A few days ago a short clip in the newspaper reported a chance encounter between a local American Legion motorcycle club and a scruffy bike rider standing on the side of the road. The rider’s rig had broken down, and he was seeking a ride back to nearby Freehold, New Jersey. The bikers had encountered none other than Bruce Springsteen, whose routine ride around the area where he grew up was interrupted by mechanical problems. The Boss and his new buddies retired to a nearby tavern where Springsteen bought everyone rounds of beer and, upon leaving, left the bartender a $100 tip. This authentic slice-of-life story brings to mind Springsteen’s song GLORY DAYS on his 1984 album BORN IN THE USA.
I recently finished Bruce Springsteen’s new book BORN TO RUN, an extremely personal, detailed memoir by a reflective Springsteen whose writing runs deep. The author reports spending nearly a decade to write it. From page one it becomes clear that there are no literary filters, no ghost writers, no alter egos present in this tale. No one but Springsteen is doing the talking while bringing his readers way back to his early days. Springsteen offers an honest, no-holds-barred examination of his estrangement from his mentally ill, alcoholic father, while revealing that the mental illness in his family touches Springsteen himself (he reports taking carefully prescribed anti-depressants). Another theme is the central role Springsteen’s grandparents played as surrogate parents over the first 15 years of his life. But this is not an angry, finger-pointing exercise where everyone else should bear the blame for Springsteen’s harsh early life. It is finely crafted, exceptionally readable writing. Somehow the reader just knows he/she is meeting the real Bruce Springsteen within those pages. Springsteen is able, with the passage of time and maturity, and greatly assisted by his profound love of fellow band member and wife Patty Scialfa, to accept and be self-critical of his faults and eccentricities, while laying open the character and personality of the on-stage rock star, as well as a blue collar product from South Jersey who never really strayed far from his roots physically or emotionally.
Springsteen was an outsider rebel from the beginning, an individual who stood out from his peer group in high school. Surprisingly, he took his first drink at 21. He confesses to have been more focused in getting laid and improving his rock skills than anything else in his formative years, all the while battling his father whose acidic outlook on life and dismissal of Springsteen’s rock dreams did not sway him from pursuing his dream. Heavily influenced by Elvis and Roy Orbison, and then the Beatles, Springsteen was drawn to music at a very early age, with the support of an adoring mother who, although she was always broke, somehow managed to pull enough pennies together to buy Springsteen progressively better instruments and equipment to feed his love of rock and roll. Springsteen’s mother is a pillar of strength throughout the story. His sister, who became pregnant before the age of 20, also receives recognition for her rock-solid devotion to her family and husband throughout the years.
We join the young Springsteen in his early trials in Freehold, shivering in the freezing cold of rentals that had little or no heat and no running hot water. We see the gradual development of the authentic Springsteen style and persona, coming to understand that these experiences formed the raw resource or reservoir for his poetry and songs in DARKNESS AT THE EDGE OF TOWN, THE RIVER, BORN TO RUN, BORN IN THE USA, and the less commercial, acoustical side of his prolific productivity: GHOST OF TOM JOAD, NEBRASKA, and the PETE SEEGER sessions. We better understand the experiences that molded the genius he became, an American icon who unquestionably warrants comparison to the storied achievements of recent Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.
Springsteen’s BORN TO RUN chapters are eventually structured around the chronology of his albums, including the dismissal of a manager after he finds Jon Landau in Boston, who eventually played a pivotal role in Springsteen’s development over the next 40 years. Landau contributed greatly to Springsteen’s rocket rise to stardom in the mid-1970s. The Boss is unceasingly generous to his supporting cast of characters; Clarence and Max, Stevie and Danni, Patti and all the other band members of the E-Street Band. He takes full responsibility for the failure of his first marriage to Julienne Phillips, citing an inability to let any companion get too close to who he really is. He admits before Patti the longest his relationships lasted were around two years. Springsteen concedes his obsessive, “control freak” nature in managing all aspects of his band. He never relinquishes the rights to his music, he maintains dictatorial control of the compensation for each band member, he insists on perfection in performance, and he ensures he is the sole “driver of the E-Street Band bus,” including deciding when it is time to call a break from performing with them to go his own way. This is not a bad thing, in his mind, although members of the band are understandably mystified and hurt by the decision. Springsteen attributes his incredible success in part to his attention to detail in all aspects of his rock star life. One doesn’t find many hangers-on around Bruce, at least few are pointed out in his book.
Bruce Springsteen’s unabashed love-hate relationship with Freehold, his gratitude towards and unfettered love for Patti Scialfa who rescued him from himself and bore him three (now adult) children whom he brags about with great affection, and his ability to see his faults, crack them open for all to see, and then attempt to put himself back in the saddle to try again, is risky and altogether human. Springsteen is one of us, and he knows it and he likes it. He openly admits to engaging in years of therapy in keeping himself together.
The reader finishes BORN TO RUN convinced that he/she has been granted a genuine, open-access look at Bruce Springsteen and his world from his origin to today. We discover that the rock star we see up on the stage and the opinions we have of him being a generous, caring person who does not elevate himself above the rest of humanity, are true to form. Despite his human flaws, we admire Springsteen for his genius, perseverance over many early obstacles, and his courage in taking a hard look at all aspects of an extremely complex, talented individual. There is little doubt that Springsteen is not merely a rock star. He is an American treasure.