Born To Run, rock legend Bruce Springsteen’s new memoir, reveals its beating heart at the book’s midpoint. It’s there that we find our hero, flush with the success of his 1980 album The River and subsequent world tour, feeling lower than ever.
Springsteen embarks on a cross-country road trip with a friend, moving from New Jersey to California. At a stop in Texas, the precarious balance of his life comes crashing down as he watches people enjoying the delights of a small fair:
“From nowhere, a despair overcomes me. I feel an envy of these men and women and their late-summer ritual, the small pleasures that bind them and this town together… It’s here, in this little river town, that my life as an observer, an actor staying cautiously and safely out of the emotional fray…reveals its cost to me.”
Some version of this moment has likely played out in every platinum-selling, pop idol’s life. The nature of the music business is to suck talent dry without concern for an artist’s emotional and psychological wellbeing. But as Springsteen reveals throughout his messy and poignant book, his cultural prosperity weighs heavy on him.
He comes from hardscrabble roots, a working class family that barely scraped by led by an emotionally distant, hard-drinking father. Springsteen’s guilt over his artistic triumphs paired with the lack of love he received from his dad combined to produce some of the most explosive songs of the 20th century. But they are also elements of Springsteen’s life that he took great pains to avoid facing head on.
When he finally pulls back the curtain in Born To Run, it’s an electrifying read. What surrounds its molten core is layer upon layer of anecdotes tracking Springsteen’s journey to the mountaintop, relaying the inspiration and intention behind his most famous recordings—and occasionally diving too deeply into the murky waters of the music business. For fans, this is the perfect companion piece to the hundreds of books written about Springsteen’s life and work, adding extra shades of detail and illuminating moments that help further flesh out this iconic figure.
The book also falls prey to the false assumption that accompanies many rock artist memoirs: that a great lyric writer will naturally apply that same genius to prose. Sometimes that does play out, as we’ve seen with Patti Smith’s recent volumes (M Train and Just Kids.) More often, though, you get a shaggy, overstuffed work like Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and this book.
But Springsteen and his editors structure Born To Run well. The first half of the book (prior to his meltdown in Texas) finds him looking over his shoulder, seeing the shadows of his emotional state in every corner. The latter half of the book stays in Springsteen’s present, happily wading in his creative and commercial accomplishments and serving as an apologia for the end of his first marriage and a celebration of his 25-year run with his current wife, Patti Scialfa.
What could have served Springsteen throughout Born to Run is a stronger editorial hand—the kind of mind who could maintain the author’s voice while trimming the fat and tidying up the book’s unwieldy elements. As it stands, The Boss both wanders and finds himself stuck. His sentences are a flurry of descriptors and fragments jammed together with a breathless enthusiasm that doesn’t tend to read well (evident in his writing about an unsavory yet alluring element of New Jersey youth culture):
“The greasers were a teen subcult, leather-jacketed, sharkskin-suit-wearing, see-through-nylon-sock-clinging, beat-your-ass-with-an-Italian-shoe, pompadoured, preening, take-more-time-to-get-ready-for-school-in-the-morning-than-my-auntie-Jane, fight-you-at-the-drop-of-a-hat, Italian-descended, don’t-give-a-fuck-about-you inhabitants of their own little terrestrial universe.”
Sometimes Springsteen relegates that jumble to just one sentence. Elsewhere, he circles around one idea over the course of multiple paragraphs, repeating himself even as he uses different words to elucidate an idea or a story. Springsteen also spends a too long recounting the minutiae of his contract negotiations with his first manager Mike Appel, spreading the fight over a few chapters and taking a victory lap at the same time.
That is redolent of another strange element to this book (and most rock memoirs). There are certain people from Springsteen’s life about whom he talks about with a great deal of reverence, particularly his fellow E Street Band members. But when it comes to those who aren’t within his inner circle, or that have passed away, the tone shifts into a kind of head-shaking disappointment.
The late keyboardist Danny Federici is described as a shambles of a man who Springsteen and co. propped up even when he didn’t deserve it. Even his awestruck remembrances of Clarence Clemons are tempered with this feeling that they could never fully connect due to their cultural differences. The book doesn’t devolve into the score-settling that marked Morrissey’s autobiography or the recent Mike Love memoir, but it carries the acidic tang of someone who can’t leave well enough alone.
Born to Run shouldn’t be the final word on Springsteen’s life and career. As long as his retinue is still breathing, we’ll continue to read the various sides to his fascinating story. Born To Run is here, however, to provide the emotional underpinnings and the most vital viewpoint from within this ongoing story. For that alone we can forgive its rough, rambling composition.