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The first 37 pages of Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen’s enthusiastic, sprawling autobiography, amble through a typical life in suburban New Jersey, with the organizational help of chapters aptly titled “The Irish,” “The Italians,” and “The Church.” Then, what he calls the Big Bang: Elvis Presley performs on The Ed Sullivan Show, and young Bruce, watching on TV at home, seemingly ages twenty years overnight, transforming before our eyes into a hyperbolizing rock ‘n’ roll hero with unconventional grammar.
“THE BARRICADES HAVE BEEN STORMED!!” he writes, beginning a caps-lock rampage that takes something like four pages to wear off. “A FREEDOM SONG HAS BEEN SUNG!! THE BELLS OF LIBERTY HAVE RUNG…THE REVOLUTION HAS BEEN TELEVISED!!” The next day, he convinces his mom to buy him “the master key, the sword in the stone, the sacred talisman, the staff of righteousness.” Yes, she buys him an acoustic guitar. Let no one accuse this man of working with a ghostwriter.
Like his music, Springsteen’s writing is earnest, often to the point of cheesiness; like his music, it’s redeemed by how much he believes in his message. Divided into three sections, Born to Run takes the form of a country song: Part One (“Growin’ Up”) describes Bruce’s childhood and adolescence; Part Two (“Born to Run”) covers his most musically productive years and his
attempts at personal independence; in Part Three (“Living Proof”), he marries, returns home, and raises children of his own. But unlike most of the country songs that make it to the radio, Bruce also explores the emotional burden weltering under the surface of this tried-and-true story cycle. Toward the book’s end, after his kids go off to school, the avatar of dad-rock is briefly felled by dad issues of his own. His straightforward description of taking Klonopin and crying on the beach will no doubt go miles toward destigmatizing depression for other bottled-up old dudes.
In between such moments of struggle, he weaves about as much music as you’d expect. An accompanying playlist would stretch from “Greensleeves” (the first song he tried to learn on guitar) to Major Lance’s “The Monkey Time,” the horn-accented soul gem he ripped off — or at least riffed off — to create “The E Street Shuffle.” When Springsteen describes his own music, he offers little studio insight, but he speaks eloquently of his ambitions and inspirations. Of “E Street Shuffle,” he writes, “I wanted to describe a neighborhood, a way of life, and I wanted to invent a dance with no exact steps. It was just the dance you did every day and night to get by.”
Bruce himself begins learning these steps by gigging with local rock bands in the mid-Sixties. Like so many ambitious working-class kids, he’s an autodidact, using popular culture to expand his world while trying to figure out how to succeed — and later, what it means to succeed — in someone else’s. His favorite records are innocent yet melancholy pop hits like the Drifters’ “Up on the Roof.” “This music was filled with deep longing, a casually transcendent spirit, mature resignation, and…hope,” he writes, “hope for that girl, that moment, that place, that night when everything changes, life reveals itself to you, and you, in turn, are revealed.” It’s a very Catholic — and very familiar — form of displacement: He wants revelation, and he finds it in music where revelation is promised.
Certainly many Springsteen fans will be able to relate. Almost the entirety of the singer’s Seventies output is premised on that idea: that a song about salvation can stand in for salvation itself. This is how we arrive at the anthem that gives the book its title, the closest thing Springsteen has to an Exhibit A. “I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth,” he tells us, “like the last record you might hear…the last one you’d ever NEED to hear.”
The lead-up to “Born to Run” (the song) is slow, as if to emphasize that the story of Springsteen’s life — and, because he’s always trying to universalize, your life too — is much more than a single
accomplishment. (In fact, only about one-third of the book deals with the period for which the author is best known, the thirteen-year stretch that began with the recording of his debut studio album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., in 1972 and ended when the Born in the U.S.A. Tour finished in 1985.) We follow him on teenage bus trips to Greenwich Village, into his twenties for a tumultuous gig in which organist Danny Federici topples amplifiers onto charging cops, and through a lot of nights spent sleeping on the beach — as he waits for what’s next. Springsteen has always narrated this moment, this sense of being on the cusp of the unknown, as adeptly as anyone in music, telling versions of this story in “The Promised Land,” “Night,” “4th of July,
Asbury Park (Sandy),” and more. When we finally reach “Born to Run,” the steady narrative pacing allows us to approach it as a new song by a nervous kid, rather than the obelisk it’s become.
And then the story continues, all the way up to the writing of the book itself. If Springsteen loved songs like “Up on the Roof” and “Under the Boardwalk” for the way they “longed for some honest place…somewhere above or below the harsh glare of the adult world,” then, slowly, influenced by psychoanalysis, he comes to understand that the adult world may not be that bad after all. With numbers like 1978’s “Racing in the Street,” a Sixties-style car song doubling as a desperate stagflation ballad, he begins to accept a new artistic mission: ushering the rock
of his youth along into middle age. Born to Run shows us just how directly Springsteen’s music emerges from his life; in doing so, it provides a hefty clue as to why so many of his fans have brought Springsteen into theirs.
Born to Run
By Bruce Springsteen
510 pp., Simon & Schuster