We carry this need for paracosms into adulthood. It’s a paradox that the artists who have the widest global purchase are also the ones who have created the most local and distinctive story landscapes. Millions of people around the world are ferociously attached to Tupac Shakur’s version of Compton or J.K. Rowling’s version of a British boarding school or Downton Abbey’s or Brideshead Revisited’s version of an Edwardian estate.
Millions of people know the contours of these remote landscapes, their typical characters, story lines, corruptions and challenges. If you build a passionate and highly localized moral landscape, people will come.
David Brooks of the NY Times thinks this is why I know most Springsteen songs by heart, and I could tell you exactly where to find a ballroom that’s Open All Night, or which turn you should to take to go down to Greasy Lake, or find your way out of Jungleland over the Jersey state line.
Certainly, Springsteen’s detailed landscapes helped me to imagine his world, but the universality of his themes - love, work, growing up, failing, getting up and carrying on, leaving home, going back - is what really spoke to me when I didn’t even speak English and could recite all the words of Thunder Road.
When I went to New Jersey for the Glory Days Symposium and did the Springsteen tour of the Jersey Shore (under the expert guidance of Stan Goldstein and Lawrence Kirsch) I marvelled at just how much these places looked exactly like I had imagined, as though Springsteen had photographed each one and sent them to me in private correspondence with a map and a mission to find them.
It was a nicer version of what I experienced the first time I went to New York City and found it exactly as it was in the movies, a mixture of disbelief and disappointment (and, ultimately, rejection: New York City is amazing in so many ways, and yet a place I never warmed to in the way I did with New England, where I felt as though I had found some sort of ancestral home, or San Francisco, a city that truly filled me with wonder).
New Jersey reminded me of home, and I’ll never know the extent to which this is because I grew up listening to Bruce Springsteen in Italy, or because Bruce Springsteen’s America (a place that doesn’t really exist, a place of the imagination as much as it is a real, traceable, geographical place) is really not that different from my homeland (a place that I can only experience filtered through memory and other kinds of distorting mirrors).
But the devil’s in the details, a Jersey devil, no less: the time I got lost driving in Asbury Park I found my bearings by a road sign announcing Kingsley Avenue - and right there where I was chasing something in the night, at the end of the road, I found an Italian restaurant.