Toward the end of any given show night, long after he’s surfed the crowd through “Hungry Heart,” Bruce Springsteen takes a moment to shout the praises of his partners onstage: “You’ve just seen the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, hard-rocking, earth-shakin’, booty-quakin’, lovemakin’, Viaaaaagra-takin’, legendary E Street Band!” That goofy yet heartfelt bit is, in its way, one of the most revealing moments in Springsteen’s show. After decades on the road, you can still hear the delight in his voice when he nails that string of syllables. He's speaking a language all his own.
The plainspoken, punchline-driven cadence of Springsteen’s tongue is exactly what makes his 500-page bruiser of a memoir, Born to Run, so powerful. Springsteen didn’t employ a ghostwriter; this story is coming straight from him. He’s unfiltered, almost unhinged when he gets excited, like the page where he describes touring as a “life-giving, joyful, sweat-drenched, muscle-aching, voice-blowing, mind-clearing, exhausting, soul-invigorating, cathartic pleasure and privilege.” And he approaches the low points — from the trauma deep in his family history to his lifelong fight with depression — with the same vast reserves of empathy he brings to his most devastating songs. Born to Run outlines how the Springsteen we know was forged by his own pursuit of the American dream, in vivid terms and with the skill of a writer who can change your life with a single lyric. The way he tells his story is what truly drives it home.
The first half of Born to Run offers visions of Springsteen’s New Jersey — cracks in the sidewalks of Freehold, his hometown; the embarrassed flush of a boner during his first school dance — and his flirtations with manifest destiny, via early (failed) attempts at making it big in California. He details his late father’s days working at a rug factory and his mother’s as a legal secretary. Springsteen spends pages reconstructing his father’s alcoholism and mental illness and the distance they forced between father and son, along with anecdotes that show his closeness to his mother, sometimes in the same scene. He walks us through their routine of fetching Pop from the bar — Mom would drive, and kid Bruce would head in to collect Springsteen senior — and invokes the emotional scars those years left without losing the conflicted fondness you feel when you love someone who lets you down. He recalls the house-painting gig that allowed him to save up for his first acoustic, and a deal he made with his mom to split the $69 cost of his first electric guitar, a Kent: She took out a loan, and he put together the rest with the money he made selling off a pool table he’d received as a Christmas gift the year before. The pride in his inherited work ethic leaps off the page, and the image of mother and teenage son conspiring to make the kid’s dream come true is touching, the two of them standing together before a storefront to ogle the guitar on Christmas Eve. He’s able to share his origin story without allowing nostalgia to smudge his hindsight, a rarity in rock memoir. He's less interested in playing up his glory days than he is showing us how he threw everything he had into making sure he’d get something worth reminiscing about.
That holds true as Springsteen recalls his burgeoning rock education on the Jersey Shore club circuit, and the filthy surfboard factory he lived in as a teenage vagrant. By the time he signs his (eventually problematic) contract with his first manager, Mike Appel, on the hood of a car in a New York City parking lot in 1972, Springsteen has conditioned us to understand that living the dream was never meant to be easy. He's honest about his imperfections as a performer, stressing that his burly vibrato voice, while it “gets the job done,” wasn’t his moneymaker: It’s “a journeyman’s instrument and on its own, it’s never going to take you to higher ground.” (His devoted fan base might disagree, but sure.)
Consistently in Born to Run, Springsteen emphasizes his working humanity first and his rock star status second. Poetry and romance flood the pages of some rock memoirs, like Just Kids, penned by Springsteen’s friend and colleague Patti Smith. Infamy and screaming headlines serve as mile markers in others, as Keith Richards’s Life can attest. But Springsteen focuses less on regaling us with juicy behind-the-scenes details, and more on proving that he did the work, explaining his process in unembellished layman’s terms. His frank appraisal of his voice reflects that philosophy: “Your blessings and your curses often come in the same package," he writes. "Think of all the eccentric voices in rock who’ve made historic records and keep singing. Then build up your supportive skills because you never know what’s going to come out of your heart and find its way out of your mouth.” He sees value in those unglamorous memories of his first forays in the business, and leads us to do the same.
Springsteen frequently bookends his work with milestones drawn from national memory and his own. He introduces 1984’s Born in the U.S.A., a defining album of the era, by explaining how the title track, one of his “greatest and most misunderstood pieces of music,” was frequently appropriated by flag-waving politicians who tune out its downer lyrics about Vietnam vets returning from war. He fights to keep the attention of a bar crowd on the Shore during Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon in 1969: “Ultimately, we decided, ‘Fuck the moon landing, that’s just a trick of “The Man”; fuck you, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, let’s rock.’” Springsteen's songs have always taken place in a mythologized America, and with stories like this he fills in the missing context around them, placing himself within the larger American story.
The most painful parts of Born to Run come when Springsteen lifts a curtain on his inner struggles, showing us the human man wrestling with his own limitations behind the bandana-clad stadium rocker. Thanks to the care he takes to unpack his father’s alcoholism and late-diagnosed schizophrenia at the onset of Born to Run, Springsteen’s own depression — and his willingness to treat it — hits with the intensity of the “freight train bearing down, loaded with nitroglycerin and running quickly out of track” to which he likens it: “During these periods I can be cruel: I run, I dissemble, I dodge, I weave, I disappear, I return, I rarely apologize, and all the while [wife Patti Scialfa] holds down the fort as I’m trying to burn it down. She stops me. She gets me to the doctors and says, ‘This man needs a pill.’” He renders intimate worries about medication and the fear of turning into his father into approachable lessons in acceptance. He does this as dexterously as he delivers a joke or a rambling intro; as anyone who's listened to Darkness on the Edge of Town recently knows, the man possesses a rare gift for telling the kind of uplifting stories that rip you up in the process.
In the chapter where he looks back on the early-’70s formation of the E Street Band — that formidable, love-makin’, not-yet-Viagra-takin’ crew of Shore guys that would eventually expand to the current 10-person roster — Springsteen notes that he wanted his audience to “look at the stage and see a reflection of themselves, their town, and their friends.” Identifying with his audience has always been a priority for him, and Born to Run spares no uncomfortable detail in getting there.
Through candid testimony in his own words, Springsteen ditches the stage and sidles up alongside his fans to talk about the tough shit they can relate to. For the new fan, Born to Run is an insightful road map not only to Springsteen’s music, but to the man behind it. For the initiated, Born to Run reads less like a companion to the songs we already know so well, and more like a sharply drawn novel about an American rock-and-roll antihero that just so happens to be nonfiction.