Robert J. Wiersema, Walk Like a Man

No one gets out of high school unscathed: maybe you're unpopular while you're there; maybe you're secretly unhappy; maybe you're happy but never feel that way again.

And work changes you, love it or hate it but it changes you: shifts the way your brain functions, alters the default abilities of your hands and feet, leaves you with aches physical or mental that will never ever go away.

And relationships, Christ.

The great worthiness of Robert J. Wiersema and Walk Like a Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen comes in the depth of his revelations about these matters, so quotidian and so all-important. I tried to review this book as soon as I finished it, but it's taken a few days, and I'm still not satisfied. There've been a few books that I've come back to on this blog (Theresa Kishkan's Red Laredo Boots, for one), and I suspect that this might be one of them: no guarantees, though, especially this time of year, so I'll try to make this review count.

Wiersema's deliberately not channeling Bruce Springsteen in this book, and that's a wise move: back in the early 90s, for example, Melissa Etheridge caught serious flak just for the similarity between the cover art on Never Enough to the cover art on Born in the USA, and she's worked with Springsteen since then, so she's In The Family. More than that, Wiersema's also deliberately not competing with the historians, or the analysts of the lyrics, or the biographers, or the back-catalogue specialists. As he says in the opening pages, and as he's said in interviews, it's crazy to think you can say something new about Springsteen. People keep trying, and some of them find something new to say, but it's still crazy.

So Wiersema doesn't try. This book isn't about Bruce Springsteen, though I imagine it'd be a great help to know a little something about him: its subtitle is the truest expression of what's going on here, Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen. Just as Springsteen's own music comes of age, evolving through the various iterations of the bands and the tours and so on, so too does Wiersema himself come of age, both personally and as a writer. The intersection of these evolutions is what fascinated me, ultimately, especially because of Wiersema's insistence on the particularity of each song he's using as background. In demanding that, for example, I seek out a video of "Rosalita" as it was performed in Phoenix on July 8, 1978 (my daughter's birthdate, as it happens, 24 years early), Wiersema's freezing Springsteen in time and place, identifying a point in evolution's arc, and as valuable a trick as this is, it's still counter to the book's emphasis otherwise on the subtitular Coming of Age. Wiersema's portraying here both the becoming and the being, his own and Springsteen's and Bruce's and that of their now-conjoined arts, and there's a richness to this paradox.

But for me as a reader, there are personal connections here, too. Rob and I were in a few classes together as UVic undergrad students twenty years ago, though he was cooler than I was and sat in the back row from which he could lob insights. In the same context, unknown to me until I read this book, we each married our university girlfriends the summer after graduating: mind you, he dedicated this book to his wife Cori, who remains his beloved, but it's been more than a decade since I last saw my ex-wife. He grew up unhappy and largely isolated in the small town of Agassiz; in my own small town of Chase, BC, I didn't have the same isolation, but school-age unhappiness doesn't always correlate with how things look, "Richard Cory" being far more than just an exercise in poetic form. And I shouldn't have been surprised by the depth of his anchoring himself in Agassiz as a material place, but sometimes I forget that you don't have to be an environmentalist, neither overtly nor at all, to feel the way I do about one's hometown environment.

Hell, I should have learned that for good in the mid-80s when I sang along so very many times, and so fervently, to Springsteen singing "My Hometown." (If you can find the British cover version by Everything But The Girl, you'll be made additionally happy, but that's maybe another story.) Springsteen, as I've been taught by Rob Wiersema in Walk Like a Man, could always have been teaching me things like this. I'm not giving up on Johnny Cash just yet as the import background soundtrack to what BC has felt like to me as I've grown and evolved here, but this week, I'm feeling like if I knew enough about him, and knew the music well enough, there's no reason to think that Springsteen wouldn't have given me the same senses of grace and damnation.

If I was Bruce, I'd have a closing riff. But I don't, and I give up. The review's gotta go live, or I'll lose track of it. Thanks, Rob, and congrats on this book. You're not just a novelist anymore, but a writer.


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