Bruce Springsteen, The Boss, Born in the USA and Born To Run, the man who brought the New Jersey blue-collar ethic into the world of the New York rock scene. Certainly he is all of these things, but, in his autobiography, Born To Run, he does a great job tempering a tale of success beyond the realms of almost anyone else, with a personal story that is genuinely emotionally effecting and shows how, even in his position, there can be a darkness that could bring it all crashing down like the most perilous high wire act.
Unlike most of the other autobiographies I’ve read, that of Springsteen is something a little different as I am not as wholly immersed in his work as I have been that in that of Laura Jane Grace or Kurt Cobain, for example.
That said, and somewhat appropriately, the work of Bruce Springsteen falls into a category I’d best describe as ‘my dad’s music’, with the likes of Born in the USA soundtracking many road trips down through France in my youth, so a lot of the music is familiar to me on at least a subconscious level.
For two-thirds or so of the book it is much as you’d expect from any musician’s life story charting his career from first picking up a cheap guitar all the way to playing shows to tens of thousands in stadia around the world.
Springsteen in 2016
As with many such stories for me the most interesting part is in how he first became, The Boss. Growing up in working class New Jersey, playing in various bar bands and then how he translated that into his early commercial success.
Along with that comes, of course, the story of The E Street Band. This is something a little different, as is their career, as Springsteen makes it clear throughout while they are his backing band, they are at the same time more than that. Some are given more time than others with ‘Little Steven’ Van Zandt and ‘The Big Man’ Clarence Clemons particularly featured, but all given at least their moment in the spotlight.
There are points in this, and in the discussions about Springsteen’s other work, where his style of band leading borders on a kind of egocentric arrogance but, through his descriptions at least, it always lands just on the right side of the necessary confidence for his role (though it’s clear not all his band mates have always shared this opinion and he doesn’t hide away from that).
A late 1970s version The E Street Band
This is all as interesting as one would expect from such a career and as he goes through albums song by song it is a fascinating insight into the themes and thoughts that have created one of the most successful musicians and performer forms of the last 40 years and, while more light is shone on the bigger songs and records, it seems like everything is given an appropriate time and space, no matter the commercial success it received.
The other third of the book though is where Born To Run genuinely becomes something more as Springsteen focuses on his family and, as it goes on, more specifically his father and their shared mental health.
In its early stages it seems as if Springsteen senior is at once a huge presence but a massive emotional absence in young Bruce’s life and as it goes on this has clear emotional resonance on the growing musician. In the second half of the book this shifts as Springsteen explores not only his father’s mental health problems but begins to address his own.
Springsteen in Asbury Park
This leads to what are the most interesting parts of the book as Springsteen discusses his own depression in the most frank and lyrical manner I’ve possibly ever heard or read. As well as the more factual side of his conditions he doesn’t shy away from describing the more day-to-day side and the way it makes him feel in relation to his own life, something often skipped in my experience of stories like this.
What this does is make what could have been a perfectly serviceable autobiography into something far more and, crucially, something that could be of huge importance to much of its audience who, traditionally, are the least likely to address mental health issues.
Also of course the other sign that’s it’s done it’s job is that I do now want to more consciously explore Springsteen’s back catalogue with the extra context that it seems is crucial to understanding it all and that makes much of it just as fitting in the current political situation as it was when it was written up to nearly half a century ago.