Bruce Springsteen's Riveting New Autobiography
Bruce Springsteen has said that he penned all of his moving new autobiography himself—no cowriter or ghostwriter—and anyone who has heard his between-song concert monologues or his 2012 SXSW speech will believe him. This is the same storytelling, exclamation-point-using, self-deprecating, and sometimes funny voice we know from the stage patter.
You can hear echoes of some of his songs here, too. For example, when Springsteen recalls his Freehold High School years and says, “There were harsh words spoken between two cars at a South Street light and a gun was fired into a car full of black kids,” fans will immediately conjure up the lyrics to “My Hometown.”
But this book doesn’t simply give us more of the Springsteen we’ve already met. As you know if you read my collection of his interviews, he has been unusually forthright over the years about his personal life and career, but Born to Run adds a wealth of intimate detail about both—and some major surprises. Springsteen talks candidly about his relationship with his supportive mother, his marriages, and his career struggles. Most notably, we learn that his father was not simply difficult but mentally ill, and that Bruce himself has struggled with intense depression, including one bout in recent years that apparently left him contemplating suicide.
This sad news serves as a reminder, if anyone needs it, that mental illness has nothing to do with logic. Here’s a guy who has achieved incredible heights in his career, has great wealth and a loving family, and has brought happiness to millions. Yet sometimes he is miserable. Even he doesn’t really know why, but he certainly knows how to describe the feeling.
He also does a good job of limning his classic rags-to-riches story. In early chapters, he talks of cold-water flats, unheated bedrooms, a house without a phone, and a life that was pretty much bounded by the borders of his hometown. For a long time, he couldn’t afford much of anything; at one point, he had trouble scraping together the dollar toll needed to drive into Manhattan. In later years, of course, Springsteen found himself in another universe, meeting with accountants, flying on private jets, and buying assorted real estate, including a horse farm.
One of the book’s many strengths is the honesty that permeates it. Though he has nothing but lavish praise for his wife and a few others, Springsteen often balances positive comments with criticism when he talks about assorted friends, associates, and bandmates, and he’s the same way about himself. He has justifiably high regard for his own musical talents, but he doesn’t hesitate to spell out his shortcomings. In fact, he’s sometimes harder on himself here than anyone else, his father included.
One thing we never quite learn is where that immense talent came from. How did a kid who played so-so garage rock to audiences of a few dozen in the Castilles wind up as arguably the best live performer in the history of rock ’n’ roll? And how did he manage to write such masterpieces as “The River,” “Badlands,” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” to name a few? The best the book can come up with are a lot of tales that ultimately just reminded me of an old joke: Q. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” A. “Practice.” Springsteen did practice as hard as anyone—but of course his accomplishments required something more. They required some kind of magic.
So did the writing of this book. I’ve encountered some excellent musician memoirs over the years—Keith Richards’s Life and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles come to mind—but Born to Run is in a class of its own. Whether you’re interested in reading about rock and roll or about the inner life of one of its best practitioners, you won’t be disappointed. As Springsteen says near the end, “in a project like this, the writer has made one promise: to show the reader his mind.” He delivers on that promise with a book that is as impressive in its own way as the album of the same name.
I can’t speak quite as glowingly about the deftly titled Chapter & Verse CD, which is billed as an “audio companion” to the book. Containing 18 selections from throughout Springsteen’s career, it includes five previously unreleased early numbers, plus the demo recording of “Growin’ Up” that first surfaced on the Tracks box set and such later landmarks as “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” “Badlands,” “The River,” “The Rising,” and, of course, “Born to Run.”
Serious fans will want the early stuff, if only because it shows just how far Springsteen has come. “Baby I” and Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover,” by the Castilles, are energetic but ultimately run-of-the-mill period garage rock—the sort of material that would have appeared on one of the Nuggets collections if it were a little more distinctive. Bruce’s guitar and Danny Federici’s organ enliven Springsteen’s “He’s Guilty (The Judge Song)” but we’re still in amateur-hour territory, with little hint of how far the group’s leader would travel. The country-rock-tinged “Ballad of Jesse James,” by an early version of the E Street Band, is better constructed and more compelling—a step closer to the sound that would emerge on Springsteen’s first two albums. “Henry Boy,” which features only Bruce’s vocal and guitar, sounds like an outtake from his debut LP.
If you’re interested enough in Springsteen to read his autobiography, I suspect you don’t need me to tell you that the rest of the music on Chapter & Verse is great; indeed, you probably already own most or all of it. And that’s the problem with this package: though you can buy MP3s of the five early tracks, you’ll likely have to purchase songs you already own in order to get CD-quality copies of those numbers. (This is the same situation fans faced with Springsteen’s Greatest Hits and 18 Tracks, both of which coupled a few new selections to material many fans had already purchased.) I’m glad to have the five rare old recordings here, but I wish they’d been offered separately on an EP, perhaps bundled with the autobiography. Like many fans, I already had a shelf-full of “audio companions” to the book before Chapter & Verse came along.
Jeff Burger’s books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, and Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters. His website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary.