At various points while reading Bruce Springsteen’s recently published autobiography, Born to Run, I wanted to tell The Boss to relax. It’s only rock and roll.
Not to Springsteen. Rock and roll isn’t just his career – it’s his passion, his religion and path to salvation and redemption. When it comes to his music, he analyzes, he ruminates, he wrestles with, he composes and discards and rewrites and exerts energy that would exhaust a normal human being. Springsteen’s commitment to his music is inexhaustible, his drive indefatigable, his work ethic bordering on the obsessive, and he fully admits in his 500+ page book that his musical pursuits kept him from living a life for much of his first four decades. For Springsteen, his blessing is also a curse.
Not so for his fans, who now get to enjoy a book that benefits from the same commitment Springsteen applies to his music. There are two things about this book that make it stand out from among so many other musician biographies: first, the guy can write. No ghost writer required for this biopic. Springsteen effectively changes tenses, alternates between story and insight, offers a fairly chronological account of his life while still assembling topical chapters and is just self-deprecating enough to keep the reader rooting for him. (e.g., “I know I’m good but I’m also a poser. That’s artistic balance!”)
Second, Springsteen is an extremely curious person, eager to analyze his past, his surroundings, his parents, his bandmates, his storytelling, what music means to our society, etc., and as such opens up much more than many other musicians are willing to while never falling into the tell-all abyss. He doesn’t shy away from confrontations and weaknesses, but he’s also careful not to say too much. His well-known grievances with manager Mike Appel are mentioned but not dwelled upon, his at-times difficult relationship with Steve Van Zandt and Danny Federici are addressed without going into detail, and his first marriage’s demise is handled deftly and respectably.
Unlike, say, Keith Richard’s entertaining but shallow Life, or Elvis Costello’s coy, self-indulgent and muddled Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Born to Run is both an exercise in good writing and in reflection. Consider the following description of how a snowstorm can make you feel. Where others might have simply said, “I love a good snow,” Springsteen writes:
No work, no school, the world shutting its big mouth for a while; the dirtiest streets covered over in virgin whites, like all the missteps you’ve taken have been erased by nature. You can’t run; you can only sit. You open your door on a trackless world, your old path, your history, momentarily covered over by a landscape of forgiveness, a place where something new might happen. It’s an illusion but it can stimulate the regenerative parts of your spirit to make good on God and nature’s suggestion.
Nicely done. Yes, there are times when Springsteen’s ruminations get a tad tiresome, but I’ll take a book with too much reflection than too little any day. And while much of his book is about his troubled relationship with his father and Bruce’s own path to overcome some of the traits he inherited (including a forthright revelation about his own mental illness), the book is a fairly effective balance between Springsteen’s music and his personal life. I would have preferred a few more anecdotes about recording and performing. I imagine he could devote an entire book to such an endeavor, and perhaps one day he will, but as a musician I’m often confounded with how little musicians write about…well, MUSIC.
Oddly absent are any mention of Springsteen’s 1991 releases, Human Touch and Lucky Town. Every other album is discussed in some detail, but for reasons unknown, he doesn’t even mention the album titles or the process of composing or recording for them. He does reveal how disappointed he was that 2011’s Wrecking Ball album didn’t reach the audience he’d hoped for, and concludes that “In the States, the power of rock music as a vehicle for [political] ideas had diminished.” That may be true, but probably more important was the fact that Wrecking Ball, as I’ve written before, was a bore. Bruce’s writing simply hasn’t progressed that way it has for, say, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne or Joe Jackson.
One high point of the book is a short chapter devoted to his performance at the 2009 Super Bowl, an event that makes even Springsteen nervous. “It’s not the usual preshow jitters or ‘butterflies’ I’ve had before. I’m talking about ‘five minutes to beach landing,’ Right Stuff, ‘Lord, don’t let me screw the pooch in front of a hundred million people’ kind of semiterror.” This chapter more than any other helps us see performing through Bruce’s eyes.
He writes, “It was a high point, a marker of some sort, and went up with the biggest shows of our work life. The NFL threw us an anniversary party the likes of which we’d never have thrown for ourselves.” The show was only two weeks after President Obama’s first inaugural address. The feelings of excitement, of rebirth and celebration were in the air. It’s hard to imagine this type of feeling emanating from any performer these days. Lady Gaga did a fine job last night at Super Bowl LI, but times look bleak, our capacity for celebration diminished.
In, 2009, Springsteen ended his Super Bowl performance with "Glory Days.”
Glory days, indeed.