Born to Run
by Bruce Springsteen
Simon and Schuster
The news that Bruce Springsteen – The Boss, the erstwhile future of rock ’n’ roll, or just “Bruuuuce” – was writing his memoirs inspired the sort of awe normally reserved (to quote humorist George S. Kaufman) for a production of The Last Supper with the original cast. This reverence was hardly surprising for an artist who has sold more than 120 million records around the world and won countless awards, including an Oscar, for Streets of Philadelphia.
I confess the news didn’t light my personal fire. I own a few Springsteen albums, but find his signature sweat ’n’ bulging tendons approach to music a little bombastic, a little macho and, let’s not beat around the bush, a little American. He also uses the word “baby”’ too much for my liking.
There are exceptions, mainly when Bruce pipes down. The Ghost of Tom Joad is a downbeat, melancholy marvel, as is the mournful, haunting Nebraska. It says something, I suppose, that my favourite Boss record is We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Springsteen’s loose, baggy and joyous interpretation of other people’s folk songs.
Which prompts the question: why read Born to Run at all? Despite my scepticism, I’m not immune to Springsteen’s reputation as a passionate, decent and properly contradictory artist, all of which are writ large in one of his most famous songs. As the Boss himself puts it: “Born in the USA remains one of my greatest and most misunderstood pieces of music.” On the surface a fist-pumping anthem, it established Springsteen for some as a cross between arch-conservative Ted Nugent and NRA frontman Charlton Heston. Then-president Ronald Reagan thanked Springsteen for his patriotic “message of hope”. The truth, reinforced by a series of acoustic performances, was a nuanced, emotive account of the derision that awaited American soldiers returning from Vietnam.
Credit to Springsteen, who recognises almost immediately that misapprehension is the price most committed, politically engaged artists pay when vast success comes a-calling. But as Born to Run reveals on just about every page, these juxtapositions are not just the result of mass acceptance; they are inherent in Springsteen himself. From childhood, joy dukes it out with sorrow; ambition with vulnerable retreat; relentless control with a need to let loose; a gift for observation with a yearning to participate.
These contrasts inform Springsteen’s lively prose voice. He can be very funny, for example, when recollecting the fallout from his first show in England: “I drag myself, alone, back to my hotel room and eat what the British had the balls to refer to as a cheeseburger.”
Shadowing this one-liner is one of many soul-testing crises. Playing London was, for Springsteen, a musical baptism and a pilgrimage to the land of bands that formed him: The Beatles, The Animals, The Rolling Stones. Onstage, however, he finds himself overwhelmed by playing the rock star rather than rock music: “Right now, I can feel myself caring too much, thinking too much about … what I’m thinking about.”
It’s that “right now” that proves characteristic. Just as in his best lyrics, Springsteen drags the reader up on stage with him, here to share the innermost thoughts of his 25-year-old self, one who had never left America, but was driven by personal demons to make music for the world.
These are the moments that stayed with me at the end of Born to Run. Sure, there are enlightening accounts of Springsteen writing his best songs (memorably, Born to Run itself), of discovering the great E Street Band, of learning to play stadiums and knowing when to give it a rest. Indeed, I don’t know which was more admirable: Springsteen’s extraordinary work ethic or his understanding of when to withdraw from the spotlight. He has the canny ability to allow his audience to miss him, and the genuine artist’s knack for refreshing and expanding his creative universe in private.
Springsteen’s personal quest for glory begins with his poor, dysfunctional family in Freehold, New Jersey. Almost everything that follows is the result of his formative tussles with his father, Douglas, who was depressive, taciturn, emotionally unavailable and even aggressively dismissive.
One of the book’s most moving passages describes a short, frank conversation in which Springsteen’s father finally acknowledges his paternal limitations. Springsteen receives the news with admirable calm: “I was blessed on that day and given something by my father I thought I would never live to see … a brief recognition of the truth.”
If Douglas’ dysfunctional character created his son (Born to Run is not just a title, but a veritable legacy), it also threatens to undo him: the defences Springsteen built to cope with his father (mistrust, introversion, intense self-control) required three decades of therapy, medication and the eventual love of his family to undo. Springsteen is admirably open about his failings, and admirably thorough when exploring them: his responsibility for his divorce, his role in arguments, creative, economic and personal, with friends and bandmates alike.
The autobiography’s big revelations concern his battles with depression, at times so sharp (the prose hints) that Springsteen only just survived unscathed. Arguably the most extraordinary passage occurs during a road trip through Texas. In a bar one night, Springsteen is thunderstruck by his alienation from the very lives he sings about so fervently: “All I can think of is that I want to be amongst them, of them, and I know I can’t. I can only watch. That’s what I do. I watch … and I record.” The privileges and costs of an artistic life have rarely been weighed more starkly.
Springsteen overcame this crisis, as he would so many others. In this, survival is arguably Born to Run’s grand theme. This is a book written by a 65-year-old, after all: “Ageing is scary but fascinating, and great talent morphs in strange and often enlightening ways,” he writes of artists who found it better to burn out than to fade away.
The up-down swells of the book – from obscurity to triumph to retreat to even greater triumph to divorce to recovery to redemption, and so on – are exhilarating, moving and, most impressively, sympathetic. Springsteen may be a superstar, but he rarely comes across as starrily remote, a complainer or ungrateful. He wears on his sleeve his influences (classic 1950s and 60s rock filtered through punkish anger), his inspirations (his “twisted autobiography”, the lives of his blue-collar American peers) and his inexhaustible drive. This may not quite account for his innate lyrical talent (street poetry spiked with dashes of the Dylanesque vision) or his way with rock dynamics, but it makes you warm to Bruce the man.
Nowhere is he more likeable than in the chapters dedicated to his wife, Patti, and his three children. Family life came no easier to Springsteen than anything else, but the passages describing his struggles with making pancakes for his kids (“Make the pancakes? I’d never made anything but music my entire life”) or getting to grips with horse riding are deeply moving. The highest praise I can offer is Born to Run has made me give his music another concerted go, which, at the end of the day, is why we care in the first place.