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.” Continue reading