Renegades: Born in the USA by Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen – review

The American figureheads and friends discuss their childhoods, their debt to strong women and the illusion of the American dream in a series of candid conversations garlanded with unseen photographs

The season of the coffee table book is upon us. This is a handsome enough example, featuring often startlingly candid conversations between Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen recorded for a podcast of the same name. Having struck up a friendship on Obama’s campaign trail in 2008, the bond between the two men deepened with the years. (Partly, we discover, this is because Michelle Obama and Patti Scialfa, Springsteen’s partner, hit it off.)

The title is worth a chuckle. Springsteen might once have been some sort of miscreant, but “renegade” ill befits the 44th president, a man so upstanding you could actually unfurl a flag off him. The subtitle Born in the USA raises a silent eyebrow, too, at the attempt by “birthers” to discredit Obama’s presidency by falsely questioning his citizenship.

Sub-subtitled “dreams, myths, music”, the book comes liberally sprinkled with never-before-seen photos of two of America’s most famous figureheads at work and at play. For Springsteen fans, there are handwritten lyrics. History nerds, meanwhile, might get a thrill from the annotations to some of Obama’s most moving speeches, a sweetener more rewarding than it sounds. In eulogy after eulogy to innocent people shot by hate-filled men or at the services for figures such as the late US senator John Lewis, Obama celebrates the dignity of decent people caught up in an historical moment of internecine violence, pleading for gun control, for unity, for grace in a tiny, tidy hand.

A better subtitle for this book might be “when masculinity goes right”. The two compare childhoods, contrast their needs for “redemption” and share their admiration for the strong women who raised and married them. It’s all very personal; it’s also very political. Both delve deep into what it means to be wedded to the American experiment in democracy, analysing the yawning gap between the promise of upward mobility and the reality of industrial decline.

It all goes very wrong for the average family under Reagan, who destroyed the power of the unions to ensure good wages and working conditions, pulling the rug out from under people just as the culture lurches hard towards the worship of obscene wealth. Previously, Nixon had sowed the seeds of division by coining the term “silent majority”, a dog whistle that pitted so-called “ordinary” Americans against all those agitating for change: anti-Vietnam protesters, civil rights activists et al.

Both men struggled long and hard with a father who was either absent physically (in Obama’s case) or spiritually (Springsteen’s, who suffered from schizophrenia). The writer of Born to Run is especially good on the myth of the open road, on how outlaw loner tropes perniciously devalue hearth and home, even though, when built right, the domestic sphere can be a generous source of identity and contentment.

Both writers have laid themselves bare in print before – Springsteen’s excellent memoir-cum-Broadway show, which had its roots in a small White House performance, Obama’s many books, a memoir from Michelle Obama – but there are still discoveries. Obama, for one, over-achieves because he is perennially trying to heal the wound of his (now late) father leaving, to show Obama Sr that Obama Jr was worth sticking around for.

The discussion does not shy away from discomfort. Obama pointedly quizzes Springsteen on the power balance of his relationship with the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons, a heroic staple of the E Street Band. The two were very close, but Clemons – older, more experienced, often the only black man on the tour – was still the side guy to Springsteen’s rock star. It’s salutary to be reminded, though, that one incarnation of the E Street Band circa 1974 happened to feature three white band members and three black. For his part, Obama contemplates criticism from figures such as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates that, as president, he should have tried harder to force the US to reckon with racism through reparations.

The elephant between the covers is that these conversations are already available as a podcast of the same name, free to Spotify subscribers, complete with laughter and strummed guitars. That said, if that person in your life who has everything deserves a reminder of how rock’n’roll can be more moral than its enemies, of how, sometimes, the arc of history bends towards justice a little more noticeably, Renegades will stuff that stocking amply.

Renegades: Born in the USA by by Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen is published by Viking (£35). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply


Kitty Empire

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