The Great Lost American Rock Memoir: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

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The audiobook of Bruce Springsteen's autobiography Born To Run is narrated by Bruce himself. It kicks off with a bizarre, unexpected noise: a slow thundering torrent, familiar but eerily transformed. It's the opening of the great rock anthem "Born To Run" played at half speed: booming drum roll, snaky rockabilly guitar, the surprising ping of a glockenspiel — slowed down to reveal the sonic architecture behind the instrumental chaos.

Well, isn't that what a musical autobiography should be all about? And isn't this why I love rock memoirs so much? The uncanny sound that opens Bruce's book prepares us for what we're about to do: slow down musical time, stand still to bask in the ephemeral signposts of subliminal consciousness that bind the listener and the musician together. To apprehend the miracle of musical creativity is an act of wonder, a shared journey, a mystery unfolding for reader and author alike.

Bruce Springsteen has always presented himself as a moralistic character, hard-bitten and world-weary, so it's no surprise that Born To Run turns out to be a stern survival guide for creative souls, a dour book of life lessons for big dreamers. These are the lessons of a rock star who earned his success, proudly reflecting an American ethic of hard work and independence. The personal qualities and convictions that Bruce lays out here are badly needed in our current trouble age: discipline, endurance, determination, bullshit avoidance.

A musician who writes a memoir mustn't hold back on embarrassing truths, and Bruce opens up his autobiography with a surprising confession: he grew up a pampered mama's boy. He wasn't a wimp, but he was a cheerful kid and a willing sucker for the adoration of his mother and her entire sprawling, cheerful, affectionate Italian-American family. His morose Dutch/Irish father was harder to reach, and harder to figure out.

Bruce became obsessed with music early on, though it's a key indicator of the unique talents he would develop that as a kid he did not gravitate towards singing or playing an instrument. He taught himself how to dance.

I've seen Bruce in concert several times. His dance moves always looked charmingly clumsy to me — I think we all remember his spin with Courtney Cox in Dancing in the Dark — but this probably means I'm falling for his guise, because it's more exciting to watch a dancer who is exuberantly spontaneous than polished and perfect. Born to Run reveals that young teenage Bruce Springsteen tried to learn guitar but lost interest, and instead spent lonely hours perfecting his slick dance moves in a bedroom mirror. He didn't quit until he could reproduce every step he saw on American Bandstand or the Ed Sullivan Show, and this considerable skill in dancing granted him entree to social advancement in his high school years. Bruce Springsteen takes dancing very seriously. Life Lesson #1.

Young Bruce would pick up the guitar again, though, as he emerged from high school onto the Jersey Shore music scene in the midst of the Summer of Love 1960s. The Castiles were his first band, and he learned how to rock a crowd as a rave-up lead guitarist for this band. He was always a showman, even when he was a sideman, and first gained notice among the pros of the Jersey Shore circuit not as a budding singer-songwriter but as a spectacular guitar shredder. It's amazing to realize that Bruce could have made it as an Eric Clapton or Alvin Lee or Leslie West, and probably would have done very well in this capacity.

But he describes a key moment in these early years that changed his path. He and his bar band lose a much-desired audition to another outfit ... and afterwards Bruce broods and broods until he realizes why this bothers him so much. It bothers him, he realizes, because the other band was truly better than his own. For young Bruce, this presented a crisis that forced him to make the changes that would bring him to the next level. He realized that he had hit the upper limit of his talent as a band member and lead guitarist, and that his exciting journey was heading for mediocrity if he didn't make a change and start following his own vision. Life Lesson #2.

His last group before he became a solo artist was called called Steel Mill. The name clearly points towards the unique sonic territory this child of gritty industrial central New Jersey was scoping out. He began honing in on a signature sound: hard-pounding, mechanically precise, gleaming surfaces on a roaring furnace. This is a case of geographical onomatopoeia; a Springsteen song always sounds like a rust belt factory floor at full throttle. Bruce would also explore this territory in the lyrics he began to write. He would eventually write a song called "Factory", and another about the joy of hearing the foreman call time. Bruce never worked a factory job himself — that was his incommunicative father, and young Bruce wanted the opposite of what his father had. But he would capture his father's world in song.

Born to Run walks us through the technological innovations Bruce had to gradually piece together in order to capture the sound he had in mind as he transformed from band sideman to solo guitar strummer to the determined leader of the E Street band. He labored incessantly, forcing his long-suffering drummer Max Weinberg to labor incessantly as well, in order to turn Max's drum kit into a pneumatic power core sturdy enough for the sound he wanted to create. This required finding a way, Bruce explains, to mic a pure, hard drum-hit sound that contained no atmospheric or physical detail other than the drum hit itself. It required Max Weinberg to turn himself into a precision machine who operated according to a rule book unlike any other drummer on earth. You can hear the results on a track like "Badlands" or "Born In the USA".

The song that gets the most attention in this book is the epic hit that gives the book its title. Bruce knew even as he began writing "Born to Run" that it would change his life and his career, that it would be the most definitive statement of his musical mission on earth. He spent months getting it down in the studio, refusing to compromise with any aspect of the recording, and never worrying (as, for example, I certainly would, if I ever spent months and months in a studio working on a single song) that he was overthinking it, that perfectionism would ruin the magic, that he would squeeze the life out of it.

That's how Bruce worked. Jack Kerouac and Bruce Springsteen both wrote a lot about highways and cars, but Kerouac believed in "first thought, best thought", while Springsteen obviously took the opposite tack. In a telling moment, Bruce describes how he drove his managers and fellow recording artists crazy by refusing for weeks to release the finished album also named "Born To Run". He was actually afraid to stand publicly behind the bold statement this record made, and seems to have sensed that the hyper-masculine and leather-jacketed pose he was presenting might turn his complex musical identity into a cliche. He was urged to do so, and the resulting sudden fame was as astounding (and disturbing) as he feared and expected. "Born to Run" landed him on the cover of Time and Newsweek magazines in the same week in October 1975, and he eventually learned to cope with success. Life Lesson #3.

The section of this book devoted to that single song remind me of John Fogerty's similarly great rock memoir Fortunate Son, which I did not find the time to review on Litkicks, though the book is certainly worthy of a great review, and has much in common with Bruce's. When Fogerty wrote the song "Proud Mary", he also knew it was the joyous culmination of his creative life, and the section of Fortunate Son that describes Fogerty's near-religious process of channeling, writing and recording this one song is unforgettable.

Fogerty and Springsteen turn out to have something else in common: both men suffered great aggravation over lawsuits against clever businessmen who schemed to take legal and financial ownership of their work in return for early support. Fogerty's nemesis was Saul Zaentz, and Fogerty never got over his bitter rage about this epic feud. Springsteen's battle was with Mike Appel, but fortunately Bruce was eventually able to laugh the agony off.

The hurt of this first betrayal permeates the book, though, and caused him to slow down his productivity long enough to gather his thoughts for three years before releasing the follow-up to Born To Run, the stark, stripped-down and punk-tinged Darkness On The Edge Of Town, which I still consider his best. I'd always thought this album's focused anger expressed the agony of a broken love affair, and this may be partly true, but Bruce's memoir makes it clear that his rage about his absurd legal battle against his former friend Mike Appel was a big source of the emotion in this wrenching and soul-tearing work.

Bruce's autobiography becomes rather squirrelly and shy when he talks about his formative love relationships, and he barely manages to devote any words at all to his much-publicized first marriage, which occurred in the wake of his mid-80s comeback triumph with "Born in the USA". (Yes, Bruce seems to like the word "Born" a lot.) This book is strong on life lessons involving music, but his deeper thoughts about the meaning of companionship and the value of love don't even begin to emerge until he finally abandons his first wife for his backup singer Patti Scialfa and approaches his final transformation into a loving husband and father. This grounds him during the final sequence of the book, but Bruce has little to reveal about the puzzling questions of identity, trust and motivation that bedevil every romantic relationship, other than the fact that he considers himself blessed to have been lucky in love.

Bruce's unwillingness to even scratch the surface of his love life before Patti reveal a stubborn and perhaps not fully healthy determination to wish certain formative past failures away. He tells us everything about every member of the E Street Band but barely mentions his first wife, and also seems to completely forget several record albums, like "Tunnel of Love", which famously chronicled the highly public breakup of his first marriage in real time, as well as "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town", the disappointing 1992 double release that showed the post-traumatic Bruce to be still lost in some Nowhere Zen New Jersey at that time.

Patti Scialfa and a few other trusted friends eventually do help him Bruce to gather himself and find his missing purpose in life, and becoming a proud father of three helps him more than anything else. Life Lesson #4.

The book called Born To Run has two big punches to deliver in its closing chapters. A good rock and roll memoir should not get boring in its final pages (like Steven Tyler's charming but weak autobiography, which starts strong but devolves into pure dullness by the end). Bruce's book ends powerfully with two stunning psychological developments: Bruce's confrontation with severe depression, and Bruce's father's descent into an even more isolating mental illness.

As a mature adult, Bruce can't shake off his feelings of emotional overload, and often feels himself losing the struggle to keep to a simple path. He tries to satisfy himself with daily tasks, with a steady work ethic, with quaint hobbies that his friends and loved ones seem to want him to have. In one of this book's most surprising moments, he describes a long period of time in which he simply cannot stop crying, constantly and repeatedly, every day. This becomes so ridiculous and debilitating that he finally admits his vulnerability and seeks medical advice. The honest discussion of depression in Born To Run is a valuable public service to others who need to confront their own demons. It also gives well-known Springsteen lyrics like "you can't start a fire without a spark" a whole new dimension of meaning.

Bruce also finally deals towards the end of Born to Run with the growing reality that his enigmatic father is revealing a pattern of borderline mental illness. Since Bruce has been writing about his father constantly through his long career, the frank revelation of his elderly father's worsening condition also adds a new dimension to our understanding of Bruce's entire body of work.

Well, you can't start a fire without a spark. I've listened to Bruce Springsteen through many phases of his career, but I guess I still don't think he ever equalled the white hot brilliance of his famed 1978 concert tour promoting Darkness On The Edge of Town. I didn't see Bruce in concert for the first time until 1985, so unfortunately I missed the 1978 shows, but I've heard enough of them on bootlegs to know that he was never more at the top of his game.

The long stage version of the Darkness song "Prove It All Night" opens with the pretty keyboard bells of Roy Bittan, the other essential instrumentalist (along with drummer Max Weinberg) in Bruce's epic band. After a few bars, Bruce tears into a stunning lead guitar intro before landing the band on the opening note of the song. I've always loved the variations of this sinewy, noisy "Prove It All Night" guitar intro that can be found on different bootlegs from the 1978 tour, but it's only after reading Born To Run that I understand the context: this was a throwback to the guitar-hero version of Bruce that once dominated the Jersey seashore from Asbury Park to Seaside Heights ten years earlier, while he was still figuring out which way he wanted his music career to go.

"If dreams came true, well, wouldn't that be nice?" Yeah, it would. Bruce also plays some amazing rave-up guitar in a later song, "Light of Day", seen here in a 1993 concert from the brief period during which he was divorced from the E Street Band and playing with a different gang. Everybody was glad when the E Street Band got back together, but this video reveals that the other band had some chops as well. Bruce goes into a glorious preacher diatribe here, though I couldn't find a video of a different live version of this song, in which he asks a question that seems to get to the heart of who he is:

"I just want to know, is anyone alive out there?"

You can feel the meaning of this challenge in the look on his face as Bruce confronts members of the audience during this video. He can be heard asking variations of that same question on other concert recordings throughout his career, like in the instrumental "Paradise By The C" on his "Live 1975/1985" collection where he yells:

"All I wanna know is, are you out there?"

Is there anyone out there who will try as hard as he has, care as much as he cares, live as much as he lived? Well, Bruce Springsteen was lucky to find a few soulmates on his journey: his mom, his relatives, "Miami" Steve Van Zandt, Patti Scialfa, his manager, eventually the whole E Street Band, his kids. They helped him live, and he helped us rock. Bruce is a role model to us all.

This article is part of the series The Great Lost Rock Memoir. The previous post in the series is The Great Lost Rock Memoir: Inside Out by Nick Mason.
2 Responses to "The Great Lost American Rock Memoir: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen"

by Kev ("Mob") on

Thanks, Marc. I love reading your "Rock Memoir" series. I'm not even a Springsteen fan, but I'm still tempted to pick up this book; just because of this wonderful write-up! You could probably even get me to read a book on Michael Jackson, and I hate Michael Jackson. (His music at least.)

Anyway, I'm already looking forward to the next post in the series. I'm just hoping it's not Michael Jackson! :-)

by Marc Eliot Stein on

Haha, thank you Kev! You know, Michael Jackson was such a weirdo that if he wrote a book I probably would read it, though I don't care for his music either ...

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