Why, one might ask, would Bruce Springsteen need to write an autobiography? Haven’t we been listening to it for the past half century? Hasn’t he been telling us his story all along?
Didn’t we already know that the boardwalk wildness of “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.,” the frenzied desperation of “Born to Run,” the smoldering rage of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” that that was all him? And yes, the characters of “The River” and “Tunnel of Love” and “The Rising” were composites, but wasn’t he writing about people he knew? And that we knew? And wasn’t he writing about himself? And us?
Unlike the ever-inscrutable Bob Dylan or the late magically mystical Prince, Springsteen, who turns 67 on Friday, has always seemed to be in communion with his fans, exploring forces of life and love and loss in blistering four-minute rock songs that spoke to a journey that both singer and sung-to recognized as shared.
But everyone has secrets. And for all of Springsteen’s fame, there is much about his story — about the people and events and dreams and fears that shaped him — that isn’t widely known.
Randolph Street in Freehold, N.J., where he knew “every crack, bone and crevice in the crumbling sidewalk,” is where Springsteen launches “Born to Run,” his new autobiography, which will be released Tuesday. It’s a 508-page offering that, like his four-hour concerts, delivers enough punch and laughter, sorrow and succor, to satisfy your soul and still, somehow, leave you wanting more. Fans are greedy that way.
Desperate and unforgiving, the run-down underbelly of the American Dream, Freehold is a recurring character in Springsteen’s story. It is the town he escaped in his teens and has been running from ever since. And yet with its ties to generations of his Irish Italian family, his hard-hit neighbors and the long-gone smoke-belching factories that shaped his blue-collar identity, it is the town to which he often returns in memories and dreams and late-night drives past his childhood homes and haunts.
Springsteen spends the first quarter of his book in the “heart-stopping, pants-dropping, race-riot-creating, oddball-hating, soul-shaking, love-and-fearmaking, heartbreaking town” of Freehold. To understand him in any sense, fans must understand this place.
Freehold is where he was spoiled and cocooned by a grandmother who had lost a daughter. It is where he played baseball with neighborhood kids, was an altar boy at St. Rose of Lima Church and was knocked around by the nuns at school. It is where his mother bought him his first guitar, where he first heard Elvis Presley and the Beatles. It is where he would join his first band, get kicked out of a band, dodge the draft and make friends with guys who would later be killed in Vietnam.
And Freehold is also where his taciturn father drank a “sacred six-pack” in the pitch dark every night and then wanted to see him. “It was always the same,” Springsteen writes. “A few moments of feigned parental concern for my well-being followed by the real deal: the hostility and raw anger toward his son.”
That ongoing strife between father and son would erupt and then subside, but it cast a shroud for decades. In later years, Springsteen’s father would be diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and treated with medication, eventually allowing a reconciliation of sorts, but never quite freeing the son from the past.
At 19, Springsteen’s parents and youngest sister left Freehold to move to California, and a month later Springsteen left, too, but headed east to the Jersey Shore instead. In the following years, captured in the book’s middle chapters, he would meet many of the characters and musicians who would help shape his sound, play shows that turned into melees with the police, live on next to nothing, take death-defying road trips across the country and assert himself as the founder, leader and decider of what would become the E Street Band.
After meeting Mike Appel, his first agent whom he would later tangle with in a long legal battle, Springsteen recalls being taken to play a song for the legendary producer John Hammond at Columbia Records, with a potential record deal on the line.
“I sat directly across from him and played ‘Saint in the City.’ When I was done I looked up. That smile was still there and I heard him say, ‘You’ve got to be on Columbia Records.’ One song — that’s what it took. I felt my heart rise up inside me, mysterious particles dancing underneath my skin and faraway stars lighting up my nerve endings.”
Throughout the book, Springsteen brings moments such as these to life with memories that put you in the room, whether it’s a whispered aside from Bob Dylan at the Kennedy Center Honors, arguments with record company executives over what to do with an album, or a rare guitar-throwing tantrum directed at his friend and longtime manager Jon Landau. Having lived for his music and not much else for long stretches at a time, he is particularly adept at recalling the recording process and decision-making of each of his albums, a boon for hardcore fans who crave that detail.
Springsteen is also quite funny, particularly when he’s taking aim at himself as when he recalls being mocked by his children for his moves in his “Dancing in the Dark” video. Or how he explained to them when they were young that he was like a Barney for grown-ups after they asked why so many people wanted his autograph.
Though he’s deservedly proud of his music and his achievements, he doesn’t shy away from self-criticism, particularly when it comes to failed relationships, such as his short-term marriage to actress Julianne Phillips. But if he’s hard on himself, he’s kind to everyone else. No one is left scathed, not even his father, whom he seems to have forgiven.
Springsteen gained a deeper understanding of his father’s illness when he too became plagued by crushing depression and anxiety. In his 30s, feeling adrift despite career success, he experienced an anxiety attack while driving with a friend across the country. He recounts getting professional help for the first time in his life: “I walk in; look into the eyes of a kindly, white-haired, mustached complete stranger; sit down; and burst into tears.”
Mental illness is very much the subtext of this book as Springsteen tracks the disease in his family and shares intimate details of a dark depression that has visited him as recently as a few years ago. He credits medication and the resolve of his wife and bandmate, Patti Scialfa, with being able to survive the onslaught.
“During these periods I can be cruel: I run, I dissemble, I dodge, I weave, I disappear, I return, I rarely apologize, and all the while Patti holds down the fort as I’m trying to burn it down.”
There are 79 chapters in “Born to Run,” and while that number may simply be a coincidence, there is little evidence that Springsteen — a control freak if there ever was one — leaves these things to happenstance. It’s only a guess, but 79 is the life span of the average American male. And the life of the average American male has been grist for so much of Springsteen’s work. Whatever the reason, these chapters reveal many new sides, not all flattering, of a person who has been telling his story for nearly a half century.
“I haven’t told you ‘all’ about myself,” Springsteen writes near the end of the book. “Discretion and the feelings of others don’t allow it. But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise: to show the reader his mind. In these pages I’ve tried to do that.”
It turns out Springsteen fans did need an autobiography after all.
Joe Heim is a reporter for The Washington Post.
By Bruce Springsteen
Simon & Schuster. 508 pp. $32.50