Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster, 528 pp., $32.50)
Serious scholars have treated the careers of the top-shelf rock heroes of the 1960s with archeological reverence. As a result, we know what the individual Beatles had for breakfast on April 16, 1966 and who slept in which bedroom at the French villa where the Rolling Stones recorded Exile on Main Street. That obsession with biographical detail hasn’t extended to the superstar rock artists of the 1970s and 1980s. Elton John is popular, but his fans don’t desire to know his favorite brand of toothpaste. U2 sells out stadiums, but Bono and the Edge’s Dublin childhood remains something of a mystery. Maybe this is good. Maybe we shouldn’t know so much about our favorite artists.
Consider Bruce Springsteen, the 67-year-old international rock superstar known from Bayonne to Barcelona as “the Boss.” All the average fan knows about Springsteen’s childhood is what can be gleaned from his records. He had a troubled relationship with his father, as detailed in anguished and angry songs like “Independence Day” and “Adam Raised a Cain.” A teenage motorcycle accident kept him out of the Vietnam War; he told that story on his Live/1975–85 boxed set. Beach roads and boardwalks provided the backdrop for a coming-of-age full of Tilt-a-Whirls, burned-out Chevrolets, and racing in the street. The setting is clear, but the details are hazy.
Whether Springsteen purposely cultivated the mystery that surrounds his early years or it developed on its own, he is in any event hip to it, and his just-released autobiography, Born to Run, is an attempt to bring his real life into better focus for fans like me. It mostly succeeds.
I became a Springsteen devotee the moment I heard the piercing synthesizer riff of his expectation-defying anthem “Born in the U.S.A.,” released in late October 1984 on the day I turned 11 years old. It—and the other singles from the album of the same name—were in heavy rotation that year, both on FM radio and in the tape deck of my family’s Buick Electra station wagon, with its rear-facing backseat and fake-wood paneling. I grew up in New Jersey, where the cult of Springsteen in the mid-1980s was all-consuming. Here was a legit global phenomenon who walked, talked, and dressed like he was from down the shore (which, of course, he was). Moreover, he was thoroughly unashamed—proud, even—to be from the Garden State, the butt of many jokes. Everybody needs a champion.
It didn’t diminish this 11-year-old’s estimation of him one bit that in the baseball-centric “Glory Days” video, the Boss proved that he could throw strikes—something that the Human League didn’t look capable of doing. During the early MTV era—dominated as it was by pop superstars like Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, and Tina Turner, and wriggly men in makeup like Adam Ant and Duran Duran—Springsteen was a singular figure. He could do showbiz (“Rosalita”) or he could do raw power (“Badlands”); he could be fun (“Pink Cadillac”) and he could be deep (“Highway Patrolman”). Bruce did it all, and he did it all for you. Certain pretenders moved in on Bruce’s territory, but Bryan Adams was Canadian and Huey Lewis looked (and sounded) like a preppy. Springsteen, on the other hand, looked like a Newark dockworker. No comparison.
I’m 43 now, and I still love Bruce. I buy his albums; I’d gladly take them with me to a desert island. Still, over the years, he and his Turnpike-sized mouth have occasionally driven me to distraction. His Bush-era concerns about our national misbehavior in places like Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and Wall Street seemed to become a nonissue when President Obama took office. I don’t know Bruce’s opinion on drone warfare, the Syrian civil war, or the rise of ISIS—do you? Even rock gods have a right to their opinions, but I worried that Born to Run, released during an unhinged presidential campaign and coinciding with the final hours of the administration he stumped for, would be as political as it was personal. It’s not so bad on that score, though readers who find Bruce’s politics yawn-worthy might want to skim certain chapters.
Born to Run is packed with recording-session minutiae, and travelogue tour details are punctuated by Springsteenesque flights of fancy. One writer aptly called these passages “homilies,” which is pretty much what they are. “Your blessings and your curses often come in the same package,” Springsteen writes in a riff about his singing voice. “We don’t hide our cards. We don’t play it cool. We lay ourselves out in clear view,” he says of his legendary compadres in the E Street Band. “[T]he political and personal came together to spill clear water into the muddy river of history,” he rather dramatically notes of his development as a songwriter. “I thought perhaps mapping that territory, the distance between the American dream and the American reality, might be my service, one I could provide that would accompany the entertainment and the good times I brought my fans.” Springsteen, as you may know, can get carried away. You either find it charming, or it stimulates your gag reflex.
A common mistake of the casual fan is to presume that every Springsteen tune is a reflection of its author’s dreams and visions. Because his songs are so well-drawn—so specific, so immediate—it isn’t easy to tell when Bruce is selling fiction and when he’s mythologizing his own life. They tend to sound the same. Who are Mary, Wendy, Terry, Eddie, Big Scooter, Madame Marie, the Magic Rat, and the barefoot girl? Are they real people, or are they the inventions of an artistic mind in its fullest flight? Both. Springsteen’s breakthrough 1975 album Born to Run, we learn, was conceived as a “series of vignettes taking place during one long summer day and night.” This is new information, though it shouldn’t change how fans listen to and enjoy classic songs like “Thunder Road” and “Jungleland.” Springsteen’s music is straightforward. His songs connect with listeners on a personal level, or not at all. It’s not the kind of thing that supports competing interpretations.
Other revelations are confounding. It turns out that the story of sacrifice, deferred dreams, and midnight regrets told in 1980’s “The River” is borrowed from the life of Springsteen’s older sister. “I based the song on the crash of the construction industry in late-seventies New Jersey, the recession and hard times that fell on my sister Virginia and her family,” he writes. “My beautiful sister, tough and unbowed, K-Mart employee, wife and mother of three, holding fast and living the life that I ran away from with everything I had.” Left out of the song but acknowledged here is that Ginny Springsteen and her husband have been married for more than 40 years and, by her famous younger brother’s account, are the picture of domestic contentment. On some level, doesn’t that make “The River” a lie? Rarely has a more desperate portrait of stultifying lower-middle-class life been painted in song:
I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don’t remember
Mary acts like she don’t care
The names have been changed, but when you hear “The River” you’re hearing a third-person account of the first act of a life that ended up turning out much different than advertised. Born to Run is chock-full of Springsteen’s personal foibles as an unattached and unhappy bachelor, roaming from town to town, desperate for love and acceptance, yet unwilling to compromise. Music, freedom, and artistic expression come first, always, for what is life without such things? In “The River,” however, it’s the poor slob with the baby, the wife, and the construction job who is living out a tragic, unfulfilled existence. It calls into question Springsteen’s reliability as a narrator.
The most enjoyable material in the book is drawn from the period before the E Street bandleader ever signs a recording contract. Easily 40 percent of Born to Run is devoted to Springsteen’s years as a free-range kid on the rough-and-ready streets of Freehold. Just about everyone who ever played in a band, wrenched an engine, or took a road trip with the future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer makes a cameo. From the high school dances to the shore bars, Springsteen’s guitar-slinging apprenticeship lasted ten years and developed in the scrawny, long-haired greaser the performance tools necessary to blow the doors off any room at any time.
At 21, a series of lucky breaks and fortuitous introductions gained Springsteen access to the New York City office of producer/manager Mike Appel. From there, it’s demos and auditions with the legendary talent scout John Hammond and Columbia Records president Clive Davis, the release of two low-selling records—the Dylan-influenced Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle—and, finally, the album that changed everything, Born to Run.
Things accelerate considerably after our hero achieves fame. Springsteen’s chapters on subsequent chart-topping albums and massive, sold-out tours begin to blend together. Perhaps they blend together for the Boss, too.
Much has been made of Springsteen’s admission in the book that he struggles with depression. The tough-guy singer deals with the topic candidly and without self-pity: “It was like all my notorious energy, something that had been mine to command for most of my life, had been cruelly stolen away. I was a walking husk.” Springsteen’s father also suffered terrible mental illness, and his mood swings often turned violent. The picture of the adult Bruce Springsteen that emerges in Born to Run is of a badly wounded—but unusually smart and incredibly talented—man-child with a genetic predisposition to the blues who, by dint of determination and the blessings of kingly wealth, conquers his demons and achieves self-awareness. Nevertheless, there is an ominous undertone to these chapters, as if Springsteen knows that the black dog can rear up and take him down at any time. “[I]t’s in me,” he writes. “I’ve got to watch.” If one had to guess, Springsteen is far from out of the woods.
For my money, the book’s best anecdote is a lighter one involving a signed-but-still-penniless Springsteen trying to get through the Lincoln Tunnel to meet Appel, who’s promised to tide him over with a $35 loan. The toll collector informs the scruffy beach bum behind the wheel of a borrowed Dodge Seneca that coins will not be accepted; yet coins are all young Bruce possesses. None shall pass. Springsteen is reduced to begging. The toll collector relents, but insists that the future King of Rock sit patiently as she counts each coin individually. A traffic jam forms. When one of the pennies turns out to be of Canadian origin, the waiting drivers begin to lean on their horns. A desperate Springsteen clambers into the Seneca’s backseat and miraculously pulls an American penny out of the deep, well-worn cushions. “Lesson: In the real world, ninety-nine cents will not get you into New York City,” Springsteen writes. “You will need the full dollar.”
Springsteen’s not for everyone. I know many sophisticated and knowledgeable music fans for whom his appeal is entirely a mystery. His detractors often point to the image—the flannel shirts, the tight black jeans, the boots, the gospel preacher’s voice (not to mention the suspicious hair line and the notable lack of wrinkles). It’s all phony, they say. What’s more, the political stuff is a turnoff.
The haters aren’t wrong. For all his working-class swagger, Springsteen has never held a non-guitar-related job in his life. And isn’t it funny that an artist so intimately associated with the blue-collar ethos is known to fans the world over as the Boss? He acknowledges the class confusion he experienced as “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt,” when fame and fortune land this son of Freehold in a big house in a rich town—“the Republican stronghold of Rumson, New Jersey, only minutes from the plot of sand that once held the old Surf and Sea Beach Club, where we ‘townies’ had been spit on by the children of my new neighbors.” Poor guy. Must have been a tough transition.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that Springsteen is a staunch Democrat. His views are those of the standard limousine liberal. He seems to see his main task as identifying with the plight of the poor, not necessarily helping them rise above their circumstances. His preferred solutions to the problems of poverty are as predictable as they are facile. “This is America,” he writes. “The prescriptions for many of our ills are in hand—child day care, jobs, education, health care—but it would take a societal effort on the scale of the Marshall Plan to break the generations-long chain of institutionalized destruction our social policies have wreaked.” Okay, Bruce. Whatever you say.
In 1984, when President Ronald Reagan mentioned Springsteen’s name in a campaign speech (he didn’t, as has often been reported, misunderstand or misquote the lyrics to “Born in the U.S.A.”), the political philosopher who says all we need is a domestic Marshall Plan claims that his first reaction was, “Fucker!” Classy. Anyway, Springsteen was dead wrong about Reaganism, a fact he never acknowledges and probably never will. If anything, the depressed and desperate characters populating 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and 1980’s The River were victims of Jimmy Carter’s economic fecklessness. The explosive growth of the 1980s did make everyone better off by clearing away the stagflation that depressed wages and destroyed the savings of the working-class stiffs who Springsteen sings about.
Springsteen was wrong about the infamous 1999 Amadou Diallo case, too, when four white NYPD officers in plainclothes shot and killed the undocumented 23-year-old Guinean immigrant in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building. Diallo, who had limited English, may have misunderstood the cops’ instructions to keep his hands visible. When he reached into his coat to pull out his wallet, the officers—who were searching for a serial rapist—opened fire. Their own ricocheting bullets in the backlit vestibule convinced the cops that Diallo was firing back at them. In the final analysis, the cops fired a total of 41 bullets at an unarmed man.
Diallo’s death was a tragedy—no one disagreed about that—but an Albany, New York, jury acquitted the four officers of second-degree murder and reckless endangerment and an internal NYPD investigation cleared the cops of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, in his song “American Skin,” Springsteen adopted a pre-Black Lives Matter stance, tarring the cops—all cops—as trigger happy. With its haunting, chanted refrain of “forty-one shots” and its absurd claim that “it ain’t no secret . . . you can get killed just for living in your American skin,” the song’s lyrics left little doubt about Springsteen’s views on race, policing, and our collective guilt.
In the book, Springsteen engages in a bit of revisionism, claiming that he sought a “balanced voice” in the song and that the cops who protested at his concerts misunderstood his intention. He offers the fact that the policeman in the song prays for the victim’s life as proof that “American Skin” isn’t anti-cop, but then tries to have it both ways. “My sweetest memory of the whole fiasco,” writes the definitely not anti-police Bruce Springsteen, “is that as I sauntered down Monmouth Avenue in Red Bank one afternoon, an elderly black woman approached me and said, ‘They just don’t want to hear the truth.’” Balanced. Sure.
It’s a curious predicament to enjoy and support an artist’s work when you know that the artist himself has deep disdain for people like you. Recently, Springsteen has felt the need to weigh in on the presidential campaign, telling a British television reporter that Republican nominee Donald Trump is a “moron” and a “flagrant, toxic, narcissist” who wants to “take the entire democractic system down with him if he loses.” That may be true, but it’s a hell of a thing to say about a candidate that some—probably large—portion of your fan base supports.
Springsteen’s politics, heavy-handed moralizing, and King of New Jersey routine have never been enough to put me off his music. If you can tune out the underdeveloped and wrongheaded opinions of your favorite artists—and you’re a Springsteen fan—then you will find more than enough to entertain you in this book. It’s got drama, electricity, pathos, redemption, and poetry. All it’s missing is a blazing sax solo.
Top Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images