MY REVIEW OF THE SPRINGSTEEN MEMOIR
I just read the Bruce Springsteen memoir, “Born To Run.”
It is, like his songs and concerts, too long, and ended up with everything sounding alike.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Bruce, and his music, and the book – all 80 some chapters of it. But the whole experience was decidedly Springsteen.
And, though I say I “read” the book, actually Bruce Springsteen read it to me. Over a week or so, as I commuted, did the dishes and was out running, I listened to the audiobook, which is voiced by Bruce. I can’t imagine consuming this book any other way, and I recommend it highly. It’s his life, and it’s good that his voice is the voice in your head that recounts it to you.
It opens like a love affair. As Bruce Springsteen writes about his family history and hometown, there is a beauty and power to his writing that easily outdoes most of the authors in print today. The quality and comfort of the prose bowls you over. It is delicious. For all Springsteen’s presumptions to being Steinbeck with a guitar, this book shows him to be worthy of the comparison.
But like a love affair, it ultimately becomes predictable and tiring. The same charm that sweeps you off your feet in the beginning, just wears you out after a while. Bruce Springsteen may have occasionally taken advice from music producers and executives, but it’s clear book editors have never gained his trust. Had he been a little more like Hemingway and Twain, spare and direct and less repetitious in his style, the book could have come out a third to a half shorter and still said nothing less.
Maybe the goal was to provide fans as long a ride as possible, to spend as much personal time with The Boss as they could get. If so, then it succeeded. Maybe it was supposed to be one of those songs that doesn’t really end, it just fades away while the lyrics keep on spilling.
To say the book is about Bruce Springsteen is probably only half right. In truth, it is about Bruce and his dad, Doug Springsteen. Specifically, it’s about Doug being a prick to Bruce, and Bruce being a prick to Doug. About two mentally ill men who never find peace together. There is such a focus on Doug Springsteen, and how his failed personality screwed up Bruce, that you wonder midway through if there even was a Doug Springsteen. You wonder if maybe he was a literary device conjured up to be the Hyde to Bruce’s Jekyll. Bruce plays the story of his dad like a chorus between verses. Over and over and over again through the book, you are reminded that Doug was a distant, heartless SOB who sat in the kitchen smoking cigarettes and drinking beer or, in his better moments, staring out to sea.
It ends up being a sad narrative, but mostly because of Bruce’s inability to understand his father. Bruce grabbed fast to the idea of Vietnam veterans coming home from war emotionally broken, but never seems to grasp that perhaps there was some of that in his own father’s return from World War II. Bruce – and this book – are the product of decades of psychoanalysis. Bruce can explain in depth why he is the way he is. And though the way he is includes a whole bunch of narcissism and sometimes years-long bouts of depression and paranoia, he rarely sees his dad as anything other than a distant, heartless SOB. In an inadvertent but heartbreaking parallelism, Bruce recounts a visit with his father to the ship which sailed the father off to war, and a trip with his own son to see a rock band of the son’s liking. Bruce snottily mocked the visit to the ship at the time, but spoke of the hero worship which his son’s rock idols had for him. In one, the father is rejected by the son; in the other the father is seen anew and admiringly by the son.
Bruce recounts an excited call from his father, later in life, in which Doug said he had planned and paid for a fishing trip in Mexico and he wanted Bruce to come along. It was a loving and sweet gesture, which goes awry. Bruce tells it not as a funny “crap happens” story, but as one more illustration of his loser father not getting it quite right.
In Bruce’s book, Bruce is always the hero, even when he’s not.
And in Bruce’s book, Bruce is always the boss.
One of the great themes of “Born To Run” is the E Street Band and some sort of Band of Brothers sense of camaraderie and family which Bruce Springsteen ascribes to it. It is as if they are holy warriors saving the world through rock’n’roll. It is also the source of his stable friendships.
But, realistically, the relationship described in the book is not a friendship. When one person arbitrarily and absolutely controls the lives and livelihoods of others, when that person is some combination of judge, jury and God, that’s not a friendship. Bruce could put people out of the band, and Bruce could put the band on an unpaid shelf for 10 years, all at his whim. Bruce often speaks condescendingly about the band and its members, depicting himself as the father and financier who had to shepherd these lesser beings through their personal incompetences. They could play, but they couldn’t live, not without Bruce. As you read the account, you are left to wonder at how the desire for money and fame can cause people to sublimate their will and interests to another person.
If you are Bruce Springsteen’s friend, you come along on cross-country rides in order to fix the car if it breaks down. If he wants to talk, you listen. If he tells you to shut up, you shut up. You go where he wants to go, eat what he wants to eat. And if he calls you to tell you it’s done – or sends someone to tell you – then it’s done.
Springsteen's flaws are to be mourned and expected. All aesthetic geniuses -- of which he is undeniably one -- are broken. Brilliance is an aberration, a fluke of the mind which we find beautiful. But it is not normal, and abnormalities tend to travel in packs. And almost all artistic geniuses are very dysfunctional people. The marvel of Springsteen's psyche is not that he is mentally ill, but that he is so functional, and has not self-destructed.
Like all memoirs, this one is self-justifying and in some spots blind. But that’s how people are. That’s how you and I are. You and I think we are pretty good people, and when we’ve screwed up, we cut ourselves some slack. Bruce does the same thing. It’s just that his ride is more interesting than ours.
He starts out essentially homeless, and ends up with money like you can’t imagine. In some ways, he ends up one more clueless rich guy. He tells us the names of his horses and of his personal staff cowboy. When he gets a little tense in Europe, he steps out for a moment to call his “pharmacologist” in America. He jabs at his father’s old-age weight by recounting the difficulty of getting him in “one of my helicopters.” He buys houses and farms to satisfy his yearnings – just like regular people.
And he preaches the progressive gospel he has embraced. Still cursing the rubes who refuse to see “Born in the USA” as an anti-American song, he drifts off into talking about the “oligarchy” and makes “post-industrial” one of his favorite phrases. Perhaps again like Steinbeck, he seems to have been recruited and influenced by activists from the left, gaining from them a sense of purpose and gravitas that fronting a rock band might not naturally bring him. Bruce Springsteen kind of went into eclipse during the Reagan years, and he still rejects that era and the choices voters made.
For all of this, I want to be clear: I liked the book. For parts, I loved it. And I would recommend it. Obviously, Springsteen and rock’n’roll fans would like it. But I would recommend it as well to young people starting life – for the same reason I suggest “Private Parts” by Howard Stern. Both books show how young men who decided what they wanted relentlessly and professionally pushed themselves to success. Stern and Springsteen are entertainers, but they are also serious craftsmen who knew that success had to be earned. If you are going to be an entertainer – or an engineer, or anything – the principles exemplified by Bruce Springsteen are good ones to follow. He started and has remained a perfectionist continually looking to improve, and always keeping his eye on his long-term goal.
There’s another reason I’d recommend this book. Like his songs, it’s really about you. You listen to a Springsteen song, and you learn about yourself. You read the Springsteen book, and you learn about yourself. It makes you think, and it makes you look inward. It makes you wiser, by reading his understandings, and his misunderstandings. He lays it out, and even when he’s BSing himself, he’s a real guy, and somehow you can relate and apply. Somehow, reading about him makes you a better you.
He’s sometimes a showoff – some of the vocabulary is pedantic; honestly, who says “pate” anymore? He’s sometimes a prince – clearly parts of the book are a tool for him to show love and respect for others. He’s sometimes a disappointment – he was 4F when his country needed him but is the healthiest septuagenarian you’re ever going to see. He’s always a friend – it’s just Bruce, rambling on.
He draws his own conclusions on his life. But he puts in the detail necessary to draw different conclusions if you want. Just like his songs.
Like I said, I love Bruce, and his music and this book. He is complex and flawed and beautiful. He’s a whack job, like you and me, and Mozart and Van Gogh.
This is probably one of the best memoirs of our era, because of the talent and prominence of the author, and because of the role Springsteen played in the lives of so many.
If you’ve heard the songs, you should read the book.
And you should expect to be changed by it.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2017