Full disclosure: I consider Rob a friend, though I by no means claim membership in the Circle, and Rob knows that I have enough respect for him to be unflinchingly honest in my assessment of this book—indeed, because I respect him, I could not behave otherwise. (Besides, he knows enough of my secrets to be dangerous…)
As I said recently in my post on Nick Tosches’ Country, one of the great joys of good music writing is that you can enjoy it without necessarily being a fan of the subject matter. As Rob would be the first to tell you, if you were to draw a Venn diagram of our tastes, outside of the literary world there would be very little overlap. (The Grateful Dead, Rob? Really?) I can’t claim to be a Tramp, or even a particular fan of Bruce Springsteen, though I don’t dislike his music by any stretch. He just happens to fall at the intersection of a couple of musical styles and techniques I don’t connect with easily (bar band rock, big band/ensemble rock, ’80s pop, and rock ‘n’ roll featuring a saxophone), so at best I’m a casual listener. I’m at least ten years younger than Rob, so to me The Boss only figures in my consciousness as an ’80s pop act who put out a few good songs around the time I was starting grade school. I think before reading Walk Like A Man, the only Springsteen songs in my whole collection were “Streets of Philadelphia,” from the Philadelphia soundtrack, and a live cover of “Merry Christmas Baby,” from 1987’s A Very Special Christmas multi-artist anthology. To give you an idea of how significant that is, my mp3 collection currently contains 31,156 songs on 2,692 albums by 1,494 artists, for a total running time of 81 days, 15 hours, 18 minutes and 53 seconds. That does not include my physical CD collection, which runs in excess of 500 discs, last I checked. But: as I’m writing this, I’m listening to Rob’s mix-tape from the book (including a high-quality, audio-only version of the performance of “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” from the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, recorded on July 8, 1978), and it’s been on repeat all day.
Walk Like A Man is a strange beast. It’s part Springsteen biography, part memoir, and part love-letter, both to Springsteen and to Rob’s younger self. The strangest part is that it doesn’t just work, it makes perfect sense. I’m actually a little pissed at Rob for thinking of the structure first. The book opens with a short, context-providing biography of Springsteen that I found incredibly useful, though I think it exaggerates his importance as an artist, albeit only by a tiny bit. It then goes into that beautiful mix-tape structure, explaining first the significance of the song (and the particular version of it Rob is referencing) in Springsteen’s catalogue, and then how it figures in his own life. Rob is a pretty friendly, open, and candid guy when you hang out with him, and reading the memoir portions of these chapters has almost exactly the same feel as sitting across the table from him over a pint (or in my case, a whisky sour). He’s not self-aggrandizing, and rather upfront about his failings, and often not the hero in his own stories. But he’s not unnecessarily hard on himself either, and if I didn’t know Rob already, I’d want to after reading Walk Like A Man.
Though clearly not as experienced a professional music writer as some others (at first I worried it may have been a bad idea to read this immediately after veteran Tosches’ Country), his passion for Springsteen’s music and for being a Tramp is evident on every page, and it’s infectious, more than making up for his lack of experience in the genre. Walk Like A Man even convinced me to track down a copy of Nebraska (1982), an album that, based on Rob’s descriptions, seems like something I might connect with a little better than his more well-known albums. True passion for art never excludes, it always allows for a way in, and that’s a big part of what Rob offers here: a way in, to Springsteen’s music, and to himself.
I’ve never really had the same kind of obsession with an artist that Rob has for Springsteen (and to a lesser extent, The Hold Steady), though I’ve come close, with Led Zeppelin and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. My main obstacle seems to have been timing. John Bonham died just over a year after I was born, and JSBX rarely tours in Canada, and pretty much never at all-ages venues, meaning I didn’t have a chance to see them live until I was in my early 20s, and by then they were just starting to enter a pretty serious artistic decline, which a decade later they still haven’t climbed out of. (Plus I grew up in a town that, while slightly bigger than Agassiz, was considerably more isolated, and traveling to shows, especially in the US, could easily cost a month and a half of my salary as a teenaged kitchen supervisor at the local A&W.) The closest I’ve come to that kind of obsession that I was able to actually indulge, in fact, is with a TV series called Community, but that doesn’t lend itself to the same kind of pilgrimage-type behaviour. However I could easily see myself putting together a similar set of memories and musical exegeses with songs from a variety of artists, and I think that’s why this book really works, despite being hard to pin down conceptually in a traditional sense; because as Rob says in his introduction: “The term ‘mix-tape’ is a bit of an anachronism, but the spirit behind it isn’t.” It’s hard to describe that spirit when it’s been reshaped into something like a book, but it’s something I think we all recognize and understand when we see it, regardless of the form.
Rob’s tapped into something special here, whether you’re a Springsteen fan or not, and I regret waiting so long to read it.