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Born to Run

Review by Joseph Blake

Born to Run
Bruce Springsteen
Simon & Schuster

When I caught Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Vancouver Coliseum back in the early 80s, they turned that old hockey barn into the best rock and roll party I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve enjoyed thousands of rock and roll shows over 50 years of music journalism.
The band’s majestic, marathon show (and if you don’t learn anything else from Springsteen’s new autobiography, it’s that it’s a show, an act) rocked so hard it almost caught up to the showman, word-spitter, Boss out front. Sweating and wailing and bursting at his denim outfit’s seams, Bruce took that sold-out crowd to rock and roll heaven.

I was saved from joining the circus and riding the bus to the next show and the next and the next by my marriage and kids. That show explained the Deadheads, albeit I’d seen the Dead a half-dozen times by then and never wanted to join the rock and roll circus. Like the Deadheads, who jump on that bus for the next night’s rock and roll buzz someplace, Springsteen and company’s act cooked my critical facility. I just wanted that heavenly rock and roll buzz again and soon.

It didn’t work out like that. Over the years, I kept up with Bruce’s hits and misses, watched as the band and the Boss transformed into magazine cover icons and into the tunnel of love and a second marriage to band mate and Jersey girl, Patti Scialfa, three kids, 18 studio albums, a never-ending run of nightly, war-like triumphs, war with the dark forces of war and corruption, war, as we learn from Bruce Springsteen’s surprisingly insightful and articulate book, with himself and the black dog of depression. This 500- page doorstop of shared self-searching and self-knowledge has a clear, concise narrative voice. If it’s an act, it’s a good one.

Springsteen’s blue collar work ethic is the product of his Irish-Italian roots and a princely childhood protected and nourished by his Italian grandmother and his tight-knit (to the point of dysfunctional) Catholic neighborhood in Freehold, New Jersey. “ A crap house of a home town that I loved,” Bruce writes.

His Irish father was a brooding, troubled drinker who held nightly “six pack séances.”

“My mom would read romance novels and swoon to the latest hits on the radio. My dad would go so far as to explain to me that love songs on the radio were part of a government ploy to get you to marry and pay taxes,” Springsteen remembers.

The autobiography’s opening Growin’ Up chapter’s depiction of his street with its relatives (all the Italian women married Irish men), and the Catholic church at the end of the block feels cloistered and explosive. For Springsteen, rock and roll and a $69 Kent electric guitar lit the Boss’s fuse. Subsequent chapters exhibit the single-minded discipline (pretty much no drinks, no drugs) and encylopaedic knowledge of rock that helped launch Springsteen at the Upstage in Ashbury Park in 1969 and drives him to this day.

“My trustiest form of self-medication [is] touring,’ Springsteen explains in a later chapter about the depression that swallowed him in his 60s. “100 plus on two wheels” and the “life-giving, muscle-aching, mind-clearing, cathartic pleasure and privilege” of crafting and performing marathon live shows give him relief. Four hours of rock and roll heaven for us fans, a life-saving therapy for the dark prince described in Born To Run.

In short, painterly chapters Springsteen describes his act as “the sum of all my parts” and reveals a career that includes Zeppelin-like heavy rock bands, bi-coastal surfer crash pads, and the evolution of the E Street Band. The cinematic description of the first meeting with Dionysian saxophonist Clarence Clemons reads like a Clint Eastwood western. Later in the band’s history Springsteen describes the ex-football star/E Street musician wanting to get paid “for being Clarence.”

The E Street sidemen’s stories are juicy and warm, loving and fraught with brotherly (and in Patti’s case, wifely) weight. Better yet is the Boss’s self-examination and unvarnished, sometimes over-ripe descriptions of his own battles, as for critics he becomes the “New Dylan” and “Rock and Roll’s Future”, as rock journalist and future manager Jon Landau famously called him. It was Landau who also told him later in their friendship “you need professional help.”

“If somebody had to be the future, why not me?” Springsteen asks. Indeed, it was fellow Jersey boy Jack Nicholson who called him the “King of New Jersey,” at Frank Sinatra’s funeral. I loved reading those nuggets in Born To Run, especially the description of Bruce joining Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gormé, and Bob Dylan singing jazz standards around the piano at Sinatra’ 80th birthday.

Lots of weird and wonderful stuff here too. Lots of hard-won wisdom on display as well. Springsteen’s a good writer, and his book made me go back and listen to my old favourite records, paying particularly close attention to his autobiographical lyrics. Dig into the boxed set Live 1975-1985 and imagine the man they call The Boss busting out another four-hour package of rock and roll dynamite.

“There, strangely enough, exposed in front of thousands, I’ve always felt perfectly safe, just to let it all go. That’s why at our show you can’t get rid of me.”

I hope he and the band come to town soon.

Joseph Blake is Music Editor for PRRB.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #22