Bruce Springsteen broke a guitar string about halfway into one of his early songs, “Spirit in the Night,” the first time I ever saw him perform, in April 1974. The show, billed as a “dance concert,” was held in the cafeteria of the student center at Seton Hall University. I’d heard good things about Springsteen from older friends in our mutual home state of New Jersey—one of his early bands, Steel Mill, had played at my buddy Doug’s eighth-grade graduation party—but my expectations were still low. After all, this was just a dance show by a Jersey Shore bar band in a college cafeteria.
The rhythm section kept up the tune’s loping jazz-funk groove while Springsteen walked off-mic to his guitar case and got out a replacement string. There were no roadies on the side of the stage. There was no stage. While he attached the new string, Springsteen told a long, casually paced story about growing up in Freehold, a blue-collar town by the Jersey Shore. He talked about trying to tune his first guitar, alone in his bedroom, while his father hollered at him through the vent in the floor between his room and the kitchen. He described how his dad would turn up the gas range to try to smoke his son out of the house. The tale was poignant, funny, and vividly detailed—an impeccable little narrative that came off as earnest and utterly spontaneous. He wrapped up the story just in time to test the new string by strumming the downbeat chord of the song’s chorus. I curled up in the palm of Bruce Springsteen’s hand.
Over the next few years, I saw Springsteen perform more than a dozen times, mostly in other small venues: in the gym of Cedar Crest College in northeast Pennsylvania, a short bus ride from my hometown in northwest Jersey; and at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, where I watched him play two consecutive sets to a room of 40 or 50 people for three nights straight. In nearly every show, he told the same anecdote about his first guitar and his father, usually placing it neatly in the middle of the song “Growin’ Up.” He developed and embellished the anecdote, show by show, eventually working up a version that ended with both his parents giving him career advice. His father would exhort him to give up the “goddamn guitar” and learn to do something more practical and remunerative, like practicing law. His mother would reply, “No, no, no—he should be a author [sic]. He should write books. That’s a good life.” (One version of this monologue, from a concert in 1978, is captured on the recording of “Growin’ Up” included in the Live/1975–85 boxed set issued by Columbia Records in 1986.)
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Over the three decades since that early phase in Springsteen’s long career, he has had a very, very good life without writing books. There was only one hardcover title credited to him until this year. In November 2014, just in time for winter-holiday sales, Simon & Schuster published a glossy-stock edition of the lyrics to one of Springsteen’s story songs, “Outlaw Pete,” with illustrations. By that time, though, he had begun work on what would slowly take form as a memoir, writing longhand in notebooks that he carried with him on the road. Inevitably titled Born to Run, it was published this fall to instantaneous success on the best-seller lists, providing Springsteen with his first No. 1 hit in a couple of years.
As everyone in the Seton Hall cafeteria could tell in 1974, Bruce Springsteen was a good writer long before he became “a author” of books. The fable-like story he spun about his father foreshadowed his memoir, which, in fact, includes an extended telling of the same tale. He has always had a keen sense of character, applying it with varying degrees of subtly to the denizens of his songs, from zanies like Crazy Janey and Wild Billy in “Spirit in the Night” through the displaced millworkers and emotionally wounded vets of his glory days in the ’80s, to the avaricious financiers of his 2012 polemical album Wrecking Ball, his last of all-original material. Springsteen has always displayed a sharp sense of place as well, with a gift for evoking atmosphere in his lyrics: the fireworks forcing a light on the stony faces on the Asbury Park boardwalk in “Sandy”; the barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge drinking warm beer in “Jungleland”; the smokestacks reaching like the arms of God into a sky of soot in “Youngstown.” And he has long had a refined narrative sense, writing dozens of playlets in song form, from the two-stanza drama of an abandoned wife clinging to hope in “Reason to Believe” to the five-minute novella of heartbreak in the shadow of drug-running on the Mexican border in “The Line.” Being a rock star, Springsteen has naturally exercised all of those talents in the service of his own public image as well as his music. Both, after all, are part of the work of stardom. But with his star already high in the stratosphere, it seems that Springsteen might have been chasing something closer to the ground in Born to Run.
Among the surprises in this beautifully written, open-hearted memoir is how thoroughly it covers the distance between Springsteen’s ingrained image of stolid emotional (and physical) muscularity and the reality of his experience. The first dozen or so chapters, the heart of the book, describe his youth in a world governed, with steely purpose and overwhelming love, by Italian-American women. (His mother, like my own, is a woman of Italian heritage who took visible pride in her work, in her case as a legal secretary. His father, like mine, was a crude and misanthropic ne’er-do-well who bounced between menial jobs, drank too much, and suffered from long-undiagnosed depression.) As a child, Springsteen admits, he was “an Italian mama’s boy,” and he sounds often in the book as if he still is one today. “My mother showered me with affection,” he writes in an early chapter. “The love I missed from my father she tried to double up on and, perhaps, find the love she missed from my dad.” Toward the end of the book, returning to his mother, he describes her in recent years: “My mom remains magic…. She is heart, heart, heart…. If you met her, you would know her in an instant…and you would love her. Like I do.”
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Springsteen’s portrayal of his father is considerably more complex, nuanced, and resonant. Indeed, Springsteen’s lifetime of struggle to come to terms with his father is a dominant theme of his memoir, and the passages of narrative and rumination on the subject are the most powerful sections of the book. Students of Springsteen’s music will likely come to Born to Run, as I did, with a conception of his father framed by that smoke-out story Springsteen told over and over, a view of the man as less of a person than a cliché of mill-town male indifference. Looking back, Springsteen now sees that portrayal as simplistic and unjust. “I haven’t been completely fair to my father in my songs, treating him as an archetype of the neglecting, domineering parent,” he admits. “It was an East of Eden recasting of our relationship, a way of ‘universalizing’ my childhood experience.”
Writing some years after his father’s death, as a middle-aged father himself, Springsteen offers a mature portrait, rich in specificity and pulsing with veracious contradiction. In an unshakable scene, Springsteen recalls hearing his father scream so violently at his mother that Springsteen, at the age of 9 or 10, felt the need to protect her. He sneaked into the room with a baseball bat and swung it hard onto his father’s back. For years after that, his father would recount the moment with pride in his son’s intervention, telling him, “Don’t let anybody hurt your mom.”
Over time, Springsteen came to recognize his father’s brooding and rage as symptoms of psychological trouble that he himself has shared. The closest thing to headline news in Born to Run is probably the candor with which Springsteen describes suffering from depression, which has been acutely serious at times. He has been getting therapy and taking antidepressants, and he discusses all of this with only a tinge of the self-absorption typical of celebrity recovery narratives.
After his father’s death in 1998, Springsteen had a dream that he describes in a terse and lovely paragraph. He is rocking out in concert, “onstage in full flight,” when he spots his father seated in the crowd. He goes to him and kneels at his side, while his performing self continues the show. “I touch his forearm and say to my dad, who for many years sat paralyzed by depression, ‘Look Dad, look…that guy onstage…that’s you…that’s how I see you.’” Springsteen’s vision of his father as a figure contained in his rock-star self is of a piece with his idolatrous image of his mother as sinless and “magic.”
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The underlying paradigm of Born to Run is proudly Catholic. Springsteen was not just raised in the church by his Italian Catholic mother; he was raised in the house next door to his parish church, St. Rose’s. An altar boy in the pre–Vatican II days of the Latin mass, he practiced the cryptic rituals and absorbed the essence of Catholic teaching, especially its emphasis on sin and redemption. “This was the world where I found the beginnings of my song,” Springsteen writes. “I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward.” Like some Catholics I know in my own family, Springsteen is uncomfortable with the legalistic dogma of the church, and yet he finds profound comfort in its message of salvation. “As funny as it sounds, I have a ‘personal’ relationship with Jesus,” he confides. “He remains one of my fathers, though as with my own father, I no longer believe in his godly power. I believe deeply in his love, his ability to save…but not to damn.”
The theme of redemption courses through Born to Run, as it does the rest of Springsteen’s work, most overtly in songs like “Thunder Road,” “The River,” “Maria’s Bed,” “Highway Patrolman,” “Rockaway the Days,” and “Bring On the Night,” with their dime-novel sinners who find absolution, typically in the love of a woman named Mary or Maria. Even “Outlaw Pete,” the song repackaged as a children’s book, is a redemption allegory. As Springsteen explains in an author’s note, “Outlaw Pete is essentially the story of a man trying to outlive and outlast his sins.” In his new book, we read about Springsteen’s mother finding her life of self-sacrifice paying off in her son’s success, and we see Spring- steen redeeming his childhood anxiety and geekiness through his arena act of macho triumphalism.
He seems to see the possibilities for doom and salvation everywhere. Recalling the evening he first saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show—in a chapter titled “The Second Coming”—Springsteen writes: “I sat there, heart pounding, waiting for the first real look at my new saviors, waiting to hear the first redemptive notes come peeling off the Rickenbacker, Hofner, and Gibson guitars in their hands.”
Born to Run, like its subject, is smart, ambitious, and mesmerizing, but uneven—diminished, though not terminally, by a current of self-satisfaction running below its Jersey-boy humility. The long passages of “and then I wrote…” reminiscence grow wearying, and it would be awfully hard for any mortal to relate to Springsteen once he makes Born in the USA and becomes a megastar of arena rock. He describes the title song as “one of my greatest and most misunderstood pieces of music.” Poor Bruce, his greatness glorified for the wrong reasons.
Flawed but exquisitely detailed and often moving, particularly in its treatment of the father-son relationship at its core, Born to Run is a book whose sins are redeemed by the grace of its humanity.