Though his fans will undoubtedly enjoy this engrossing autobiography, it deserves a broader audience because of the beauty of Mr. Springsteen’s writing, his penetrating observations about human nature, and his well-crafted history of an interesting and important life…
“We remain in the air, the empty space, in the dusty, roots and deep earth, in the echo and stories, the songs of the time and place we have inhabited. My clan, my blood, my place, my people”…
Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster, 510 pages, 2016)
Bruce Springsteen fully recognizes that he is lucky to be where he is professionally. Attaining long-lasting success in the rock-and-roll world is a rare thing—a product of, yes, chance, but more so, a strong work ethic, a steely determination, an unyielding perfectionism, and a clear-headedness. Mr. Springsteen has exhibited these qualities in abundance throughout his fifty-plus years in music, and they are well documented in his autobiography, Born to Run, a work of jarring honesty and critical self-awareness from a public man who has generally shunned discussion of his most private thoughts.
Growing up in the blue-collar town of Freehold, New Jersey in the 1950s, Mr. Springsteen was something of a social outcast. Small in stature and odd in personality, he might have become the target of local bullies if not for the fact that his very strangeness tended to frighten them. Little interested in school, he was subjected to the harsh discipline meted out by the priests and nuns at St. Rose of Lima, the Catholic parish-school on his street. After one public thrashing at the hands of an elderly monsignor, Mr. Springsteen’s fifth-grade teacher, Sister Charles Marie, presented him with a holy medal as consolation. “It was a kindness I’ve never forgotten,” he recalls. The church was at the center of his world, chronicling the major life events of the town’s residents, Mr. Springsteen witnessing every wedding and funeral, and serving —somewhat ineptly—as an altar boy at Mass.
Though Mr. Springsteen professes not to “often participate in my religion,” he recognizes “that once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic,” and that the Church has been the most important shaper of his imagination:
This was the world where I found the beginnings of my song. In Catholicism there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward. It was a glorious and pathetic place I was either shaped for or fit right into. It has walked alongside me as a waking dream my whole life.
In addition to the Church, it was his town, the home of his “clan,” that molded him. The importance of place to Mr. Springsteen, already evident to those familiar with his music, is obvious here. In describing Freehold, Mr. Springsteen writes, in one of a number of beautifully descriptive passages in the book:
When it rains, the moisture in the humid air blankets our town with the smell of damp coffee grounds wafting in from the Nescafé factory at the town’s eastern edge. I don’t like coffee but I like that smell. It’s comforting; it unites the town in a common sensory experience; it’s good industry, like the roaring rug mill that fills our ears, brings work and signals our town’s vitality. There is a place here—you can hear it, smell it—where people make lives, suffer pain, enjoy small pleasures, play baseball, die, make love, have kids, drink themselves drunk on spring nights and do their best to hold off the demons that seek to destroy us, our homes, our families, our town….
Mr. Springsteen clearly had a love-hate relationship with Freehold for many years. It was at once an albatross: a bastion of conformity, filled with people (like his father) haunted by lost dreams and impeded by dead ends. In his breakthrough single, “Born to Run,” he would sing: “Baby this town rips the bones from your back/It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap/We gotta get out while we’re young.” Yet at the same time Freehold was the home of his “clan,” of familiar faces and places, a place of strange comfort to him throughout his life, and a place to which he would finally return after moving to California in the 1990s (or at least, he would return to New Jersey, buying a farm in nearby Colts’ Neck).
Mr. Springsteen’s life was transformed one evening in his early teens when he watched Elvis Presley perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. He immediately procured a guitar, and after a false start, soon taught himself to play the instrument. He teamed up with other young, local musicians, forming bands that played in local Elks Clubs, church halls, and bars along the Jersey Shore. Mr. Springsteen’s big break came when his manager, Mike Appel, talked legendary Columbia Records producer John Hammond into giving Mr. Springsteen an audition. The result was a contract and Mr. Springsteen’s first album, Greetings from Asbury Park in 1972. A second album, The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, followed a year later. Both efforts were well-received by critics, yet sales numbers were small, and Mr. Springsteen’s fame remained confined largely to his home state, the Philadelphia suburbs, and some areas of Virginia. If not for the breakthrough success of his third album, Born To Run, his recording career might have ended in the mid-1970s.
We are used to the idea of the millionaire Springsteen, but this autobiography reminds us not only that Mr. Springsteen didn’t begin to accumulate real wealth until his recording career was a decade old. Despite the big success of his albums, Born To Run (1975) and Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), Mr. Springsteen had $20,000 to his name upon the release of his fifth album, The River, in 1981. Part of the reason for this was the unfavorable contract that Mike Appel cajoled him into signing; another reason was that Mr. Springsteen owed the Internal Revenue Service years of back taxes, having been paid in cash early in his career and never having bothered to file a tax return. Once, during his early career, he was so low on cash that he called Mr. Appel and asked for a few bucks. Mr. Appel told Mr. Springsteen that he could give him $35 if he could get from New Jersey to Manhattan. Mr. Springsteen figured he had just barely enough gas to drive downtown, and he scraped together coins from various places in his house for the tolls. When he arrived at one toll booth, he handed 100 pennies to the attendant, who at first refused to accept them as a matter of policy. When Mr. Springsteen protested that that was all he had, and that he didn’t have enough gas to turn around and go home, the toll taker reluctantly agreed to accept the currency but insisted that Mr. Springsteen wait until she had counted every penny. When one of those pennies turned out to be Canadian, Mr. Springsteen frantically climbed into the backseat of his car looking for a penny of the American variety, while other commuters mercilessly honked at him. Finally coming up with the needed coin, Mr. Springsteen proceeded on and made it to his manager’s office.
Mr. Springsteen recognized early on that he had to be the “benevolent dictator” of his band, a role that came more readily to him as he was early forced to act as the “daddy” of his group of irresponsible musician-buddies. Unlike many of his musical peers on the Jersey Shore, Mr. Springsteen never consumed illegal substances, and he did not start drinking until past his teenage years; too, he never let his interest in women distract him from his musical career. Though he has often downplayed his nickname as “The Boss,” it is clear that Mr. Springsteen earned this moniker because he made himself the unquestioned leader of his group of musicians. Having watched band after band that adopted a more democratic ethos lose their way or fall apart completely, he was determined to distinguish “Bruce Springsteen” from “the E Street Band”; indeed, he was signed to Columbia Records as a solo artist, and years later, he was inducted alone into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame, dismissing the pleading of some members of his band for inclusion in the honor.
But if his natural qualities as a bandleader were evident in his teens, Mr. Springsteen’s pure musical talent was not so obvious. “I was not a natural genius,” he says. Though he largely taught himself to be a good guitar player, when he performed for the first time outside his native New Jersey, he soon recognized that there were plenty of better guitarists around. Upon listening to the first recording of his singing, he concluded that his voice “sounded like a cat with its tail on fire.” “But what could I do?” Mr. Springsteen asked himself. “It was the only voice I had.”
Thus Mr. Springsteen harnessed all his abilities—”my writing, my band leading, my performance and my singing”—knowing that it was only through the fulfillment of the combination of these skills that he could become a great artist. And that is what he aimed to achieve from the beginning: Greatness, not necessarily success or fame… and a long career. Mr. Springsteen, who “by disposition was not an edge dweller,” was not interested in adding his name to the list of musical revolutionaries (“and I was not one”) who “burned out hard or died” leaving “a good life unlived, lovers and children left behind, and a six-foot-deep hole in the ground.”
Uncompromising in his desire to achieve success, he was merciless in driving those around him to achieve perfection. During recording sessions for his groundbreaking albums Born To Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Mr. Springsteen put his bandmates through marathon recording sessions, sometimes lasting a full twenty-four hours without break, often re-recording songs dozens of times, until Mr. Springsteen deemed them finished… or at least finished enough that he could finally let them go. “A moderate in most other aspects of my life, here I was extreme. At work you were on my time all the time.”
His self-awareness and utter honesty about himself are the primary things that stands out in the present memoir. Many reviewers have already noted that Mr. Springsteen goes into great detail about his depression, which first descended upon him in the late 1980s and which has become more acute in the last decade. But another noteworthy revelation in this memoir that Mr. Springsteen is very critical of himself, especially in his treatment of the women in his life. A self-described egotist and misogynist, Mr. Springsteen emotionally abused many of the women he dated, afraid perhaps, as he says, of letting anyone get too close to him. He thus lays the blame for the failure of his first marriage squarely on his own shoulders: “Once again, it was the fear of having something, allowing someone into my life, someone loving, that was setting off a myriad of bells and whistles and a fierce reaction.”
Mr. Springsteen’s deep interest in other people, in humane nature, is another noteworthy aspect of this memoir. When young, Mr. Springsteen used to hitchhike often (out of necessity—he did not learn how to drive until he was well into his twenties) and says he still misses this practice as it allowed him to meet people of all kinds and to observe human nature in all its wondrous manifestations.
Always been careful about whom he lets into his world, Mr. Springsteen has been intensely loyal to his friends. Though he famously broke up the E Street Band in the early 1990s—a chapter of his life so obviously painful that he glosses over the details of the phone calls he made to his longtime bandmates—he rarely severed friendships with anyone, even if they betrayed him. So when it was discovered early in the career of the E Street Band that the group’s keyboardist, Danny Federici, was stealing from the band by falsifying his expense reports, Mr. Springsteen’s reaction was limited to an expression of anger, as he confronted Federici, screamed at him, and put his foot through a pair of Federici’s stereo speakers.
Federici stayed in the band for the next forty years.
Mr. Springsteen was also involved in a years-long court case with his original manager, Mike Appel, who had persuaded Mr. Springsteen to sign a contract agreement that denied him ownership of his songs and that gave him less than a typical share of profits. Despite the nasty court proceedings, and despite eventually breaking professionally with Mr. Appel and hiring a new manager (Jon Landau), Mr. Springsteen remains on friendly terms with Mr. Appel to this day and refuses to exact verbal revenge on him at any point in this memoir.
Mr. Springsteen’s friendship with his longtime bandmate Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011, was one of the more public ones of his life. Indeed, after hiring Clemons in the 1970s, Mr. Springsteen soon realized the dramatic possibilities of pairing a skinny, not-tall, white bandleader with a hulking, black saxophonist on stage. The “Big Man” became an integral element of the band, certainly the audience’s favorite after Mr. Springsteen himself. Their friendship became part of the “creation myth” of the band, which consisted of a dramatic account of their first encounter (it was a dark and stormy night on the Jersey Shore, and as Clemons opened the door of the bar where the two were to meet, the howling wind ripped it off its hinges and sent it tumbling down the boardwalk) and the chronicling of Clemons’ arrival in Mr. Springsteen’s song “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” (“When the change was made uptown/And the Big Man joined the band… I’m gonna sit back right easy and laugh/When Scooter and the Big Man bust this city in half.”)
Though theirs was a “lifelong romance,” Mr. Springsteen and Clemons’ closeness was mitigated by their differing personalities. Clemons was an inveterate partier, a user of illicit substances and a womanizer. Mr. Springsteen was far too introverted and disciplined, and monogamous, to share such a lifestyle. In addition to this disparate internal makeup, Mr. Springsteen suggests that he and Clemons’ differing skin color also impeded a full soul-sharing between the two men—a judgment that might surprise the politically liberal Mr. Springsteen’s Leftist fans. Briefly in the early 1970s, the E Street Band had two other African-American members. But they left the band in 1975 and were replaced by white musicians. Eschewing political correctness, Mr. Springsteen says of Clemons and their friendship:
For a long time he was alone, and no matter how close we were, I was white. We had as deep a relationship as I can imagine, but we lived in the real world, where we’d experienced that nothing, not all the love in God’s heaven, obliterates race. It was a part of the given of our relationship.
Though a major character in Mr. Springsteen’s life-story, the figure that looms largest in this memoir is Mr. Springsteen’s father. Though Mr. Springsteen has penned songs about the often difficult relationship with his father, few fans would have guessed how much influence the elder Springsteen had on his son. If the image of a distant, bitter, sullen, harsh man drinking beers and smoking cigarettes late into the night in the family’s kitchen is what Mr. Springsteen has given us thus far in song, in prose he gives us a fuller portrait of the man, and it is his desire for closeness with his father that comes across as perhaps the central drama of Mr. Springsteen’s life. He recalls with regret his sullenness and orneriness as a very young man when his father made him tour his old navy ship with him on its stop on the Jersey coast: “My dad’s journey on this ship was probably one of the most meaningful of his life and I couldn’t respect it. I’d pay anything now to be able to walk that ship with my father again.” He looks back with fondness on the misadventures of a fishing trip to Mexico that his father planned and took him on in the 1980s after Mr. Springsteen had achieved super-stardom: “Maybe he just wanted to give me something, something for the gifts I’d given him and my mom once success hit, something that came wrapped in his seafaring fantasy. He did.” Mr. Springsteen even says that he imagines himself as his father—”his hero”—when performing onstage, perhaps making a success at last of the man who was largely a failure in life.
And it’s indeed onstage where the workaholic Mr. Springsteen can at last relax: “There, strangely enough, exposed in front of thousands, I’ve always felt perfectly safe, to just let it all go. That’s why at our shows you just can’t get rid of me. Performing, along with writing, are the activities that give him peace: “It’s one of the ways to stay sane… the only language I’ve ever known to fight off the night terrors, real and imagined, time and time again.”
There is no need to say that fans of Mr. Springsteen will enjoy this engrossing account of a life that the author calls “a long and noisy prayer.” And they may be surprised to find that Mr. Springsteen is as skilled at writing prose as he is poetry. His description of driving into the western desert for the first time (p. 127); his illustration of a high-mountain snowstorm (p. 160); the moving account of his saying farewell to his father as he lay on his deathbed (p. 410); his account of returning to his hometown after many years (p. 504)—these are just some examples of the author’s excellent literary skills. Indeed the beauty of his writing, along with his penetrating observations about human nature, and his well-crafted history of an interesting and important life give this memoir an appeal that should extend beyond his own devoted audience.
This is truly a book that makes us human.
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