Over a decade lapsed between the 2007 publication of Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir, “Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock’n’Roll,” and the film’s adaption into a feature-length film. That movie, “Blinded by the Light,” was directed by Gurinder Chadha, who initially asked Manzoor if he wanted to be involved in writing the screenplay. Yet Manzoor said the thought daunted him. “It seemed completely unlikely,” he told me. But then, in October 2010, he met Bruce Springsteen, his teen idol whose music plays a starring role in his memoir.
“I met Bruce in London for an event for a film premiere I was invited to,” Manzoor told me. “He was there and he came up to me and said, ‘I really liked your book,’ and that obviously just blew me away.”
“He said ‘it’s a beautiful thing,'” Manzoor continued, “‘it’s a really lovely to read.’ I was with [director] Gurinder [Chadha], who was also a Springsteen fan, and she was just like, ‘this is a sign that we really have to think seriously about this film, because basically, we can’t make the film without his music. But he just told us he loved your book. So there’s a chance that he might give us the music.’”
Obviously, having The Boss tell you he likes your work is the highest compliment for a Springsteen fan. For Manzoor, that interaction helped inspired him and Chadha to do the movie, which came out in 2019. Salon sat down with Manzoor to hear the full saga of how his life became a book which became a film, and how a chance Springsteen encounter changed his life.
Nicole Karlis: First, I want to first talk about the role music played when you were growing up. I read an interview where you said that it wasn’t a form of escapism, but confrontation. Can you explain that?
Sarfraz Manzoor: I was into pop music ever since I was 12 or 13. The first music I loved was just chart music, so it was just literally what was in the charts in the ‘80s. I was growing up as a teenager in the ‘80s, so we’re talking about Michael Jackson or Madonna or just whatever was the top 40 stuff. I loved all that, and I still love it.
Then when I was 16, it was in the autumn of 1987, I got into Springsteen. What felt completely different about his music was [that], whereas pop music had traditionally been about escapism, and just a romanticized idea of love and focusing on entertainment and pleasure and the joy of all that sort of stuff, his stuff was about the gritty, daily grind of life. It was about confronting the realness and the hardness of love, rather than forgetting about it. And that just felt very, very different to me. And it was something which I really responded to, because it didn’t feel like everyone else that I’ve been listening to was doing that. It was like he was using a different language, you know?
His music was about Monday to Friday. I think that’s why I gravitated to him, because he was talking about recognizable challenges, recognizable places, and people who seemed like they were actually drawn from the real world.
Do you think music is different today? Bruce had such an impact on you as a teenager growing up; music seems fragmented today, there’s no universal narrative among artists. I wonder if teenagers can have similar experiences with today’s artists and streaming services.
I agree with all of that. But I think it’s not as simplistic, as depressing as that in some ways either — because in the pre-streaming, pre-digital world, there was a sort of linearity of music. You would have CDs or you’d have records and you would choose something and that’s the thing you’ve committed to. But the way Spotify works, you could have Louis Armstrong next to Drake in your collection — it doesn’t really matter.
If you’re 16, you don’t have to think there’s nothing out there. Today’s music doesn’t mean anything compared to Dylan on Springsteen, because that stuff is still there. And if you want it, you’ll find it. What’s been really fascinating with the film is that I’ve been hearing from loads of 16-year-olds who have been saying that the film really speaks to them.
Another theme of the story is the experience of a second-generation immigrant. And this is the late ‘80s, but yet the story is so relevant today.
It takes so long to make these things, you never know whether they’re going to be relevant or not. So for example, if it was released in the time of Obama, it wouldn’t have the same sting to it in some ways, you know? So it’s kind of, it’s odd there’s a far-right march [in the film], and there’s a bit where they say, ‘if you’re black, send them back,’ which isn’t that different from the sentiments one is hearing now.
There’s a lot of that kind of immigrant …. hostility, that’s in the film. There is also that thing about belonging, to the sense of, which I certainly had when I was about eight. Is it this thing about wanting to feel like you belong to a society, but not feeling like that society necessarily accepts you, you know? And that feels very timely again.
In the ways that it’s different, I think that when I was at that age, it all felt very lonely. There weren’t very many role models out there. There wasn’t anybody articulating this experience out in popular culture or literature or anything. And there was no way of communicating with other fellow like-minded people. I think all those things are now different to the fact that, in London, for example, we have a Muslim mayor. Then there are writers and thinkers who come from those backgrounds, and obviously, because of the social network, social media, you could be connected.
Like just today, just this morning I got this message:
“Just finished ‘Greetings from Bury Park.’ I had no idea your book existed until I watched the film. Absolutely fantastic. Forget mentioning Springsteen. I’m half Italian, half French, three quarters Catholic, a quarter Jewish, 100% atheist. I feel I’ve been culturally adopted by Brit. I found it so touching, because you sounded like some guy I could have been great friends with, different origins, different skin color, different religion, but the same taste for what is beautiful and good in life, because that is what really matters. I’m going to recommend your book far and why it’s been so inspiring. I just want to thank you for the amazing book.”
This woman’s, she’s a teacher in Rome.
That’s so inspiring. I want to talk about the book. As human beings, we have multiple memoirs in us, right? So I’m curious why you chose to write the memoir that you wrote and at that time in your life?
Well, it’s interesting you say that we’ve got multiple memoirs because I kind of feel like most people — it’s probably a generalization, but I think people have certain obsessions or preoccupations that nag at them and needle them and they’re just specific to their own particular experiences, and they’re the things that they circle back to. That could be a product of your childhood, it could be a product of something that happened. In my case, I wrote the book in my mid-30s, initially. I think when you get into your mid-30s, you sometimes start looking back a little bit on your earlier life and you start having more questions about the person that you’ve become.
I started really thinking more about my dad, who died a couple of days before I turned 24. Obviously, that was an incredibly shattering moment. But then when I got to my thirties, it really started affecting me even more. This real desire to feel like a real sense of regret that I never got to ask him loads of questions, basically. You know, I never asked him anything because when you think somebody is going to be around forever, you don’t bother asking questions. I was a journalist, and as a journalist you’re meant to be curious about people. I was like, this is weird that the person I’m most curious about is my dad. And he’s not around to answer any questions. The book became a conversation with my dad in his absence. It was just to try and understand him a little bit. I think that was the central question, is like, well, who was he? What do I owe him? And how does one honor somebody in their absence, while at the same time never be able to get their approval?
The book is about your dad and so is the movie — but it’s also about Bruce Springsteen. I’m curious if you see Bruce Springsteen as a father figure at all now?
I definitely think I would go to him as somebody whom I could call for wisdom, and it’s interesting that it’s not just something that I did when I was 16, I literally could say now, at 48, I still do. He just turned 70 last week. And I’m like, if I could live my life like he is at 70. He remains somebody to look up to, even now. It’s not like a teenage thing. So in that sense, and I do go to his music for wisdom in a way that you might do as a source of wisdom, I would say.
I wouldn’t use the term “father figure,” but [it’s] close to that when it comes to [his] validation and approval. The fact that Bruce likes the book, the fact he came up to me and told me that he liked the book, that is about as close as I can get to my dad saying, “Congratulations, you’ve done well,” do you know what I mean? If I can’t have it from my dad, he’s the next best thing.
Do you feel like writing the screenplay and working on the movie has been a way for you to stay connected to your dad?
You know what’s really weird, it has — but there is something that is a little bit weird as well, quite hard to explain this. One of the things that’s happened is — let me show you a photo. Have you seen any photos of my dad?
So that’s my dad, and then that’s the guy who’s playing dad. Now, because they dressed him exactly like my dad and because he’s made to look like my dad, the weird thing that’s happening in my memory is that the two are starting to get fused — and I don’t have any recordings of my dad. I’ve got to try and work really hard on separat[ing] out the real dad from the fictionalized version.
I just couldn’t imagine working on a project where you have someone playing a parent you lost.
I became quite aloof, because it was too weird. My dad was very soft. I remember he had very soft hands, and I used to massage his feet every night, so I remember the texture of his feet really well. And he had a slightly rounded belly. I have to really hold on to the ways that he’s not like the actor, because there’s a danger that the freshness of film overwhelmed the real dad. So that’s something which I have to really work on.
Okay, last question. What’s your favorite Bruce lyric, and why?
That’s actually not a hard question. There is a song called “The Promise” — it’s not a very famous song, but he has a line in that song where he says, “I hit it big once, but I paid a big cost. Inside I carried the broken spirits of all the other ones who lost.”
I absolutely love that one. I think carrying the broken spirits of all the other ones who lost is literally what Springsteen has done for the last forty years. He grew up in a very working-class place — most people didn’t end up becoming rock stars, most people didn’t end up having the money he’s got — but his songs are about the people who didn’t do that, the broken ones who lost.
And that’s sort of part of what I’m trying to do in the book I wrote and in the film — to try and talk not just the ones who got out, but the ones that didn’t quite get out. That story of empathy and dignity and honor.