Thursday, September 22, 2016

Bruce Springsteen’s Memoir: Riding Shotgun With the Boss
September 20, 2016

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Long dark highways and thin white lines; fire roads and Interstates; the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets; barefoot girls sitting on the hoods of Dodges; pink Cadillacs; last-chance power drives; men who go out for a ride and never come back.

Bruce Springsteen’s song lyrics have injected more drama and mystery into the myths of the American road than any figure since Jack Kerouac. He knows this, of course. So it’s one of the running jokes in his big, loose, rangy and intensely satisfying new memoir, “Born to Run” (what else was he going to call it?), that he didn’t begin to drive until he was well into his 20s — around the time he landed simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek.

His brooding and violent father had been too impatient to teach him and, anyway, he couldn’t afford a car. When Mr. Springsteen was forced to sneak behind the wheel, licenseless, to handle some of the driving on his earliest tours, his ineptitude terrified his band members. He did not exactly, when young and virile, ride through mansions of glory on suicide machines. He mostly stuck out his thumb. He’d been born to hitch.

“Every sort of rube, redneck, responsible citizen and hell-raiser the Jersey Shore had to offer, I rode with ’em,” he writes in “Born to Run.” These rides matter because Mr. Springsteen’s songs, like the blue-collar poems of Philip Levine, are intensely peopled. Wild Billy and Crazy Janey, Johnny 99, Mary from “Thunder Road,” Wayne from “Darlington County,” Jimmy the Saint and Bobby Jean had to come from somewhere. This memoir suggests Mr. Springsteen met many of them while cackling over there in the shotgun seat.

The headline news in “Born to Run,” to judge by the early news media tweets, is that Mr. Springsteen, who turns 67 on Friday, has suffered periodically from serious depression. I will admit that this information shook me. If Bruce Springsteen has to resort to Klonopin, what hope is there for anyone? But these sections are not the reason to come to “Born to Run.”

The book is like one of Mr. Springsteen’s shows — long, ecstatic, exhausting, filled with peaks and valleys. It’s part séance and part keg party, and then the house lights come up and you realize that, A) you look ridiculous dancing to “Twist and Shout” and, B) you will be driving home in a minivan and not a Camaro.

His writing voice is much like his speaking voice; there’s a big, raspy laugh on at least every other page. There’s some raunch here. This book has not been utterly sanitized for anyone’s protection, and many of the best lines won’t be printed in this newspaper. Most important, “Born to Run” is, like his finest songs, closely observed from end to end. His story is intimate and personal, but he has an interest in other people and a gift for sizing them up.

Here’s just one example, chosen nearly at random. When Mr. Springsteen meets a future girlfriend on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, N.J. (one of innumerable girlfriends on display here), he delivers this electric introduction: “She was Italian, funny, a beatific tomboy, with just the hint of a lazy eye, and wore a pair of glasses that made me think of the wonders of the library.” Well, hello, you think.

Much of the writing in “Born to Run” is this fresh — the sound of a writer who could have phoned his book in but did not. There are dollops of pretension and word-goo in “Born to Run.” Springsteen wouldn’t be Springsteen without homilies, a few of them leaden, about fathers and sons and love and work and community. But this book mostly gets away clean, leaving behind the scent of lightly scorched rubber.

Mr. Springsteen’s father was a frequently unemployed bus driver, among other blue-collar jobs; his mother a legal secretary. They were fairly poor. In their houses — half-houses, more often — there was generally no telephone and little heat. Meals were cooked on a coal stove. “Born to Run” is potent on the subject of social class.

In Mr. Springsteen’s part of New Jersey it was the “rah-rahs” (preppies) versus the greasers, and there was no doubt which side of that line he was on. At some of his early shows, guys in chinos spat on him.

“I could still feel the shadow of that spit that hit me long ago when I moved to Rumson in 1983, 16 years later,” he writes. He’d found fame and bought a decent place. Yet: “At 33 years old, I still had to take a big gulp of air before walking through the door of my new home.”

He suggests there’s a freight of psychic payback in “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” his most fully realized album. “For my parents’ troubled lives I was determined to be the enlightened, compassionate voice of reason and revenge.”

Mr. Springsteen got his first guitar, a rental, after seeing Elvis on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He had a serious work ethic, and went on to play in a string of well-regarded bands with names like Child and Earth and Steel Mill.

When his word-drunk first record, “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.,” appeared in 1973, he was lumped with the so-called New Dylans, folk singers like Loudon Wainwright III and John Prine. But there was a crucial difference. Unlike those performers, Mr. Springsteen onstage, thanks to his long bar-band apprenticeship, could blow audiences backward.

Mr. Springsteen writes that he’s never thought much of his singing voice. As good a guitar player as he is, others were better. It was his songs, he realized early, that would have to put him over the top. If this book has one curious blind spot, it’s that we never quite understand how those words came into being.

He studied the songwriting of people like Mr. Dylan, Donovan and Tim Buckley, he writes. But so did many others. If his early reading was an influence, he doesn’t say. The words were apparently just there, available, on tap. And they stayed there, even when his lyrics became pared down. Songs like “The River” and “Stolen Car” are as evocative in their details as are Raymond Carver’s best short stories.

“Born to Run” takes us, album by album, through his career. These chapters sometimes feel clipped and compressed, as if he’s wedged the data in his heart onto a thumb drive.

The book takes us through his many stabs at romance, which tended to end badly. (He once gave his father the crabs after they’d shared a toilet seat.) He details the failure of his first marriage, to the actress Julianne Phillips, and the success of his second, to Patti Scialfa, whom he describes, in a childhood photo, as “a freckle-faced Raggedy Ann of a little girl.”

He raised his three children without rock-star mementos in the house. “My kids didn’t know ‘Badlands’ from matzo ball soup,” he writes. “When I was approached on the street for autographs, I’d explain to them that in my job I was Barney (the then-famous purple dinosaur) for adults.” His eldest son says, in shock, “Dad, that guy has you tattooed on his arm.”

Mr. Springsteen’s work ethic has never abandoned him, or he it. “I’m glad I’ve been handsomely paid for my efforts,” he writes, “but I truly would have done it for free.”

Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner

(Eric Meola)

For most of us nine jillion Bruce Springsteen fans who’ve stood through years of his barn-burning, bombs-dropping, ceiling-­cracking, ozone-splitting three-hour mega-­extravaganza concerts, in all manner of nasty weather and good, who’ve bought and rebought album after album, who’ve pored over lyrics, mused over his complex musical and band life, as well as his privacy-shrouded marital, familial and psychic forays, and who’ve demarked sovereign occasions in our own lives with the strains of “No Surrender” running through our hectic brains — for all of us in his global audience — the perpetual fascination of Bruce (I’ve never, I give you my word, shouted that out at a performance) is simply: How the hell do you get from Freehold, N.J., to thisin only 50 short years? It’s reminiscent of the old Maine farmer who, when asked directions to the next town over the hill, allows that you can’t get there from here. Really, in Springsteen’s or anybody’s life, you can’t get there from here. But, well . . . here he is. Are we not all present to testify?

The Boss’s new autobiography, “Born to Run,” ought at its heart to penetrate and lay bare this mystery housed in a paradox. And to a great extent it nicely does.

Pretty much everybody who encountered Bruce Springsteen over the many years, from the proprietors of the gritty Upstage in ’69 Asbury Park, to the iconic Columbia hitmakers John Hammond and Clive Davis, to his ever-loyal, ever-­querulous, suffering but indispensable E Street sidemen, to Ronald Reagan, to Pete Seeger, all the way to Barack Obama, has recognized Springsteen as somebody way special — somebody who proved it all night onstage, owned major chops, was a guy you couldn’t take your eyes off, and somehow couldn’t stay mad at, even though he possessed charmingly immodest valuations of his young abilities, treated his bandmates like favored employees and could go all moody, isolated ’n’ stuff when things rubbed him the wrong way. You could say the same thing — using different words — about the Morrison brothers, Jim and Van, about Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Janis Joplin, even about Eric Burdon and no doubt the Big Bopper. They are and were all special — in their way. But “special” doesn’t get you Bruce Springsteen in front of 90,000 people for 30-plus years in 40 different countries, and still going strong as late as last Wednesday afternoon.

People who see art from the outside — from the spectator seats where we’re intended to see it — often don’t get the making of art very right. Which is a victimless crime. But it’s partly because we don’t quite get it that hosts of fans are drawn to Springsteen. His work’s entirety — the songs, the music, the guitar, the voice, the persona, the gyrations, the recitativos, the whole artifice of “the act,” or what Springsteen calls the “sum of all my parts” — is so dense, involved and ­authentic-seeming as to all but defy what we think we know about how regular human beings make things at ground level. Having been present at many of his performances, I can attest that you’re often close to being overwhelmed by what you’re hearing and seeing. It’s an experience that draws you toward itself — to taste the best and richest stuff, but also naturally enough to find things out, such as if you’re being ­deceived.

In “Born to Run,” Springsteen seems at his most actual when he’s telling us how in fact one gets to be him. He’s preoccupied by his own and his music’s “authenticity,” even though he understands that the act is ever the act. He’s close to humble about his musician’s “journeyman” status, about how rock music is at heart “escapist entertainment,” and concedes that rock ’n’ roll itself as a vehicle for ideas (always questionable to me) is in serious decline.

But he’s also straight up and smart about just what the whole Springsteen enterprise requires. Talent. O.K., that’s one. A great band behind you for all the years. Two. But also alarming self-certainty at a preposterously young age (“It is ultimately my stage,” “my band,” “my will,” “my musicians”). Near-feral discipline he’s more than willing to impose on self and anybody else in earshot — especially the band. Studious and encyclopedic knowledge of the genre and rock history. An ungodly number of irreplaceable life hours spent practicing, practicing, practicing in small, ill-lit rooms. A ruthless calculation to be nothing less than great, powered by a conviction that greatness can exist and be redeeming. A willingness to imagine himself as a dutiful and grateful avatar of his own adored fan base. An ease with his influences, teachers and heroes. An uncommon awareness of his personal frailties (“About my voice. First of all, I don’t have much of one”). A ­Picasso-like certainty that all art comes out of a “rambunctious gang feeling” born of the neighborhood. And a complex fear of failure mingled with the understanding that success is often the enemy of the very authenticity he’s seeking — so you gotta stay on your guard 24-7. Or, at least, from 1967 to now. “If you want to burn bright, hard and long,” the Boss writes, “you will need to depend upon more than your initial instincts. You will need to develop some craft and a creative intelligence that will lead you farther when things get dicey.” And if that sounds a bit too much like the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, add this: “In the beginning I knew I wanted something more than a solo act and less than a one-man-one-vote democratic band. I’d been there and it didn’t fit me. Democracy in rock bands, with very few exceptions, is often a ticking time bomb. . . . A moderate in most other aspects of my life, here I was extreme.”

So much for a band of brothers in that shining rock ’n’ roll mansion on the hill. “We all grow up,” Springsteen later adds, “and we know ‘it’s only rock ’n’ roll’ . . . but it’s not.”

It should be said, just to keep my own credibility flickering, that all this I’ve just spun out here is long and well known (probably memorized catechistically) by the great sea of Springsteen faithful. At a recent concert at the Barclays Center — attended by me, my wife, Governor Christie, Steve Earle and 18,000 strangers — the Boss brought a 10-year-old girl up onto the stage and stood by admiringly as she sang, apparently spontaneously, all the verses to “Blinded by the Light” — 547 dizzying words. Which means it’s going to be hard for most of the insider intel in “Born to Run” not to be already long-­assimilated by the ever-vigilant and protectively gimlet-eyed “Springsteen fan.” It’s also likely that if you’ve never heard of Bruce Springsteen — in whatever dark-ops lazaretto you might’ve been held captive in for four decades — you might not pick up this book at all.

Which isn’t to say that Springsteen shouldn’t have written it — if only as a love letter to his legions; or that the publishers won’t be printing money from September on. All Springsteen fans will read this book. Though it’s fair to say that “Born to Run’s” focus audience is likely us punters in the middle; those for whom “Independence Day,” “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” “Bobby Jean,” “Nebraska,” “Streets of Philadelphia,” “Hungry Heart” and “Born in the U.S.A.” have been the emotive background music — and for some of us the foreground music — of a lifetime, but who as yet haven’t dedicated our entire lives to Bruce. We’ll feel better, though, when we learn that the Boss can’t really read music, that “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Nebraska” were recorded at the same time, that Springsteen has a daughter who’s a champion equestrian, that he’s spent years in therapy, can forgive those who’ve wronged him, thinks of his career as a “service” performed for others who’re like him, and owns a supple sense of humor capable of poking fun at himself (at least when the mood’s right).

It helps that Springsteen can write — not just life-­imprinting song lyrics but good, solid prose that travels all the way to the right margin. I mean, you’d think a guy who wrote “Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night / With bruised arms and broken rhythm and a beat-up old Buick . . .” could navigate his way around a complete and creditable American sentence. And you’d be right. Oh, there are a few gassy bits here and there, a jot too much couch-inspired hooey about the “terrain inside my own head.” A tad more rock ’n’ roll highfalutin than this reader really needs — though the Bruce enthusiasts down in Sea-Clift won’t agree with me. No way. But nothing in “Born to Run” rings to me as unmeant or punch-pulling. If anything, Springsteen wants credit for telling it the way it really is and was. And like a fabled Springsteen concert — always notable for its deck-clearing thoroughness — “Born to Run” achieves the sensation that all the relevant questions have been answered by the time the lights are turned out. He delivers the story of Bruce — in digestibly short chapters — via an informally steadfast Jersey plainspeak that’s worked and deftly detailed and intimate with its readers — cleareyed enough to say what it means when it has hard stories to tell, yet supple enough to rise to occasions requiring eloquence — sometimes rather pleasingly subsiding into the syntax and rhythms of a Bruce Springsteen song: “So we all made do,” he writes about his parents’ abrupt move from Freehold to California, in 1969, leaving him behind. “My sister vanished into ‘Cowtown’ — the South Jersey hinterlands — and I pretended none of it really mattered. You were on your own — now and forever. This sealed it. Plus, a part of me was truly glad for them, for my dad. Get out, Pops! Out of this [expletive] dump.”

It’s the family parts that mean most to me in “Born to Run,” the parts that add ballast to Springsteen’s claim that when audiences see him they see themselves. Just like we’re frequently wrong about how art gets made, we also often can’t reliably say where it comes from. We might not stay interested in it very long if we could. And nothing here conveys the whole secret of how you get from Freehold, 1964, strumming a $69 Kent guitar, to the Meadowlands with a Telecaster, standing in front of a multitude. But one place art can come from is a life full of forces-­difficult-to-make-fit-together, a life that finds, in art, a providential instrument for reconciling the jagged bits. Springsteen’s part Scots-Irish, part Italian family was a caldron of these bubbling forces. A silently brooding, unsuccessful, hostile, misanthropic father (“He loved me but he couldn’t stand me”), an enormously loving mother whose first loyalty, however, was to the unhappy husband. Plus, a reticulated, extended, occasionally volatile but doting family of immigrant descendants — grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, one greaser brother-in-law — some of them, Springsteen says, with serious mental illness, “a black melancholy,” to which he himself falls heir. All of these denizens encamped within a declining, postindustrial neighborhood of poor, rented, cold-water houses, in a “one-dog burg” down in that lost part of the Garden State you never thought about until you heard the words Bruce and Springsteen in that order.

You could say of course, and again you’d be right, that this is nothing very remote from a lot of lives. Mine. Yours. Mid­century American Gothic. A “crap heap of a hometown that I loved.” But therein lies at least a hint to the magic in the Springsteen mystery: the muscular rise to the small occasion, taking forceful dominion over your poky circumstance and championing your own responses to what would otherwise seem inevitable. “Those whose love we wanted but could not get,” Springsteen writes, memorably, “we emulate. It is dangerous but it makes us feel closer, gives us an illusion of the intimacy we never had. It stakes our claim upon that which was rightfully ours but denied. In my 20s, as my song and my story began to take shape, I searched for the voice I would blend with mine to do the telling. It is a moment when through creativity and will you can rework, repossess and rebirth the conflicting voices of your childhood, to turn them into something alive, powerful and seeking light. I’m a repairman. That’s part of my job. So I, who’d never done a week’s worth of manual labor in my life . . . put on a factory worker’s clothes, my father’s clothes, and went to work.”

Seamus Heaney wrote once in a poem that the end of art is peace. But I think he’d have been willing to share the stage with Springsteen, and to admit that sometimes the end of art is also one hell of a legitimately great and soaring noise, a sound you just don’t want to end.

Richard Ford is a novelist. He teaches at Columbia University.

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