It is today, in the 67th year of our Lord Boss, that the faith will be tested. As any Springsteen fan already knows, the word of the saviour will be available in a matter of hours. Hours. You may have doubts about Born to Run, an autobiography inspired by the elation its author felt when playing the 2009 Super Bowl. You may worry that he has failed to deliver even a fraction in text of what he has for so long in stadium miracles. Well, don’t. The guy writes better than Jesus.
Jesus, of course, may not have written any better than an FM breakfast radio host, most of who release unremarkable books in the service of money. So let’s say that Bruce, an author largely in the service of art, writes more fearlessly and forcefully than your average celebrity memoirist. And I feel obliged to make Springsteen’s skill very clear to fellow devotees. Because we want the guy who wrote “Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge/ Drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain” as a lyric to be at least one-tenth that good in print. So, relax, Rosalita, because, often, he is.
It’s nineteen sixty something, and Bruce’s hair soars between pompadour and Medusa ‘fro as he plays to the “greasers” of New Jersey with his first proper band. When The Castilles are done, he watches as a doo-wop singer charges the libido of a dance hall. He could hear, “the rustling of sharkskin hard-ons rubbing against cheap nylon stockings”. Which is not, in my view, just a very good line, but true to that great Springsteen theme of making us feel simultaneously ridiculous and sublime. Yes, we’re wearing the non-porous fabric manufactured in our hardscrabble towns. No, you can’t contain our drives. And rock’n’roll—whose slow death he later acknowledges—can set us free from these rayon prisons.
Springsteen is, at times, as virtuosically succinct in print as he has been very generally in lyrics.
It’s in the first third of the work, ‘Growin’ Up’, where Springsteen observes and writes best. This is just as much a social history of Freehold, New Jersey as it is the story of a man so determined to charge libidos in dance halls, he would fall asleep practising magic on his sixty-nine dollar Kent—an item, by the way, bought on mom’s credit.
Springsteen is, at times, as virtuosically succinct in print as he has been very generally in lyrics. This is a man who can tale an everyday thing—a car, a bolt of desire, a guitar—and thrust us into its greater social and unconscious contexts. That’s not just a cheap Kent, but a token of maternal love and a harbinger of debt. Those are not just the fumes from the Nescafe factory, but the last warm gasp of American labour.
And, brother, you think that’s just an old black Cadillac he’s riding in? Hell, no. Its function is a testament to the ingenuity of the migrant mechanics who kept it alive. The roads on which it runs reflect the true democracy Springsteen seeks to enact in his music—the realisation of which unfolds at the Super Bowl where he finally feels he is talking with all Americans, not just the working class white ones. Also, and obviously for Springsteen fans, it’s a means of finding girls.
‘Born to Run’ is about as good as it gets from celebrity memoir.
Throughout, Springsteen is as candid as he can be about girls. Actually, more so than he has been in song where they tend to be drawn by this former altar boy like the Holy Mother; or sometimes, Mary Magdalene. He doesn’t let us in on everything, “I haven’t told you ‘all’ about myself. Discretion and the feelings of others don’t allow it,” he writes, and he is, largely, careful to honour the characters in his text. (Although, some amateur E-Street historians might feel conflicted about the way he describes his debt to the late saxophonist, Clarence Clemons). But, he usually does not spare himself and it is not only his confession of (non-physical) rage toward women that makes this book a good deal more than ordinary. It is his willingness to examine the source of that rage.
I’ll leave you to assess the quality and value of Springsteen’s account of masculine violence. But, I will say that it is not all down to Doug Springsteen, the cruel patriarch of songs like Adam Raised a Cain. Doug, to whom the author apologises, is no longer a mean biblical daddy, but, like a lot of things and people in this book, a product of the times. Springsteen is no longer at personal odds with the memory of his father, but at a more political peace with the conditions that formed this hard and hardworking man.
No one can justify wealth, and it surprises me that Springsteen, of all people, seems to want to.
Fans of detail may prefer the book’s second part, ‘Born to Run’, which is crammed with fuel for a rock snob fire. Well I didn’t know that about the making of Nebraska, my personal favourite album! And, gee, I enjoy the stories about Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau, or the benevolent dictatorship that governs the band who sings about nothing but democracy.
I don’t know who will prefer the third part, ‘Living Proof’, which is about life after success. And includes a curious passage on his daughter’s equestrian success. I mean, dressage must be very nice for the family, but it’s bad for the legend and I rather wish an editor had dared to say to Bruce that he was coming across like an episode of MTV Cribs. Not, of course, that Springsteen should omit mention of his fantastic fortune. But, his attempts to naturalise and rationalise it fail. No one can justify wealth, and it surprises me that Springsteen, of all people, seems to want to.
It’s not a perfect book. There are inconsistencies a courageous publisher ought to have ironed out. Ellipses, capital letters and outright mistakes are frequent and annoying and this artlessness is what Bruce, a guy committed to the idea that art is made and not just formed, has long avoided. Perhaps this novice writer took the same approach to his book as he has so successfully to his music. To wit, it’s my way, or the long, dark American highway. Whatever the case, editors were unable to do their usual work. Maybe he wore a tight t-shirt to meetings.
In fine, though, Born to Run is about as good as it gets from celebrity memoir. It offers new biographical detail, social critique and, for the most part, a reflection of the artistic project so many of us have come to treasure. It’s also about one-hundred pages too long. But this is fairly Bruce. We all suffer endurance for the saviour’s sins.