Shortly after The Clash split up in 1986, Joe Strummer, the lead singer and driving creative force of the band, fell into an alcoholic depression and began wandering around the world and listening to all kinds of music on his peregrination. In 1999, Strummer emerged from his musical journeys with a new band–he called them The Mescaleros–that brought together and then made manifest all of the musical powers that Strummer had been coupling over a decade of global drifting.
As I’ve been wandering around the world for the past three months, I haven’t so much collected musical ideas as I’ve been finding new ways to listen to the music that is already imprinted on my heart and in my head. As I’ve written in previous posts, Miles Davis was for Tokyo, Dengue Fever was for Cambodia, Nick Cave (obviously) was for Australia. Three weeks into our stay in Romania, and its Springsteen who has emerged as the sound of streets in Bucharest and Timisoara.
During my first week in the country, I spent a few days in Bucharest, attending Fulbright meetings. I woke up early on my first morning in Bucharest and figured I’d run a mile to a local gym before the meetings began. Before I left the hotel, I flipped through my Apple Music library and landed on The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, Springsteen’s second studio album and, next to Greetings from Asbury Park, my favorite in the Springsteen oeuvre. I leaned out of the hotel door, pressed “play” and stepped out into the Bucharest streets, nearly dancing as I ran to the discombobulated horns, the funky guitar and bass licks and the pulsing percussion of the title track. I arrived to the gym, listened to the whole album and when the last, quiet notes of “New York Serenade” faded away, I pressed play and listened to the whole album again. And again. And again.
So, what does all this have to do with Romania?
Springsteen works for me in Romania because Romania has allowed me to hear Springsteen in a new way. This is saying a lot, given that I’ve been listening to Springsteen since I was 10. One of my earliest rock and roll memories is listening to Born to Run in the bedroom of my childhood friend, Matt McCambridge. It was the summer of 1975 and the record had just been released. We’d shut the door, put the record on the turntable and study the cover, the liner notes and the printed lyrics like it was a poem that held a thousand meanings. I focused on the now iconic cover: Bruce and Clarence, back to back like two outlaws holding back the law. They clutched their respective instruments (Bruce’s Stratocaster and Clarence’s sax) like weapons and Bruce smiles at Clarence with an “I Got Your Back, Brother” kind of look on his face. Bruce’s black leather motorcycle jacket contrasts with Clarence’s white, open collar 1970s disco shirt, emphasizing the interracial and musical friendship.
When I was 10, Bruce and Clarence stood for everything outside of my suburban, middle-class, pre-adolescent life. It’s not that I wanted to be like them and it’s not that I was trying to escape my childhood. But the life they represented–outside the boundaries of the class and race classifications that I was obliged to live by–was so radically different from the boy I was. And, in that way, Bruce (and Clarence) were casting a light onto a path that I didn’t even know existed at the time.
It makes sense, then, that I’d be thinking of Springsteen here in Romania because the life we are living here is far removed from the kind of life I expected when I was a boy. We were walking to the park earlier today and Sujata asked me if I ever thought I’d visit Romania. “No, absolutely not,” I told her. But, here we are and here I am: talking about American literature with Romanian students, drinking a beer in a pub with new friends, watching fireworks from the window of our 10th-story flat, buying eggs and milk from vending machines, meandering through seventeenth-century alleys and byways.