‘Born To Run’ by Bruce Springsteen
Simon & Schuster; $49.99
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Bruce Springsteen could sell water to a well. He’s a huckster, a hustler, a showman, and the self-appointed heir to a lineage of working-class boys who’ve made rock ’n’ roll their means of escape by dint of will as much as talent. He’s a star who performs in a factory man’s clothes but has never worked a manual job in his life. “I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud,” he writes, in the opening sentence of his new memoir. “So am I.” Somehow his admissions only add to the surplus of his charm.
Born To Run is not a book that will win converts to the Springsteen cause, but at this stage he hardly needs them. It is written with an eye to the fans, of whom he is vividly aware, and who find in Springsteen’s music and especially in his live shows the thrill of escape, along with an assurance that the ordinary life holds dignity.
In Springsteen’s telling, it was Elvis Presley’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 that gave him a first glimpse of the “heart-changing” power of music. He was seven years old then, and went the very next day with his mother to the local instrument shop in Freehold, New Jersey, to rent a guitar. That first foray into musicianship didn’t last long (“It was TOO FUCKIN’ HARD!”), but the ember kept on smouldering. The Beatles, also on The Ed Sullivan Show, set him ablaze again in 1964. Springsteen served a long apprenticeship in various bands – one, Steel Mill, was a regional success – before signing a deal with Columbia Records in 1972.
But the route out of small-town obscurity and into the blazing light of stardom is only one part of this book’s story. The greater drama that Springsteen has to tell is of the lifelong struggle between his best and worst impulses. He is the proud, damaged son of an emotionally distant and volatile father, half-afraid and half-certain that he has inherited a tendency to hurt the most important people in his life, especially the women. His mother and paternal grandmother tried to protect him, as a child, from his father’s rage; his second wife, Patti Scialfa, a musician and fellow member of his long-running E Street Band, helped to save him from himself. The electric current that joins Springsteen’s formidable self-belief to his self-destructive tendencies hums through his best songs. He is a great chronicler of the sort of masculinity that finds its theatre on the state highways and in the small bars of America, where men might become exiles but also, just maybe, find redemption.
Anwen Crawford is the Monthly’s music critic and the author of Live Through This.