I’ve only seen Bruce Springsteen live, in concert once, during the 1988 Amnesty Internatonal Human Rights Now! Tour. Four friends and I took a three-hour bus ride into Philadelphia on September 19th and climbed the crumbling steps of JFK Stadium to the nosebleed section. But the seats didn’t matter. All you needed that night were your ears and your heart. Tracy Chapman lifted us up and then crushed us, Peter Gabriel raised our fists to Biko, and Joan Baez surprised us all simply by being there. But all of them (plus Sting) paled in comparison to The Boss. He came out with his black vest and his biceps and he sang with his guts: all joy and fury, regret and redemption. I had never seen anyone perform like that, as if singing was the only thing keeping him alive.
Perhaps then, I am not the most objective person to review his recent memoir, Born to Run. (But who among us can hear those three words and not remember being a teenager on the verge of her entire life?) I was a bit nervous to begin the book, worried that perhaps the innermost thoughts of this legend would reveal him as a poser or a fraud. So let me reassure you this is not the case. Rather, Born to Run cements Springsteen’s talent as a storyteller. The writing is raw and he leaves it unvarnished and unmended. Think The River, Rosalita, and Growin’ Up:
I stood stone-like at midnight, suspended in my masquerade
I combed my hair till it was just right and commanded the night brigade
From his rough childhood to his clueless entry into the music business, Springsteen’s story is proof that you can have anything you want if you want it badly enough. By the time he was 18, Springsteen had been rejected so many times that only a fool would continue. He writes of his teenage years, “It is here I receive the bullying all aspiring rock stars must undergo and suffer in seething, raw, humiliating silence, the great “leaning up against the chain-link fence as the world spins around you, without you, in rejection of you” playground loneliness that is essential fuel for the coming fire.”
And this book reads much like telling stories around a fire. There is much telling (and there is much to tell), and the story builds slowly, sometimes tediously so. The writing is beautiful and haunting and as authentic as the sound of his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ. Sometimes, however, I wished for an editor. A gorgeous line of pure poetry is often followed by a clanging cliché. For example, the lyrical prose I quoted above was followed with: “Soon all of this will burn and the world will be turned upside down on its ass.” At times, Born to Run reads like a book full of beautiful sentences but lacking the nuance of craft.
But let’s be honest. I’d read anything by Springsteen. There is no false modesty in this book, and Springsteen refuses to claim gifts that aren’t his. My favorite thing about Born to Run is Springsteen’s rare ability to accept his limitations but not let them deter his faith in his own strengths. After a long court battle with his former manager to retain ownership of his songs, Springsteen was broke and disillusioned, but had the clarity to realize:
“I took comfort in knowing I could lose all but one thing: myself. No lawsuit, no court decision, no judge, no legal outcome could take what I treasured most. That was the craft and inner life I’d built since I was a teenager, founded on the music I could make with my heart, head, and hands. That was mine forever and could not be won from me. I’d think, “If I lose and have nothing when this is over, you can still drop me with my guitar by parachute anywhere in America; I’ll walk to the nearest roadhouse, find a pickup band and light up your night. Just because I can.”
Born to Run is a book I am going to give to my children when they are old enough. It’s full of guts and grit but also an exceptional amount of grace.
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