By Sarfraz Manzoor (THE GUARDIAN, 03/10/07):
When the first rumours began circulating that Bruce Springsteen’s new album would be called Magic it led to some apprehension among his fans. In the past, Springsteen albums have had titles that sounded like his best songs: epic, elemental and evocative. Compared to Darkness on the Edge of Town or Devils & Dust, Magic seemed to conjure up not so much a runaway American dream as an easy-listening soft-rock radio station. Happily our fears were unfounded: Magic is the finest Springsteen album since Tunnel of Love, which was released 20 years ago.
I recall the visceral impact that listening to Tunnel of Love had on me at the age of 16; it inspired me to better understand myself and my place in the world. Twenty years on and I am only two years younger than Bruce was when he released that album – and his music offers a different kind of inspiration.
Bruce Springsteen is 58 now, and this week began a world tour with the E Street Band – a group of musicians that has remained largely unchanged for more than 30 years. But while musically Springsteen might sound like he is revisiting his glory days, lyrically the album is the work of someone utterly engaged with the present day – his songs are meditations on an America that he believes has strayed from its ideals. It is easy to repeat and repackage the past (ask the Rolling Stones), but far harder to remain relevant in the present.
To enjoy a career that stretches more than three decades is remarkable enough, but to be producing work 35 years into that career that stands comparison with your best records is truly astonishing. In these days of instant pop stars and disposable rock heroes Springsteen is in a league of his own, which is perhaps why when he was asked some years ago to nominate the greatest living American, he did not choose a musician, he opted instead for the author Philip Roth. “To be in his 60s, making work that is so strong,” he enthused, “so full of revelations about love and emotional pain, that’s the way to live your artistic life. Sustain, sustain, sustain.”
Philip Roth is now 74, and his latest novel Exit Ghost is released in the same week as Magic. Like Springsteen, Roth is a son of New Jersey, and both have mined their lives in their work. Like Magic, Exit Ghost revisits the past; it is the latest and last novel to feature Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, who first appeared 28 years ago in The Ghost Writer. Both Springsteen and Roth are unfussy writers – what Howard Jacobson has described as “language in the service of intelligence, thought wrought to sense”.
The sensation of reading Roth at his best reminds me of how it feels to listen to a great Bruce Springsteen song: there is a beguiling simplicity that masks a great truth, there is a respect for the lives and aspirations of ordinary people, and there is a willingness to confront the biggest questions there are. In The Ghost Writer, Nathan Zuckerman meets his literary hero EI Lonoff, who describes his work thus: “I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence.” In Thunder Road, on the Born to Run album, Springsteen was similarly casual, singing: “I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk.”
Three decades on and Roth is still turning sentences around and Springsteen is still making his guitar talk – two American masters who, in a culture obsessed with youth and newness, remind us that there are hidden worlds of wisdom that are only illuminated with the passing of time.