When Bruce Springsteen first played London in November 1975, he was so angered by the hype surrounding the show – “FINALLY! London is ready for Bruce Springsteen” – that he stormed around the Hammersmith Odeon destroying posters and flyers. “My business is SHOW business not TELLING. You show people and let them decide,” he rails in this compelling and often painfully candid autobiography. The night’s performance – as ever, a barnstormer – sealed his reputation in a country he revered, “the isle of our heroes”.
Springsteen’s epic live shows, habitually three to four hours long, are part of his legend, his triumph. Why he submits to them, even now as a sixtysomething, is a mystery explained in Born to Run. There is the joy of performance – “life-giving, muscle-aching, mind-clearing, cathartic pleasure and privilege” – and a work ethic inherited from his blue-collar New Jersey upbringing.
Then comes the revelation of a deeper propellant, a profound unease that began in childhood – Bruce was nicknamed “Blinky” in primary school on account of his fluttering eyelids – and erupted into full-blown depression in his 30s, on the eve of 1984’s Born in the USA, the album that brought him global stardom. “My depression was spewing like an oil spill over the beautiful turquoise green gulf of my carefully planned existence,” recalls Bruce. In despair he called his manager, Jon Landau, who knew something of the problem and who told him bluntly: “You need professional help.”
Forty years on, why the Boss was born to run and run
So began a lifetime of counselling and medication for a condition – one notes the recurring imagery of “darkness” in Springsteen’s prolific output – whose sure-fire cure has always been the dazzling stagecraft of heroic guitar poses, dramatic knee skids, athletic piano leaps and air-punching exuberance. “Exposed in front of thousands, I have always felt perfectly safe,” he says. “That’s why you can’t get rid of me.”
Who knew? Certainly few of the millions for whom Springsteen has been a joyous, affirmative force, a man not without his moody, reflective moments, for sure, but to most eyes a model of dignity, whose songs empathised with the marginalised and the oppressed, and who defiantly sang: “I believe in the promised land”.
Depression was in the family, not in the exuberant Italian lineage of his mother, but plain enough in his dour, heavy-drinking Irish father, with whom the young Bruce had a troubled, warring relationship to which he returns repeatedly here, admitting that “I was always in the market for a surrogate and appreciative daddy”, a role that would be fulfilled by assorted friends and managers. There is a lot of self-knowledge on display here, and acknowledgment of the help and love he has received from fellow travellers and, most of all, from his second wife, singer Patti Scialfa, with whom Springsteen has three children.
Later, he would learn to live 'high on the hog', but the belief in graft and self-control has never vanished
“The Boss”, as Springsteen is known – a name he dislikes and conspicuously absent here – has never shied away from interviews, and his 18 studio albums have been endlessly analysed and the inspirations for their songs located in a plethora of biographies. Born to Run adds little that’s new, but its narrative voice proves insightful. Springsteen’s high school years were spent forming bands such as the Castiles that negotiated a tricky path between competing teenage cliques – the pompadour and sharkskin-sporting “grease” and the cheerleading, college-bound “rahs” who populated the segregated New Jersey shoreline. The “small-town Caesars” and “greaser girls with dive-bomber bras” would show up later on Springsteen’s early albums.
First, though, came a rugged apprenticeship with Steel Mill, a Zeppelin-style heavy rock band formed by an 18-year-old Springsteen once his parents had departed for a new life in California. Left to fend for himself, Springsteen became a “faux hippy”, living in the concrete storeroom of a surfboard factory, too much of a control freak to do drugs or drink (“Music was going to get me as high as I needed to go”).
Later, he would learn to live “high on the hog”, but the belief in graft and self-control has never vanished; “work” is one of the most favoured words in his book. By his own admission no musical revolutionary, Springsteen worked at his craft, winning a contract with Columbia Records as a singer-songwriter, to be hailed as first “the new Dylan” (one of several) and then, in a review by his future manager, Jon Landau, as “rock and roll’s future”. Springsteen is droll about this accolade but, as he came to see it, “if somebody had to be the future, why not me?”
By the standards of most rock star autobiographies, Born to Run is neither sensational nor self-serving (you can forgive Bruce for dropping that Jack Nicholson called him “king of New Jersey” at Sinatra’s funeral), with plenty of self-deprecatory digs and way fewer cars than in the songs. Springsteen has delivered his story with quiet dignity. Give thanks that we can’t get rid of him.
Born to Run is published by Simon & Schuster (£20). Click here to buy it for £16.40
In “Born to Run,” Springsteen seems at his most actual when he’s telling us how in fact one gets to be him. He’s preoccupied by his own and his music’s “authenticity,” even though he understands that the act is ever the act. He’s close to humble about his musician’s “journeyman” status, about how rock music is at heart “escapist entertainment,” and concedes that rock ’n’ roll itself as a vehicle for ideas (always questionable to me) is in serious decline.
But he’s also straight up and smart about just what the whole Springsteen enterprise requires. Talent. O.K., that’s one. A great band behind you for all the years. Two. But also alarming self-certainty at a preposterously young age (“It is ultimately my stage,” “my band,” “my will,” “my musicians”). Near-feral discipline he’s more than willing to impose on self and anybody else in earshot — especially the band. Studious and encyclopedic knowledge of the genre and rock history. An ungodly number of irreplaceable life hours spent practicing, practicing, practicing in small, ill-lit rooms. A ruthless calculation to be nothing less than great, powered by a conviction that greatness can exist and be redeeming. A willingness to imagine himself as a dutiful and grateful avatar of his own adored fan base. An ease with his influences, teachers and heroes. An uncommon awareness of his personal frailties (“About my voice. First of all, I don’t have much of one”). A Picasso-like certainty that all art comes out of a “rambunctious gang feeling” born of the neighborhood. And a complex fear of failure mingled with the understanding that success is often the enemy of the very authenticity he’s seeking — so you gotta stay on your guard 24-7. Or, at least, from 1967 to now. “If you want to burn bright, hard and long,” the Boss writes, “you will need to depend upon more than your initial instincts. You will need to develop some craft and a creative intelligence that will lead you farther when things get dicey.” And if that sounds a bit too much like the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, add this: “In the beginning I knew I wanted something more than a solo act and less than a one-man-one-vote democratic band. I’d been there and it didn’t fit me. Democracy in rock bands, with very few exceptions, is often a ticking time bomb. . . . A moderate in most other aspects of my life, here I was extreme.”
So much for a band of brothers in that shining rock ’n’ roll mansion on the hill. “We all grow up,” Springsteen later adds, “and we know ‘it’s only rock ’n’ roll’ . . . but it’s not.”
It should be said, just to keep my own credibility flickering, that all this I’ve just spun out here is long and well known (probably memorized catechistically) by the great sea of Springsteen faithful. At a recent concert at the Barclays Center — attended by me, my wife, Governor Christie, Steve Earle and 18,000 strangers — the Boss brought a 10-year-old girl up onto the stage and stood by admiringly as she sang, apparently spontaneously, all the verses to “Blinded by the Light” — 547 dizzying words. Which means it’s going to be hard for most of the insider intel in “Born to Run” not to be already long-assimilated by the ever-vigilant and protectively gimlet-eyed “Springsteen fan.” It’s also likely that if you’ve never heard of Bruce Springsteen — in whatever dark-ops lazaretto you might’ve been held captive in for four decades — you might not pick up this book at all.
Which isn’t to say that Springsteen shouldn’t have written it — if only as a love letter to his legions; or that the publishers won’t be printing money from September on. All Springsteen fans will read this book. Though it’s fair to say that “Born to Run’s” focus audience is likely us punters in the middle; those for whom “Independence Day,” “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” “Bobby Jean,” “Nebraska,” “Streets of Philadelphia,” “Hungry Heart” and “Born in the U.S.A.” have been the emotive background music — and for some of us the foreground music — of a lifetime, but who as yet haven’t dedicated our entire lives to Bruce. We’ll feel better, though, when we learn that the Boss can’t really read music, that “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Nebraska” were recorded at the same time, that Springsteen has a daughter who’s a champion equestrian, that he’s spent years in therapy, can forgive those who’ve wronged him, thinks of his career as a “service” performed for others who’re like him, and owns a supple sense of humor capable of poking fun at himself (at least when the mood’s right).
It helps that Springsteen can write — not just life-imprinting song lyrics but good, solid prose that travels all the way to the right margin. I mean, you’d think a guy who wrote “Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night / With bruised arms and broken rhythm and a beat-up old Buick . . .” could navigate his way around a complete and creditable American sentence. And you’d be right. Oh, there are a few gassy bits here and there, a jot too much couch-inspired hooey about the “terrain inside my own head.” A tad more rock ’n’ roll highfalutin than this reader really needs — though the Bruce enthusiasts down in Sea-Clift won’t agree with me. No way. But nothing in “Born to Run” rings to me as unmeant or punch-pulling. If anything, Springsteen wants credit for telling it the way it really is and was. And like a fabled Springsteen concert — always notable for its deck-clearing thoroughness — “Born to Run” achieves the sensation that all the relevant questions have been answered by the time the lights are turned out. He delivers the story of Bruce — in digestibly short chapters — via an informally steadfast Jersey plainspeak that’s worked and deftly detailed and intimate with its readers — cleareyed enough to say what it means when it has hard stories to tell, yet supple enough to rise to occasions requiring eloquence — sometimes rather pleasingly subsiding into the syntax and rhythms of a Bruce Springsteen song: “So we all made do,” he writes about his parents’ abrupt move from Freehold to California, in 1969, leaving him behind. “My sister vanished into ‘Cowtown’ — the South Jersey hinterlands — and I pretended none of it really mattered. You were on your own — now and forever. This sealed it. Plus, a part of me was truly glad for them, for my dad. Get out, Pops! Out of this [expletive] dump.”
It’s the family parts that mean most to me in “Born to Run,” the parts that add ballast to Springsteen’s claim that when audiences see him they see themselves. Just like we’re frequently wrong about how art gets made, we also often can’t reliably say where it comes from. We might not stay interested in it very long if we could. And nothing here conveys the whole secret of how you get from Freehold, 1964, strumming a $69 Kent guitar, to the Meadowlands with a Telecaster, standing in front of a multitude. But one place art can come from is a life full of forces-difficult-to-make-fit-together, a life that finds, in art, a providential instrument for reconciling the jagged bits. Springsteen’s part Scots-Irish, part Italian family was a caldron of these bubbling forces. A silently brooding, unsuccessful, hostile, misanthropic father (“He loved me but he couldn’t stand me”), an enormously loving mother whose first loyalty, however, was to the unhappy husband. Plus, a reticulated, extended, occasionally volatile but doting family of immigrant descendants — grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, one greaser brother-in-law — some of them, Springsteen says, with serious mental illness, “a black melancholy,” to which he himself falls heir. All of these denizens encamped within a declining, postindustrial neighborhood of poor, rented, cold-water houses, in a “one-dog burg” down in that lost part of the Garden State you never thought about until you heard the words Bruce and Springsteen in that order.
You could say of course, and again you’d be right, that this is nothing very remote from a lot of lives. Mine. Yours. Midcentury American Gothic. A “crap heap of a hometown that I loved.” But therein lies at least a hint to the magic in the Springsteen mystery: the muscular rise to the small occasion, taking forceful dominion over your poky circumstance and championing your own responses to what would otherwise seem inevitable. “Those whose love we wanted but could not get,” Springsteen writes, memorably, “we emulate. It is dangerous but it makes us feel closer, gives us an illusion of the intimacy we never had. It stakes our claim upon that which was rightfully ours but denied. In my 20s, as my song and my story began to take shape, I searched for the voice I would blend with mine to do the telling. It is a moment when through creativity and will you can rework, repossess and rebirth the conflicting voices of your childhood, to turn them into something alive, powerful and seeking light. I’m a repairman. That’s part of my job. So I, who’d never done a week’s worth of manual labor in my life . . . put on a factory worker’s clothes, my father’s clothes, and went to work.”
Seamus Heaney wrote once in a poem that the end of art is peace. But I think he’d have been willing to share the stage with Springsteen, and to admit that sometimes the end of art is also one hell of a legitimately great and soaring noise, a sound you just don’t want to end.Continue reading the main story