Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen

Review by Jennifer Spiegel

Simon & Schuster, 2016

Bruce likes to write.

Actually, Bruce loves to write.

Over 500 pages, this memoir covers a lot. From his Italian/Irish/Working Class/Catholic/Crazy Dad/Longsuffering Mom/Freehold, New Jersey childhood to his happily-married/empty nest/post-Clarence Clemons/horseback-riding sixties. Bruce is headed into old age, my friends.

The Word on the Street: Springsteen wrote the whole thing himself, by longhand, over the course of seven years. I believe it. Typically, I’m mildly cynical about “celebrity memoirs”—but the book is so wonderfully Springsteen-esque, which is to say it’s rambling, poetic, repetitive, heartbreaking, a little longish, sometimes profound, and totally engaging. A ghostwriter wouldn’t have lingered so long over every single album. Every. Single. Album. (I highly recommend the audiobook because Bruce narrates it; however, I’d be listening and he’d say, “Chapter Fifty-three . . . Chapter Sixty-seven . . . Chapter Nine Thousand.”)

Everyone has a Springsteen story. I have three or four. My cousin—who morphed, oddly, into a Trump-supporter!—first exposed me to Springsteen as an antidote to my Rick Springfield passion (why did all of my musical taste grow out of some kind of opposition to youthful fancies—is it like that for everyone?). I like to also pretend that we named our daughter after “Born to Run”:

“Wendy let me in I wanna be your friend/
I want to guard your dreams and visions”

But this isn’t true. I also like to pretend that we named her after Wendy Darling in Peter Pan. Also not true. We just liked it. After 9/11, when Bruce went on tour for The Rising with the E. Street Band, my mom and I saw him on August 25, 2002—about a month after my father died—so it was a special admixture of tributes and memorials that imprinted on our lives. Finally, my husband and I ventured out to see Bruce play solo in the Devils and Dust Tour in 2005. We obviously didn’t have kids yet. Those are my stories.

But the book . . .

If you’re a Bruce Springsteen fan, you’ll love it. Bruce loves to write, but he can write. In his music, he takes to heart Bob Dylan’s adage that he quotes: one is “not just writing about SOMETHING but writing about EVERYTHING.” This explains why the Springsteen songbook is deep and wide. This already-famous passage is how he opens his memoir: “I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I. By twenty, no race-car-driving rebel, I was a guitar player on the streets of Asbury Park and already a member in good standing amongst those who ‘lie’ in service of the truth … artists with a small ‘a.’ But I held four clean aces. I had youth, almost a decade of hard-core bar band experience, a good group of homegrown musicians who were attuned to my performance style and a story to tell.”

But Bruce becomes an artist with a big “A,” and that’s the draw of the book. He is well-versed in his medium, looking to Dylan, Presley, Woody Guthrie, Frank Sinatra and so many others. Dylan, already mentioned, informs his songwriting: “’Like a Rolling Stone’ gave me the faith that a true, unaltered, uncompromised vision could be broadcast to millions, changing minds, enlivening spirits, bringing red blood to the anemic American pop landscape and delivering a warning, a challenge that could become an essential part of the American conversation. This was music that could both stir the heart of your fellow countrymen and awaken the mind of a shy, lost fifteen-year-old in a small New Jersey town.”

Note the uncompromising part. Bruce Springsteen reveals himself to be . . . wait for it . . . a control freak. In his approach to music, he is “primally unmovable”—as he puts it. He really is The Boss, even among musical giants like Steven Van Zandt and the late Clarence Clemons. He’s in charge, and you can tell.

There’s also a lot of ego here.

I’ll tell you what, though: I’m terribly forgiving of this kind of uncompromising, and this kind of ego. In other words, I think artistic vision and artistic ego is, well, special. Springsteen, from early on (he doesn’t even read music!), had a sense of his own ability and greatness. He talks a lot about it. My response: So what?

He is pretty great.

My favorite parts include:

  • how he talks about his wife, Patti Scialfa
  • how he talks about Stevie (there’s a great scene in which they’re thrown out of Disneyland for wearing bandanas) and Clarence (Clemons’ death is particularly poignant)
  • seeing Elvis’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show
  • his discussion of “Born in the U.S.A.”
  • pretending to be mentally ill to get out of Vietnam draft (really!)
  • his admission to lifelong depression, which—at times—is debilitating
  • his take on playing the Super Bowl

But there are three other things to mention.

This is a father-haunted narrative. Springsteen, like many of us, is forever dealing with his own parental heritage. I was particularly struck by the part about how his father “hid” his mother, refusing to show his love for her in public—and how this hiding impacted Bruce’s own ability to love his wife before others.

This is also well-written prose: “She was Italian, funny, a beatific tomboy, with just the hint of a lazy eye, and wore a pair of glasses that made me think of the wonders of the library.” There are, probably literally, a million examples of linguistic finesse.

Finally, this is sometimes human and humorous. When the Northridge earthquake hits with its days and days of aftershocks, Patti wants to leave California. He told her, “We can brave it out.”

She responded, “You brave it out. I’ve got three kids . . .”

I liked this memoir. As with his hours-long concert, you’re satisfied when it’s over.

Jennifer Spiegel is the author of two books, The Freak Chronicles (stories) and Love Slave (a novel). She’s also half of the book-reviewing gig, Snotty Literati.

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