Bruce Springsteen Born to Be You
Book review by
Jude Joseph Lovell
American music legend Bruce Springsteen turns 70 years old on September 23. This prompted me to pick up his 2016 memoir, Born to Run. The book is a magnificent, colorful, unruly story of an epic, valley-to-the-mountaintop life in performance. Reportedly, Springsteen wrote every word without a ghostwriter—and it shows. It is not perfect. But it is easily the best music memoir I’ve ever read.
The book has four main virtues. The first is Springsteen’s actual writing. His prose is lyrical and fluid, not something you would necessarily expect from a guitar-slinging rocker. But it’s not all that surprising if you have heard him speak in interviews or you know about the influence that writers like Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, and many others have had on his work.
Still, he clearly toiled at developing his writing skills. As he explains, he was not exactly the studious type, barely squeaking through high school. He describes himself penning two of his early classics, “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirit in the Night” with the help of a rhyming dictionary. But he soon realized, he tells us, that it was going to be his songwriting, not his musicianship or singing, that would distinguish him.
He famously rewrote the songs on his breakthrough record, also called Born to Run (1975), again and again. The results are as distinctive as they are iconic.
In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines . . .
By the time he reached the mid-’90s and the socially conscious fables on his stunning, quiet-toned album The Ghost of Tom Joad, he was crafting pithier lyrics that packed a library of stories into each line:
Men walking ’long the railroad tracks
Going someplace and there’s no going back
Highway patrol choppers coming up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Springsteen explains that this kind of “precision” is “very important . . . the correct detail can speak volumes.”
Which leads to the second virtue of Springsteen’s memoir: insights. It offers plenty of useful lessons about what the pursuit of a creative life requires. But it does not try to over-inflate the significance of being an entertainer. In one telling passage, he describes arriving in London to perform at age 25 for the first time, just as his mid-’70s star is on the rise. Finding the whole area around the theater plastered with signs heralding his arrival, Springsteen freaks out, feeling the laurels haven’t yet been earned.
“I am embarrassed for myself and offended for my fans. This is not how it works. I know how it works. I’ve done it . . . You don’t TELL people anything, you SHOW them and let them decide.” (The capitals are his.)
A third virtue of Born to Run is how movingly Springsteen writes about family. He had a difficult relationship with his blue-collar, inaccessible father, Douglas Springsteen. Theirs was a contentious bond in which they shared too many of the same qualities. “It was a shame,” Springsteen writes. “He loved me, but he couldn’t stand me. He also saw in me too much of his real self.” Fortunately, the two were able to reconcile later in the elder Springsteen’s life.
Yet, while his father’s shadow lingers over much of this story, Springsteen is also filled with admiration for his whole family, particularly his mother and his two younger sisters, of whom he writes lovingly—to say nothing of his second and long-standing wife, Patti Scialfa, and his three children with her, now adults, all of whom clearly infuse the artist with pride and humility. His massive success cannot be easy for a family to manage, especially in light of Springsteen’s now well-documented battles with depression and anxiety, also eloquently recounted here.
Finally, throughout Born to Run, Springsteen exhibits his respect for the value of community. The star repeatedly recognizes his debts to the people surrounding him: The parishioners and even the clergy from Saint Rose of Lima Catholic church, which stands literally on the same corner as his childhood home; his aunts, uncles, and grandparents; and the vibrant community of struggling musicians in Asbury Park and the New Jersey shore, where Springsteen spent a good six or seven years cutting his teeth as a near-homeless vagabond.
Lastly, of course, are Springsteen’s loyal fans. There are many instances where he pays tribute to them throughout his book, but the most telling example may be found in an anecdote he shares from 1999.
Springsteen was deep in rehearsals with the legendary E Street Band, with whom he had not played together publicly in over a decade. They were preparing for what would be an extended reunion tour. During these practices, however, Springsteen remained unconvinced. He confided to his manager that he wasn’t sure the whole thing would work this time.
This culminated in one stressful dress rehearsal at Asbury Park’s famous Convention Hall in March. The band was running through music they’d mastered long before, but on this day it sounded “lifeless.” Then Springsteen remembered that there were about 50 fans milling about outside the building. So he told his handlers to let them in.
And it was only then that this truly great American artist realized the answer. Approaching the end of this fascinating autobiography, he manages to distill it to a single word—one that captures what may be the most indispensable ingredient of the entire formula.
“There was only one thing missing,” Bruce Springsteen writes. “You.”
Photo credits: Rick Kern/Wire Image, others Google.
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.