Review published on May 14, 2017.
This book will thrill fans but it is also an interesting read for anyone interested in popular music and the creative motivation of a great musician.
I’ve been a Springsteen fan since the late 70s (I was a sort of conflicted punk at the time). I was at Wembley on 4th July, 1985, for a spectacular concert (nearly four hours), which remains for me one of the great rock and roll gigs (sadly not mentioned in the book). Springsteen opened with ‘Independence Day’ and the crowd was mesmerised. His gigs had the power to convert, I’ve seen it happen. His words and music make him a modern day poet.
Springsteen is one of the great live musicians of the last fifty years. He has managed to reinvent his music time and again, setting trends and adapting to the music of the age to remain relevant. From teenage rebellion, ‘Born To Run’, through ‘Born in the USA’ and political activism to reinterpreting the American folk songbook his music reflects his personal growth and development and has influenced so many others. His music is deeply autobiographical and has always spoken for him (many blue collar Americans would argue it tells the story of their lives too), and this is part of the enduring attraction and force of his art. In recent times Springsteen has opened up more in interviews, so it’s not surprising that he has finally written an autobiography.
In ‘Born To Run’ Springsteen’s distinctive voice is evident. In every word he writes you get a sense of the man and his life. There is a tendency to think we know a lot about someone so much in the public eye and for the fan there is a lot of context here. It feels honest and fresh (not over worked), and not in any way contrived or shy when discussing events, people and relationships, although I think a lot gets left out. Still he reveals some of the motivation, energy and drive that leads a small town boy to crave the adulation of millions of fans. He gives an insight into the creative urge and even the down side of celebrity. Springsteen talks openly about the ‘come down’ when you leave the stage (minor depression caused by being suddenly out of the limelight). It is to his credit that Springsteen does not try to present himself in a good light all the time. He can be hard headed and occasionally shows a ruthless streak that is unattractive, the sort of behaviour often forgiven in creative types. At least he is aware of that side of his character.
If I have a reservation it is that Springsteen always seems to be in control of the material. This will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows the way he runs his bands and manages his musical interests. It is very clear from the book how much Springsteen believes in his vision and is single minded in pursuit of his art to maintain its integrity. That means in the writing you sense a little reserve and occasionally I would have liked him to have relaxed and to open up a little more. That said what he writes he is honest, even blunt.
A lot of people will read this book simply because it is Springsteen and I was initially drawn for that reason. Springsteen deserves a platform to discuss his life. Still if I didn’t think this book could stand as a biography not just a celebrity profile or self aggrandisement it wouldn’t interest me. It is well written with it’s own literary merit.
As a fan reading ‘Born To Run’ there is a sense of familiarity with this story because Springsteen has already told it in the songs but he does provide insight and information that make you rethink some things.
Springsteen’s early childhood chimes with a lot of the American experience, it is a story familiar and worn, details readily recognisable from several Irish/Italian American biographies. In truth the early part of his family history and upbringing is ordinary; poor, religious and built on the broken bones of the ‘American Dream’. Complete with small stores and salt of the earth people – so far so ordinary. So for me the early pages are a bit bland but it only takes about 40 pages for music to feature and then Springsteen’s writing comes to life. I have heard rockers talk about seeing Elvis as a Damascene conversion before. Yet, Springsteen manages to bring a freshness to his account of how the music hit him. His account of seeing Elvis on the Johnny Carson Show which leads to him getting his first guitar at the age of seven suddenly lets you know this is not an ordinary little boy’s reaction to the new sounds. Springsteen’s writing style is very much like listening to him speak, there are a number of documentaries to compare it to.
Here is a man born to play music. As he tells his story Springsteen offers a perspective on early rock and roll, the British invasion of the 1960’s, and then later what it is like to be in a band (not always a good band in the early gigging days). Naturally this is not a history, it’s an incomplete tale. Yet the power and the passion that made a young boy become a rock star is clear.
Springsteen is good on growing pains, on adolescence, on puberty and being a teenager in small town America. He talks about gangs and racism and dodging the draft and doesn’t shy away from his decisions and the actions he took. He lost friends in Vietnam, something that stayed with him and was part of his political anger in the 1980’s. The book focuses quite a lot on that intuit period for the musical development of young Springsteen. The arguments with his father, the difference between the generations. This is a real strength of the book. When he gets to being famous he writes thoughtfully about recording, concerts and bands all the way through to ‘Born in the USA’ – all very entertaining. He is less fulsome on the later career, the writing is not evenly paced or balanced and there are some odd absences. There is very little mention of collaborations (e.g. the work he did with Gary U.S. Bonds, Roy Orbison) and very limited references to his music and other artists (e.g. Patti Smith, Manfred Mann, the Pointer Sisters). Slightly odd as Springsteen made a conscious decision early on in his career to sell his songs as a way of making money. Springsteen is a little sketchy on family life, which is fine, but he is also selective on the subject of drugs, drink, and sex in rock and roll. I didn’t want salacious details, I just think that this under sells the impact it would have had in his career through friends and colleagues.
Ultimately, this is the story of a man possessed by a dream, determined to fulfil it, ruthless but reflective, obsessed by his passion but honest about the power trip that is stardom. At times a little cold and not afraid to show his weaker, meaner self. A must for the committed fan but an interesting read for anyone interested in music. One of the better music biographies.
Paul Burke 4/3
Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen
Simon & Schuster UK 9781471157790 hbk Sep 2016