Looking at Bruce Springsteen’s long and successful career, most of his fans probably think he’s had an easy life. He’s won numerous Grammys, attracted a legion of loyal followers, and has an entire magazine devoted to documenting his every move. He’s considered one of the most important singer-songwriters and exciting performers in rock and roll history. His recent autobiography, Born to Run, tells a fuller, much more complicated story.
He spent seven years writing the book and it offers much more than a typical celebrity memoir. It's 508 pages don’t read as if it were written by a professional ghostwriter. His voice leaps from every page. It’s too personal a tale--and too believable to have been written by a hack.
As the website Good Reads puts it: “… Bruce Springsteen has privately devoted himself to writing the story of his life, bringing to these pages the same honesty, humor, and originality found in his songs… Rarely has a performer told his own story with such force and sweep. Like many of his songs (“Thunder Road,” “Badlands,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “The River,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” “The Rising,” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” to name just a few), Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography is written with the lyricism of a singular songwriter and the wisdom of a man who has thought deeply about his experiences.”
Springsteen’s father wrestled with undiagnosed mental illness throughout his life. It got worse as the years passed. He would often leave home to drive aimlessly before returning to his family without a word of explanation.
At one point, after years of struggle, Doug Springsteen disappeared for three days and Bruce set out to find him. He discovered that his father had been arrested for refusing to pay a small fine following a minor car accident. Bruce finally found him in a bar and took him to breakfast at a nearby McDonald’s where his father got into a fight with another patron. As Bruce tells it in his book: “Out of the blue my pop had started shouting profanity-laced non-sequiturs and the guy thought he was talking to him. I apologized, explained the best I could, and we hustled out with our Egg McMuffins. It was sad. My dad was hearing the voices in his head and he was answering them."
Their relationship had been rough from the start. Doug never really held a steady job. He worked variously as a bus driver, prison guard, and mill hand. Bruce’s mother, Adele, had the only reliable income in the household, working as a secretary at an insurance office. Doug brought his problems home with him. He drank heavily and had a vicious temper. Bruce bore the brunt of it: "When I was growing up, there were two things that were unpopular in my house," the singer later recalled. "One was me, and the other was my guitar."
His difficult relationship with his father had at least one good result, As Bruce later said at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, “I gotta thank him. Because what would I conceivably have written about without him? I mean, you can imagine that if everything had gone great between us, we would have had a disaster. I would have written just happy songs—and I tried it in the early '90s and it didn't work… Anyway, I put on his work clothes and I went to work. It was the way that I honored him.”
As difficult as his home life was, he didn’t fare much better in Catholic elementary school. A nun once stuffed her fidgety and reclusive student into a garbage can, telling him it was where he belonged. He also became the parish’s first altar boy ever knocked down by a priest during a mass. He always felt like an outsider. He stayed away from his high school graduation ceremony because he was too uncomfortable to show up.
When he saw Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show as a teenager, he said it was the experience that changed his life. His mother bought him a $60 guitar. He immediately saw rock and roll as his potential salvation. When the “British Invasion’ hit the US, the Beatles sound convinced him he had finally found a way to become somebody who counted.
After a few years of playing with local bands, he began spending most of his time in nearby Asbury Park, which had a thriving music scene by the late 60s. He soon made his first attempts to write songs, performed them in public, and began to receive some occasional attention from rock critics who saw him as the next Bob Dylan because of his introspective, poetic lyrics, and brash style.
Jon Landau, writing in Rolling Stone after seeing him perform at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was one of his biggest supporters, an event that set him apart from his peers. Already a staffer for Rolling Stone, he wrote the following in Boston’s The Real Paper:” I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.”
Friends of Bruce’s told him that he should meet the legendary John Hammond, the producer and A&R man at Columbia Records who had discovered or produced Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan. On May 2, 1972, he played a few songs for Hammond on his acoustic guitar. Bruce’s manager at the time, Mike Appel, had talked Hammond into letting him audition. The songs he played included “Growin’ Up,” “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” “Mary Queen of Arkansas” and “If I Was the Priest.” Hammond told him: “You’ve got to be on Columbia Records.”
Hammond quickly booked him to open that night at the folkie hangout, the Gaslight in Greenwich Village, to see how he well he could perform in front of a live audience. Hammond scheduled time for him the next day in CBS Studios, where he produced a handful of demos that would soon lead to his debut Columbia LP, Greetings from Asbury Park.
But the public largely ignored his debut. His second album, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, was also a critical success but not a huge seller. Soon, Landau and Springsteen became close friends—with Landau becoming his closest confidante and mentor. He and Bruce talked about music, including how to produce records and Landau, a Harvard graduate, gave Bruce a reading list that provided him with the equivalent of a college education.
While Bruce and his band toured behind his new release, winning over audiences all over the East Coast, he and Landau went into the recording studio at every opportunity to work on his next record. They spent hours arguing over the tracks they recorded but after several weeks a test pressing was delivered to Springsteen at a hotel. He listened to it once and immediately threw it into the swimming pool. Eventually, they started over from the beginning and the engineer, Jimmy Iovine, tore up the bills for production costs, knowing Columbia would never pay them.
The new album took months to record, with six months alone spent on the song "Born to Run." Springsteen battled with anger and frustration over the album, saying he heard "sounds in [his] head" that he could not explain to the others in the studio.
It was during these recording sessions that "Miami" Steve Van Zandt would join them in the studio to help Springsteen organize the horn section on “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.” Van Zandt eventually joined the E Street Band He had been a longtime friend and collaborator of Bruce from his Asbury Park days and knew what Bruce was looking for. He could translate some of the sounds Springsteen was hearing into a polished recording. Still not satisfied with the production, Springsteen wanted to record the entire album live at New York’s Bottom Line club but Landau overcame his reservations.
The record not only blew away critics again this time but created a huge wave of publicity that Bruce would ride all the way to commercial success. In 1975, Springsteen appeared on the covers of both Newsweek and Time in the same week and the album made Bruce a force to be reckoned with in the music business.
By 1985, his Born in the U.S.A. album made Springsteen a certified cultural icon, reaching the largest audience he would ever have. To Springsteen’s annoyance, Ronald Reagan, after his team had asked Bruce to give permission to play the song at campaign stops and were refused, Reagan mentioned him in his speeches as an American success story. He (or his people) didn’t seem to understand that the song told the story of a disenchanted Viet War vet who like Bruce, would have been unlikely to support Reagan’s candidacy. From June 15 to August 10, all his seven of his albums appeared on the UK album chart. It was the first time any artist had charted their entire back catalog at the same time.
Landau’s influence on Springsteen had had a telling effect. Jon continued feeding him a steady diet of classic American literature, important movies, and even country music. It was especially noticeable the songs he wrote for his next album, Darkness on the Edge of Town.
One of the most important developments in Springsteen’s signature sound took place when Clarence Clemons joined the band. On the night of a great lightning storm in Asbury Park with the wind howling, Springsteen was in a bar with a band, and he was playing hard, trying to move the audience but it just wasn’t working. He was searching for a way to reach the crowd but couldn’t find one. Lightning crackled and thunder boomed. The front door of the bar blew off its hinges. Clemons walked in and headed straight to the stage. He took out a saxophone he had with him, began to play as if he knew every song and Bruce was hooked. The audience reaction Bruce had been looking for suddenly kicked in when Clemons played his first solo.
The “Big Man, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the son of a longshoreman and restaurant owner had also been a football player, good enough it’s said, to have earned a tryout with the Cleveland Browns. He had received an alto saxophone as a present at the age of nine. At 16, he heard King Curtis of The Coasters play baritone sax on “Yakety Yak,” and at 29, he burst through the busted door in the Asbury Park bar, saw and heard Bruce Springsteen, and as he later said, “We fell in love.” Neither of them were ever quite the same after that night.
In his heartfelt eulogy at Clemons’s funeral in 2011, Bruce said, ‘Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we do. Clarence was big, and he made me feel, and think, and love, and dream big. How big was the Big Man? Too fucking big to die.”
By the time, Nebraska, Springsteen’s stark solo acoustic album appeared, it surprised his fans and didn’t sell as well as previous LPs. But it made a lasting impression on rock critics who were impressed by his range and willingness to take risks. The recording sessions were based on a demo tape Springsteen had made in his home studio on a low-tech four-track tape deck but Springsteen and Landau soon understood that the songs only really worked as solo acoustic songs, not full band versions. They decided to release the original demo tape as a finished album.
According to the Dave Marsh biographies, Springsteen was depressed when he wrote the songs for Nebraska and the Woody Guthrie-like scenes of American life he detailed were closer to serious literature than popular music. Bruce wasn’t wearing rock t-shirts for these renditions, he was (metaphorically) wearing a blue work shirt and engineer boots. Nebraska was named "Album of the Year" by Rolling Stone and influenced later works by many other major artists—from rockers and folkies to country singers and songwriters who considered themselves “outlaws.”
On July 19, 1988, Springsteen played a concert in East Germany that attracted 300,000 spectators. Journalist Erik Kirschbaum called the concert "the most important rock concert ever, anywhere", in his 2013 book Rocking the Wall. Kirschbaum credits the success of the concert with contributing to the fall of the Berlin Wall in the following year.
In 2002, Springsteen released The Rising, his first recording with his full band in 18 years. Mostly a reflection on the September 11 attacks, it was both a huge critical and popular success. The songs were obviously influenced by phone conversations Springsteen had with many family members of victims, who in obituaries of their loved ones often mentioned how Springsteen’s music had touched their lives.
His story continues. There is much more to tell and you will find much of it in his new well-received autobiography, Born to Run. The book has the same power to move us as his best songs. It will make an important addition to any serious fan’s collection of Bruce Springsteen music memorabilia.