The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club: Bruce Springsteen's 'Born to Run'

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Bruce Springsteen's memoir 'Born to Run'
A detail of the cover of Bruce Springsteen's memoir 'Born to Run' (Simon and Schuster)

Bruce Springsteen's new book is a rock memoir like none other, a strange and extraordinary book that just might be counted as one of his greatest achievements. Complex yet accessible, Born to Run not only explains Springsteen's career, by its very form it sheds new light on what makes him such a singular artist.

It's no surprise that the book is good: you knew that if and when the Boss decided to write a memoir, he wouldn't screw it up. This is the guy who would go backstage and curl up with a book even at the height of his fame, the guy who reserved space on a live album for stage banter praising Joe Klein's biography of Woody Guthrie.

Springsteen is also, of course, known as a storyteller — both in his lyrics and between them, in the onstage "raps" he's long been famous for. On that same album, Live 1975-85, he introduces "The River" (a song inspired by his sister's marriage) with an enormously moving story about his father and the Vietnam War draft.

His father, the late Doug Springsteen, is at the center of Born to Run. The way in which that father-son relationship is handled, though, is both unusual and telling. Though it's clear that this memoir — seven years in the making — draws heavily on Bruce's decades of therapy, there's no psychoanalytic unpacking of what the son carried from those cold nights with his father in a darkened New Jersey kitchen. Instead, there's a humane and patient attempt to understand who the father was.

Though its later half veers towards a more conventional accounting of Springsteen's life (a chapter for a human rights tour, a chapter for horse riding, and so on), the early sections of Born to Run could be a novel about a young baby boomer like many others. With the same eye for detail that's one of his most distinguishing characteristics as a songwriter, Springsteen takes you right to the heart of his life as a working-class kid who was alternately coddled (physically, by his grandmother) and abused (emotionally, by his father).

Soon enough, it becomes clear that playing music is going to be "the only real job I ever had," as Springsteen puts it. From the first fumblings with a rented guitar — which Springsteen, tellingly, uses to perform a successful show before he has any idea how to actually make music with it — to the eventual struggles with the pressures of superstardom, Born to Run bursts with eloquent descriptions of how Springsteen understands his own line of work.

Among the best passages are Springsteen's descriptions of how and why other artists influenced him. Here, for example, is the Boss on the King.

Elvis's great act of love rocked the country and was an early echo of the coming civil rights movement. He was the kind of new American whose "desires" would bring his goals to fruition. He was a singer, a guitar player who loved black musical culture, recognized its artistry, its mastery, its power, and yearned for intimacy with it. He served his nation in the army. He made some bad movies and a few good ones, threw away his talent, found it again, had a great comeback and, in true American fashion, died an untimely and garish death.

You would hope that Springsteen would bring New Jersey street life and its bar-band scene vividly to life, and you won't be disappointed. The chronology of Springsteen's early bands (the Castiles, Steel Mill) is well-documented, but his own account of those years captures the significance of those formative experiences in a way no conventional biographer could. This isn't just about what made Springsteen SPRINGSTEEN, though: it's about a place and a time and a lot of great stories, some of which have never or rarely been told before.

When the book moves into the sequence of Springsteen's albums and tours, he offers capsule analyses that make clear he's really, really thought about this. Like a good critic, he doesn't lightly praise or offhandedly dismiss, but describes each of his major albums in context. Here Springsteen is on the era when he "found my adult voice," he says, as a songwriter.

The punk revolution had hit and there was some hard music coming out of England. The Sex Pistols, the Clash and Elvis Costello all were pushing the envelope on what pop could be in 1977. It was a time of great endings and great beginnings. Elvis had died and his ghost hovered over our sessions. Across the sea there were raging, young, idealistic musicians looking to reinvent (or destroy) what they'd heard, searching for another way. Somebody somewhere had to start a fire. The "gods" had become too omnipotent and had lost their way. The connection between the fan and the man onstage had grown too abstract. Unspoken promises had been made and broken. It was time for a new order, or maybe...no order! Pop needed new provocations and new responses. In '78 I felt a distant kinship to these groups, to the class consciousness, the anger. I would take my own route, but the punks were frightening, inspirational and challenging to American musicians. Their energy and influence can be found buried in the subtext of Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Phrases and ideas that fans will recognize from Springsteen's songs crop up throughout Born to Run — sometimes very deliberately, and in other cases just naturally, in a way that helps connect the vernacular of Springsteen's lyrics to the course of his life and the 67 years of American history he's helped to narrate.

This isn't a very rock-and-roll adjective, but Born to Run may be one of the most mature rock memoirs ever written. From ex-managers to ex-bandmates to an ex-wife, people from Springsteen's past are described with a generosity of spirit that doesn't preclude honesty. Granted, that's honesty from one party's perspective, but for readers used to the scorched-earth style of score-settling music memoirs, Springsteen's more nuanced take on his history will be a welcome change.

Consider the way he talks about Mike Appel — the early manager/producer with whom Springsteen eventually split in a protracted and painful legal battle. While Springsteen describes his differences with Appel in no uncertain terms, he also credits Appel with helping to secure crucial early successes. He even shares a story about how, when Springsteen was whiskey-drunk and ready to impulsively sign a renewal of his unbalanced agreement with Appel, the producer physically stayed Springsteen's hand. "No," Springsteen remembers Appel saying. "Not like this."

Springsteen also, on the other hand, is surprisingly candid about the lifelong tension between himself and E Street Band keyboardist "Phantom" Danny Federici. Writing that Federici deliberately skimmed cash off the band's earnings early on, and recounting an episode in which he kicked holes in the keyboardist's home stereo speakers over the issue, Springsteen adds, "I loved Danny but some version of this and worse would be a part of our friendship for the next forty years."

The Boss's complicated relationship with his legendary band is something he's long struggled with, we discover; and the fact that Springsteen is so open about the struggle is typical of this memoir's forthright flavor. Springsteen knows he needs the E Street Band — but he also knows it needs to be "Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band," emphasis on the frontman. His most famous nickname didn't come out of nowhere, as this story from recent years reveals.

One day I had one of my musicians come to me and explain he would need more money if he were to continue doing his work. I told him if he could find a more highly paid musician at his job in the world, I would gladly up his percentage. I also told him I could spare him the time to search. All he had to do was to walk into the bathroom, close the door and walk over and take a look in the mirror. There he'd find the highest-paid musician in the world at his post. I told him, "That's how it works in the real world." He then looked straight at me and, without a trace of irony, asked, "What do we have to do with the real world?" At that moment I knew I had sheltered my colleagues perhaps a bit too much.

If there's any area in which this unusually forthcoming memoir feels a little reticent, it's in the bumpy Tunnel of Love period, when the band's role was scaled back and finally, for a time, eliminated. Human Touch and Lucky Town, the 1992 albums made without the E Street Band, are mentioned, respectively, barely and not at all.

When the band come back, the book regains its footing — and so, we gather, did its author. Springsteen gives a lot of ink, unsurprisingly, to his relationship with saxophonist Clarence Clemons, but he also devotes an extended passage to his decision to hire Clemons's nephew Jake to play the Big Man's parts after Clarence died. Though the young Clemons brings his own energy to the part, Springsteen writes, "He will play those solos," and not reinvent them. "I've instructed Jake that those solos are compositions, collaborations between Clarence and me that are engraved on our fans' hearts."

Ultimately, Springsteen circles back to his father, opening up about both his father's mental health issues and his own. Bruce is candid about the treatment he's received for depression, about the medication he's taking, and about the healing he's undergoing every day. His honesty about that healing, about that struggle, is part of what makes him so compelling as a musician — and, now, as an author.

Born to Run Giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Born to Run giveaway between 6 a.m. CDT on Tuesday, Sept. 26 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016.

Four (4) winners will receive one (1) copy of Bruce Springstreen's Born to Run autobiography. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $20

We will contact the winner on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. CT on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016.

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