Oct 7, 2016
Still Running: On Bruce Springsteen’s New Memoir, Born to Run
When I was a kid, my dad used to make us listen to Bruce Springsteen records while we pulled weeds in the driveway in the summer. I loved Billy Joel and Jackson Browne and Jim Croce and the Eagles and I hated pulling weeds and Bruce Springsteen. Once, having breakfast at my best friend’s house after a sleepover when we were around ten, her dad—a true-blue New Yorker transplant in suburban Boston—played a song and asked us if we knew who was singing. My best friend had no idea. “Bruce Springsteen,” I said. He was delighted. “I hate him,” I added. “He sounds like noise.”
When my uncle was growing up on Long Island in the seventies, he used to play Springsteen records on his turntable. “It’s just yelling!” my grandfather, a cultured man, protested. My uncle had, my mother tells me, a full-sized poster of the man himself on his wall. In the eighties, my parents and my mother’s best friend went to see him play at Giants Stadium. They bought scalped tickets outside and ran through the hallways while the band started to play “Born in the U.S.A.” The stadium shook from everyone screaming. It was, my mother says, one of the most exciting things she has ever experienced. She was 22.
I, of course, became a Springsteen fan. By the time I was in high school, I had given in and put The Rising on my computer; after college I began to systematically track down the classics. When I attended his first show at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands in late August, the extent of his multigenerational appeal was obvious. Boomers outnumbered the children they have brainwashed, but not by much: a man with his adolescent son wearing tour merch; a passel of Jersey girls (to “American Skin”: “I hate this one!”); a middle-aged, working-class couple happier than any concertgoers I have ever seen; an Army vet in a Chris Kyle t-shirt and his less provocatively dressed wife. In these divided times, it is clear that Bruce Springsteen can bring white America together like no other figure in the pop culture landscape.
Springsteen has become a religious figure to his devotees and his live shows remain legendary. On August 23rd, the night I saw him, he played his longest American show ever, and then broke his record again on the 25th—and on the 30th—and one last time on September 7th in Philadelphia. On the 23rd, he turned 67 years old. Everybody around me in the nosebleed seats in the Meadowlands seemed to understand that we had been let into a semi-exclusive club and had better appreciate it. For four glorious hours, on and on they played, Springsteen running around the stage with unnatural athleticism for a man of his age, throwing his guitar to the roadies, leaning down to eyefuck the women crowded up against the stage during “Spirit of the Night.”
By around the three-and-a-half hour mark of the August 23rd concert, even the legend seemed to be getting tired. Bruce Springsteen is old. It’s unclear whether his epic shows are meant to disguise or emphasize this fact—maybe both. When you watch him, you can’t not think about his advancing age. He reached out and held onto the microphone stand, dripping with sweat, sagging slightly. He looked spent. But every time he looked like he might be done, he reached out into the screaming crowd, as though the adulation of tens of thousands of people could provide him with some literal physical boost. And perhaps it did. He kept going.
Born to Run, Springsteen’s new autobiography, is both an exercise in subverting his familiar and beloved public persona and a reaffirmation of it. At times revealing, at times deeply moving, it is nevertheless an autobiography of the man Americans have known for decades as The Boss, and the creative product of a man whose extraordinary fame is now integral to his public being.
Spanning the entirety of his life, from the earliest days of his childhood to the present day, Born to Run aspires to a pseudo-comprehensive scope that will likely please die-hard fans. Springsteen writes about everything from his childhood and the earliest days of his fledgling career to his greatest professional successes and, later, the births of his children. No one even distantly familiar with his story will be surprised to hear that his father, Doug Springsteen, takes up prime real estate in these pages, but here Springsteen presents him as a figure mostly deserving of our pity: Doug was diagnosed late in life with paranoid schizophrenia, and after so many decades of turmoil, Springsteen clearly now sees him as a tormented man whose distant and abusive treatment of his family was a product of his illness.
The earliest portions of the book are among its best, perhaps because they are the least familiar: his early homes, full of warped love and abject poverty; his Catholic schoolboy days; and best of all, his real religious awakening, which came not through God or Christ but through Elvis and the Beatles.
Though Springsteen is (needless to say) a better lyricist than prose writer, his folksy and often eloquent writing has distinctive elements of style reminiscent of his spoken vernacular: a tendency to list, liberal use of capitalization, bountiful exclamation points. His aim is, as ever, to entertain us. This reaches its apotheosis in his description of Elvis’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show:
In the beginning there was a great darkness upon the Earth. There was Christmas and your birthday but beyond all that was a black endless authoritarian void. … Then, in a moment of light, blinding as a universe birthing a billion new suns, there was hope, sex, rhythm, excitement, possibility, a new way of seeing, of feeling, of thinking, of looking at your hair, of wearing your clothes, of moving and of living. … THE BARRICADES HAVE BEEN STORMED!! A FREEDOM SONG HAS BEEN SUNG!! THE BELLS OF LIBERTY HAVE RUNG!! A HERO HAS COME. THE OLD ORDER HAS BEEN OVERTHROWN!
Young Bruce’s transfixion with Elvis is followed by his teenage infatuation with the Beatles. Let the next man to sneer at teenage girls crying about boy bands read this:
Those four half-shadowed faces, rock ’n’ roll’s Mount Rushmore, and … THE HAIR … THE HAIR. What did it mean? It was a surprise, a shock. You couldn’t see them on the radio. It is almost impossible to explain today the effect of … THE HAIR.
Later, he recounts fantasizing about taking Mick Jagger’s place in a last-minute crisis at a Rolling Stones concert, and wowing both the band and the audience. There is something touching about someone as famous as Bruce Springsteen—particularly a man as famous as Bruce Springsteen—copping to these run-of-the-mill schoolboy fantasies and obsessions. It is almost mind-fuckingly humanizing to imagine The Boss of today at fourteen (by his account, not a very cool one) going back to his local five-and-ten day after day until Meet the Beatles arrived and he finally saw… THE HAIR.
Accelerating from childhood through his early career to the peak of Born in the U.S.A. in the mid-eighties, both Springsteen’s career and the book unfortunately enter a slow decline (though this year’s tour was the highest-grossing by any band in the world this year). As he himself acknowledges, he would never again attain the cultural primacy he had in 1984 and 1985; perhaps more importantly, his turbulent personal life settled down: he got married and had kids. Plenty of interesting things can happen to you once you’re a multimillionaire with a couple of babies, but in the 1990s and 2000s, the book begins to feel like a laundry list of less famous albums, hall-of-fame inductions, and horseback riding lessons.
While Born to Run does follow a narrative arc in the broadest sense—Springsteen achieves professional success, comes to terms with his relationship with his father, and settles down and has children—it lacks the focus and power of, for instance, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, admittedly the gold standard for books of this type. In Just Kids, Smith tells both the story of her own coming of age and of her storied relationship with the late Robert Mapplethorpe. That’s plenty of ground to cover, but her project is clear and focused enough that it gives the book a basic structure and a raison d’etre.
And as odd as it may sound, Born to Run could have used less of… Springsteen. Though all memoir writing is act of narcissism, this book suffers from failing to deeply investigate or depict most of Springsteen’s long-term relationships, with the notable exception of his father. He has a gift for describing people, but these quick vivid introductions tend to fade quickly, or remain relatively superficial. His wife, Patti Scialfa, is mostly described from a distance, in the act of supporting him and mothering their children, which flattens her to a Supportive Wife of a musician biopic despite his insistence on her complexity. While his resistance to let the public into their private life en masse is more than understandable, this begs the question: why not just end the book earlier, or structure it differently?
One of the most striking and fascinating chapters in Born to Run is a mere five pages introducing Clarence Clemons: “One thing the layman needs to remember about Clarence,” Springsteen writes, “is Clarence was very important to Clarence. In this he was not so different from most of us, except by fabulous degree.” Both Springsteen’s love for his friend and his clear-eyed assessment of his flaws are on display in this chapter, which also features the book’s most thoughtful writing about race. Yet after these five pages, Clemons remains peripheral until his death.
“I haven’t told you ‘all’ about myself,” Springsteen writes at the book’s conclusion. “Discretion and the feelings of others don’t allow it.” Every memoirist must reckon with questions of personal responsibility, but for a person of Springsteen’s stature, those questions are particularly loaded. He can’t be brutally honest about most of the people he’s writing about; he can’t give away their secrets. It wouldn’t be fair.
The specter of Springsteen’s fame haunts the book in other ways. It is clear that he assumes his readers are already fans. He expects us to know his main cast of characters and to recognize the lyrics that are occasionally inserted into the text, and—even more distractingly—he has an unfortunate tendency to skip forward in time to reference things that have not yet happened in relation to an album, person, or event. Usually these little asides serve the purpose of tying something up—in fact, this person and I now have mended our relationship; later when I was winning this award this happened; et cetera—and consequently have a deflating effect on the narrative. “I may have struggled,” he seems to be saying, “but remember how it all turned out?”
Beyond these concrete signifiers, the greatest residual effect of his fame is a lingering slipperiness that lies, unsettling, beneath the surface of his writing. Omissions are to be expected; his can sometimes feel like sleight of hand. Though he discusses his difficulty with romantic relationships, the women in his life remain almost entirely off-screen until his first wife comes along—you might think he was celibate, until he casually mentions his girlfriend (or multiple girlfriends) du jour. Any time he doesn’t want to get into something, he seems to default to describing it as “lovely”—the “lovely” girl he was seeing, the “lovely” wedding, et cetera, et cetera. Best, he seems to have decided, not to offend.
Springsteen’s most glaring sleight of hand, however, is his elusive depiction of his own financial status. He vividly evokes the part of his life when he had very little money—a period that lasted well into what we think of as his “success”—and his aversion to the possibility of wealth, as well as the moment when he realized he had made it big with Born in the U.S.A. But the actual manifestation of that wealth in his own life remains a very obvious blank in the book: all of the sudden, he’s referencing “the gentleman who was cooking for us at the time” and flying on a private jet. Huh? Of course, we all know how rich Bruce Springsteen is. But that’s not the Bruce Springsteen we’ve been reading about, and it’s not the Bruce Springsteen of popular legend, the working class man of the road my uncle growing up with very little money on Long Island in the seventies idolized. It’s not, in short, The Boss. It’s not who Springsteen wants to be—but it’s who he is, whether or not he likes to admit it.
Yet the book remains compulsively readable: Springsteen is funny and engaging, and has no problem poking fun at himself, and deploys his many capital letters to entertaining effect. It is particularly amusing to find out that America’s great pop poet of cars still could not drive into his twenties (“When I say I didn’t drive, I mean I DID NOT KNOW HOW.”) The book is also, at times, genuinely revealing. Buried amidst his linear life story is a meditation about the nature of fame—namely that we know much less than we think about the objects of our adulation.
By far the most memorable and moving parts of the book deal with Springsteen’s struggles with depression—an inheritance, he believes, from his father’s side of the family. For a couple hundred pages, he refers somewhat cryptically to his depressive tendencies—shortly after moving away from home, he writes of avoiding drugs, “I was barely holding onto myself as it was”—and then, finally, comes to his first serious depressive episode, which occurred on a road trip to California when he was working on Born in the U.S.A. At a small-town fair, he experiences intense alienation from the crowd; he writes, “a despair overcomes me”:
I can only watch. That’s what I do. I watch … and I record. I do not engage, and if and when I do, my terms are so stringent, they suck the lifeblood and possibility out of any good thing, any real thing, I might have.
After finally making it to California (fortunately, in the company of a friend), he’s persuaded to see a therapist: the decision changes his life. This segment of the book—along with another detailed description of a more recent depressive episode near the end of the book—is potent not only because it is well written, but also because relatively soon after this period, Springsteen would embark on his Born in the U.S.A tour, that my mother remembers with such spellbound rapture, and that remains in the annals of popular music one of the defining moments of the eighties.
In clips from these shows, Springsteen is at his physical peak, shirtsleeves GONE, muscles OUT, jeans TIGHT, aggressively making love to his guitar. He conveys a full-throated masculine joy in his physical and musical prowess. The Springsteen of those old concert videos—who my parents saw, who my mom and her friends called “a stud!”—was in therapy. The Springsteen I saw in New Jersey this year is on antidepressants.
That is perhaps appropriate: as everybody was missing the political point of “Born in the U.S.A,” they were also missing what Springsteen was deliberately hiding from them—himself. There are all kinds of things we can never know about the celebrities we love. It’s striking that of everything he could reveal—and of everything he kept hidden—this is what Springsteen chose to show us. Not many famous men would ever write: “I walk in; look into the eyes of a kindly, white-haired, mustached complete stranger; sit down; and burst into tears.”
By now, the E Street Band is an operation. They have been performing together for 44 years and they have a routine. So does the audience. Fans on the floor hold signs up to request songs, and Springsteen collects them, shows them to a camera, and picks the one he wants before, sometimes, inviting the lucky fan in question to the stage. The show is, of course, a performance, but it can feel performative—a little put on, a little stagey. After Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew and his replacement in the band, played the sax solo in “Jungleland,” Springsteen crossed the stage to briefly embrace him—but a dimmed spotlight followed him to catch the moment. I wondered if they did that every night, and, if so, how many times it had happened.
Fame confers status, wealth, and access, and it demands performance. Springsteen is a performer par excellence, on stage and in his book. He is and always will be… AN ENTERTAINER! As he writes, though he couldn’t tell us “all,” he has tried to “show the reader his mind.” In this book we have a vulnerable man, a man who seeks to entertain—and a slippery, elusive man. That may not have been what he wanted to show us, but it’s illuminating nevertheless. Besides, I couldn’t help feeling, after I’d finished it, that as irritating or dissatisfying as I found some parts of the book, it ultimately didn’t really matter. He doesn’t have to write a book that entirely succeeds as an objet d’art, because he’s already made Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A. (take your pick), which do. He gets to write whatever the hell he wants. We’ll still read it.
In New Jersey, looking up at the enormous bowl of stars above the stadium, I couldn’t help feel a little strung along—but it was all right. Even if, over time, an invisible partition has grown between the E Street Band and their audience, the show goes on. They play, and play, and play, and we sing until our throats get sore. As they started to play “Born to Run,” the lights came blazing on in the stadium, and everybody could see each other, gathered together in the middle of the Meadowlands, rocking out to a song released fifteen years before I was born. And it didn’t sound old.
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