Bruce Springsteen’s long and lyrical autobiography, seven years in the writing, is unsurprisingly titled “Born to Run,” after his career-making 1975 album and perennial signature song. That makes sense, artistically and certainly commercially. Reading it, though, a different song kept coming to mind, 1987’s “Brilliant Disguise”:
So when you look at me,
you better look hard and look twice.
Is that me, baby,
or just a brilliant disguise?
The book’s 508 pages are panoramic and detailed, broad and deep. The author escorts the reader on two interwoven journeys: the musical rocket-ride, from start to present, of a rock ‘n’ roll überstar; and his internal odyssey, mostly shielded from the public, ridden with anxiety, self-deprecation, impermanence in relationships and, well after his establishment as a major artist, the onset of crippling episodes of depression.
He could have easily been one more tragic rocker, another Presley or Hendrix or Morrison or Joplin. He was likely saved by his adamant life-long avoidance of drugs, the loyalty of friends, his immersion in psychotherapy and, after a rocky romantic life from which he was routinely in flight, the commitment to a successful continuing marriage.
Springsteen’s prose is fluent and, no surprise, musical, with satisfying rhythm and harmony in the word choices and phrasing. His voice is personal, undefended, confessional. Several times along the way he addresses the reader as “friend.” His storytelling is evidence of an examined life, keenly intelligent, often funny, occasionally soaring in its language, and likeable. The cumulative effect is intimate, the superstar off his pedestal, just talking to you.
A quibble about the prose. There are, from time to time, untethered references to characters or phrases from his songs. Fans will get them, others will not. For example, he mentions without explanation “the Magic Rat.” Bruce devotees know that the young man with that nickname is a character in “Jungleland,” the epic, operatic finale to the “Born to Run” album. The uninitiated will likely be thinking, “Huh?”
There are no surprises in Springsteen’s effusive praise for his most important musical influences – first, Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show. “Americans that night were exposed to this hip-shaking human earthquake,” he writes. “It was all there in his eyes, his face, the face of a Saturday night jukebox Dionysus, the shimmering eyebrows and rocking band. A riot ensued.”
The Sullivan Show again – “It didn’t take me long to figure it out: I didn’t want to meet the Beatles, I wanted to BE the Beatles.”
“Bob Dylan is the father of my country,” Springsteen writes. “Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home were not only great records, but they were the first time I can remember being exposed to a truthful vision of the place I lived. The darkness and light were all there, the veil of illusion and deception ripped aside.”
Late in the book, Springsteen, the long-established superstar, sounds like an excited teenager as he is about to share the stage with the Rolling Stones. “These are the guys who INVENTED my job!” he shouts, “THE GREATEST GARAGE BAND IN THE WORLD!”
Springsteen’s ace-in-the-hole has, from the start, been his live performances. It’s where he does, as he calls it, his “magic trick,” the transformation of an audience to something more. “I am here to provide proof of life,” he writes,” to that ever elusive, never completely believable ‘us.’ That is my magic trick.
“There is something about walking onstage in front of seventy-five thousand screaming fans with the oldest friends of your life, playing music that is ingrained in you, that’s hard to replace. If you had it for one – just one – evening, you’d never forget it. To go there night after night, over a lifetime, is an unimaginable, immeasurable pleasure and privilege.”
In form, the book is an aggregate of episodes, eighty bite-size chapters. Woven together, they create a sweeping mosaic of family of origin, of the bands from high school to E Street, of the songwriting, the albums, the tours, the psychological travails, and ultimately of reconciliation and a family of his own.
Along the way, he returns repeatedly to candid comments about his musical strengths and weaknesses. Reflecting on his early days trying to make it in New York City, he writes, “My voice was never going to win any prizes. My guitar accompaniment on acoustic was rudimentary, so that left the songs. The songs would have to be fireworks. I decided the world was filled with plenty of good guitar players, many of them my match or better, but how many good songwriters were there?”
Songwriting, yes, and a ferocious work ethic. Springsteen recalls his thoughts after a failed attempt to break into the San Francisco music scene in the early days. “I was all I had. I had only one talent. I was not a natural genius. I would have to use every ounce of what was in me – my cunning, my musical skills, my showmanship, my intellect, my heart, my willingness – night after night, to push myself harder, to work with more intensity than the next guy just to survive untended in the world I lived in.”
Well, no suspense. He obviously made it. The turning point of the autobiography, its emotional pivot, comes years after the breakout success of “Born to Run.” Long physically separated from his family of origin, alienated from his father, and repeatedly in flight from close relationships, he hits a wall of depression on a road trip in Texas. At a small town fair, witnessing the warmth of family and community life, he is devastated.
“I’m gone,” he writes. “From nowhere, a despair overcomes me…I want to be with them but I know I can’t. I can only watch. That’s what I do. I watch…and I record. I do not engage, and if and when I do, my terms are so stringent, they suck the lifeblood out of any good thing, any real thing, I might have. 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 cost 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… (My) show provided me the illusion of intimacy without the risk or consequences. During the show, as good as it is, as real as the emotions called upon are, as physically moving and as hopefully inspirational as I work to make it, it’s fiction, theater, a creation; it isn’t reality…And at the end of the day, life trumps art…always.”
The remainder of “Born to Run” is Springsteen’s battle, mostly successful, for a complete adult life, his commitment to psychotherapy, his marriage to Patti Scialfa, his learning how to be a father, his reconciliation with his own father. But there are recurrent depressive episodes. He describes one from the recent past.
“The blues don’t jump right on you,” he writes. “They come creeping. Shortly after my sixtieth I slipped into a depression like I hadn’t experienced since that dusty night in Texas thirty years earlier. It lasted for a year and a half and devastated me…During these periods I can be cruel, I dissemble, I dodge, I weave, I disappear, I return, I rarely apologize, and all the while Patti holds down the fort as I’m trying to burn it down…I was crushed between sixty and sixty-two, good for a year and out again from sixty-three to sixty-four.”
During one of his episodes, he recalls his temptation to run from the marriage. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?” he asks himself. “The road? The bar? I still enjoyed them, but it wasn’t a life. I’d been there, thousands of time, seen all they had to offer. What was conceivably going to be different? Was I going to get back on that hamster’s wheel of indecision, of lying to myself that it would all never grow old (it already had), and throw away the best thing, the best woman, I’d ever known? I stayed. It was the sanest decision of my life.”
Through it all, he is a rock star – writing, recording, performing – maintaining his brilliant disguise, not to deceive, but to persevere in a job that he knows how to do and loves. After over three decades of reflection and work, he has a mature perspective on his emotional journey. “In all psychological wars,” Springsteen writes, “it’s never over, there’s just this day, this time, and a hesitant belief in your own ability to change.
“Through hard work and Patti’s great love I have overcome much of this, though not all of it. I have days when my boundaries wobble, my darkness and the blues seem to beckon and I seek to medicate myself in whatever way I can. But on my best days, I can freely enjoy the slow passing of time, the tenderness that is in my life; I can feel the love I’m part of surrounding me and flowing through me; I am near home and I am standing hand in hand with those I love, past and present, in the sun, on the outskirts of something that feels, almost…like being free.”
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover $32.50, eBook $14.99.