Early in his autobiography, Bruce Springsteen writes:
In the beginning there was a great darkness upon the Earth. There was Christmas and your birthday but beyond that all was a black endless authoritarian void. There was nothing to look forward to, nothing to look back upon, no future, no history. It was all a kid could do to make it to summer vacation.
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 body, of combing your hair, of wearing your clothes, of moving and of living. There was a joyous demand made, a challenge, a way out of this dead-to-life world, this small-town grave with all the people I dearly loved and feared buried in it alongside of me.
He is describing the first time he saw Elvis Presley on TV. He was two weeks shy of his 7th birthday.
Born to Run allows us to see what drove Bruce from a very early age. We’ve heard the stories in bits and pieces over the years, but seeing them in one place, chronological, has a special impact. It turns out many of those stories he used to tell on stage about growing up were true. Bruce Springsteen was a misfit who found his calling in rock and roll music. And for many reasons, all of them discussed in this book, Bruce was the guy who did indeed make it. Writing about a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame jam:
In 1964, millions of kids saw the Stones and the Beatles and decided, “That looks like fun.” Some of them went out and bought instruments. Some of them learned to play a little. Some got good enough to maybe join a local band. Some might have even made a demo tape. Some might have lucked out and gotten a record deal of some sort. A few of those might have sold some records and done some touring. A few of those might have had a small hit, a short career in music, and managed to eke out a modest living. A very few of those might have managed to make a life as a musician, and a very, very few might have had some continuing success that brought them fame, fortune and deep gratification, and tonight, one of those ended up standing behind Mick Jagger and George Harrison, a Stone and a Beatle.... I knew my talents and I knew I worked hard, but THESE, THESE WERE THE GODS, and I was, well ... one hardworking guitar man. I carried the journeyman in me for better or worse, a commonness, and I always would.
There is an undertone throughout the book that tells us Bruce knows for many of us in his audience, he is that god. And he never downplays the role his big ego played in his career. But it feels legitimate when he deflects such thoughts, standing up not for the gods, but for the journeymen.
Most of the pre-publication things I read focused on his fight against depression and anxiety. This does indeed take up a sizable portion of Born to Run, especially in the last third, when he finally stops and takes stock of where his life has gone. This is vital, crucial material ... knowing that our hero fights against the same problems we all do matters more than perhaps it should ... and Bruce pulls no punches in talking about his battles. He had promised us a real, warts-and-all picture of his life, and he delivers. In those sections, I was reminded of Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, which described how debilitating life on the road became for her. You wonder how he was able to continue making music during those times.
And the music ... the book has three parts. The first takes us through his childhood, up until his first two albums have been released in 1973. The second section goes through the most vital artistic period of his career, from Born to Run to Tunnel of Love. The third and final section seems appetizing, kind of like watching the E Street Band play music from the “Other Band” years. But the final section is also the shortest. While we get several chapters about the making of Born to Run, while all of the subsequent albums through Tunnel of Love get detailed treatment, suddenly the book shifts. Part of this is the shift in his life ... once he pairs up with Patti, things are better, and as their three kids are born, life seems worth living in ways that perhaps hadn’t been true before that.
The third section, and the first chapter of that section, is called “Living Proof”, and begins with the birth of his first child. The next chapter is devoted to Patti, then to the firing of the E Street Band, LA riots, a marriage and a honeymoon, another child, and then, finally, comes “The Other Band”, which gets one short section in the “Going to the Chapel” chapter. He briefly names each of the band members, says of the subsequent tour “It was a lot of good shows, good company and good times.” That’s pretty much it. After the in-depth look at each of his albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town are barely mentioned. This is a period where, musically, we know too little, and I was looking forward to this part of the book, so I was disappointed to see it dismissed.
In fairness, much of that final section is about his depression. While he writes a bit more about albums like The Rising, none of his work of the last nearly thirty years gets too bogged down in details. The first two sections are so engrossing, the third becomes a bit of a letdown, at least in the discussion of music. And this might speak to his musical career ... while he has made some fine albums since Tunnel of Love, with a few classic songs, what makes him still excitingly relevant is the passion that remains in his live performances. He has inched closer to being a nostalgia act, except when you play with the fervor of Bruce and the E Street Band, you are caught up in something far greater than mere nostalgia.
He also has an interesting way of always finding the best in people. We learn that Danny Federici was a handful, but in the end, he played the organ with heart and that’s what mattered. His first manager famously screwed him over, but Bruce also insists that he believed in Bruce when no one else did. Even his father, with whom Bruce has the most complicated relationship, becomes a more sympathetic figure in the end. And when there are problems, Bruce often puts the blame on himself. His first marriage goes by in a flash, but he has nothing but good things to say about his wife, and puts all of the negativity on himself. As for Patti ... well, it reminded me a lot of my relationship with my own wife. He fucks up, she sets him on the right track, she doesn’t take shit but she is always there for him, and even when she is hard-headed it is in his best interest. If the first two thirds of the book are about reaching to the gods of rock and roll, much of the final third is about his wife the red-headed goddess and their three offspring. It isn’t dull, especially with the freak outs and therapy sessions and psych meds, but it’s as if the music takes a back seat.
And you know what? He deserves it. He gave so much of himself to rock and roll, in the process enriching the lives of so many of us. He’s earned a break.
Except he can’t help himself, so he keeps giving. As he says in “Darkness on the Edge of Town”,
Tonight I'll be on that hill `cause I can't stop
I'll be on that hill with everything I got
With our lives on the line where dreams are found and lost
I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town
He finally sees past the darkness, but he still has it in his bones.
Near the end, he tells about an operation he had not that long ago, a story that sums up the above. Over the years of giving the proverbial 110% on stage, he’d developed cervical disc problems. The surgery sounds scary, especially for a singer:
They knock you out; cut an incision into your throat; tie your vocal cords off to one side; get in there with a wrench, screwdriver and some titanium; they take a chunk of bone out of your hip and go about building you a few new disks. It worked!
And his voice was fine, a few months later. But this is where it gets good. He heads back on tour “with just one instruction: no crowd surfing! But there is no fool like an old fool, so the first night I dove right on in. Everything was fine.”