Book review: Born to run by Bruce Springsteen
At some point in 1977, Bruce Springsteen found his voice—or his “adult voice”, as he puts it in his often-searing autobiography titled, what else, Born To Run. For anyone who is curious about the musical, personal and political evolution of the man they call The Boss, the chapter on “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” (the book takes you through his life, album by album) is the one that puts the story in perspective.
In that year, Springsteen, who, in a career spanning over four decades, has sold more than 120 million albums and won 20 Grammies, reconciled himself with what he had always known to be a core identity—his working-class roots. There were other pieces to the jigsaw puzzle he picked up along the way—his Catholicism, his family’s neighbourhood experience, “home, roots, blood, community, responsibility, stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive”.
It is his class identity that forms the bedrock of his insightful book. And to those familiar with the music he has produced along with his legendary E Street Band—his millions of fans and others—it comes as no surprise that he tells his story so beautifully.
Springsteen is the most openly political among the giants of today’s mainstream rock music, aside possibly from Neil Young. This year, the man whose concerts have sometimes lasted more than four hours, has run an equally indefatigable campaign for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate for the US presidential election. His contempt for Rodham Clinton’s Republican rival, the billionaire Donald Trump, who won the election to become the 45th president of the United States, is visceral.
Last month, he told The Rolling Stone magazine, “The republic is under siege by a moron, basically… The whole thing is tragic. Without overstating it, it’s a tragedy for our democracy…When you start talking about elections being rigged, you’re pushing people beyond democratic governance.” And he told a Swedish and Norwegian talk show, according to The Guardian, “I don’t think he’s going to win, but even him running is a great embarrassment if you’re an American…We have certain problems in the United States— tremendous inequality of wealth distribution. That makes for ripe ground for demagoguery.”
It’s not for no reason that in 1984, the campaign team of Republican candidate Ronald Reagan—arguably one of the most popular of US presidents—famously tried to usurp The Boss’ political legacy on his own turf. It came in a re-election campaign speech in the small town of Hammonton, New Jersey, the state where Springsteen was born into an impoverished family. Springsteen writes: “In 1984, add to this an election year, a Republican party intent on co-opting a cow’s ass if it has the Stars and Stripes tattooed on it, sitting president Ronald Reagan cynically offering thanks for ‘the message of hope in songs of...New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen’ on a campaign swing through the state, and well…you know the rest.”
Indeed we do, but not the whole story that comes out in his book. It is sometimes thought that that moment in 1984, only months after the release of his Born In The USA album, was when Springsteen “became political”. In his book, however, Springsteen recounts how he rediscovered his roots back in 1977, overcoming the cynicism of the 1970s.
He was never into drugs and alcohol anyway, and that may have made this journey easier to trace and embrace, because being straight while still hard up for cash meant he was able to pull himself back from falling into the abyss—the fate of so many talented rock musicians.
This journey was made possible through the “class-conscious” music of the 1960s’ British band The Animals—songs like We Gotta Get Out Of This Place and It’s My Life (And I’ll Do What I Want)—and the late 1970s punk bands such as The Clash, The Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello. “Out went anything that smacked of frivolity or nostalgia,” Springsteen writes. “It was a time of great endings and great beginnings… The connection between the fan and the man onstage had grown too abstract.”
The realization of this disconnect in an art form that is as primal as it gets also came from listening to the songs of the great folk musician Woody Guthrie and the country music of Hank Williams. “Here was a music that emotionally described a life I recognized, my life, the life of my family and neighbours. Here was where I wanted to make my stand musically and search for my own questions and answers. I didn’t want out. I wanted in… My music would be a music of identity, a search for meaning and the future.”
There’s a sense that this search finds a resolution in the “community”—a word that’s sprinkled across the pages of this book. When Springsteen casts his eye and memory back to his childhood years, it is the community that he sees, in all its class-conscious glory and its poverty and misogyny. The book also recounts his incredibly difficult relationship with his father (“taxi driver, assembly line worker, autoworker, jail guard, bus driver, truck driver”) and his own well-known battle with depression.
But it all comes back to the “community”. The marathon rock concerts that fill stadiums with the E Street Band’s massive sound, that pulsating foundation laid by drummer Max Weinberg, are a community too. That is why you will see Springsteen unexpectedly pick out an unknown early song requested by a fan in the audience and belt it out with the passion of a singer speaking to you and you alone among thousands.
It goes back to the fundamentals. “For my parents’ troubled lives I was determined to be the enlightened, compassionate voice of reason and revenge.” Springsteen’s book is aptly titled. He was born to run, not run away as so many musicians before him have done, but run with us—with the community.