Life

On the release of Bruce Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run, a reflection on a childhood of musical epiphanies amid echoes of migrant experience. By George Megalogenis.

George Megalogenis on growing up with Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen performing in Toronto, Canada in 1984.
Credit: EBET ROBERTS / Redferns

Music and football were the twin pillars of my childhood identity. I wasn’t Greek or Australian, but a Beatles fan and a Richmond fanatic.

My father shaped the first part by accident. He loathed all forms of music, but it entered our house via the back door of the Melbourne racing station 3UZ. Their playlist in the early ’70s was drenched in melancholy. Even now, when I hear Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto” or Johnny Cash’s version of “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, I picture Dad cursing a losing bet. It was in those formative years of passive listening that I latched on to The Beatles.

Mum picked my footy team because Richmond was the first suburb she lived in when she migrated to Australia in 1962. It was a brilliant call. Although the Tigers had finished ninth in the year I came into the world, they had won a premiership before I reached primary school and four more before I left high school.

The filing system of my memory can cross-reference Richmond’s ladder position with my rock’n’roll epiphanies from ages 10 to 17. I first heard “She Loves You” in 1974, the year we thrashed Ron Barassi’s North Melbourne in the grand final. Bob Dylan and Neil Young carried me through the late ’70s as the Tigers dropped out of the finals. The Doors, The Who and Bruce Springsteen provided the soundtracks for the last Richmond flag in 1980.

I began collecting music long before my parents could afford to buy me a record player. For some reason, my 10-year-old self sincerely believed that The Beatles catalogue would soon be out of print. Perhaps I had misunderstood a report on the radio that John, Paul, George and Ringo would never, ever get back together. Whatever the source of my anxiety, I nagged Mum to pick up one of their LPs, just in case. She told me I was stupid.

Mum finally changed her tune when I was 12, on one magical spring day during our first trip to Greece in May 1976. My sister and I had never been further than Dandenong, and the 48-hour commute by Qantas jet to Athens via Bangkok and Tehran, and then overland by train, bus and cab to the northern-most village in Greece had shredded our dignity. We took turns to be airsick and carsick. To my melodramatic preteen brain, it felt as if I was being sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. My first impression did not improve when we eventually reached Mum’s village around lunchtime on day two of our odyssey. A crush of unfamiliar faces who had known of me all my life closed in for a group hug. I dissolved into tears and whimpered that I wanted to go to sleep.

I can’t recall whether it was the following day or the next week that we took the bus back into the main town to go shopping. But my faith in human nature was restored when I saw a stack of Beatles records.

Like all good Greek mums, mine overcompensated that day to appease her whingeing son. Her purse was stuffed with drachmas thanks to the purchasing power of the mighty Aussie dollar and she said yes to the first two Beatles LPs, Please Please Me and With The Beatles, and a cassette of their 1967-70 greatest hits. The last item was actually a pirated copy, which we picked up later that morning. The shop owner had gleaned that we were putting the record well before the player and offered to make us the tape, at a small discount on the real thing.

Back in Australia, I already had a mini-library of Beatles compilation tapes, collated over many hours of diligent surveillance of every station on the AM dial of my tiny Philips transistor radio. I pressed record whenever the DJ announced a Beatles track, which meant the sequencing was left to chance. On one tape, “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” segued into the mini-opera of side two of Abbey Road. On another, taken from our black-and-white Pye television, the soundtrack of A Hard Day’s Night was followed by the final two minutes of the 1967 VFL grand final and then the opening theme for Lost in Space. I’d happily swap the 10 rarest albums in my collection now to hear those recordings again. But I had discarded them when the record player finally entered our home in 1977.

Our coffee-table-shaped Thorn stereo, with the turntable sunk into the body of the unit, went straight to the good room, next to the dual-purpose snooker and dining table. The LPs were waiting. They had been placed like religious icons on top of a small glass cabinet where Mum kept the crockery and silverware. That cabinet had been built into the corner of the room, in the space between the side wall and a sealed-off chimney. The top was at eye-level, and had previously served as
a bookshelf for our set of World Book encyclopaedias.

As the collection grew, the vinyl would be assorted into three sections. At each end, they would be spine out. But the middle was reserved for my favourite album at the time, the cover facing you as you walked towards that corner of the room.

It was in the years between the Richmond premierships of 1974 and 1980 when the vinyl collection took a living form for me, with artists who were releasing new material. The holy trinity of Bob, Neil and Bruce competed for prime space on the altar. Springsteen prevailed because in those years he had the best albums and the best covers – Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River operated in a different galaxy to Bob Dylan at Budokan and Neil Young’s Hawks & Doves.

My two obsessions still appeared to be in cosmic balance well into my teens. But now I was making subtle choices that placed music above football. I was buying Juke and Ram magazines, but not Inside Football. I listened to Triple R at all hours, but couldn’t be bothered to stay up for League Teams on Channel Seven. I wore Springsteen’s badge, not Michael Roach’s.

The day I knew which passion would define me for life happened to be a Greek holy day – August 15, or round 20 of the 1981 footy season. Richmond was hosting Collingwood at the MCG before 70,000 people. We needed to win to keep our place in the finals. The game ran to some demented script. We led for most of the day, but somehow managed to be five points in arrears when the final siren blew. Season over. But I didn’t care because that morning I had purchased my first Springsteen bootleg, Live at the Roxy Theatre, Hollywood 1978.

It was the most exotic object I had ever held. The package itself was shoddy: a shrink-wrapped plain white sleeve with a flimsy photocopied insert for a cover. The image on that slip of paper was of a younger Bruce in leather jacket and wispy Jesus beard. The set list did not match the tracks on the two LPs. But these errors of detail could be excused because I had picked one of the most ecstatic shows in the Springsteen canon. I played it before the game, and again when I got home that afternoon.

I was mesmerised by the emotional wrestle between the joyous Italian-American Bruce and the introspective Irish-Dutch-American Bruce. His maternal Italian side prevailed. The tales he spun to introduce his songs were a revelation; the clincher was the monologue before “Growin’ Up”, which he addressed directly to his mother, father and sister who were in the audience that evening. He recited some of their arguments, and the disappointment his parents felt about his career choice. His father wanted him to be a lawyer. His mother wanted him to be an author. But tonight, Bruce, told them, “You are both going to have to settle for rock’n’roll.”

What caught my ear in that bootleg, and in others I would accumulate over the years, was the cheeky mamma’s boy. Springsteen was the best kind of wog, with a confidence that never crossed the line to arrogance.

His upbringing would be familiar to many children of migrants. The defeated father and the optimistic mother – one part of your DNA is drawn to isolation, the other is pushing you out the door to make something of your life. That was virtually every southern European family that I knew growing up.

In a telling passage early in his brilliant, uneven memoir Born to Run, Springsteen explains: “My mother showered me with affection. The love I missed from my father she tried to double up on and, perhaps, find the love she missed from my dad.”

It is why, I think, he always resonated in Europe in the ’80s, at a time when we feared that Reagan’s America might provoke a nuclear war. Bruce wasn’t a Yank. Then again, I suspect if I didn’t know who Springsteen had been before Born in The USA, my cynical twentysomething self might have dismissed him as a rich man’s Rambo. I was lucky to know the younger Bruce, before he pumped iron and wore a midlife-crisis bandana. The Bruce on the covers of Darkness and The River was the all American-Italian, Robert De Niro without the misanthropy.

Springsteen has never made a bad album, but his last five-star release was 1987’s Tunnel of Love. His last great lyrics were on 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad. Some of his more recent works have contained too much macho filler for my liking. Hopefully the book will liberate his writing, and spark a late-career revival like the Nobel-anointed Dylan’s. If not, there is always another live show from the ’70s to unearth.

Either way, Springsteen remains the most compelling performer I have ever seen, and I can’t wait to renew that relationship when he returns to Australia next year.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 22, 2016 as "Family, Melbourne, Bruce". Subscribe here.

George Megalogenis
is the author of Australia’s Second Chance and The Australian Moment, and the Quarterly Essay Balancing Act.

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