Reading an autobiography by one of the true giants of rock and roll is not the most painful activity in the world. Even if said book is poorly written or dips into celebrity tell-all territory—or if, as is the case here, it runs 500+ pages—the reader still gets, at bare minimum the full story from-the-horse’s mouth, juicy tidbits about the music itself, and a rendering of a life that most of us can only dream about leading (not to mention nostalgia and all forms of vicarious delight). The wonderful thing about Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen’s memoir from the fall of 2016, is its authenticity. This did not exactly come as a surprise. What I have always admired about The Boss is his unvarnished, everyman quality. Even as a kid growing up listening to Born in the U.S.A., his showiest, most commercial album, I could sense this. Unlike some of his contemporaries Springsteen never embraced stagey gimmicks or cloying drum machines or anything close to a Hollywood ethos. What you saw is what you got.
Ditto his memoir. Born to Run strikes the right balance between the two extremes of this genre—confessional tell-all on the one hand and technical album/track analysis on the other. Partially, this has to do with the episodic structure of the book. Each chapter is short (most run 5-6 pages, with only a few lingering for more than 10) and each is perceptive on one topic, one theme, one moment. Springsteen includes chapters on his early band the Castiles, Steel Mill, a chapter on Darkness on the Edge of Town, Clarence Clemons, The River, Nebraska, California, and so forth. Born to Run is as textured and detailed as the song from which the memoir derives its title. The structure breaks up what is actually a quite lengthy book into smaller bites and makes it more easily digestible and less conceited. We get snapshots, rather than a monologue—a structure that came about out of a certain necessity, as this book was composed, as Springsteen relays, in fits and starts over a number of years.
That said, for me the high points of Born to Run occur in the first half of the book before Bruce Springsteen became Bruce Springsteen. This may be a personal predilection, I’m aware. Regarding Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, I had an identical reaction. With memoirs I most relish the depiction of an artist’s roots and formation and early struggles. That is the material with which I am not already familiar. The portrayal of Bruce’s fame and fortune is perhaps inherently less interesting to me on a macro level, though the story behind individual tours and albums and songs is, of course, always compelling. That said, book one of Born to Run is fascinating in its portrayal of Springsteen’s hardscrabble childhood and the psychological conflicts brought on by his father’s alcoholism and routinely uncouth behavior. This upbringing perhaps affected Springsteen later in life when, as he admits, he suffered through bouts of depression. The title of this autobiography is a stroke of genius actually. “Born to Run” is not just the title of a song and an album, but Springsteen’s coping mechanism—if he was on the road touring, Springsteen admits, he couldn’t slow down to cogitate and dwell on his various voids and buried problems.
Born to Run also does not hold back on the details of Springsteen’s artistic growth—and Springsteen is never pretentious or puffed-up about it. If anything, Springsteen errs on the side of self-effacing throughout the book, relating his failures and his short-falls with greater ease than his hits and world fame. Springsteen’s early bands—his juvenilia, as it were—struggled to make their mark, to sow the seeds of musical success. And of course, Bruce gives up the goods on the initial meetings with key members. Here is a passage on Clarence Clemons: “Garry (Tallent) said he knew a guy named Clarence Clemons. He said he’d played with him in Little Melvin and the Invaders, the local soul band that worked the black clubs in and around Ashbury Park. He said Clarence was magic. The problem was nobody could find him. Then by happenstance Clarence was playing the Wonder Bar at the north end of Asbury the same night we were at the Student Prince on the southern end of town. He’d heard about me by now and came with his horn to see what all the fuss was about.”
Born to Run is not a flawless book, however. Despite the short chapters, breezy intimacy and earthy writing, this book is like an early cut of a 70’s Bruce Springsteen song—a tad repetitive, a smidgeon bloated. A few chapters in the second half of the book could have been axed, especially in the last third of the book. Do we really need a chapter on the Super Bowl appearance? But this is just Bruce being Bruce. Springsteen gives his fans 110% here, as he routinely does in his concerts, leaving no rock unturned, so to speak. At the end of this memoir you may feel as exhausted as Springsteen did writing it.
All-in-all, Born to Run is a high-quality read. Springsteen’s writing is direct and forthright and, impressively, Springsteen didn’t need to lean on help from a ghost writer. If you are already a Bruce Springsteen fan you will be elated at the behind-the-scenes dirt. If you are not a fan you will still find the Boss’s ascent and narrative absorbing. With this opus under his belt will Springsteen follow Bob Dylan’s Nobel-winning ways? Probably not. But the overwhelmingly positive reception Born to Run has received is well deserved.