(I thought it was worth revisiting this piece, which I posted back in December 2010. Two reasons: The Boss has been back in the news lately with a new album and upcoming concert tour. And my students have this week off to finish drafting their short stories. The post is about my wonder at how things we create just seem to come out of nowhere.)
Last Friday, Sotheby’s auctioned off the manuscript—signed and in Bob Dylan’s own hand—of “The Times They Are A’Changin.’” You mean you missed out? It could have been yours for $422,500.
I love the catalogue description, which describes the lyrics as “written in pencil on a sheet of unruled three-hole notebook paper,” with “some light discoloration, graphite smudging and offsetting, creased and nearly separated at central verical [sic] fold, edges chipped with loss, some internal tears and small losses not costing any text apart from the ‘Th’ of ‘They’ in the title.”
As if that would matter, right? This stuff either means something to you or it doesn’t. As it happens, it meant $422,500 to Adam Sender, a hedge-fund manager.
A hedge fund manager! The times really have changed. Lord knows what this guy would have paid for a song with his name in the title.
Coincidentally, the day of the Sotheby’s auction I flew to Cleveland to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—or, as we hipsters like to call it, Rock Hall. Caroline, my eldest daughter, arranged the trip so I’d be sure to see the exhibition, “From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen.” Caroline knows how I feel about the Boss, and how I’d be sure to feel if I missed the chance to see the…the…okay, I’ll tell it like it is …the sacred relics. His boyhood pictures. His guitars. His motel room keys. I kid you not.
Now, my temperament is as postmodern as the next fellow’s, but when it comes to Bruce Springsteen, I leave my irony and detachment at home. I’d get no kick from Dylan’s manuscript of “The Times They Are A’Changin,’” but show me the spiral-bound notebook in which the Boss worked out the lyrics for “Born to Run,” and I’m at your mercy.
I’m sure the cathedral at Chartres is something special, and so are the giant sequoias at Muir Grove and the cave paintings at Lascaux. But there is only one rock and roll album, called Born to Run, that I played for my infant daughters when we brought each of them home from the hospital. “This, baby girl,” I said to them in turn, holding their tiny swaddled bodies up to the stereo speakers as the opening notes of “Thunder Road” emerged, “is the Boss.”
“Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night.” That’s a line out of “Thunder Road.” And in fact it’s all magic—isn’t it?—the way things get created out of nothing, whether it’s a new human or a song or a blush. Who knows how all this works? But when you look at Bruce’s notebooks, you’re watching him work through the act of creation, and if it happens that the thing he created means a lot to you, and that it’s all bound up in your children’s arrival on earth, it’s a moving experience. Sacred isn’t an inappropriate a word for it.
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It’s also very cool to see “Darlene,” plus a phone number, appearing on the page among all those prospective lyrics. On another page there’s a “Kim,” and her number as well. The indispensable Muse. I’ve seen the manuscript of Keats’s “Bright Star.” How unsurprising it would have been to find the name “Fanny” and a phone number—assuming there had been phones back then—jotted down in the margin.
My friend Curtis, who’s visited Rock Hall twice, asked me when I got back what things I liked the most. I told him that was easy: the Boss’s notebooks. But also, the first scrawled lyrics of the Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky,” in Dickie Betts’s own hand; and the original lyrics of Cream’s “I Feel Free,” in Jack Bruce’s own hand, with his doodles of fighter planes covering the bottom of the page. Songs like these are in our DNA by now, but at some point—when, as it happened, we were young—they came out of nowhere. Like we did. And as a writer, conscious always that the words are coming to you from out of nowhere, seeing it happen for real artists is always magic.