‘Born to Run’ and the Unfathomable Confessions of Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, is on a mission to deliver us into the paradox of holy terror.

Born to Run
Bruce Springsteen
Simon & Schuster
September 2017

The day Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run arrived at my door, I sat down and made this list of questions for myself before I started reading it:

1. How does Springsteen’s writing style here compare and contrast with that of his song lyrics or stage monologues?

2. Does this book contain any new information about him untapped by previous biographers?

3. Is he a self-aware individual? What are Springsteen’s virtues and what are his sins?

4. What is his mission, for the book and in his life? What kind of Catholic and what kind of political activist is he?

5. How does this book compare and contrast with the autobiographies of Bob Dylan and Patti Smith?

Then I woke up the next morning and dug in. Here are my answers:

1. How does Springsteen’s writing style here compare and contrast with that of his song lyrics or stage monologues?

A set of song lyrics necessarily has a more compressed narrative than the one afforded by a 500-page work of prose. Because the themes in Born to Run are identical to those in his songs, Springsteen’s attitude toward them in the book is indistinguishable from his mood in the songs. He strives equally for those quiet moments of reflection, nostalgia, and melancholy alongside the robust, energetic, heartening moments of glory. The reader is left with the same overall mood as when listening to one of Springsteen’s albums.

In the matter of pacing, these pages of prose stretch out at a much slower rate of unspooling than even Springsteen’s longest songs, though the pages frequently brought to mind some of the stage monologues. On stage, Springsteen is prone to several types of slow-downs: he can get so deep into telling a story that he can’t easily wrap it up, or he makes long lists of hyphenates as if a lengthening string of Shakespearean smash-word-style adjectives will get him closer to conveying the fullest possible meaning. He often raises and lowers his vocal projection to mimic preachers in an effort to recapture the band’s alertness before counting off the next song. All three of these rhetorical moves are present in Born to Run, and it’s sometimes jarring to see them rendered on the page. I’m declining to provide specific quotations here, as examples of each rhetorical strategy will be evident as I move through the other more content-based questions.

For the story-telling deep-dive, well, that’s why people want to buy Born to Run – his audience is full of completists who want every little detail. Springsteen is by turns both funny and moving, but the entertainer in him often goes front and center when he gets anxious or shy about a good nugget of fresh information so that some of the best stories kind of end up concealing more than the reveal. Over and over again, Born to Run adds more mysteries than it solves, largely because Springsteen would rather talk about his feelings about whatever happened than state what it was that happened. He describes his songwriting effort on Greetings from Asbury Park in a manner that transfers easily to this book: “Most of the songs were twisted autobiographies. […] I wrote impressionistically and changed names to protect the guilty. I worked hard to find something that was identifiably mine” (177). Born to Run is similarly twisted, for better and for worse.

The long strings of adjectives and the changes in volume don’t translate easily from stage to page. They have the nice effect of feeling like a concert, but readers may find that Springsteen occasionally resembles a shouty old grandpa. He conveys high-volume phrases by WRITING THEM IN ALL CAPS! And there are very, very many exclamation points! There are also many sentence fragments strung out with ellipses to convey some sense of pausing for reflection and grasping at the straws of one’s inner life. Coming out of his mouth, all these devices seem quite natural. But to punctuate the pages in this way is rather clunky. I suppose the editors felt that Springsteen earned his poetic license, but there’s no real reason they couldn’t have cleaned up the copy with italicization and some less attention-hogging punctuation. It’s well known that Springsteen was not a particularly good student; certainly he would appreciate that his ability to tell a story can benefit from touching up some of the grammatical false moves.

There’s something very interesting going on, syntactically speaking, that’s in stark contrast to his declarative style of songwriting. In Born to Run, Springsteen often puts the subject of a sentence at the end, as opposed to the beginning. He engages regularly in the use of passive voice that has the double effect of creating an ornate style of verbiage while distancing actions from their agents. This florid sentence structure often has echoes of the biblical, with some “delivered unto us a son”-type language. It also relieves a variety of bandmates from owning their mistakes, with some “complaining was going on about this and that” where readers don’t find out until the end of the sentence who was doing the complaining, and sometimes Springsteen omits the agents altogether by indulging in substantial tangents about his feelings that never circle back to the report of events.

The total effect of these style choices is that the voice in Born to Run resembles that of the Boss we’ve come to know and love. He knows how to sound like himself, either on the page or on stage. There’s no way a ghostwriter penned any part of this book. It doesn’t always look pretty or flow smoothly on the page, but it draws power from the same sources as Springsteen’s songwriting and stagecraft always have, so it will no doubt please his fans. “Most of my writing is emotionally autobiographical,” he reflects (267).

2. Does this book contain any new information about him untapped by previous biographers?

My instinct is to say no, but this is in large part a matter of what a reader can appreciate as “new” or as “information” or as “untapped”. As far as the main narrative thrusts and the facts of his circumstances, nothing much in this book is untapped material. Peter Ames Carlin’s Bruce is barely five years old, so it’s not as if there’s much to update in the way of the life Springsteen has lived since the last “definitive” biography. I finally got to learn that the bike he crashed was a Yamaha, so there are some additional fine lines drawn on already widely circulated portraits of his life, but not a wealth of previously untold stories that round out or give fresh angles to a reader’s sense of who Springsteen truly is.

The best elements tend to be those where he gives insight into his daily life as a musician or his everyman milestones. His first chord shape was an E-minor, on “Greensleeves”. His first electric guitar was actually “an old Gibson six-string bass with guitar strings” (97). He played it for quite a while before some more experienced guitarist complemented Springsteen on a choice that he presumed had been deliberate. In matters of skill, he confesses, “I still can’t read music to this day” (42). Most amusingly, readers learn that all his early albums’ fascination with car talk was not based in any substantive firsthand experience. Even “at twenty-one my transportation was a bicycle or my thumb. […] When I say I didn’t drive, I mean I DID NOT KNOW HOW. […] There would be no ‘racing in the street’ for me for a few years” (125). I’ve often wondered why Springsteen chose automobiles over motorcycles for his road symbolism, since he actually knew more about bikes than cars until he was about 30, but I suppose he generally shoots for whatever will be most universal.

This is nothing like the tell-all memoirs of many rockers who’ve been around the block for 40 years. Springsteen sticks to the straight and narrow, claiming to have avoided all drugs except alcohol. He writes that “sobriety became a religion of sorts” for him and that “I’d seen my dad and that was enough. I wasn’t looking for outside stimulants to help me lose or find anything. Music was going to get me as high as I needed to go” (283, 117). What he got from his father in this regard, he gave back in quite another with this funny little tidbit: “Through using the same facilities at the apartment, all I left behind for my pops was a case of crabs I picked up somewhere along the way” (164). Still, aside from some vague allusions to a more free-wheeling sexual past, this gentleman does not kiss and tell.

On the other hand, if Springsteen’s feelings can be classified as information, then there’s a tremendous amount of information in Born to Run. The press has seized upon one primary feeling-fact in this book: the Boss gets depressed. Though this qualifies as “new” since Springsteen has not opened up about it until now, I would argue that it’s both spoiled by the roll-out of the book’s publicity and in and of itself an unsurprising fact. Because Born to Run is extensively rooted in Springsteen’s feelings, it conveys a more nuanced sense of his depression than his pre-publication interviews. Still, the depth of conversation around this element of Born to Run ultimately undercuts the specificity with which he is able to treat it in the book itself. Readers will likely sense that this is ground already decently covered by Born to Run’s publicity; the business end of Springsteen’s operation soft launched the topic too successfully in the press for the content of the text to be let to do its own work.

It’s a bigger issue that the depression reveal is unsurprising. I’ve previously cracked that anybody who’s listened to the Nebraska album will not be shocked to learn that the Boss sometimes feels a deep and chaotic sadness. Of course, depression is unquestionably a very serious, often paralyzing mental illness. Raising awareness about its existence, its impact and its treatment is a highly valuable cultural endeavor. It’s undeniably good that someone with as much star power as Springsteen is willing to publicly own and share his experiences with depression so that we can all be more socially conscious people toward him and those that suffer similarly. But I still have questions.

Why does he situate his depression primarily as something occurring in his 60s, instead of tracing its life-long arc, especially given that he admits to going to therapy for it since at least his 40s? Why doesn’t he devote more than a paragraph to a discussion of how he has treated it with medication or give descriptions as to the nature of his therapy and how it has worked for him? Why does he allude to such dark depths and the rock bottom of it all but then stop short of any discussion whatsoever of suicide, declining even to use the word? These are tremendous missed opportunities for education and empowerment; I’d venture to guess that the same people who turn to his music as their medicine are turning to this book for same and that many of them could use the full weight of his knowledge on the issue.

Understandably, these are painful and personal topics. Well, that’s true of 90 percent of causes the Boss has taken up in his work over the past 40 years (the remaining ten percent is girls and cars). I’m not asking for the inclusion of grist for the gossip mill or divulgence of his specific, individual nightmares; I’m saying that if Springsteen finally felt ready to share this element of his experience, he should have held himself to the same standards for an emotional deep dive that he has with other serious societal ills that have been just as profoundly personal to him. It may be difficult to write about the black fog of depression when it’s not upon him, but in the same vein, he’s been fabulously wealthy for decades now and doesn’t have much trouble writing about the plight of working-class people with proper pathos. In his treatment of the subject of depression, Springsteen has far more power at his disposal than he chose to use.