Folksmen were later resurrected in Guest’s underrated 2003 mockumentary A Mighty Wind, which chronicles the making of a public-televison reunion concert of the group and their ’60s folk scene compadres the New Main Street Singers (read: New Christy Minstrels/the Rooftop Singers) and Mitch and Mickey (Ian and Sylvia).

I should explain at this point that I’m obsessed with A Mighty Wind. I will watch that movie anytime, anyplace. This Is Spinal Tap is considered the masterpiece of the Guest/McKean/Shearer oeuvre. But I rate A Mighty Wind almost as highly because it nails the specifics of a less popular genre just as flawlessly. If you’ve ever seen the strangely watchable PBS Pledge Break special Folk Rewind starring John Sebastian (please tell me I’m not the only one who can’t look away), then you’ve seen just how right A Mighty Wind got everything about the music, the personalities, the gentle, well-meaning mindset of the people who performed and consumed this godawfully polite aural Cream of Wheat.

And I speak as one of them. Like many white kids in metropolitan and suburban areas on both coasts in the late ’50s-early ’60s, I grew up with folk music, or rather, a steam-cleaned, relentlessly smiley version of folk music, as part of daily life. I listened to Pete Seeger’s children’s albums (but not his overtly radical stuff), sang black spirituals like “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” with no context at Jewish summer camp and endured the dreaded group-singing of “Erie Canal” and “Goober Peas” in elementary school. Hellishly cheery easy-listening folk tunes like “Walk Right In” by the Rooftop Singers and white-washed folk exotica like the Calypso-ish “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” by the Serendipity Singers were Top Ten radio hits. (Where did the Lumineers come from? Here’s your answer.) In one universe, Bob Dylan was kicking folk music’s slumbering ass, energizing it with a protopunk’s spirit. In another, there was … this crap. I bet the killjoys who shouted down electric Dylan at Newport really dug this stuff. They deserved it.

Given all of this, you can probably imagine my fiendish delight when I came across Blowin’ in the Wind and Yesterday’s Gone, two discs from the eight-disc 2002 Time-Life CD set The Folk Years in a Goodwill crawl. Sixty songs in all, encompassing some of my most beloved/hated folk-mush ever, including “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down,” “Walk Right In,” the Sandpipers’ supremely dorky version of Pete Seeger’s “Guantanamera” and — YES! — the Limeliters’ “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight.” Now I can guffaw through my very own A Mighty Wind/Folk Rewind in the privacy of my home, whenever the spirit moves me!

I know, I’m being harsh. Even the blandest of this music had its purpose. Without it to learn from and, ultimately, rebel against, we might not have had Dylan, or the skiffle-bred Beatles, or the trailblazing British electric folkies Fairport Convention.

This Time-Life set (the half I own, anyway) does a good job of charting the evolution of folk B.D. (before Dylan) and after. Dylan’s influence is all over the Blowin’ in the Wind disc, even if he isn’t (the lone Dylan track, “Boots of Spanish Leather” is on disc 7, which someone must have grabbed before me). After the mostly quiet acoustic tracks on disc one of Blowin’ in the Wind, the crystalline opening electric guitar chords of the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” kick off disc two like a wake-up jolt of caffeine right to the bloodstream. Whoever segued the Byrds into the Kingston Trio’s smugly snoozy version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” has a wicked sense of humor. Two songs later, there’s the peerless Dylan interpretor Johnny Cash making “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” into a Johnny Cash song, and, you know, I think this was $2.99 very well spent.

The Folk Years also excels at conveying how the folk movement brought world music, part of that Mad Men-era tentative dip into suburban multiculturalism, to white middle-class American homes for the first time. If you’re of my vintage, I bet there was a Harry Belafonte album or two in your parents’ hi-fi cabinet. Belafonte’s beautiful “Jamaica Farewell” is included here on Blowin’ in the Wind, and his indestructible “Banana Boat Song (Day-o)” is on Yesterday’s Gone.

Blowin’ in the Wind also contains a live recording of Pete Seeger doing “Guantanamera,” complete with his educational spoken interludes explaining the song’s origin as a poem by Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti. It’s an important piece of political folk music. But, forgive me: besides making it impossible to watch PBS pledge programming or old Limeliters videos without falling into shrieking laughter, A Mighty Wind has also ruined educational spoken interludes about Hispanic history for me — see Christopher Guests’s epic downer of a Spanish Civil War ballad “Skeletons of Quinto” in A Mighty Wind.

I bought The Folk Years only partly as a snort. There are folk-pop songs here that I loved on AM radio as a kid, and continue to love now, even in their unfashionableness: “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” written and sung by the exquisite Gale Garnett, the winsome pop-ified cover of Ian and Sylvia’s “You Were on My Mind” by We Five, “Someday Soon” by Judy Collins. And there are some crucial ’70s folk/pop/country hybrids — Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” and Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” are two — that take your breath away with their emotional depths.

But while I’m happy to finally have many of these songs on CD, my chief motivation in pouncing on this Goodwill treasure wasn’t to complete my collection. It was pure, gooey nostalgia — for these songs that create sense memories of early childhood,  for how my dad used to think the Kingston Trio’s “Charlie on the MTA” was the cleverest song ever to hit WBZ-Boston’s airwaves. But mine is a nostalgia combined with an unsentimentalist’s horror of nostalgia. And maybe that’s the snarky quirk in my character that compels me to see the humor in the unabashed sincerity and unconscious elitism of the palest of these performances, and in tributes like PBS’s Pledge Break folk specials. In all of the above, I think, the creators of A Mighty Wind are my kin.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016



Empty nest: Letting Timmy go



Timmy and Buster brought me back to baseball, and only partly because the former Little League mom in me couldn’t resist players named “Timmy” and “Buster.”

In 2009, with an empty nest, I found more time to follow the San Francisco Giants again, and to really learn the game. Tim Lincecum, the slender, free-spirited “Freak” with the spring-loaded, high-kick windup, and his crewcut battery mate Buster Posey quickly became my Special Boys™. In the wake of the Barry Bonds steroid scandal, Tim became the new face of the Giants, and not a moment too soon. His shoulder length hair flying from under his cap, his chill attitude, even his pot bust (which launched a bootleg trade in “Let Timmy Smoke” T-shirts), all seemed made for San Francisco. He was never “Tim” or “Lincecum,” to fans, always “Timmy.” Even the Giants’ broadcasters, even manager Bruce Bochy, called him by the diminutive. But this little guy was as tough as they come. In his prime, his changeup was electric strikeout stuff, and he is the only pitcher to no-hit the same team in consecutive seasons (the San Diego Padres in 2013 and 2014, taking 148 pitches to complete the first one).

Without Timmy, the Giants would not have won their 2010 World Championship (and maybe not 2012, either). It’s that simple. In his first postseason start, Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS against the Atlanta Braves, he recorded 14 strikeouts in a complete game two-hit victory. In Game 6 of the 2010 NLCS against the Philadelphia Phillies, he entered in relief on one day’s rest, helping the Giants clinch the pennant. It was Timmy who started Game 5 of the 2010 World Series, who was carried on his teammates shoulders with his long hair blowing in the Texas breeze, at game’s end.

Timmy’s complicated delivery started to go wonky in 2012, but he accepted a postseason bullpen role with his typical graciousness and grit. He was the winning pitcher in long relief in the Giants’ 2012 NLDS victory over the Cincinnati Reds. Despite the no-hitters in 2013 and 2014, Timmy’s pitch command was erratic and their were stints on the DL throughout 2014 and 2015. So, Timmy the free agent and his surgically repaired hip are now off to the L.A. Angels. I wish the Giants had given him another shot, but he wants to be a starter again, and that wasn’t in the plan here. I miss him and wish him the best of luck. The only bright side to Timmy leaving home is that at least he didn’t go to the Dodgers.

I’ll never get used to a Giants rotation that does not include Tim Lincecum. If he had played for Boston or Philly, he would have been eaten alive when he started to skid. But whenever he took the mound at AT&T Park, he had the collective hope and good vibes of this fan base beamed his way. Maybe it was his sweet disposition, or the fact that he grew up before our eyes, or the nervy competitiveness he showed even in his most dispiriting seasons, but the Giants’ faithful never gave up on him. We had seen his brilliance, and we never stopped believing we would see it again. Call us softies, but he was our Timmy, and we loved him unconditionally.

Tim Lincecum’s Greatest Hits

1.First San Francisco Giant to win the NL strikeout title (256), 2008

2.Back-to-back Cy Young Awards, 2008-09

3.Tied with Sandy Koufax as the only two pitchers with multiple Cy Young Awards, multiple no-hitters, multiple All-Star Games and multiple World Series championships

4. Complete game shutout with 14 strikeouts (a Giants’ postseason record), Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS vs. Atlanta Braves

5. Winning pitcher, Game 5 of the 2010 World Series, the Giants’ first World Championship of the San Francisco era

6. Strikes out 13 in a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres, July 13, 2013 (and is the recipient of a patented Buster Hug)


7. First pitcher in MLB history to throw no-hitter against the same team in consecutive seasons, June 25, 2014

8.Winning pitcher in relief, Game 4, 2012 NLDS vs. Cincinnati Reds (forcing Game 5, which the Giants won on the way to their second World Championship)

9. 108-83 career win-loss record with the Giants

10. THIS:

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

A world turned purple

San Francisco City Hall lit purple for Prince
San Francisco City Hall pays tribute to Prince

The world turned purple when Prince died. Civic buildings and bridges in his Minneapolis home town and around the world were awash in his signature color. On Saturday night, heading out of San Francisco south on highway 280, with Sirius XM’s Prince tribute channel on the radio, we passed a suburban mall’s roadside message board flashing Prince’s glyph, the control tower and international terminal of San Francisco International Airport glowing purple ahead of us in the distance. As a fragmented society, we agree on so little, culturally. But we agree on Prince. And we agree on how to celebrate him. By allying himself so inextricably with a color (and, later, a symbol — turns out, he was a branding genius), Prince left us with a natural way to express our grief and love for him in the public space, writ large and without words.

It may feel like no artist’s passing has ever been so publicly and universally mourned , but that’s not entirely true. When John Lennon was murdered in 1980, the shock of it was vast and all-encompassing; fans spontaneously gathered to sing his songs, and President Jimmy Carter issued a statement saying in part “John Lennon helped create the mood and music of the time.” Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 also elicited worldwide anguish. The outpouring of emotion for David Bowie has yet to abate.

But there’s something about our reaction to Prince’s passing that feels bigger, more visible, expressed across the full spectrum of class, color, gender and generation, across nations and in so many different corners of daily life. Part of that is down to the times in which we live, with the internet functioning as the town square or church hall allowing us to connect with others in our grief, and to spread ideas for public tribute. And part of that is because baby boomers are now the elder generation; at the time of Lennon’s death, there were still people alive who regarded the Beatles as noise, nuisance and a menace to society.

But, mostly, the intensity of our public mourning for Prince comes down to the totemic appeal his music held for us, the stunning, life-changing majesty of it. Prince came onto a divided scene in the late ’70s. Pop music was factional and fragmented along racial lines, along the “(white) rock vs. (black) disco” mindset. And he wove together everything — pop, rock, soul, disco, R&B, punk, funk, new wave — into something new, beautifully inclusive and alive. Prince’s music united us and opened our ears and minds. And like Bowie, his gender-blurring, sex-positive freakiness gave power, pride, coolness to the weird and the different;  it rendered powerless epithets like “fag” and “disco sucks.”

Prince’s music was influential and crucial. But it was also deeply spiritual, joyful, in its devotion to the twin pursuits of carnal and spiritual transcendence. Prince raised funk to a religion, in an era when organized religion has become a destructive and divisive force. It gives the secular and the unbelieving among us a means to feel our hearts open, our souls lift up, to raise our voices and sing along with other humans. To connect. It makes sense that “Let’s Go Crazy” has been quoted in so many written Prince eulogies: it’s a sermon about focussing on living in the here and now, connecting to other people, while you’re alive. And it makes even more sense that “Purple Rain” has been invoked by fellow performers and fans alike to sing in praise, because, at its core, “Purple Rain” is a hymn, or at least, it has the structure of one.

The lyrics are a farewell to a relationship, but the gospel swell of the music is what moves you. Ever since the movie Purple Rain, fans at Prince concerts (or at anyone’s concerts where “Purple Rain” is played) waved one hand slowly back and forth in the air on the chorus, in imitation of the film’s climactic club scene. What many fans might not know (as an atheist and a Jew, I didn’t) is that the raised arm is a staple of both African American and white Christian worship. Each segment of the song — Prince’s quiet, almost spoken, delivery of the opening verse, the shimmering buildup to the sing-along chorus, the blazing release of the guitar solo, the soothing balm of Prince’s falsetto “woo-ooo-ooo-ooo” as the song winds down — have long been burned into our souls as secular chapter and verse, as comforting and unchanging as a familiar prayer.

In the days following Prince’s death, artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Sufjan Stevens with Gallant, Old Crow Medicine Show, Jessie J, Jimmy Buffett, Pearl Jam, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor and the cast of Broadway’s “The Color Purple” (I’m sure I’m leaving out many more) covered “Purple Rain” before their audiences. I think the emergence of “Purple Rain” as the tribute of choice speaks not only to its anthemic emotional sweep, but to the hunger for spiritual expression among people who don’t consider themselves religious (though I’ve no doubt that many Prince fans do). For so many of us, music has always filled the religion void. We were Prince’s motley flock, and he gathered us in.


A small sample of the many versions of “Purple Rain” performed in tribute to Prince, plus one by the man himself. May he rest in power and purple.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Barclays Center, Brooklyn.


Los Angeles massed high school choir tribute.

Old Crow Medicine Show (with Margo Price), Huntsville, AL

Prince, 2006 Brit Awards (“Purple Rain” is the third song in a stunning four-song set featuring a reunion with Wendy and Lisa).

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016