Running with the Boss
We don’t have to wade too far into the rushing river of words in Bruce Springsteen’s new, long-anticipated autobiography, Born to Run (Simon & Schuster), before his insecurities, his dreams, his longings, his desperation, and his sense of himself flood over us. Springsteen’s earliest declaration of his place in the universe is unsurprising, since all of his fans embrace this view every time he steps on stage or releases a new album, or writes a book: “I was lord, king, and the messiah all rolled into one.” Indeed, all his fans have waited for this autobiography as followers of some apocalyptic cult leader wait for their messianic figure to steer them toward the path of righteousness or accompany them through the last days.
The difference, of course, is that Springsteen never pretends to be anything other than what he is: a Jersey guy struggling not only to overcome the worst parts of his upbringing — a misanthropic father to whom he grows close only momentarily late in his father’s life, a falling down house, functional only in one room, a religion that plants in him both mystery and agony — but to embrace them as he still grapples with his sense of himself and his success as an artist. No mystery here: he’s running from himself just as much as he’s running back to what’s made him, just as he’s running ragged to ensure through his songwriting that he’s in control of his music and his legacy.
Springsteen is no sprinter; he jumps off the block from the opening shot, carrying us along at a breakneck pace through his earliest days in Freehold, New Jersey, his conversion to rock and roll, his earliest bands, his albums, his marriages, and his depression.
Not only was Springsteen born to run, he also sprang from the womb a raconteur. He’s a peripatetic troubadour whose tales hold us spellbound; he’s pensive, he’s frightened, he’s commanding and demanding, he’s loving, and he’s startlingly candid, but he’s never boring. If anything, Springsteen often natters on too long about one topic or another, and he often shouts at us by using all capital letters: when his father tries to cut Springsteen’s long hair, the singer tells us that this was the “only time I told my dad I hated — HATED — him.” As tiresome as this convention sometimes grows, it’s simply an indication that Springsteen sometimes simply can’t contain his exuberance, his excitement, his energy. We might be tired when we get to the end of this book, but it’s not because we’re tired of hearing Springsteen tell his stories; it’s because he’s sometimes moving so fast we can’t keep up with him.
In a moving early passage, Springsteen gives us a clue that his running has been both a search for a home and a fear that he’ll never find one again. “The grinding hypnotic power of this ruined place” — his little shotgun-style house at 39 ½ Institute Street — “and these people would never leave me. I visit it in my dreams today. … It made me in the sense that it would set me off on a lifelong pursuit of a ‘singular’ place of my own, giving me a raw hunger that drove me, hell-bent, in my music.”
Following the River tour, Springsteen continues to be haunted by this sense of place: “At the end of the day, I was simply a guy who was rarely comfortable in his own skin, whatever skin that might be. The idea of home itself, like much else, filled me with distrust and a bucket load of grief. I’d long convinced myself … almost … that homes were for everybody else.”
Darkness lies not only on the edge of town in Springsteen’s life, though; it lies deep in his soul, and it’s no wonder he’s constantly running. In Born to Run, Springsteen reveals for the first time his struggles with the black dog of depression. His first encounter with the shadows of night occurs on a road trip with his buddy Matt Delia — “my Dean Moriarity” — in the middle of Texas. The two friends are watching men and women dance at a local fair, and then, Springsteen writes, “I’m anonymous and then … I’m gone. From nowhere, a despair overcomes me … I feel the need to get rooted somewhere, before I drift into ether. … I want to cry, but the tears won’t come. … I feel a deeper anxiety than I’ve ever known. … Whatever the reason, I’d found myself stranded in the middle of nowhere, but this time the euphoria and delusions that kept me oiled and running had ground to a halt.”
The fear and loneliness of that dark Texas night returns 30 years later, shortly after Springsteen turns 60. “The blues don’t jump right on you,” he writes. “They come creeping.” This bout of depression lasts for a year and a half and during that time “every meaningless thing became the subject of a world-shattering existential crisis filling me with an awful profound foreboding and stillness. All was lost.”
When he reaches his lowest, he becomes a “walking husk.” Springsteen admits that only tearing down the streets on his motorcycle or lifting weights or paddleboarding would lift the burden; in the end, he seeks counsel and medication, and he no longer needs the relief of physical exertion.
Revelations of his struggles with depression don’t plunge Springsteen’s memoir totally into darkness, though. He writes joyously and affectionately about his music and members of his bands. In a bit of over-the-top, dramatic, create-your-own legend writing, Springsteen describes the first time he met the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, the one friend who grew quickly into Springsteen’s musical foil as well as his musical brother: “It was a dark and stormy night … the town was deserted. … As the Big Man approached the front of the Prince, a mighty gale blew down Ocean Avenue, ripping the club door off its hinges and down the street. A good omen. I looked to the back of the room and saw a big black figure standing in the shadows. There he was. King Curtis, Junior Walker and all my rock ‘n’ roll fantasies rolled into one.”
Springsteen devotes chapters to the making of each album. Looking back on his first album, he reflects on the lessons he learned from making it: “I never wrote completely in that style again. Once the record was released, I heard all the Dylan comparisons, so I steered away from it. But the lyrics and spirit of Greetings came from an unselfconscious place. Your early songs emerge from a moment when you’re writing with no sure prospect of ever being heard. Up until then, it’s just been you and your music. That only happens once.”
The Boss admits his early ambivalence with the album Born to Run, throwing it into a hotel swimming pool once it’s finished, but later considers it the dividing line between his earlier adolescent definitions of love and freedom and the more complicated approaches to those subjects in “Thunder Road” and “Jungleland.” In Springsteen’s mind, the album’s title track embraces both the best of rock and roll up until that song, and it’s future: “From Duane Eddy came the guitar sound. … From Roy Orbison came the round operatic vocal tone of a young aspirant with limited range attempting to emulate his hero. From Phil Spector came the ambition to make a world-shaking mighty noise. I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth, the last record you might hear … the last one you’d ever NEED to hear. … From Elvis came the record’s physical thrust; Dylan, of course, threaded through the imagery and the idea of not just writing about SOMETHING but writing about EVERYTHING.”
Individuals grapple with religious faith, or more pointedly, with the hypocrisy of religious institutions such as the Catholic Church or a character’s incredulity at the action of a priest or nun in many of Springsteen’s songs. Early in his life, Springsteen struggles viscerally with the same hypocrisies as student in a parochial school and growing up headed to Mass as a child. Upon reflection, he writes elegantly of the enduring impact of Catholicism on him: “This was the world where I found the beginnings of my song. In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward. It was glorious place and pathetic place I was either shaped for or fit right into. It has walked alongside me as a waking dream my whole life.”
“Writing about yourself is a funny business,” confesses the Boss, and he’s the first to declare that he’s held back and not told us everything about himself in this autobiography. What he can say is, “I fought my whole life, studied, played, worked because I wanted to hear and know the whole story, my story, our story, and understand as much of it as I could. I wanted to understand in order to free myself of its most damaging influences … to celebrate and honor its beauty. … I don’t know if I’ve done that. … This, I presented as my long and noisy prayer, my magic trick. Hoping it would rock your very soul and then pass on, its spirit rendered, to be read, heard, sung and altered by you and your blood, that it might strengthen and help make sense of your story. Go tell it.”
How fitting is it that the CD compilation released a few days before the autobiography is called Chapter and Verse. The songs collected there chronicle the troubadour’s journey in song from his early days in his first bands, the Castiles and Steel Mill, to his solo acoustic work and his work with the E Street Band. The CD title evokes the same biblical tone with which Springsteen closes his autobiography: he testifies, he witnesses, and he transforms; his songs have changed us; his stories have changed us; his music has altered our musical landscape.
Like any good storyteller, Springsteen bids us to listen to his story, invites us to tell our own, recognizing that power and truth lie in the circle of stories and songs we share.