In the summer of 1983, I borrowed a record from the public library. The cover was a dismal black and white landscape, viewed through a windshield. I’d recently discovered writers such as Kesey, Ginsburg, Salinger, and Brautigan; this cover appealed to my search for “deeper” entertainments. I talked my brother into rearranging our bedroom. We dismantled our bunk beds, hauled our parents’ immense console stereo down from the attic, screwed a red light bulb into the overhead and pulled the shades. I dropped the needle and heard a plaintive harmonica wail over simple guitar arpeggios. Damn. The singer sounded like he was practically asleep – defeated and resigned to fate. That’s how I discovered Bruce Springsteen.
Hanging on my wall today is a 200% reproduction of another album cover – photographer Eric Meola’s iconic Born to Run shot. Leather-jacketed Bruce leaning on, grinning at, coal black saxophonist Clarence Clemons. I remember purchasing that album during the same summer of ’83, with money gathered by mowing lawns. Back then, it seemed the Key to the Universe might be revealed in a record cover. (It might still be for a certain kind of teen.) I read the song lyrics from the gatefold as I listened on my father’s headphones. Born to Run is a perfect record, one of very few on my list (which also includes Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle.)
Over the intervening 33 years I’ve absorbed Springsteen’s ragged poetry into my heart’s blood. I’ve purchased most of his albums on release day, analyzed his music and lyrics, read three biographies and countless reviews, interviews, and appreciations. When I could finally afford to, in December 2002 I started attending his concerts (nine at last count, a trifle compared to many fans, but more than I’ve attended or worked for anyone else.) In February 2016 I was tempted yet again by the prospect of seeing Springsteen and The E Street Band play The River’s 20 songs straight through. That was an emotional workout – a two hour segment that floored me, only a month after my second parent died. The entire concert ran 204 minutes, played without intermission by a 66 year-old man – it was an astonishing performance, maybe the best I’ve ever seen. I have been repeatedly surprised by, and renewed my relationship with, the phenomenon that is Bruce Springsteen.
And yet. I’ve read his story, I know his history – an autobiography didn’t excite me. Springsteen is a prodigious songwriter, but his craft is sometimes lazy, settling for near rhymes instead of perfect ones, too often steering populist middle-of-the-road even though his catalog is filled with winsome stylistic diversions. (I’m certainly in the minority of fans who’d be happy to never hear Badlands or Dancing in the Dark played in concert again.) I’ve written that Springsteen is an interesting, not-quite-great prose stylist, and I’ve occasionally been hard on him and his band as only a serious fan can be. The love abides, but what is left to learn or experience that wouldn’t be redundant? Born to Run, the great single that names this book, is not my favorite song (it’s also been overplayed), and I didn’t care for Dave Marsh’s 1979 biography WITH THE SAME NAME. So I rolled my eyes and said I’d skip this version. That is, until I read this excerpt:
One morning in the days before I was about to become a father, my dad showed up at my bungalow doorstep in LA. He’d driven down from San Mateo and “just wanted to say hi.” I invited him in, and at eleven o’clock in a small sun-drenched dining area, we sat at the table nursing beers. My father, in his normal state, had little talent for small talk so I did the best I could. Suddenly, he said, “Bruce, you’ve been very good to us.” I acknowledged that I had. Pause. His eyes drifted out over the Los Angeles haze. He continued, “. . . And I wasn’t very good to you.” A small silence caught us.
“You did the best you could,” I said.
Well, nuts. I wiped a tear and downloaded the book (ON RELEASE DAY, of course). I read it over the next three days in a fugue state that erased the world and invaded my dreams. Now I’m done, baptized by The Boss’s sweat-drenched, heart-on-his-sleeve rock-n-roll and once again in awe of my hero despite myself. This is some kind of hot shit book, with a wide emotional palette and deep self-analysis that will surprise those who dismiss Springsteen’s hits as “Dad Rock.”
Born To Run is really The Essential Bruce Springsteen, by His Hand and in His Voice (even if it isn’t, and it probably is; even if – and because – it could use a stronger editor.) What a book – a tour de force rock ‘n’ roll memoir/deconstruction. Here’s the rock star who decided he WOULDN’T die before he got old, because he sorta liked living. Springsteen writes that he never had a drink until he was 24, and he’s never been into drugs. (His discipline underlies the sobriquet “Boss.”) But what ultimately sells this bio, for me, is the story of the boy who couldn’t connect with his father, then spends the next 40 years trying to make it right. We’ve heard the stories in the songs, and in the previous biographies. This version feels like the definitive telling.
Born to Run (the autobiography) is strongest in its first half, telling a universal story of boyhood in 1950s and 60s small town America. Other Springsteen biographers have struggled to portray this part – it’s relatively uneventful. From the inside out, though, it becomes compelling, often very funny. Years of therapy have helped Springsteen identify how his childhood and family have influenced his work, and he uses that device to frame the entire narrative.
Once the young man hits the big time, the chronology becomes spotty, and details others have questioned (such as a nightclub door blowing off its hinges when Clarence first enters to play with the band) are presented straight-faced, alongside other material clearly intended to be taken literally. Bob Dylan’s Chronicles reads the same way, and Springsteen again apes his forebear (I was happy to read him finally own up to Dylan’s influence on his early work, something he used to fiercely deny.) That’s not to call Springsteen’s prose ineffective, or even to say it’s derivative. There are worse stylistic launchpads than Dylan.
Springsteen wrote his book over eight years, beginning with an essay describing his experience playing the Super Bowl halftime show in 2009. It seems the early pieces got the most polish, with later chapters marred by discordant drop-in sections (there’s a sense of not wanting to leave anything out.) Springsteen is charmingly self-deprecating, and his criticism of his own self-described limited abilities resonates with me. He’s less candid about his bandmates and his family (excepting his father, who died in 1998.) Ultimately, the lack of “gotcha!” tidbits says as much about the man as anything else – he’s protective of those he loves, and would rather build them up than tell the whole truth. He’s hardest on himself, and that serves his message better than a tell-all.
Born to Run is long, like a Springsteen concert. It’s over 500 pages, and it wrings you out. I was compelled to finish, even when the momentum sagged (like his shows, there’s usually a great bit in store after a lull.) It surprised me; it made me laugh, and feel. Here’s how it ends:
This, I presented as my long and noisy prayer, my magic trick. Hoping it would rock your very soul and then pass on, its spirit rendered, to be read, heard, sung and altered by you and your blood, that it might strengthen and help make sense of your story. Go tell it.
God help me, that’s exactly what I want to do. Mission accomplished.