Greasy Lake

Born to Run book generously delivers new insight and perspective

Published 2016-12-30
Karsten Stanley Andersen
By Karsten Stanley Andersen

I was ecstatic when it was first announced that Bruce was going to publish his autobiography. This was like a holy grail. Well, another holy grail (there are a few box sets that qualify too).

After reading it, I’m still ecstatic, but not for the reasons I thought I’d be. What I had been looking forward to was to have all the blanks filled in. Reasons for Bruce’s decisions and career moves, inside scoops, what really happened when the E Street Band broke up… All of that. I mean, I felt I already knew the guy pretty well from a lifetime of following him and reading interviews and biographies, so what I needed, I thought, was just the ultimate collection of… exciting details.

And sure, there are plenty of exciting details in Born to Run. But what I hadn’t bargained for, and what ultimately makes the book as good and as important as his greatest records, were not how Vini Lopez was sacked from the band, or when exactly Bruce first got together with Patti, or any of the other little things I didn’t know the specifics of and that I learned. What I walked away with after slamming the book shut for the last time was nothing short of a whole new view of the man.

Because, as it turned out, to my own surprise, I did not know him all that well. Sure, I’d already read about his depressions in Peter Ames’ book, but I did not know his inner psyche. I did not ever truly get to see the world through his eyes. I did not know that from his early youth the guy has been a tormented and possessed soul and that all his energy and brilliance has come at the expense of his own well-being. How could a man radiating such joy from a stage, such intelligence in his music and interviews, and such patience and kindness toward his fans, how could he not be the strongest, most self-assured, self-contained, and downright COOL person in the universe? And it’s not like his torment is a thing of the past. From what we can gather, while he’s in a much better place now than in his younger days – not counting bouts of depression (which is bad enough) – there is still a torn soul beneath that confident surface that has made him do self-destructive things we might wish we had never heard about.

So, while all of this gave me a whole new perspective of Bruce Springsteen, human being, a lot of the new insight also explains a lot of things in the past… and what’s just as important, it gives us a better idea of the present. Who is that man on stage today? For instance, since it was announced that he would be doing The River Tour in 2016, I have racked my brain for a good explanation as to why you would do a mega tour in support of a 35-year-old album. Sure, there was the box, and sure, a few special shows in that connection would have made sense. But a major world tour?

Well, it turns out, to this day, Bruce needs to play in order to keep his demons at bay and stay sane. At a time in his life when new music apparently doesn’t come easily to him (and this is actually a subject he, regrettably, doesn’t touch on in the book), Bruce needs to come up with other excuses to tour than supporting new albums. According to the book, at one point around 2011 during one of his depressions, Bruce called Jon Landau and asked him to book him for anything anywhere, as long as it involved playing… because that was the only way he could stand to be in his own skin.

The River Tour 2016 hopefully is not a sign that another depression was or is coming, but it makes sense to me now knowing that, despite Bruce’s claim to have learned to put down the guitar, there is still no way he can let it stay on the shelf for long – which is good for us fans, because it means he really, really intends to keep on playing for as long as he can manage it physically.

A lot of the book is dedicated to explaining Bruce’s relationship to his father. What we learn is that their infamous clashes were more than just the result of a typical teenage rebellion against a conservative dad. Doug Springsteen was a sick man and a victim of his time and circumstances. It’s sobering to read how, even after Bruce’s rise to superstardom and wealth, the two were, for years, at best awkward in each other’s company.

Another relationship Bruce digs deep into in this book is the one he shares with Patti. While her voice and singing style may not be for everyone, the book leaves no doubt that she saved his life, literally or metaphorically (doesn’t matter which), and for that, every fan should be extremely grateful and cut her some major slack.

To most readers, the first half of the book with its good-humored descriptions of early life on the road with a gallery of characters most fans already know and love, provides the best reading entertainment. Bruce proves himself an extremely gifted writer and shows that his mother was on to something when she suggested he become an author. It’s simply autobiographical writing at its best.

Unfortunately, Bruce doesn’t quite keep the standard when he heads into the late Seventies and Eighties. It’s like the fun, energetic – but at the same time very informative – tales are replaced by a more traditional and serious style of writing and content that, except for the first-person tense, doesn’t vary too much from what we’ve read a hundred times in other biographies. In other words, we don’t learn a whole lot of new things about his career in those years. We do get the most detailed information to date about his relationship with Juli, we hear about a hilarious failed attempt to get into Disneyland wearing a headband, and we learn how Bruce’s fondness of Gothenburg, Sweden, got off to a rocky start. But the chapters covering the Darkness tour through Tunnel of Love leave you slightly unfulfilled. Hell, we don’t even get Bruce’s own take on the infamous No Nukes incident on his 30th birthday, which of course is well-known history to most fans, but which I’m sure Bruce could have provided some new insight in, had he wanted to.

The book picks up again for real when he talks about the Nineties. While the Sixties and Seventies were his formative years when it came to music, the Nineties formed him as a human being. The descriptions of his early relationship with Patti, life in LA, Patti’s pregnancy announcement, and the birth of their first child are as heartfelt and touching as anything in the book.

So are the chapters about the later years, the E Street Band reunion, the deaths of Danny and Clarence, the inclusion of Jake in the band. Even the good-humored style from the first half of the book returns in magnificent chapters about the Superbowl and sitting in with the Rolling Stones. One of the things we learn – and that’s actually clear throughout the book - is that, while Bruce loves his band, they are also business relationships with all that entails of money disagreements, unfulfilled expectations, and, at times, hard feelings. Bruce makes no secret of the fact that he can be a tough boss to work for. He also doesn’t try to hide that he thinks he’s good at what he does and that his status as one of the greats in rock ‘n’ roll is well-deserved.

Altogether, for better or worse, Born to Run is as honest as rock autobiographies go. This combined with a captivating writing style many professional writers can only dream of, a common thread throughout the book about his father, a real sense of Bruce as a human being rather than a rock god, tons of humorous and slightly self-ironic tales, and a life with more struggle and drama than I ever knew had been the case for him, Born to Run – as it should - leaves all other biographies about the man in the dust.

There are very few books I have read more than once in my life. Born to Run will without a doubt be one of them. Right now, I can’t wait to have the audio book, read by Bruce himself, blasting… um, I mean, quietly playing… from the car stereo.
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Mikey writes: Interesting thoughts, I even agree with some of them, which might scare you. Thanks for the review
Charlene Linden writes: I want to read it more than ever. When I saw him play at my university (Clark University, Worcester MA Oct.6 1974, 6 days before my 17th) I was frightened and lonely. I was younger than other students because I had graduated HS early. The tickets were free with our activity fee. I thought - oh he's going to be another self indulgent singer song writer. The 70s were full of those. My room mate could see that I was hesitant, and assured me that I'd love him. And I did. I felt a spiritually uplifting and joyous experience, like no other. This was more than music. This became a transformative event.One I would repeat many times. I am not at all shocked that Bruce is still a tortured soul - more than the bouts with depression that we all know. Along with the late Lou Reed, he is responsible for some of the best American rock and roll. I can't wait until the snow lets up. I NEED this book!
Dave writes: Really enjoying it so far, but only up to the Darkness sessions. Amazing writing for an amateur!
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