The most vivid passages of Born to Run recall a childhood that the author seems to have recognized as lost to him almost as soon as he could form a memory of it. Bruce Springsteen grew up “pretty near poor” in Freehold Borough, New Jersey, living with his siblings and grandparents, a mentally ill, alcoholic Irish American factory worker father, and a Italian American legal-secretary mother in an increasingly decrepit old house that was heated by a single kerosene stove in the living room.
The young Bruce is pressed into an impossible and damaging role within an ancient family trauma: “Because I was the first grandchild, my grandmother latched on to me to replace my dead aunt,” who at age five had been hit and killed by a truck, many years before Bruce’s birth. By the time he started school, hopelessly spoiled, Bruce already felt like a “lost boy king,” required to enter “a world where I am not recognized, by my grandmother’s lights and my own, for who I am,” “forcibly exiled daily” from the family house, this “place where I felt an ultimate security, full license and a horrible unforgettable boundary-less love.” Later, after he became famous, Springsteen would often drive late at night back to his old neighborhood, brooding over the “the grinding hypnotic power” of his lost home, puzzling over what his life there had really meant.
Springsteen defines his musical career as in part an attempt to conjure up a replacement for the lost security, license, and “boundary-less love” of that disordered household. Seeing Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956 gave a young Bruce a first glimpse of “ANOTHER WORLD … the one below your waist and above your heart … A world that had been previously and rigorously denied was being PROVEN TO EXIST! It was a world with all of us in it … together … all of us.” The music he came to love—by Elvis, the Drifters, Sam Cooke, Roy Orbison—“longed for some honest place, some place of one’s own … the movies, downtown, uptown, up on the roof, under the boardwalk, … out of sight, somewhere above or below the harsh glare of the adult world.” For this exiled “lost boy king,” rock and roll would define a new territory where he would eventually regain his crown as a beloved democratic sovereign, “The Boss.”
Springsteen resembles his 1980s peer Madonna more than most of his fans would guess or allow.
Born to Run has been justly celebrated as probably as good and rewarding a memoir as anyone could have hoped for from this author. As he is in his songwriting, Springsteen is a powerfully engaging writer as long as you don’t mind some schmaltz and cliché (and RANDOMLY CAPITALIZED PHRASES) folded into vivid storytelling, an intuitive feel for the demotic, and a well-honed flair for a kind of homegrown American opera. Springsteen’s songs are populated by colorful characters who seem sprung from a mix of his own experiences and his memories of West Side Story (or, later, Woody Guthrie songs). In his early albums, when he was working a New Jersey brand of Dylanesque storytelling, figures like Crazy Janey, Go-Kart Mozart, Spanish Johnny, Broadway Mary, and Bad Scooter race the Jersey streets, fuck and fight, and dare to aspire to something more than what the world normally allows for working-class American kids from nowhere important.
The memoir becomes much more than the celebrity victory lap it might have been in part because of its powerful depiction of the author’s struggles with ambivalence, regret and shame, and, eventually, debilitating clinical depression. In the song’s exhilarating rush, it used to be easy to miss the observation in “Born to Run” that “Together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness.” After reading this memoir, that stands out as the song’s defining line.
Springsteen wrestles with two paradoxes in particular throughout his career. First, that the sense of joyful community his music evokes may be something real for his fans, but it often feels to him like a heartfelt but fleeting theatrical effect, something less than genuine. The book’s telling first lines are “I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I.” As he enters a life of endless touring and recording, no stable home base, and a succession of temporary girlfriends, “the road was always a perfect cover; transient detachment was the nature of the game. … During the show, as good as it is, as real as the emotions called on are, as physically moving and as hopefully inspirational as I work to make it, it’s fiction, theater, a creation; it isn’t reality.” A rock band is “a house of dreams, of illusions, delusions, of role-playing and artist-audience transference.” Odd as it may sound to say it about this quintessentially blue-collar rocker, his music is structured by an aestheticist commitment to being “unreal”—and even fake. In this regard, Springsteen resembles his 1980s peer Madonna more than most of his fans would guess or allow.
As Springsteen becomes an increasingly well-rewarded stage director of the E Street Band’s traveling show, he begins to recognize a second paradox of his career. The very passion, obsession, and tireless labor he brings to his music reveal themselves as symptoms of his inability fully to experience or enjoy any other aspect of life. “I finally realized one of the reasons my records took so long to make was I had nothing else to do, nothing else I felt comfortable doing. Why not, as Sam Cooke sang, take ‘all night … all night … all night”? … ‘Get in the groove and let the good times roll, we gonna stay here ’til we soothe our soul.’ ’Til we soothe our soul … that could take a while.”
Compared to the other major pop superstars of the 1980s, Springsteen can seem an icon of regressive white masculinity. Where Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bowie, and Prince were all avatars of a new post-Warhol, shape-shifting, queer celebrity, Springsteen appears (as critic Robert Christgau already had put it in a 1980 review) a throwback, “too white and too male” and too straight. While some of his peers were nudging the Top 40 into a gender-fluid, multicultural future, and even as his own progressive politics came more explicitly to the fore, Springsteen became in the 1980s a hero of a conservative album-oriented rock (AOR) radio ideology that defined itself as the “real,” authentic, white counterpart to the purportedly “plastic,” artificial pleasures of post-disco pop and R&B.
Springsteen had originally hoped that his music would embody what he viewed as rock and roll’s historical project of blurring racial and gender lines in a polyglot American musical fusion. Of course, such a fusion can look, from a different angle, more like simple appropriation of the music and labor of unheralded black and female artists. The famous cover photo of 1975’s Born to Run, depicting the Boss leaning affectionately on the shoulder of the band’s only African American member—much-loved longtime saxophonist Clarence Clemons, the “Big Man”—neatly captured the ideal of cross-racial collaboration even as it had begun to seem altogether factitious. “Since the inception of our band it’s been our ambition to play for everyone,” he admits; “We’ve achieved a lot but we haven’t achieved that. Our audience remains tribal … that is, predominantly white.” Critic Ann Powers observes that the shift in rock and roll’s racial makeup, from the likes of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley in the 1950s to AOR radio in the 1980s, “from black to singularly interracial to white,” is in fact “embedded in Springsteen’s sound”1—and the memoir expresses flashes of regret—if not a truly full accounting—on Springsteen’s part for his own complicity in this transformation.
Although one need shed no tears for the revered Springsteen—who was awarded a Medal of Freedom by President Obama last November and who, with the help of years of therapy and antidepressants, eventually found his way to an apparently stable and happy marriage—the memoir does conclude on a bittersweet note as he acknowledges the waning of rock and roll as a central American cultural form. Born to Run can be read as the story of the Last Culture-Defining Rock Star—or perhaps the next-to-last one, awaiting Kurt Cobain’s smashing of the category like an expensive guitar. (RIP the Rock Star, circa 1955–1995.) Back in the 1970s, Springsteen writes, “We weren’t aiming for a few successful records … We were aiming for impact, for influence … We … knew rock music was now a culture shaper. I wanted to collide with the times and create a voice that had musical, social and cultural impact.” He achieved that goal, but his account of his career since the 1980s suggests a gradual, melancholy acceptance of the decline not only of his own role, but also that of rock music more generally, as a major shaper of culture. When the E Street Band plays the Super Bowl halftime show in 2009, Springsteen writes, “I looked out and sang ‘Promised Land’ to the audience I intended it for, young people, old people, black, white, brown, cutting across religious and class lines. That’s who I’m singing to today. Today we play for everyone.”
But when he releases Wrecking Ball in 2012, “a shot of anger at the injustice [of] … capitalism gone wild at the expense of hardworking Americans,” which he considered one of his best albums since Born in the USA (and he’s right, it’s good; “Death to My Hometown” could be a lost anthem by the Pogues or the Mekons), he’s disappointed by the politely restrained reception it receives. “I came to terms with the fact that in the States, the power of rock music as a vehicle for these ideas had diminished.” If that joyfully inclusive, imaginary place “with all of us in it … together” still does exist somewhere, “up on the roof, under the boardwalk,” it now has a different kind of soundtrack. In retrospect, it can seem strange that the iconic figure of the Rock Star was able to reign for so long, in the late 20th century, as a purportedly universalizing figure who also happened to be, inevitably, always a young-to-middle-age white man. If anyone can claim to “play for everyone” today—and it may be that no one really can—it’s probably Beyoncé.
- See Ann Powers, “The Limits of Loving the Boss,” NPR.org, October 4, 2016. On how rock and roll became white, see also Jack Hamilton’s Just around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2016). ↩