When I started going to Bruce Springsteen's concerts back in the mid 1970s, one of the best things about them was the way he introduced the songs.
Born storyteller Springsteen was not content to just shout a title or crash into the opening chords. He told tales, miniature epics full of crazy characters and wild plot twists and moments of hilarity or heartbreak, all exuberantly acted out and complete with sound effects and skillful lighting. Tenth Avenue Freezeout, for example, came with the origin story of the E Street Band, complete with Clarence Clemons' dramatic arrival amid a raging storm. Often longer than the songs themselves, those intros alone were worth the price of admission.
As his list of hits grew and his concerts morphed into the four-hour marathons he now (at age 67) performs, those wonderful stories fell by the wayside. No Springsteen concert has ever disappointed me, but I missed those intros.
Born to Run, Springsteen's new autobiography, reads like a greatest-hits collection of them. The book is an affirmation that, along with his musical brilliance and matchless performance skills, the man is a terrific storyteller and writer. And they reveal that the music that has rocked and raised up countless fans was born at a cost.
The richest and most heartfelt portions of the book deal with a major theme that has always run through Springsteen's songwriting: his upbringing in the blue-collar, mostly Catholic, largely immigrant town of Freehold, N.J., and the family dynamics that shaped him indelibly. Born into a mostly Irish and Italian family, he was spoiled from birth by a fiercely protective grandmother, a process that gave him a precocious self-confidence but also "turned me into an unintentional rebel, an outcast weirdo misfit sissy boy. I am alienating, alienated and socially homeless ... I am seven years old."
His mother, Adele (still dancing at her son's concerts at 90), is gregarious and indomitably optimistic; she often supported the family as a legal secretary. His father, Douglas, was an angry, drifting misanthrope whom Springsteen seems always to see drinking in the dark, alone at the kitchen table. "He loved me but he couldn't stand me," the son writes. Later in life, a strain of mental illness that ran through the Irish side of the family would have devastating effects on Douglas — and on Bruce.
Springsteen's conversion experience to rock music came early, and he praises his greatest influences: Elvis, the Beatles (at 15, he writes, "I didn't want to meet the Beatles. I wanted to BE the Beatles") and Bob Dylan, as well as a plethora of other musical inspirations.
By the time his parents moved to California when he was 19, he was already busy building his career in a succession of bar bands playing the Jersey circuit. This section of the book is an entertaining mix of tall tales and impressive details about Springsteen's ferocious work ethic: the endless hours of practice, the countless crappy gigs (some nights each band member made $3), the resourceful ways to deal with being broke long term while you learn to do something you absolutely love.
Springsteen recounts how he first met the E Street Band members and other people who would have major impacts on his career, like record executive John Hammond and managers Mike Appel and Jon Landau. He also delves into his songwriting process, especially for his greatest song, and perhaps the greatest rock song ever, the one that gives the book its title.
Born to Run takes on other meanings in the book, too. Springsteen alludes to a busy sex life, but mentions few names or details. If you're looking for depraved rock-star bacchanals, look elsewhere; he's too gentlemanly to discuss them. But he does write of his difficulty maintaining relationships and tendency to bolt whenever he felt close to a woman, which would last even through his first marriage to actor Julianne Phillips, whom he writes of with respect and regret. It's only when his long friendship with bandmate Patti Scialfa turns romantic that he finds a home and lasting marriage, and he writes about her as nothing less than a savior.
Indeed, the overarching tone of Born to Run is one of generosity and forgiveness. There are revelations, some of them funny. Mr. Racing in the Streets, his connection to car culture so important to his image that the book jacket bears a portrait of him with a vintage Corvette, didn't learn to drive until he was in his mid 20s — and the story of how he did will curl your hair.
Springsteen and Scialfa tried to keep rock-star trappings out of the childhoods of their three kids. "My kids didn't know Badlands from matzo ball soup. When I was approached on the street for autographs, I'd explain to them that in my job I was Barney (the then-famous purple dinosaur) for adults."
But Springsteen writes seriously and openly about his struggles with depression and anxiety. He calls therapy "thirty years of one of the biggest adventures of my life, canvassing the squirrely terrain inside my own head for signs of life," and writes that several bouts of depression in the last decade have crushed him for years at a time.
There's happiness to counter those dark days, notably his pride in his now-grown kids, his long marriage, his incomparable band and, of course, his magnificent body of work.
He can add this book to those accomplishments. Much more than most celebrity autobiographies, this one has a distinctive voice, and one that bears a wide range of literary influences. He can remind you of Elmore Leonard, as in this description of an early manager and longtime friend: "Tink could've broken the ice with the grand poo-bah of the Ku Klux Klan with his laconic command of the mystical ways of the internal combustion engine. Tink had gearhead knowledge accompanied by a strange and mighty confidence that put folks at ease. If those should fail, he seemed like the kind of guy who might shoot you."
At the deathbed of Clemons, he can sound like Emily Dickinson: "There is no evidence of the soul except in its sudden absence. A nothingness enters, taking the place where something was before."
But most of all, he sounds like Bruce Springsteen, and that's reason to raise your hands.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.