Rather shamefully, for a Twitter user whose handle is ‘PlayedOutScenes’* and, somewhat less consciously, whose blog has the title this one does,** I missed out on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir first time round when it was published in 2007. Recently re-packaged and with a new Afterword to tie in with Gurinder Chadha’s 2019 film (which I’ve also yet to see; the wonderful, but currently suspended, Screen Machine – which, in normal times, brings us our cinema – and which did show it was sadly on the mainland when it was current), I finally managed to pick up a copy around the same time as I did one of the film’s soundtrack (on white vinyl, of course). Yes, iTunes: here is indeed another copy of ‘Thunder Road’.
You don’t have to be a Springsteen fan to read it – though it does help to be able to make some important connections: each chapter is the title of a Springsteen song and is headed with a quote from (usually) a different song; while other lyrics and references creep, no doubt consciously, into the text including, on one occasion, one from how Springsteen introduced a particular song on stage at a particular point in his career (and, indeed, at the point when Sarfraz became a fan). No doubt about it, Sarfraz is hardcore, having toured to see Springsteen in many different countries, but the book is not about Springsteen; our hero is, rather, a hook on which to hang a memoir that Sarfraz wrote after his father’s early death as a way of trying to understand who he was and as a way of seeking answers to the questions that he could no longer put to him. Springsteen is a guide uniquely well-equipped to supply the key to the secrets of how to walk like a man.
Each chapter focuses on a particular theme. His father’s early life in this country and before he brought his wife and children over to join him, and then family life with particular regard to his older brother and sister, cover nearly one-third of the book. These set the scene for Sarfraz’s discovery of Springsteen (via a Sikh lad who thereby changed his life and became his blood brother) and his own growing up, including a memorable summer in the US; employment; dating and his mother’s attempts to marry him off in his twenties and thirties; his faith; and, finally, issues of identity, including about being Muslim in a post-9/11 world which sees Muslims as terrorists. The identity issues around being Asian and a Springsteen fan feature throughout (and clearly dominate the publicity for the film).
Giving each chapter a theme means that the narrative features events from Sarfraz’s life as a boy directly alongside those of him as an adult (a redundancy gave him the time to produce, and then pitch, the screenplay on which Gurinder Chadha based her film of something that, in its raw form, would otherwise be unfilmable). Taking such a non-linear, and more compartmentalised, approach is not the only way to tell a biography but, given Sarfraz’s aims, it is particularly appropriate since it lends him the opportunity to collect his thoughts on his father’s motives and actions not only in a retrospective fashion, echoed by his fandom, but also in a way that might have found sympathy with his father. The (slight) downside is that the narrative’s emotional peak – his father’s death – occurs in the first chapter; the Springsteen-related highlight – meeting him at some length while covering a legal case (a precedent-setting one, too) as a reporter but, more so, suggesting to him a particular song and arrangement after queuing for photographs before a gig in Sheffield, and then hearing it done at that gig with a dedication – occur within a few pages of each other before the book is half-way through. The book doesn’t sag thereafter, because Sarfraz has been careful to explain his purpose, but it probably helps to appreciate at the outset that this personal ribbon of highway is a non-linear one.
The immediate attraction of Springsteen’s lyrics to Sarfraz is immense and made clear right at the outset – Springsteen, famously, also had a father who was hard to reach and to whom he could not relate, at least not while growing up in the same house. Many of the single releases apart – which were, frequently and immensely frustratingly, clearly atypical examples of the depth of his writing – Springsteen is a lyricist of phenomenal and consistent power, over some fifty years of creativity, and I felt that same draw when listening to his songs for the first time. Forty years on, and hundreds of plays later, ‘The River’ still has the power to move this listener to tears at the protagonist’s agonised despair at the death of his romantic dreams. That a perfect three-minute record could both be a call to love and to action and, at the same time, convey a depth of meaning was not exactly new to this fifteen-year old in 1978 listening to ‘Darkness’ in the immediate aftermath of punk. However, with growing discovery of the possibilities of textual analysis, Springsteen’s lyrics – the songs being frequently novellas, hinting as much as they revealed while capturing breathtaking moments of candour or insight – represented true literature as significant as anything written by the giants of classical or contemporary literature. It’s a genuine thrill, from one cautious man of the road to another, to read that same discovery from the perspective of another fan.
Only Sarfraz knows whether he succeeded in his mission. I suspect that he did, at least to some degree. Regardless, the stand-out feature of his memoir is its heartfelt call for a greater understanding of the bravery and the sacrifices of the pioneer generation in any circumstance – and I, too, am descended from relatively recent generations of migrants – in leaving behind their families and all that they knew to strive for the means for a better life amidst discrimination, suspicion and racism; and amidst constant calls on their time and their resources, yet freely to give of both.
At the same time, it’s unbearably sad that such sacrifices are worth little without recognising that setting people of the next generation free to exercise freedom of choice about how they live their own lives is not a rejection of those sacrifices but the embodiment of what they themselves had striven for. Domestic authoritarianism is never the answer and that’s a universal truth to families in Karachi, Pakistan just the same as in Freehold, New Jersey: the fear that ‘There’s just different people coming down now/And they see things in different ways’ – crucially acknowledged by the son character in ‘Independence Day’ – would have been something equally recognisable to Douglas Springsteen as to Mohammed Manzoor. And, I suspect, to their fathers, too. In the meantime, ensuring that our best steps are not stolen from us is a job for us all, sons and fathers alike, and at the collective, societal level as well as at the individual one.
And, if Sarfraz’s memoir helps in overcoming the need for us to learn those same lessons at least every other generation, it will have done terrific service.
Footnote: A philosophy from Badlands / ** An excerpt from Rosalita. There is, of course, a Springsteen lyric for every occasion – I even found my own name in a Springsteen lyric once and, coincidentally, one from around the time Greetings from Asbury Park came out. I’m not sure whether I’m sadder that this particular song never made it out of the studio (it wasn’t one of those the subject of that court case); or that, despite the mesmerising lyrical scope hinted at by its title, it was a song for which Springsteen never got round to writing any words.