Born to Run
By Bruce Springsteen
Simon & Schuster, 2016
One of the more pivotal moments in Bruce Springsteen’s life occurred when, at age thirty-two, he and a friend made a road trip stop at a small town fair somewhere in Middle America. Watching as a band plays and couples dance, suddenly,
a despair overcomes me; I feel an envy of these men and women and their late-summer ritual, the small pleasure that bind them and this town together. … [A]ll I can think of is that I want to be amongst them, of them, and I know I can’t. I can only watch. That’s what I do. I watch…and I record. … 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, away from the consequences, the normal messiness of living and loving, reveals its costs to me. At thirty-two, in the middle of the USA, on this night, I’ve just exceeded the once-surefire soul-and-mind-numbing power of my rock ’n’ roll meds.
This existential crisis instigated a debilitating depression, a recurring condition that Springsteen has been contending with ever since, and an immersion in therapy that has, for now, culminated in his memoir, Born to Run, an affable, if wildly variable, account of his trajectory from small town freak to pop phenomenon to national institution. Aside from forcing him to recontextualize all that came before it, Springsteen’s collapse led to one of the most productive collaborations of his life, with Dr. Wayne Myers, whose “knowledge, along with his compassionate heart, guided me to the strength and freedom I needed to love things and be loved.” If you feel the bile rising at the possibility of a rock ’n’ roll version of I’m OK – You’re OK, keep it down; although self-scrutiny and reconciliation are key themes, to a huge degree, Born to Run is really just an assembly of well-worn tales, balanced nicely between self-effacement and -aggrandizement, by turns insightful and trite, rousing and monotonous, and in its own unique way, illustrative of that most pervasive of common man maladies: to never truly understand what exactly made you the man you are, or kept you from becoming the man you could have been.
Fans have heard so much of this before, but for those new to the party, Springsteen grew up in Freehold, New Jersey, his Irish relatives on one side of Randolph Street, the Italians on the other. From the Italians, his mother Adele and her sisters, he derived his hearty stock (“they have outlived all their husbands, war, tragedy, and near poverty and remained indomitable, undefeated, undeterred and terminally optimistic. … [They are] three Muhammad Alis, rope-a-doping the world”), and from the paternal Irish, his madness: “We had aunts that howled during family gatherings; cousins who left school in the sixth grade, went home and never left the house again; and men who pulled hair from their bodies and heads, leaving great gaping patches of baldness.” During thunderstorms, “Prayers were murmured as my aunt Jane threw holy water over all of us from a small bottle.” On the days it didn’t rain, Bruce enjoyed the fruits of his family’s dubious child-rearing philosophies, engaging in activities like accompanying his grandfather “to dig through every trash heap overflowing from the curbs of our town scavenging for radios,” and “stayed up until three a.m. and slept until three p.m. at five and six years old.”
Not surprisingly, when Bruce started school and was expected to follow the more conventional aspects of community life, “it sent me into an inner rage that lasted most of my school years,” a rage compounded by teachers unaccustomed to (or, perhaps, dumbfounded by) such unorthodox parenting, and by the nuns of Catholic school, “the neighborhood gatekeepers of a dark and beatific world I fear and desire entrance to,” who come off less as emissaries of a benevolent God and more like the Alex’s droogs in A Clockwork Orange. Bruce has his knuckles rapped, is choked with his own tie, “struck in the head, shut into a dark closet and stuffed into a trash can,” and in one notable instance is
sent down from the eighth grade to first for some transgression. I was stuffed behind a first-grade desk and left there to marinate. … Then I noticed someone’s cuff link reflecting the sun upon the wall. I dreamily followed its light as it crawled up beyond the window toward the ceiling. I then heard the nun say to a beefy little enforcer in the center first-row desk, “Show our visitor what we do in this class to those who don’t pay attention.” The young student walked back to me with a blank expression on his face and without a blink let me have it, openhanded but full force, across my face.
The physical abuse soon inspired some of young Bruce’s most inspired flights of imagination, all of which seemed to lead towards the apocalyptic conflation of the spiritual and secular worlds:
It’s a world where all you have is at risk, a world filled with the unknown bliss of resurrection, eternity and the unending fires of perdition, of exciting, sexually tinged torture, immaculate conceptions and miracles. A world where men turn into gods and gods into devils…and I knew it was real. I’d seen gods turn into devils at home. I’d witnessed what I felt was surely the possessive face of Satan. It was my poor old pop tearing up the house in an alcohol-fueled rage in the dead of night, scaring the shit out of all of us. I’d felt this darkness’s final force come visit in the shape of my struggling dad…physical threat, emotional chaos and the power to not love.
This face of Satan was worn by Bruce’s father, Doug Springsteen, a high school dropout who at age eighteen was “a truck driver at the Battle of the Bulge, saw what little of the world he was going to see and returned home.” At various times, Doug worked at Freehold’s Karagheusian Rug Mill, the Ford Motor plant in Edison, and as a pool shark. But mostly he was a habitué of “the mystical realm of men,” i.e., the local bar, and one of the saddest, most evocative moments between father and son in a book full of them comes when Adele parks outside a bar and tells Bruce to go in to find his father. Once inside, the young boy
stand[s] there, drinking in the dim smell of beer, booze, blues and aftershave; nothing in the outer world of home smelled remotely like it. … There I stood, a small spirit reminder of what a lot of these men were spending a few moments trying to forget – work, responsibility, the family, the blessings and burdens of adult life. … There would be no introductions to friends, no pat on the head, no soft intonation of voice or tousles of the hair, just “Go outside, I’ll be right out.”
Callous indifference was just a start. As the years passed, Doug became a man given to sitting for hours in his kitchen, the lights off, and staring into cigarette smoke and beer foam. He’d snap out of his stupors when Bruce came home; then, he’d call his son in to berate him, about his long hair, his guitar, or whatever other incidental characteristics Doug found wanting or infuriating. The nightly routine was “A few moments of feigned parental concern for my well-being followed by the real deal: the hostility and raw anger toward his son, the only other man in the house.” This hostility manifested itself in unpredictable, sometimes explosive, behavior and paranoid delusions. An argument between Bruce’s parents ends when he hits his father in the back with a baseball bat and Doug responds with an ominous silence culminating in laughter. He accuses Bruce’s Russian friend of being a spy. He accuses Adele of having an affair with someone “from the Puerto Rican neighborhood.” He responds to his son lying prone after a motorcycle accident by calling in a barber to cut off the helpless boy’s long hair.
So, what exactly was going on with this guy, and why did his son set him off so? Well,
He loved me but he couldn’t stand me. He felt we competed for my mother’s affections. We did. He also saw in me too much of his real self. My pop was built like a bull, always in work clothes; he was strong and physically formidable. … Inside, however, beyond his rage, he harbored a gentleness, timidity, shyness and a dreamy insecurity. These were all the things I wore on the outside and the reflection of these qualities in his boy repelled him. It made him angry. It was “soft.” And he hated “soft.” Of course, he’d been brought up “soft.” A mama’s boy, just like me.
Bruce’s conflicts with his father have provided decades’ worth of fodder for self-dramatizing on-stage monologues and for biographers of a hagiographic bent (most recently in Peter Ames Carlin’s Bruce, which managed to infuse the already vivid Bruce/Doug atmospherics with solemnity and anguish worthy of Greek tragedy). But if you’re sensing a Freudian sort of empathy at play in that last quote, welcome to Born to Run. If the memoir offers anything new, it’s the perspective of reconciliation, of Bruce viewing these tales through post-therapy compassion (actually, newish – he’s spoken of his therapy, and his subsequently shifting perspectives, elsewhere too), and a full-on examination of his place in a family lineage that was at times the source of “a serious strain of mental illness.” Bruce’s own version would manifest itself powerfully in adulthood, but his writing on the young years is spent relating the more benign, often hilarious, peculiarities of our developing hero and the America he emerged from and would keep returning to, literally and figuratively, throughout his life.
So, that guitar Doug hated so much. Like so many boys of his generation, Bruce is driven wild by Elvis and begs his mother to buy him a guitar. After a cousin shows him how to tune it and read chords, he learns “Greensleeves” from a book, soon learns “Twist and Shout,” and gets a gig as guitarist in The Castiles, a group of shaggy locals named after a brand of soap who rehearse at the home of Tex and Marion Vineyard, music-lovers and evident masochists “who decided to surrender the fifteen square feet of what was called their dining room to local teenage noisemakers.” Gigs at the Angle-Inn Trailer Park and the Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital (“where, yes, the inmates sang along vigorously to the Animals’ ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’”) give young Bruce a taste of the good life – or, really, a life, period – and he’s off to pursue his muse.
Much of the material on these years is eloquently evocative of a lost time. Freehold was weird, but Asbury Park, the musical hotbed of Monmouth County, was a different sort of bizarre, a faded shore town turned into an “open city” where “Gay bars sat next to all-night juke joints” and the general vibe “was a little bit of anything goes.” Here Springsteen spent his salad days in predictable squalor, sleeping on outdoor couches and indoor sleeping bags, developing formidable guitar chops at clubs like the Upstage Club and the Student Prince, and establishing himself as a performer with preternatural charisma and a magnetic stage presence. He also consorted with a motley group of characters, including future E Street Band members Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez and Danny Federici, who would join him in Steel Mill, his most successful pre-stardom band, and a new patron in “surf dog”/“misanthropic genius” Carl “Tinker” West. Springsteen, who has a particular approach to encapsulating personalities, describes him as a man who
could’ve broken the ice with the grand pooh-bah of the Ku Klux Klan with his laconic command of the mystical ways of the internal combustion engine. Tink had gearhead knowledge accompanied by a strange and mighty confidence that put folks at ease. If those should fail, he seemed like the kind of guy who might shoot you.
In his surfboard factory, Tinker let Bruce and Mad Dog crash and let the band turn a concrete room into a rehearsal space. Steel Mill enjoyed significant regional success (especially in Richmond, Virginia for some reason) and flirted with the possibility of being managed by Bill Graham, but the Tinker era is perhaps most notable for some of the most wistful and melancholy road adventures since Kerouac, and at times almost palpable descriptions of a struggling musician’s solitude. A quintessential example occurs one winter in Tinker’s truck,
and it was fucking cold; there was little heat in the cab and none in the rear box. I don’t remember how we called it but Vinnie and I climbed in the back, and winter coats and all, we squiggled down into our sleeping bags. We were locked in, face-to-face, inhabiting a two-by-eight-foot space of freezing blackness. We had some water, a flashlight and each other. With no way to communicate with the cab, we were packed tightly in behind several thousand pounds of rock ‘n’ roll gear, so if the truck hit a steep incline and the weight shifted…problem. We were pressed up against the rear gate on one side and our Marshall amplifiers on the other, our fate entwined with that of Tinker’s truck. Anything happens to the truck, we’re padlocked in with no way out. We had an empty container for piss and a guarantee from those up front to stop every two hours to check on us. Two days went by. … After a while, you just sat there in the cold dark and let your mind wander.
Springsteen grew tired of band democracy and, nurturing a healthy ego and an all-in commitment to the musician’s life, became more determined to take control of his career and destiny. He broke up Steel Mill, named his new band after himself, and was introduced by Tinker to future manager Mike Appel, another in the line of father figures that would push Springsteen through his career. Appel was a jingle writer (Springsteen would wind up playing harmonica on a Beech-Nut gum demo) with some industry connections, but more importantly, he had a mouth, the kind that “could have talked Jesus down from the cross, Santa Claus out of Christmas and Pam Anderson out of breast augmentation,” and it’s no wonder that Springsteen – whose burgeoning persona was already part town crier, tent-revivalist preacher, Will Rogers, On-the-Roader, and guitarist-as-gunslinger – would be enamored of Appel and his Barnumesque histrionics. Plus, he was the sort of fervid believer that Springsteen, who thought of himself as “the best undiscovered player I’d ever seen,” needed to reinforce his self-image.
More well-worn tales follow. Naïve Bruce signs an abominable contract. Appel gets him an audition with legendary talent scout John Hammond (Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin). He’s signed to Columbia. Records Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. Sales are atrocious. Columbia’s going to drop him. Then the (literally) go-for-broke making of Born to Run. Simultaneously on the cover of Time and Newsweek. And somewhere around here, the book’s troubles begin.
Born to Run is split into three Books – One covers birth through his second album, Two from the Born to Run album to his wife Patti telling him she’s pregnant, Three from the birth of their first child to the present day – and Book One is a largely wonderful. Springsteen, writing in an ingenuous plain-speak, is at his most vivid in his portrayals of small-town idiosyncrasies and of his younger self as a genuinely odd, and oddly innocent, dude. When a girlfriend catches the teenage Bruce cheating on her, he tries to win her back by professing his love and telling “her my dream that we would someday visit Disneyland together.” When he’s informed that one of the managers of his band Earth “had just frozen and chopped off the end of his toe to avoid the draft…I figured that was just the kind of commitment we needed.” Similarly impressive was the friend who, seeking to avoid the draft, “covered himself in milk and slept like that for three days, and by the time he reported for his physical the stench was so awful they sent him home immediately.” In his twenties, he visits both a dentist and a restaurant for the first time. For his audition with John Hammond, “I had no acoustic guitar of my own so I borrowed a cheap one with a cracked neck from Vinnie ‘Skeebots’ Manniello, my old Castiles drummer. He had no case, so I had to haul it Midnight Cowboy-style over my shoulder on the bus and through the streets of the city.” Most of Greetings was written in an abandoned beauty salon. Crashing on a friend’s living room floor during that time, “I’d bus to the city; work opening for Dave Van Ronk, Biff Rose or Birtha, one of the first female metal bands at Max’s Kansas City; get paid a few dollars; and make it to the Port Authority just in time for the last bus to Asbury.” He opened for Cheech and Chong.
Bob Marley and the Wailers opened for him. And all during those years, the accumulation of the weird grit beneath the legend, so specific to his time, his place, and his sensibilities, all feeding the gestating romanticism with which he’d one day make his mark:
I always remember driving up the New Jersey Turnpike, and shortly before you reached New York, somewhere out in the industrial wasteland, stood a small concrete building. There in the middle of the stink and marshes hung a brightly lit radio call sign. It was just a relay station, I suppose, but as a young tween [sic] I’d first imagined it was the real thing. That all my favorite deejays were crowded into this one cramped shack out here in Nowheresville. There, they were bravely pouring out over the airwaves the sounds New Jersey and your life depended upon. Was it possible? Could this abandoned-looking little frontier fort so far from civilization be the center of your heart’s world? Here I dreamed in the swamps of Jersey were the mighty men and women you knew only by their names and sounds of their voices.
If he had stopped with Book One, Born to Run would have made for a winsome rock ’n’ roll portrait of the artist as a young man. Alas, he keeps going, and in Book Two, he starts to waver. An alarming harbinger of the next three hundred pages is his befuddling explication of Born to Run (the song – couldn’t he have come up with a less obvious title for his book?):
I started out with cliché, cliché, cliché and then I caught a piece of myself and the moment. “In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream…” It’s a “death trap,” a “suicide rap.” “I want to guard your dreams and visions…I want to know if love is real.” This is what is at stake, your dreams, your visions. “Together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness, I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul…,” because that’s what it’ll take. “Someday…I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun…,” but ’til then all we have is this road, this ever-present now that is the fire and marrow of rock ’n’ roll… “Tramps like us, baby we were born to run…”
And from there, the book becomes hopeless erratic, both in terms of content and explanation, analysis, or whatever that line-by-line breakdown was supposed to accomplish. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what trips him up, but it doesn’t seem coincidental that the book’s already slack narrative begins to read like a collection of under-developed notes with the arrival of Jon Landau. In 1974, Landau, a prominent critic at Rolling Stone and elsewhere, wrote perhaps the most famous line ever in rock criticism: “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” It’s impossible to overstate the effect he would subsequently have on Springsteen’s career.
Springsteen calls him
the first person I met who had a language for discussing…the life of the mind… Jon and I related both as conspiratorial music fans and as young men in search of something. Jon would serve me as a friend and mentor, someone who’d been exposed to and held information I felt would augment my creativity and deepen the truth seeking I was trying to make a part of my music. We also had that instant chemical connection that says, “I know you.” Jon was better educated than most of my homeboys. I was interested in doing my job better and being great. Not good…great. Whatever it took, I was in.
For those finding that a bit vague, here’s Slate critic Stephen Metcalf (from his article “Faux Americana,” a minor masterpiece of pop ambivalence) on events following Landau’s proclamation:
Over the next couple of years, Landau insinuated himself into Bruce’s artistic life and consciousness…until he became Springsteen’s producer, manager, and full-service Svengali. … He filled his new protégé’s head with an American Studies syllabus heavy on John Ford, Steinbeck, and Flannery O’Connor. At the same time that he intellectualized Bruce, he anti-intellectualized him. Rock music was transcendent, Landau believed, because it was primitive, not because it could be avant-garde. … Bruce’s musical vocabulary accordingly shrank. By Darkness on the Edge of Town, gone were the West Side Story-esque jazz suites of The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. In their place were tight, guitar-driven intro-verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus songs. Springsteen’s image similarly transformed. On the cover of Darkness, he looks strangely like the sallower cousin of Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik, the already quite sallow anti-hero of Dog Day Afternoon. The message was clear: Springsteen himself was one of the unbeautiful losers, flitting along the ghostly fringes of suburban respectability.
Whichever synopsis you find more engaging will determine how much you’ll enjoy Born to Run in general. But the point being, that while Landau continues to pop up here and there, it’s perhaps not so strange that he is largely absent throughout the next three hundred pages. Aside from the aesthetic changes noted by Metcalf, once Landau became his manager, Springsteen became financially solvent for the first time in his life, and soon his fortunes went stratospheric. An excellent account of Springsteen’s escalation into the national consciousness and higher tax brackets can be found in Fred Goodman’s The Mansion on the Hill, but the gist can be found in a quote there from Danny Federici, who said of the Born in the USA tour, “We started out as a band…[and] turned into a super, giant corporate money-making machine.”
The feeling one gets reading the rest of Born to Run is that Springsteen hasn’t entirely reconciled the aspects of that transformation (or the understandable reluctance to examine one’s transformation into, per Metcalf, “a majestic American simpleton with a generic heartland twang”). Just after the chapter on Landau, the text, though still infused with much lightness and good humor (and a chapter on the making of The River offers an intelligible, and entertaining, exposition of his recording methods and mishaps) frequently devolves into vague, almost random musings, and an evasive pseudo-engagement with pivotal career events and the people still in his employ. Written piecemeal over seven years, Born to Run doesn’t hang together, and for a perfectionist with an unimpeachable work ethic, Springsteen writes some really careless prose, packed with empty rhetoric (see above), disposable wisdom (“Trust is a fragile thing. It requires allowing others to see as much of ourselves as we have the courage to reveal”), mangled similes (an old car barreling down the highway was “like it was a death-proof weapon of mass extinction”), and points where one wonders if he understands the meanings of his own references (“As Sisyphus can count on the rock, I can always count on the road, the music and the miles for whatever ails me”). The ten-night run at New York’s The Bottom Line in 1975, “the gig that finally put us on the map as big-time contenders” gets a paragraph. The 1979 No-Nukes MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) concerts at Madison Square Garden, “our entrance into the public political arena,” a place Springsteen has worked hard to secure ever since, get half a sentence. Best friend Steve Van Zandt gets plenty of text-time, but other E Street members get mostly short-shrift, except for Clarence Clemons, who perhaps gets too much attention; Springsteen’s note that “He had a face…of an exotic emperor, an island king, a heavyweight boxer, a shaman, a chain-gang convict, a fifties bluesman and a deep soul survivor,” seems less like admiration than an attempt to situate him as an Exotic Black Male for the ages, and the confusion behind “Clarence was one of the most authentic people I’d ever come across. He had no postmodern bullshit about him” is enough to warrant a new reading list from Jon Landau.
All of which would be reduced to quibbles if Springsteen hadn’t spent decades establishing his status as a first-rate storyteller whose sensibilities usually preclude this type of neglect, if these weaknesses didn’t constitute so much of Books Two and Three’s bulk, and if there was more friction driving the story. With success, much of the eccentricity disappears, and so too does much of the book’s magic. The early life, riddled with distinctive conflicts and quirks, infused with the unpredictable, spontaneous, often electric creativity of determined people with limited means, fuels the wonderful mystery of how the hell, coming from that, Bruce Springsteen became Bruce Springsteen. The post-success life, characterized by maturity, reason, expert marketing, competent lawyers, well-compensated employees, and a happy marriage is not only comparatively mundane, but more than a little incongruous coming from a storyteller beloved for an invaluable gift – the understanding of how conflict feels on a visceral level, how it inspires or poisons, how it saves or destroys lives. After Landau’s entrance, and especially after Born in the USA, except for steps toward a rapprochement with Doug, there just wasn’t much struggle left, relatively speaking (excluding, of course, his horrific experiences with depression, which have a stand-alone quality that might have been better served in a short book of their own, a la Styron’s Darkness Visible).
And all of this would be merely churlish if Springsteen didn’t seem so determined to conceptualize his middle age as a bloated marketing strategy. Frequently alluded to, yet ultimately obscured, in the post-success years is the struggle to maintain equilibrium between principles and business; he calls 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad “the result of a decade-long inner debate I’d been having with myself after the success of Born in the USA. That debate centered on a single question: Where does a rich man belong?” and one of the more interesting things to consider is how that internal debate resulted here in one insightful chapter on his response to 9-11, The Rising, being followed immediately by a chapter detailing the challenges of owning a horse farm.
What Springsteen doesn’t seem to have reconciled is how to maintain artistic integrity while peddling every utterance he ever recorded. In 1998, the then 49-year old released Tracks, a box set of unreleased songs. At 56, he released a 30th Anniversary box set of Born to Run, a remastered CD coupled with DVDs of a making-of documentary, three live songs from 1973, and a concert from 1975 filmed at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. At 61, there was The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, featuring the remastered album, outtakes, concert DVDs, and a reproduction of a Darkness-era Springsteen notebook. At 65 came a boxed set of his first seven albums, The Album Collection Vol. 1, 1973-1984, and at 66 came The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, another multi-media extravaganza featuring the usual – remastered album, unreleased songs from that era, another documentary, another book, more concert footage. Now at age 67 he offers Born to Run, the memoir as box set, essentially following the strategy of the aforementioned vault purgings: buff some old material, add a lot more – some gems, some dross, the rest somewhere in between – previously unavailable via official release, offer the sprawl as comprehensive documentation instead of the marketing gimmick it is (a companion CD, Chapter and Verse, is available separately, unless you find a Deluxe Limited Edition, signed and numbered copy of the book which includes the CD, listed at $350, sold out at retailers, available on Ebay for $1499.99, shipping included).
Of course, fans seeking the memoir-as-comfort-food will find comments like these about as relevant as criticizing a tour program; most reviewers seem to have treated the book as a benign greatest hits collection of stage monologues and previously published anecdotes, while most readers for whom the acceptable quality bar for rock memoirs is set somewhere around zero, and fans already accustomed to over-long immersions, seem to be relishing the epic-length wallow in
this fallacy of unguarded intimacy. For the diehard Springsteen fan, more is always more.
But surely this isn’t what Dr. Myers had in mind (“The results of my work with Dr. Myers and my debt to him are at the heart of this book”), and if this tome is truly, at least in part, a testimony to the need, even the beauty, of the struggle for personal reconciliation, it’s difficult to view most of Books Two and Three as little more than a smothering of that struggle under a heap of commercial expectations. One wants to chalk up the inconsistencies to Springsteen’s generosity of spirit and his showman’s give-till-it-hurts credo. But even the earnestness of a Bruce Springsteen can’t overcome the oxymoronic power of “corporate integrity,” and those fans (or those of us who take Springsteen seriously as a writer rather than icon, or view literature, even rock star memoirs, as something worthy of critical consideration) thinking the More Is More approach has resulted in a whole substantially less than the sum of its parts might find themselves returning to an amusing anecdote of Young Bruce ignorance, where he notes that post-Born to Run,
Some enterprising young man at the IRS must have seen those Time and Newsweek covers and said, “Who is this guy?” The answer was, he was a guy who’d never paid a single penny in income taxes his whole life, and neither had most of his friends. … We were all so used to living financially off the grid, it never dawned on us that we might qualify as taxpayers. … [back taxes and studio bills] would keep me broke until 1982, ten years and millions of records after I’d signed with CBS. If those records had bombed, I’d have ended up back in Asbury Park, with my only reward a drunken story to tell.
And here’s an unexplored opening, the most substantial hint of what wealth actually means to him: the escape from the alternate universe where Bruce Springsteen was a failure. Did he ever genuinely fear this happening? Had he imagined this alternate universe, and what did it look like to him? What does he think of all his contemporaries who never tasted more than a fleeting, or local, or zero, success? Are his feelings towards them as ambivalent as his feelings for his hometown? You open Pandora’s therapy box, you get questions like these. Then again, these might just be topics best saved for the inevitably expanded paperback release.
Springsteen brings the proceedings to an end with a clarification of method: “I haven’t told you ‘all’ about myself. Discretion and the feelings of others don’t allow it. But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise: to show the reader his mind.” Perhaps not the best strategy for a rock star who has always been far more interesting for what he sees (and subsequently romanticizes in song) rather than what he thinks and who has found a life’s purpose in mining the transcendental possibilities of performance, not contemplation. For all of his considerable self-awareness, he seems to be missing a key point of his appeal, that’s he’s loved for what he does and what he represents – working class dignity and fortitude, the possibility that a successful man could also be one of character – and while it’s hard to argue with his perspective on humanity – an unpretentious sort of common sense liberalism – it’s difficult to believe that fans so emotionally involved in his work are seeking to explore the nuances of his thought. He’s a storyteller, not a critical thinker, and maybe this is where he went wrong, in offering tepid analysis where he should have been offering more memories specific to his struggles; it’s recounting the latter that brings out the uniqueness of his singular life and poetic sensibilities, and gives the Born to Run reader an often moving, resonant glimpse into the burdens of that rarest sort of American artist, the genuinely decent man whose constructed image is both armor and hair shirt.
Steve Danziger is a contributing editor at Open Letters.