‘Born to Run’: The Unfathomable Confessions of Bruce Springsteen

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

The day this book 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 of the book are essentially identical to the themes 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, and 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 the book, 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 the book — 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, in large part because Springsteen would rather talk about his feelings about whatever happened than actually stating 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, of grasping at the straws of one’s own 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 has earned his poetic license, but there’s no real reason why 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 the book, 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 absolutely resembles that of the Boss we’ve come to know and love. He knows how to sound like himself, either on page or stage. There’s no way any part of this book was penned by a ghostwriter. 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 does qualify as “new” in the sense that 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 also in and of itself an unsurprising fact. Because the book is very extensively rooted in Springsteen’s feelings, it does convey a more nuanced sense of his depression than his pre-publication interviews. Still, the depth of conversation around this element of the book ultimately undercuts the specificity with which he is able to treat it in the book itself. Readers will likely have a sense that this is ground already decently covered by the book’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 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.

The Terrible Freedom

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

Yes, Springsteen is self-aware. “It is my nature to ‘dissemble’ (a.k.a. fuck up), then bring roses, blow kisses and do backward somersaults in a manic frenzy trying to charm my way out of the hole I’ve dug. That’s no good with kids (or a wife either)” (391). He’s aware of the perils of rock stardom at large. “The failure of so many of rock’s artists to outlive their expiration date of a few years […] I felt was due to the misfit nature of those drawn to the profession. These were strong, addictive personalities, fired by compulsion, narcissism, license, passion and inbred entitlement, all slammed over a world of fear, hunger and insecurity” (213). Springsteen would exercise as much caution as he could, given that his major weaknesses were also his primary strengths. “I worried, but in the end my ego, ambition and fear of not taking my shot outweighed my insecurity” (224).

He’d been skating along this double-edged sword since he was born, wrestling with the “terrible freedom” of his younger years: “In this house, due to order of birth and circumstance, I was lord, king, and messiah all rolled into one. […] Our ruin of a house and my own eccentricities and power shamed and embarrassed me” (10). Of course, one page later: “The grinding hypnotic power of this ruined place and these people would never leave me. […] It ruined me and it made me” (11). His first encounter with the dangers of charisma was his own grandfather, holding a crisp dollar bill in one hand the “pinch of death” for Springsteen’s cheeks in the other. “He was exciting, scary, theatrical, self-mythologizing, bragging… like a rock star!” (21-22). His family gave him his purpose and then Elvis gave him the motivation. “I don’t know whether [Elvis] thought about the broader implications of his actions. I do know this is what he did: he lived a life he was driven to live and brought forth the truth that was within him and the possibilities within us” (41).

As Springsteen worked on his craft, every fear and shortcoming would be turned into fodder for his career, polishing his personal turds into recording gold. “At the first sound of thunder, I caterwauled until my parents would take me in the car until the storm subsided. I then proceeded to write about cars for the rest of my life” (26). “When my sister first heard [“The River”], she came backstage, gave me a hug and said, ‘That’s my life.’ That’s still the best review I ever got. My beautiful sister, tough and unbowed, K-Mart employee, wife and mother of three, holding fast and living the life that I ran from with everything I had” (279).

One of the main reasons for running that threads through the songs has always been the hope of not turning out like his father. “Over the years I had come to the realization that there was a part of me, a significant part, that was capable of great carelessness and emotional cruelty, that sought to reap damage and harvest shame, that wanted to wound and hurt and make sure those who loved me paid for it. It was all straight out of the old man’s playbook” (357). But through most of Born to Run, there’s quite a thorough effort to undercut all that, sitting somewhere between a soft-hearted walk-back and actually making peace. “I haven’t been completely fair to my father in my songs, treating him as an archetype of the neglecting, domineering parent” (26). When they get together to try to patch up some of their long, awkward, fearsome history together, it doesn’t stick. “Our stop at Long Beach flopped. I was a punk, grumbling my way through the whole Queen Mary tour. My dad’s journey on this ship was probably one of the most meaningful in his life and I couldn’t respect it. I’d give anything now to be able to walk that ship with my father again” (163).

And because he didn’t make it stick, now it aches. His father did, once toward the end of his life, try explicitly to acknowledge his own fault in the matter. Springsteen attempts to pay that moment forward. “I can’t lay it all at my pop’s feet; plenty of it is my own weakness and inability at this late date to put it all away, my favorite harpies, the ones I count on to return to flit and nibble around the edges of my beautiful reward” (413). That’s as good as it gets. In talking about social healing after Vietnam, he reflects “To move forward, we’d have to willingly bear the weight of our unreconciled past” (209). So there’s Springsteen with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, both wearing the same face.

The sins of his father still rest upon him, and some of that weight indeed transfers to his own kids, despite Springsteen’s best efforts to the contrary. “[Jess] captures a green ribbon and places sixth. The ride home is quiet as she sits in her riding gear, mysteriously humming. We tell her how well she did, how proud we are. She says nothing. Then, from the musical quiet in the backseat come two questions: ‘What was the name of the girl who won?’ and ‘What did she do to win?’” (384). Just like her father. “I came up against some real talent [in California] and held my own, but the band that took us out at the Family Dog stayed with me. […] It’s not that I didn’t expect to come up against superior talent; that happens, it’s the way God planned it. […] I was concerned with not maximizing my own abilities, not having a broad or intelligent enough vision of what I was capable of” (137-8). Springsteen is keenly aware of his own shortcomings in the workaholic image he presented to his children, but has done his best to make good. “While I may never lay claim to the title of ‘father of the year,’ I worked hard to get straight with those who depended on my nearness to nurture and guide them” (392).

To his credit, he gives all the credit to Patti Scialfa. She arrives on page 322, almost the precise center of the book and the fierce gravitational pull that brings the Boss down to real reality for the first and final time in his life. “[Patti] knew I was no white knight (perhaps a dark gray night at best)” (350-351). She gave him an ultimatum and he acquiesced — he stayed. His description of the arrival of their first born son sounds like baby Jesus. “CITIZENS OF LOS ANGELES: EVAN JAMES SPRINGSTEEN IS BORN. A SON OF NEW JERSEY, BORN IN EXILE, HERE IN BABYLON! […] We are huddled together with seven pounds and eleven ounces of living proof” (368). The holiness of his second marriage is balanced by the terror and sadness of his first marriage. “I deeply cared for Julianne and her family and my poor handling of [the separation] is something I regret to this day” (351).

If his family, while growing up, was the source of chaos, and the family he made for himself was a source of frightening responsibility, the refuge was always in his band. Springsteen exercised maximum control, for better and for worse. “I’d declared democracy and band names dead after Steel Mill. I was leading the band, playing, singing and writing everything we did. If I was going to carry the workload and responsibility, I might as well assume the power. […] I look back on this as being one of the smartest decisions of my young life. […] I crafted a benevolent dictatorship” (149-150). For the E Street Band, he was “mayor, judge, jury and sheriff” (199). “I needed disciples,” he writes, but ultimately, “This would prove to be an Achilles’ heel and in the future, after some costly enmeshments, I’d let it go” (253).

Blessedly, Springsteen knows all about himself and shares in this book the basic human problem that our virtues are generally identical to our vices, and succeeds at laughing at himself a little bit. “Of course I thought I was a phony — that is the way of the artist — but I also thought I was the realest thing you’d ever seen. I had a huge ego, and I’d built up the talent and craft to pursue my ambitions with years of playing experience and study. I had my doubts and I had a sense of humor about the balls I had and the big bite I was trying to take, but damn, that’s where the fun was, and… I was a natural. It was in my bones” (169). But after some sunny laughs over the fragility of human nature, after turning fault into fruit as often as he can manage, the sun still sets. “You can move on, with a heart stronger in the places it’s been broken, create new love. You can hammer pain and trauma into a righteous sword and use it in defense of life, love, human grace and God’s blessings. But nobody gets a do-over. Nobody gets to go back and there’s only one road out. Ahead, into the dark” (297).

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

The use of a Unitarian minister in the wedding ceremony with Scialfa not withstanding, it’s commonly accepted as fact that Springsteen is Catholic. He sometimes slides in and out of verb tenses when referencing religion, so that the book is by turns dismissively vague and precisely ambivalent about whether he was one or is one. He’s also fond of holding these contradictions in the same breath, for example, when looking back on one of his most treacherous surfing experiences. “I nearly drowned in a hurricane surf I should never have been out in. […] I paddled like a windmill, immediately rediscovering my faith in Catholicism as I prayed like never before: ‘Lord, please let me slip over the peak of this monster.’ […] I lay there for a long time, breathing in gulps, my heart pounding, thanking the God I did not believe in” (148).

Springsteen is the doubting kind. On the one hand: “As funny as it sounds, I have a ‘personal’ relationship with Jesus. He remains one of my fathers, though as with my own father, I no longer believe in his godly power. I believe deeply in his love, his ability to save… but not to damn… enough of that” (17). And on the other hand, on the very same page: “I came to ruefully and bemusedly understand that once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic. So I stopped kidding myself. I don’t often participate in my religion but I know somewhere… deep inside… I’m still on the team” (17). This applies not only to his religious life, but to the politics of his work. “Along with (when necessary) supreme confidence, doubt and all of its many manifestations is in my wheelhouse. You work that right and it’s a blessing. You work it wrong and you’re paralyzed. Doubt can be the starting point for deeper critical thought. It can keep you from selling yourself and your audience short and it can bring you hard down to Earth if needed” (427).

While his faith in religious practice may be lapsed or shot through with doubt, his commitment to the rhetorical mode of belief-based mission itself never waivers. He talks like a preacher. Even when he undercuts or downplays his personal faith, his diction stays firmly rooted in the Biblical. The opening chapter of Born to Run explicitly connects his writing to the notion of church, ending with, “Let the service begin” (7). Early on, he found miracles in the pastoral care of Elvis. “A ‘man’ did this. A ‘man’ searching for something new. He willed it into existence. Elvis’s great act of love rocked the country and was an early echo of the coming civil rights movement” (41).

The Boss had a self-concept of epic proportions, complete with quest, test and the mysterious joys of survival. “I determined that there on the streets of my hometown was the beginning of my purpose, my reason, my passion. Along with Catholicism, in my family’s neighborhood experience, I found my other ‘genesis’ piece, the beginning of my song: home, roots, blood, community, responsibility, stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive. Sweetened by cars, girls and fortune, these are the things that guided my musical journey” (266-7). The albums are meant to convey these bedrock themes as a better means of approaching one’s own life. “Each record was a statement of purpose. I wanted playfulness, good times, but also an underlying philosophical seriousness, a code of living, fusing it all together and making it more than just a collection of my ten latest songs” (277). After Clarence Clemons passed away, the Boss sought to heal his band’s gaping wound with the understanding that “it was less of a ‘job’ than a position of faith that had some distinctly shamanistic requirements” (476).

He’s humbled by the activism of other bands, like U2. “I never had the frontline courage of many of my more committed musical brethren. If anything, over the years, too much has been made of whatever service we’ve provided. But I did look to develop a consistent approach” (328). Springsteen views his band as having a mission, and that mission is transcendence. He states this humbly and directly: “A lot of what the E Street Band does is hand-me-down shtick transformed by will, power and an intense communication with our audience into something transcendent” (453). “[The E Street Band is] more than an idea, an aesthetic. We are a philosophy, a collective, with a professional code of honor. It is based on principle that we bring our best, everything we have, on this night, to remind you of everything you have, your best” (217).

So he ends up treating a concert hall as if it’s a church. “It’s a life-giving, joyful, sweat-drenched, muscle-aching, voice-blowing, mind-clearing, exhausting, soul-invigorating, cathartic pleasure and privilege every night. You can sing about your misery, the world’s misery, your most devastating experiences, but there is something in the gathering of souls that blows the blues away. Something that lets some sun in, that keeps you breathing, that lifts you in a way that can’t be explained, only experienced” (186-187). The achievement of this mission on a nightly basis, the temporary experience of this transcendence, is a form of communion. “Something that before the faithful were gathered here today was just a song-filled rumor. I am here to provide proof of life to that ever elusive, never completely believable ‘us.’ That is my magic trick” (xii).

The Rich Man in a Poor Man’s Shirt

Springsteen insists on the authenticity of this magic trick. “The shows were real, always… my friends were real, always… the audience was real, always. I was not alone. I was carrying a lot of weight, but I was not alone. The men I’d chosen to travel with were at my side. Their comfort, their partnership, was invaluable. No matter how weird it got out there, on the bandstand, when I turned around, I saw home” (226). In his home space of the stage, he preaches primarily on the gap between our daily life and our ideal selves. “By the end of the River tour, I thought perhaps mapping that territory, the distance between the American dream and American reality, might be my service, one I could provide that would accompany my entertainment and the good times I brought my fans. I hoped it might give roots and mission to our band” (294).

From time to time, he has doubts about whether he’s out of touch with daily life. “As my success increased, there was something about that ‘rich man in a poor man’s shirt’ that left an uneasy taste in my mouth surrounding this type of writing [on social issues]” (399). He has doubts about whether rock music in America is itself out of touch as a means of real dialogue. “I came to terms with the fact that in the States, the power of rock music as a vehicle for these [political] ideas has diminished. A new kind of super-pop, hip-hop and a variety of other exciting genres has become the hotline of the day, more suited to the current zeitgeist. Don’t get me wrong. I can’t complain” (470). His fundamental faith in the power of his own words keeps him steady. “When people wanted a dialogue, a conversation about events, internal and external, we developed a language that suited those moments. We were there. It was a language I hoped would entertain, inspire, comfort and reveal. The professionalism, the showmanship, the hours of hard work are all very important, but I always believed that it was the dialogue, this language, that was at the heart of our resiliency with our audience” (443).

He believes this is the purpose of rock music at large, this communion. “Rock ’n’ roll music, in the end is a source of religious and mystical power” (454). The power of rock shows is not that they inform or educate, but that they are evocative of something beyond our individual selves. “One plus one equals two. It keeps the world spinning. But artists, musicians, con men, poets, mystics and such are paid to turn that math on its head, to rub two sticks together and bring forth fire. […] People don’t come to rock show to learn something. They come to be reminded of something they already know and feel deep down in their gut” (236).

The mission of the book is human, to reveal Springsteen’s inner thoughts and the motives in his gut. “In the following pages I will try to shed a little light on how and, more importantly, why” (xi). He has worked hard to arrive at the moment to do this. “The results of my work with [psychologist] Dr. Myers and my debt to him are at the heart of this book” (312). With more questions than answers, more feelings than facts, more philosophy than reportage, Springsteen adds layers upon layers. If the Bible is meant to narrate the life of Jesus in order to acknowledge the mysteries of God, Born to Run narrates the life of Springsteen in order to acknowledge the mysteries of rock. And here, the Boss is a god. “There is something to be said for living. Personally, I like my gods old, grizzled and here” (213).

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

Chronicles and Just Kids are the two greatest music memoirs of the 21st century, correct? Confessions before we proceed: I have never made it past page 50 or so of Chronicles, despite having tried to read it three times in ten years, and I’m already on record saying that M Train is a way better book than Just Kids.

Springsteen himself would not agree with me. “Songwriters with their own voice, their own story to tell, who could draw you into a world they created and sustain your interest in the things that obsessed them. Not many, but a handful at best. Dylan was preeminent amongst these types of writers. Bob Dylan is the father of my country” (167). I want to say that this “father of my country” bit is about as much over the top mythologizing as Jon Landau gave to the Boss in that “future of rock” prophecy he called a review. Now that Dylan has won a Nobel Prize for Literature, I suppose I’ll try to take a fourth pass at the autobiography that has even fewer facts in it than Springsteen’s.

They’ve earned it though, right? “You have to make thoughtful compromises that don’t sell out your soul, that let you reach just a little bit higher until your moment comes and then you set the rules” (79). Their license has pros and cons. “What makes something great may also be one of its weaknesses, just like in people” (222). “Rock ‘n’ roll is a music of stakes. The higher they’re pushed, the deeper and more thrilling the moment becomes” (353). As men like Dylan and Springsteen age up into their legendary obscurity, of course they’ll want to write a book that dumps out all the gris-gris rattling around in their heads. “All I know is that as we age the weight of our unsorted baggage becomes heavier… much heavier. With each passing year, the price of our refusal to do that sorting rises higher and higher” (306).

Springsteen is still in search of salvation. “In the studio and on tour, I was a one-man wrecking crew with a one-track mind. Out of the studio and off the road, I was… not. Eventually I had to come to grips with the fact that at rest, I was not at ease, and to be at ease, I could not rest. […] It’s a common malady, a profile of sorts, that floods my profession. We’re travelers, ‘runners.’ not ‘stayers’” (271). He can run all he wants, but he’s stuck with himself. “Robert DeNiro once said he loves acting because you got to live other lives without the consequences. I lived a new life every night. […] For much of my life I’d vainly sought to re-create this feeling every… single… day. Perhaps it’s the curse of the imaginative mind. Or perhaps it’s just the ‘running’ in you. […] Of course, there is but one life. Nobody likes that… but there’s just one. And we’re lucky to have it. God bless us and have mercy on us that we may have the understanding and the abilities to live it… and know that the ‘possibility of everything’… is just ‘nothing’ dressed up in a monkey suit… and I’d had the best monkey suit in town” (274).

This monkey suit does often put his realness at risk, which he well knows. “As I’ve said before, I know I’m good but I’m also a poser. That’s artistic balance! In the second half of the twentieth century, ‘authenticity’ would be what you made of it, a hall of mirrors” (228). Despite these Dylanesque feats of mystery, Springsteen’s book is humble enough and properly pained to fall more in line with Smith’s two memoirs. Unfortunately, the Boss doesn’t devote more than a sentence or two to Smith’s work (why on Earth doesn’t Born to Run have an index? That is cruel!), even though it would be amazing to hear his take on everything surrounding “Because the Night”.

The only woman besides Scialfa he gives professional thanks to is Bonnie Raitt, because she let him open for her so often in the early days. She comments on his need for a nightly exorcism. “My pal Bonnie Raitt, upon visiting me backstage, used to smilingly shake her head at me and say, ‘The boy has it in him, and it’s got to come out.’ So there, with you, I’m near free and it’s party ‘til the lights go out. I don’t know why, but I’ve never gotten anywhere near as far or as high as when I count the band in and feel what seems like all life itself and a small flash of eternity pulsing through me” (285).

At every turn, readers are reminded of the high stakes of transcendence. “The theory of relativity holds. Onstage your exhilaration is in direct proportion to the void you’re dancing over” (464). So, too, are readers reminded of the paradox of this entire endeavor that is Springsteen’s life’s work. “Your blessings and your curses often come in the same package” (495). In some ways, he’s known all along about the futility of trying to explicitly tell in this book the things he has been trying to creatively demonstrate on stage all these many years. “I know how it works. I’ve done it. Play and shut up. My business is SHOW business and that is the business of SHOWING… not TELLING. You don’t TELL people anything, you SHOW them, and let them decide. That’s how I got here, by SHOWING people” (227).

This book is not a very clean exercise in telling, but what it does show is more shades of that predictably driven, mystical Boss we already know. Why does reading Springsteen’s memoir feel like a test? You may like to know that, as I write this, I’m thinking about having recently turned 35. The problem, then, isn’t that life is too short, but rather, that it’s long. Springsteen just turned 67. We’re both Libras. It’s all about balance. Born to Run refers to two innate tendencies that are arguably a paradox but unarguably human: to flee from a thing and also to work really hard on it. What he says of his father is surely true of the son. “The Sphinx spoke! My dad showed himself, or some part of himself, though under tenuous conditions. So, rather than revelation, his pronouncements brought only more mystery and a longing to understand what was ultimately unfathomable” (409).

So, that’s my final verdict: Born to Run is unfathomable. It’s unfathomable because Springsteen is a soul man. “Soul man, soul man, soul man… that’s the term. As an R&B singer, I will never be more than ‘pretty close,’ but ‘soul man’ is a much broader term. It encompasses your life, your work and the way you approach both. Joe Strummer, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Mick and Keith, Joey Ramone, John and Paul — all white boys who could rest comfortably with that sobriquet. It’s an all-inclusive, and I’d be perfectly happy with just those two words on my gravestone” (481).

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