Magazine | December 31, 2016, Issue

Working Man’s Bard

Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster, 528 pp., $32.50)

Springsteen, The Boss. Bruuuuuce. A lot of hyperbolic ink has been spilled over this man through the years, so I’m going to walk it back a little and say that, at base level, Bruce Springsteen is a songwriter whose grasp of musical and lyrical economy is unusual in the often excessive world of rock ’n’ roll. His catalogue boasts a number of tight, enduring records: Born to Run, The River, Nebraska, Born in the U.S.A., and The Rising, among others.

There is, of course, another side to Springsteen — what we might call the “Prove It All Night” side: the Springsteen of four-hour concerts and wall-of-sound bluster courtesy of his longtime backing group, the E Street Band. Springsteen’s new memoir, in its exhaustive — and exhausting — 500-plus pages, has more in common with this live, “all-in” approach than with the carefully polished vignettes he puts down in the studio. Fans will no doubt find it exhilarating from start to finish, but casual readers lured by the promise of rock-’n’-roll lore may find themselves wailing and gnashing their teeth by the time they reach the section devoted to the inner workings of Bruce’s horse farm. The writing is amateurish in places: Springsteen has a fondness for exclamation points and emphasizing things in all caps! (Not to mention the gratuitous use of parenthetical asides.) But in other respects he demonstrates a natural ease with prose. It is certainly gratifying to read a celebrity memoir that bears no trace of a ghostwriter.

Springsteen’s chief distinguishing feature as a songwriter is his ability to wrest poetry out of everyday experience, and this might be the reason he has become an icon for so many listeners. His songs recast the struggles, joys, and sorrows of working people in heroic terms. He brings this same sensibility to bear in his memoir, portraying, for instance, his humble neighborhood Catholic church as a place of high-stakes spiritual drama:

The priests and nuns themselves are creatures of great authority and unknowable sexual mystery. As both my flesh-and-blood neighbors and our local bridge to the next life, they exert a hard influence over our daily existence. Both everyday and otherworldly, they are the neighborhood gatekeepers of a dark and beatific world I fear and desire entrance to. . . . It’s a world where all you have is at risk . . . a world where men turn into gods and gods into devils.

When he slips into this mode, whether describing religion, his construction-working brother-in-law, or a particularly good rock guitarist, the book soars.

A number of music critics have noted that Springsteen’s catalogue seems to disregard the creative innovations of the 1960s and instead builds directly from the foundational elements of early rock ’n’ roll: a strong backbeat, solid but un-showy guitar riffs, lyrics about girls, cars, good times and bad — all of this delivered with enough conviction and intelligence that you begin to wonder why anyone thought anything else was necessary. We learn in the book that Springsteen himself was very much a fan of the psychedelic music of the 1960s and mastered that style of playing early on, but he came to understand that his audience — initially, the mostly Italian- and Irish-descended working-class people of New Jersey — demanded a different approach.

“Except for their Top 40 hits, the bohemian poses of the Stones or their other Sixties brethren held little relevance to these kids’ experience,” Springsteen writes. “Who could afford that? You had to fight, struggle, work, protect what was yours.” He saw more than a little of himself in his listeners. “I was a faux hippie,” he states. “The counterculture stood by definition in opposition to the conservative blue-collar experience I’d had.”

So Springsteen’s way forward was to write what he knew — what he saw in the lives of all of his family and friends — and in so doing, he gave voice to a large swath of the population that had not hitherto seen itself represented in the music of the era: the many who had not turned on, tuned in, dropped out, and/or gone to California but had instead stayed at their jobs or gotten drafted. Springsteen, himself a draft dodger, misfit, and political liberal, became an Everyman hero to these people because of his ability to convey their experience in song. Like Dylan and Steinbeck before him, he has been largely successful at subordinating his ideological concerns to the needs of character and narrative, which have grounded even some of his most radical statements, such as the 2012 album Wrecking Ball, in stories of recognizable people and situations.

This brings us to the subject of drugs. Springsteen never touched them and didn’t have his first drink until the age of 22. His tight rein on reality almost certainly contributed to the groundedness of his lyrics, but one could be forgiven for wondering whether such restraint might have posed a challenge in the composition of his book. After all, the lack of an epic battle with substance abuse would seem to rob Born to Run of one of the key ingredients of the rock-memoir genre. Can you have a romantic comedy without a love interest, or a murder mystery without a dead body? But never fear! Just as the remaining four senses will compensate if one is lacking, so too has Bruce managed to train-wreck other areas of his life in the absence of a stint in rehab. Thus, we are treated in the book to an abundance of family conflict, relationship drama, musical rivalries, and Springsteen’s battle with mental illness — a particularly surprising revelation given his upbeat tough-guy persona.

There is more than enough dramatic tension at hand to keep the pace moving briskly, at least until Springsteen’s father dies at the three-fourths mark, which closes the door on the largely oppositional relationship that constitutes the book’s major arc. Springsteen writes movingly of his hard-won reconciliation with his remote, troubled dad, but after that he’s left a bit adrift — both in his actual life and in the telling of it. The various conflicts and agitations accompanying the second coming of the E Street Band in the early 2000s do not carry nearly as much interest for this reader as they obviously did for Springsteen.

For all of its excesses and occasional dead ends, Born to Run succeeds in its stated objective of showing the reader its author’s mind. More crucially, it provides a detailed explanation of how and why Springsteen became the songwriter he is. Very few of his peers can articulate the workings of their craft to the degree that Springsteen does here, so the book’s greatest value may be as a sort of how-to manual for the next generation of aspiring pop composers. At the close of the book, as at the end of one of those four-hour concerts, most of the audience will likely have found its rewards worth the time invested.

– Mr. Lurie is the author of We Can Be Heroes: The Radical Individualism of David Bowie.

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