A potent mix of joy and self-reflexivity is emblazoned on every page.
Bruce Springsteen is at once the quintessential troubadour of America’s working class and rock’s most self-aware superstar. His reverence for the artists who’ve shaped his sound is at the forefront of his music, which is lovingly influenced by the radio titans of ‘50s and ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, soul, folk and country. As it turns out, the stadium deity remains an outspoken super fan, still ensnared by the roots planted during his often troubled childhood in Freehold, New Jersey. Springsteen is also an adult product of the psychotherapy he first embraced, post-stardom, in the early-1980s. This potent mix of joy (the gushing teenager) and self-reflexivity (the sober grownup) is emblazoned on every page of his engrossing autobiography Born to Run.
Besides his struggles with depression, detailed with painful beauty in three separate chapters, little of Born to Run will be new to those familiar with the Boss’s origin myth. The big surprise, however, is that Springsteen is a top-flight memoirist. No doubt thanks to his years of therapy, he approaches the past with a sense of generosity, if not an aim towards something resembling objectivity. When writing about the legitimate wrongs he’s endured over the years, specifically the legal battles with his former manager Mike Appel and the troubled relationship with his father Doug, Springsteen (“a conceptual optimist but personal pessimist”) strikes a conciliatory tone. He rarely grinds the proverbial ax. See, for example, this remarkable bit of self-examination: “Over the years I had to come to the realization that there was a part of me, a significant part, that was capable of great carelessness and emotional cruelty, that sought to reap damage and harvest shame, that wanted to wound and hurt and make sure those who loved me paid for it.”
Even more astonishing is his confidence and skill as a writer (again: the above quote). His sentences, terse and eloquent, are frequently lyrical, sometimes hyperbolic (he shares Tom Wolfe’s adoration for caps-lock shouting), and always impressive. It’s a fallacy to presume a great songwriter will also be a deft prose stylist. Springsteen nails this double backflip with ease.
Born to Run is laid out, chronologically, in three “books”. The first chronicles Springsteen’s childhood and early career, culminating with The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. The middle section details his meteoric rise, and the superlative peak of Born to Run through Tunnel of Love. The final portion explores Bruce’s embrace of domesticity and his post-9/11 creative and commercial resurgence.
The book opens with Springsteen at his most impressionistic and literary, particularly when describing his childhood as a “a shy, softhearted dreamer.” It also contains encomiums to his early heroes that could match the analyses of rock’s sharpest critics. There are chapters dedicated to Elvis (the “hip-shaking human earthquake”), the Beatles (“the gods” who “returned just in time” from “over the sea”) and the power of music in general (“Records that ultimately held my interest were the ones where the singers sounded simultaneously happy and sad”). Bruce was raised in the Goldilocks zone between the first two waves of rock’s formation, during the genre’s “most vibrant and turbulent era.” He was “born in time to get the best of rock’s reinventors of blues, pop and soul, the British wave”—such as the Beatles, the Stones, and (most importantly) Dylan—and yet still “young enough to experience its originators, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis…all still alive and active at the crest of the wave of the sixties.” The intersection of both guards, old and new, defined his artistic approach of pure rock ‘n’ roll interlaced with lyrical and thematic sophistication: “I received all these hands like a supplicant directly upon my trembling forehead and fell stunned by their power.”
When this Jersey boy finally makes it big, in the second book, Born to Run’s mood shifts from ruminative to exuberant. The ins and outs of his ascent—the dual Time and Newsweek covers, the legendary live shows, the inter-E-Street-Band squabbling, the Ronald Reagan shout-out—are predictably compelling. Nonetheless, the best parts find Springsteen back in rock critic mode, except now with an eye on his own work. The startling chapter on Nebraska is a thoughtful examination of his most intimate and powerful record. No less impressive are his takes on Born to Run (“In these songs were the beginnings of the characters whose lives I would trace in my work…for the next four decades”) and Darkness on the Edge of Town (“My music would be a music of identity, a search for meaning and the future”), where he limns the evolution of his muscular songcraft and the increasing bleakness of his narratives.
The book ends with a rushed third act that perfunctorily mashes Springsteen’s embrace of marriage and fatherhood with his late-career works. This drag on Born to Run’s storytelling thrust couldn’t be helped. Still, the final section offers poignant moments: the deaths of bandmates Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, his reconciliation with his father prior to his passing, the events of 9/11 which led to The Rising. By the time Bruce Springsteen concludes his story in the present tense, he’s taken the reader on a long journey of triumph and sadness, self-exploration and rock ‘n’ roll shenanigans, soaring poetry and blunt prose. “Most of my writing is emotionally autobiographical,” he says midway through Born to Run. “I’ve learned you’ve got to pull up the things that mean something to you in order for them to mean anything to your audience. That’s where the proof is. That’s how they know you’re not kidding.” By these terms, the author has delivered a smashing success. He kids you not.