Tramps like us: In Bruce Springsteen’s fearless memoir, his story becomes our story

First look at the first album. Photo from "Born to Run" (©Art Maillet)
First look at the first album. Photo from “Born to Run” (©Art Maillet)


Born to Run
by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster, pp. 510, $32.50)

Bruce Springsteen fans of a certain age have been living with his warm, sturdy, weathered voice in our ears for more than 40 years. The music has seeped into our DNA. The concerts are tattooed into memory. The lyrics, interviews and biographies have been parsed like holy scripture. We thought we knew all there was to know about our hero The Boss.

It turns out, we were right, and we were so wrong. We might have correctly intuited the shape of his life from the music. But as the 67-year-old Springsteen reveals in his new autobiography Born to Run, the details of that life are darker, tougher, more joyous and so much sadder than fans might have guessed. There are parts of this generous, fearless and gracefully-written book that will pierce your heart. Springsteen’s prose voice — like his songwriting voice, part-compadre, part-carney-barker, part-hardscrabble poet — is  so familiar by now, that his pain isn’t the pain of some remote celebrity, it’s the pain of a family member. And it hurts.

The story begins in Freehold, New Jersey, with a couple of stunning chapters about growing up in the bosom of an eccentric (sometimes poisonously so), blue-collar extended family of first- and second-generation Irish and Italian immigrants. He is doted on by his paternal grandmother, with whom he and his parents, Douglas and Adele, live. His grandmother Alice was long ago broken by the death of her five-year-old daughter Virginia. His grandparents’ house — “the greatest and saddest sanctuary I have ever known” — is dominated by the loss of the little girl. “Her portrait hovers, breathing a ghostly air into the room and shining her ill-fated destiny over our family gatherings,” he writes. “Her seemingly benign gaze … communicates, Watch out! The world is a dangerous and unforgiving place that will knock your ass off your tricycle and into the dead black unknown …”

Grandma Alice takes up little Bruce as a surrogate for her lost child. He is spoiled and protected, with no bedtimes, no rules. “The grinding hypnotic power of this ruined place and these people would never leave me. I visit it in my dreams today … It was a place where I felt an ultimate security, full license and a horrible, unforgettable boundary-less love. It ruined me and it made me. Ruined, in that for the rest of my life I would struggle to create boundaries for myself that would allow me a life of some normalcy in relationships. It made me in the sense that it would set me off on a lifelong pursuit of a ‘singular’ place of my own, giving me a raw hunger that drove me, hell-bent, in my music. It was a desperate, lifelong effort to rebuild, on embers of memory and longing, my temple of safety.”

The yearning for home recurs throughout the book; in a shiveringly evocative passage, he cruises the old neighborhood, even after his family has moved on and success has claimed him, driving slowly after midnight, parking on his old street, but not getting out of the car.  

By the time Bruce is elementary school age, his unorthodox family situation has rendered him “an outcast weirdo misfit sissy-boy … alienating, alienated and socially homeless.” He is unable to conform to the outside world and, especially, to Catholic school. Reclaimed by his parents, he is moved into a house darkened by the hulking silence of his father, a laborer with a boxer’s menace who will later haunt Springsteen songs like “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Factory” and “Independence Day.” As he once did in long, therapeutic stage raps, Springsteen lays out an eerie portrait of his father sitting at the kitchen table, seething and smoking cigarettes in the dark, waiting to lash out at his disappointing son: “He loved me, but he couldn’t stand me.”

Why did his sunny, lively mother submit to her husband’s passive hostility and madness, he wonders. “What penance was she doing? What did she get out of it? Her family? Atonement? … She loved my dad and maybe knowing she had the security of  a man who would not, could not, leave her was enough.” When Bruce is 19, Douglas packs Adele and their youngest daughter, Pam, off to start a new life in San Mateo, California, a last-chance power drive to lift the blackness in his mind. “Get out, Pops! Out of this fucking dump,” his son writes. “How much worse off can you be?” At the time that Bruce signs with Columbia Records, in 1972, he is essentially homeless, crashing in a surfboard factory. He has no credit card or bank account, has never visited a dentist and has yet to learn how to drive.

It wasn’t just the generation gap that had colored the mood inside the Springsteen home. “We are the afflicted,” is how Springsteen characterizes the “serious strain of mental illness” that plagues the Irish side of the family. In later chapters, he writes movingly of his father finally being diagnosed and treated for the depression, paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that had gone unnamed for so many years.

Springsteen candidly details his own depression and anxiety, which arrived in his 30’s around the time of his mid-eighties Born in the U.S.A. superstardom and his short-lived marriage to actress Julianne Phillips. Therapy helps, and also touring and playing. But it remains an ongoing struggle. He writes of antidepressants that stop working and bring on non-stop crying jags, unyielding depression kept secret while recording 2012’s Wrecking Ball (his greatest late-career record to date) and a terrifying six-week bout with “agitated depression,” during which, he writes, “I was so profoundly uncomfortable in my own skin that I just wanted OUT. … For the first time, I felt I understood what drives people toward the abyss.”

Knowing the extent of Springsteen’s battle with depression now brings deeper meaning to a song like “Your Own Worst Enemy” from 2007’s Magic (“There’s a face you know/ Staring back from the shop window/ The condition you’re in/ You just can’t get out of this skin”). Taken literally and not as a metaphor for economic hard times “This Depression” from Wrecking Ball (“I’ve been down, but never this down/ I’ve been lost, but never this lost”) becomes simply shattering.

In an extraordinarily revealing section, Springsteen traces the connection between his father’s and his own mental illness and “the rigidity and the blue-collar narcissism of manhood ‘50s-style … The hard blues of constant disaffection … A misogyny grown from the fear of all dangerous, beautiful, strong women in our lives crossed with the carrying of an underlying physical threat, a psychological bullying that is meant to frighten and communicate that the dark thing in you is barely restrained. You use it to intimidate those you love.” Springsteen describes himself during his marriage to Phillips as a “passively hostile actor” given to “cowardly” acts of emotional violence. “I wanted to wound and hurt and make sure those who loved me paid for it. It was all out of the old man’s playbook.”

Too many rock memoirs merely polish the image set in granite. In Born to Run, Springsteen tells us from the first sentence that he is tinged with fraud, and then, sets about showing us his fragility, his failures, his shame and finally, with almost palpable gratitude, the hard-won lessons that taught him how to be a caring, emotionally open modern man. The pumped-up physique from the Born in the U.S.A. days was, he ruefully explains, “a symbol of an imaginary commanding manhood and masculinity” akin to the ship captain’s hat his father took to wearing in California. “For me there’d be no captain’s hat! Just ‘THE BOSS!’. Bulging muscles, judo and the lifting of thousands and thousands of pounds worth of meaningless objects every … single … day.” Some folks who stopped listening to Springsteen in 1985 might be surprised at how forcefully he takes apart that guy in the red bandana and the muscle shirts.

One of the strengths and pleasures of Born to Run is how we can discern the origin of songs rising up through the narrative, without Springsteen even mentioning their names. The shaggy boardwalk stories recounted here cast your memory back to the bar-band, Jersey shore world of “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and “The E Street Shuffle” from his first two albums. The self-lacerating “Brilliant Disguise,” “One Step Up” and “Two Faces” from Tunnel of Love (1987) immediately spring to mind while reading his searing descriptions of his failures as a husband to Phillips. And he returns again and again to the class realities internalized from growing up poor in an economically depressed region in the 1960s, realities incorporated into his late-70’s-early-80’s albums Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska, and the song “My Hometown” from Born in the U.S.A..

The teenager from the wrong side of the tracks who played for the preppies in wealthy Rumson, New Jersey eventually bought a house there. But Springsteen tells of being acutely uncomfortable with being tagged as “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt” when he decides to write about the lives of Mexican immigrants and the rural poor on the 1995 solo album The Ghost of Tom Joad. His songs are “emotionally autobiographical,” he explains. “The piece of me that lived in the working class neighborhoods of my hometown was an essential and permanent part of who I was … No one you have been and no place you have ever gone ever leaves you. The new parts simply jump in the car and go along for the rest of the ride.”

Springsteen’s assessments of his talents swing between wry humility (“I was not a natural genius”) and a seasoned showman’s pride in knowing how to leave it all on the stage. Though he makes it clear that he is THE leader of the E Street Band (“Democracy in rock bands, with very few exceptions, is often a ticking time bomb”), he writes with appreciation and love for the men and women with whom he makes music; they are a long-running train filled with like-minded saints, sinners and lost souls (as he mythologized the band in the beautiful 1999 track “Land of Hope and Dreams”) and they’ve endured through time and age and even beyond death. As for his fans, he counts us as an essential part of the equation. Almost as if he’s breaking the fourth wall, he tells us of struggling to find a spark while rehearsing the band in isolation for its 1999 reunion tour, until some die-hards loitering outside the hall were let in and “suddenly there it was  … there’d been only one thing missing: you.”

Springsteen’s writing is as windy and wordy, funny and rich as his lyrics. There are a few patches of mere workmanlike prose when he gets into track-by-track roll calls of one album or another. But most of his insights into how particular songs came to be are essential. He angrily defends “American Skin (41 Shots)”, the song he wrote about the 1999 shooting death of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York City police as he was reaching for his wallet — a song that has proven to be sorrowfully prescient. He writes that no other song of his, including “Born in the U.S.A.” (famously misinterpreted as a patriotic ditty by then-President Reagan) “ever received as confused and controversial a reaction … it truly pissed people off. It was the first song where I stepped directly into the divide of race and in America, race cuts deep.” For writing “American Skin,” he was given a plaque by his local NAACP: “I was always glad that the song brought me just a little closer to the black community I always wished I’d served better.”  

If the soul of the book is Springsteen’s long road to making peace with his father and himself, its heart is his marriage to Patti Scialfa, the singer and Jersey girl who cracked the E Street Band’s boys club when she joined in 1984. Springsteen writes tenderly of Scialfa, who seems a patient, loving and no-bullshit-brooking soul. Under Scialfa’s guidance, Springsteen learns how to be a true partner, as well as how to be a father to their three children — no easy task, having grown up nearly feral himself. And becoming a father brings him closer to Douglas. When the latter lays dying, Springsteen makes a head-to-toe study of the elder man’s illness-ravaged body: “It was not shined or shaped into a suit of armor. It was just the body of a man … His feet … are the feet of my foe, and my hero. They are crumbling now at their base. … I feel warm breath as my lips kiss a sandpaper cheek and I whisper my good-bye.”

Just when you think Born to Run has hit its final emotional peak, out comes one last, house-lights-up encore, an autumnal last paragraph in which Springsteen once again speaks directly to us. He has worked and fought to understand his own life, he writes, to turn its peaks and valleys into music, into shared experience. “This, I presented as my long and noisy prayer, my magic trick. Hoping it would rock your very soul and then pass it on, its spirit rendered, to be read, heard, sung and altered by you and your blood, that it might strengthen and help make sense of your story. Go tell it.”

I heard my story writ large the first time I heard Darkness on the Edge of Town. It was 1978, I was 21 and it gave me the courage to believe that I wasn’t going to be stuck in this house of fear and this defeated Northeast town forever. I carried it with me to California. It inspired and comforted me through depression, parenthood, illness, middle age, loss. And whenever Springsteen comes to my town, I’m there, surrounded by my fellow aging fans, with our aches and pains of body and soul. We all have our own stories, but in every one of them is a chapter called “Rock and Roll Salvation,” subtitled “Bruce.” We are all part of that train that Springsteen set in motion, and now, with the bittersweet summing-up of Born to Run, he’s taking us home.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape 2016

3 thoughts on “Tramps like us: In Bruce Springsteen’s fearless memoir, his story becomes our story

  1. milomiles October 10, 2016 / 6:17 pm

    Bruce Springsteen’s sense of timing is superhuman beyond any performer in any medium I have encountered. And it’s a sense that gets acres of homage but can only be explained in the heart. A miracle that through all he muddled through, that remained clear. A triumph you rightly celebrate.

  2. kenny October 28, 2016 / 11:13 am

    that last paragraph says it all thank you

  3. Ray October 31, 2016 / 12:30 pm

    Quite simply the best review of the many I have read. You get to the heart and soul of the extraordinary book. Thank you.

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