clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Undercover Boss

Bruce Springsteen’s memoir is just overblown, romanticized, and messianic enough

Getty Images
Getty Images

“I started out with cliché, cliché, cliché, and then I caught a piece of myself and the moment.” We are 209 pages into Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, which is divided into three “books,” the second of which is subtitled “Born to Run.” And here, in the chapter called “Born to Run,” the man millions of devotees still call “the Boss” is describing, at long last, the process of writing “Born to Run,” the god-tier highlight of his breakthrough 1975 album Born to Run. He seems to have sensed that you’ve been waiting for this.

The song took six months to write. It was inspired by the darkly romantic grandeur (and, uh, “restraint”) of Roy Orbison and Phil Spector, crossed with the “physical thrust” of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan’s “idea of not just writing about SOMETHING but writing about EVERYTHING.” (Bruce digs a little caps-lock action.) It required wrestling “seventy-two tracks of rock ’n’ roll overkill” down to a recordable 16. It was meant to reflect a certain fatalistic generational ennui — “I was a child of Vietnam-era America, of the Kennedy, King, and Malcolm X assassinations” — which is a distinctly Springsteenian sort of winsome overreach. The song’s yearning, howling vocals are half-buried on purpose: “The singer was supposed to sound like he was fighting to be heard over a world that didn’t give a damn.” The final product was overstuffed, absurd, star-making, perfect.

No rock god is more Extra than Bruce Springsteen; no mortal man works harder to justify his Extraness. Born to Run is 500-plus pages of agreeable bombast, cocky yet vulnerable, its prose running from plainspoken to only slightly purple. (Springsteen wrote this himself, initially in longhand — no ghostwriter in sight.) It’s the most wildly anticipated rock-star memoir since Keith Richards’s Life (which is way funnier, scuzzier, and bitchier) or Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One (way more Dylanesque). If you long ago bought into the myth, you’ll devour this book and cherish it. If you cringe at his “rich man in a poor man’s shirt” pretensions (that’s his quote), you’ll find enough problematic-type cannon fodder to keep your backlash fueled, petty and dubious as it might be. This thing is too much of a good time. Which might make it perfect, too.

Much later, Springsteen recalls the afternoon of September 11, 2001, when, after driving to New Jersey’s Rumson–Sea Bright Bridge to watch the smoke rise from where the Twin Towers should’ve stood, he was recognized by a passing motorist who shouted, out his open window, “Bruce, we need you.” The love-it-or-hate-it divide here might be whether or not you believe that actually happened.

I think it did. Springsteen’s turbocharged romanticism is neither embarrassed nor particularly rational; same goes for his fans’ devotion. As a chronicle of how both he and the tens of thousands of disciples yelling BRUUUUUCE nightly at his maniacal stadium shows got that way, Born to Run gets the job done. Consequently, the first 200 pages, as you might’ve guessed, are pure uncut NEW JERSEY.

The small, already crumbling town of Freehold, New Jersey, to be precise. Born in 1949. Dutch Irish father. Italian mother. Catholic school. Working class. Rock ’n’ roll as salvation. You know the deal. You don’t need another rapturous recounting of Elvis Presley’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Same deal for the Beatles, who are praised thus: “In 1964, there were no more magical words in the English language (well … maybe ‘Yes, you can touch me there’).” Gross, Bruce. You don’t need another tale of a young dreamer with a tiny transistor radio burbling beneath his pillow at night; when the time comes, you don’t even need another ecstatic tale of the first time he heard his own song on the radio. (“Spirit in the Night,” out someone’s car window before a college gig in Connecticut.)

Getty Images
Getty Images

But you won’t mind any of that, either. Springsteen’s prose is clear, direct, charismatic, unpretentious. He gets right to the point: His defining relationship is with his father, a brooding and bar-dwelling and volcanic grouch whose disapproval and antagonism was mostly passive but devastating nonetheless. “When my dad looked at me, he didn’t see what he needed to see. That was my crime.” Even shorter: “It was a shame. He loved me, but he couldn’t stand me.” Everything screwed up and self-absorbed and unkind in Bruce, young and old, he will view through this prism, lament as his birthright and his curse. Eventually it drives him to therapy and antidepressants, and you get a little psychobabble: “I wanted to kill what loved me because I couldn’t stand being loved.” But not too much. It’s affecting. It explains some things.

His Jersey come-up is choked with detail you’ll recognize if you’ve ever heard a Bruce Springsteen song. The whimsical tale of a drummer who couldn’t play “Wipe Out” ends with the aside that the poor dude died in Vietnam. You visit every seedy bar, and shake the hand of every greasy bar rat, in the Garden State. His battle-tested blues-rock band, Steel Mill, tries to conquer California and fails; he retreats and redoubles his efforts and slowly recasts himself as a solo troubadour (or benevolent dictator) backed by the indomitable E Street Band. He gets signed (by Columbia Records boss and industry god John Hammond), signs some contracts he’ll later regret, puts out a couple of records to some fanfare but not enough, and readies one last desperate shot at the big time. That’s “Born to Run.” We’re off.

Springsteen is equally proud of the Born to Run album’s iconic packaging: When you open up the record sleeve, you see that he’s leaning conspiratorially on saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who is black. “The cover was filled with the subtle mystery of race and mischievous sense of fun and power promising to be unleashed.” Err, OK. “The Big Man” is immensely important to Springsteen, for many reasons, and he writes honestly about that oft-awkward dynamic. When a random bar fight ends with a muttered racial slur, Clemons is crushed: “I know those guys. I play football with them every Sunday. Why would they say that?” And Springsteen knows now that he blew it. “I should’ve answered, ‘Because they’re subhuman assholes’ but I was caught blank, embarrassed by the moment myself, and all I offered up to my friend was a shrug and a mumbled, ‘I dunno’ … silence.”

Several decades later, when Springsteen plays the 2009 Super Bowl halftime show, he’s honest about what excites him most about the opportunity. “Since the inception of our band it’s been our ambition to play for everyone. We’ve achieved a lot but we haven’t achieved that. Our audience remains tribal … that is, predominantly white.” But Clemons is a beacon throughout the book, and Bruce’s maniacal quest to cross that divide has its high points, as when he writes “American Skin (41 Shots)” in response to the 1999 NYPD fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo and gets called a “floating fag” by the head of the New York State Fraternal Order of Police. “I received a small plaque that year from our local NAACP,” Springsteen writes, “and I was always glad that the song brought me just a little closer to the black community I always wish I’d served better.”

Then there’s the girls. Bruce ain’t much for naming names, which is 90 percent chivalrous and 10 percent something squirmier. As his fame evolves from local to global, you get a lot of lines like “I’d routinely and roughly failed perfectly fine women over and over again.” Or “I casually saw a few local women, lightly slipping around on my gal from back home.” Or “I figured now was the time to take advantage of the sexual perks of superstardom.”

That sort of talk wouldn’t faze Keith Richards, but it’s jarring coming from someone with such a wholesome vibe. In the mid-’80s, we arrive at what passes for a public scandal in Springsteen’s world: He meets actress Julianne Phillips and marries her in the same paragraph, but a couple of chapters later she’s gone — “my poor handling of this is something I regret to this day” — and by the early ’90s he and his new wife, E Street Band guitarist Patti Scialfa, have three kids and an unbreakable onstage/offstage bond that endures to this day. She’s a great mother and worthy adversary who puts up with a ton of my bullshit, is the paraphrased vibe on Patti. It sounds lovely.

Musically, you get thoughtful album-by-album analysis, from 1978’s punk-adjacent Darkness on the Edge of Town to the supernova zeitgeist pop of 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. (where Bruce hit “the big big time”) to the gritty California-migrant-worker folk tales of 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad. On those records and now on the page, he battles back against the notion that he’s a limousine liberal slumming through increasingly oblivious songs about factory closings and the like, even as he acknowledges the temptation to see it that way: “Even with the relatively modest success and financial security I’d graduated to, my life was now very different from the lives of those I’d chosen to write about. This worried me.”

But he never truly left Jersey, physically or psychically. “I didn’t want out. I wanted in. I didn’t want to erase, escape, forget, or reject. I wanted to understand.” And to at least some extent, he does: “No one you have been and no place you have gone ever leaves you.” By the time he gets to Tom Joad, he’s even more vivid and far more certain of his purpose. “I’m a repairman. That’s part of my job. So I, who’d never done a week’s worth of manual labor in my life (hail, hail rock ’n’ roll!), put on a factory worker’s clothes, my father’s clothes, and went to work.”

The E Street Band conquer stages from the Meadowlands to London to Côte d’Ivoire; all those colorful, broken, fiercely loyal guys get their time to shine. (Bruce and right-hand-man guitarist “Little Steven” Van Zandt get kicked out of Disneyland for wearing their Born in the U.S.A.–era bandanas; of that period, Springsteen writes, “Looking back on those photos now, I look simply … gay.”) There’s not much hedonism to speak of, little alcohol and basically no drugs. His father’s death is the book’s first climax; they’d reconciled, uneasily, and Bruce’s detailed recollection of the deathbed is as purple as he lets himself get. “The feet are red and yellow, scarred by psoriasis. Shaped in stone, they have no more miles left in them. They are the feet of my foe, and of my hero.” You’re in or you’re out at this point, on the book and on the man.

Clarence Clemons’s 2011 death is the book’s single saddest moment, and some awkwardness creeps back in: “I think perhaps I protected C from a world where it still wasn’t so easy to be big and black … I think perhaps C protected me from a world where it wasn’t always so easy to be an insecure, weird and skinny white boy either.” But the bond is real. Otherwise, the most bummed out Springsteen ever sounds is when he’s lamenting the relatively tepid reaction to his 2012 album Wrecking Ball, a seething indictment of the forces behind the 2008 financial crash, and “one of my best, most contemporary and accessible albums since Born in the U.S.A.” But he’s not naive: “I came to terms with the fact that in the States, the power of rock music as a vehicle for these ideas had diminished.”

Call that lament corny, but from “Born to Run” on, millions of fans bought in and never cashed out. Neither did he. That rock music ever had that power is to his credit as much as anyone’s. And in the end, just like the dude yelling out his car window predicted, 2002’s The Rising turned out to be exactly the rousing, soothing, commiserating post-9/11 exorcism America needed. It might sound like bullshit; if you’re an agnostic or a detractor, much of this book might. But you’ll never doubt that the Boss believes.