The only predictable thing about Born to Run (Simon & Schuster, $32.50), Bruce Springsteen’s sonic blast of an autobiography is the title. Everything else about it — the riveting narrative arc, the astonishing level of candor, the unflinching self-criticism, the lyrical poetry of its workingman’s prose — is so fresh and original that it jumps off the page like a grasshopper on a sizzling summer sidewalk.
In a genre dominated by limp-dick, phoned-in efforts like Rod Stewart’s lame — and lamely titled — Rod: The Autobiography and toxic tales like John Fogerty’s score-settling screed Fortunate Son, this is an instant classic. Like a Springsteen concert it starts with a rush and a roar, accelerates from there and many hours later leaves you hoarse, exhausted and covered in sweat – the kind of sweat you work up dancing in the dark with Courtney Cox.
The book's buzziest bits — the parts that were immediately tweeted — include the revelation that Springsteen was abused by his brooding, blue-collar, bi-polar father and that Springsteen himself has suffered from serious depression and has been on anti-depressants for much of the past dozen years. He addresses these mental health issues honestly and forthrightly — it runs in his father’s family — but they are minor notes in a stirring symphony of heart and soul.
Springsteen divides his 508-page epic into three sections: “Growin’ Up,” “Born to Run” and “Living Proof.” The first part, which details Springsteen's life pre-stardom, lasts more than 200 pages and is broken up into 28 chapters. Think of them as the singles — the short, snappy 45s with a hook, a riff and a chorus — that make up the larger album.
Springsteen's prose reads like gutbucket, street-saint poetry. The book's very first paragraph manages to sound both written-from-the-heart-raw and at the same time polished to a shimmering sheen: “I am ten years old and I know every crack, bone and crevice in the crumbling sidewalk running up and down Randolph Street, my street. Here, on passing afternoons I am Hannibal crossing the Alps, GI’s locked in vicious mountain combat and countless cowboy heroes traversing the rocky trails of the Sierra Nevada. With my belly to the stone, alongside the tiny anthills that pop up volcanically where dirt and concrete meet, my world sprawls on into infinity, or at least to Peter McDermott’s house on the corner of Lincoln and Randolph, one block up.”
Most of the other important early signposts along the road to rock stardom are here — seeing Elvis with the forbidden hip-shaking that was sensed but not seen on the Ed Sullivan show, his mother buying him his first guitar for $18, his first erection at a high-school dance, his first band — and they're all detailed in his compellingly intimate writing style. He talks about all his early days in bands, including a couple of trips to California that earned him his first rave of a review in the San Francisco Examiner but little else, certainly not the recording contract he so desperately wanted.
After years of playing small clubs and loud bars, he realized he had two choices: continue as the bar band king of the Jersey Shore or set out on his own. Sure enough, in 1972, he signed a contract with Columbia Records with the help of John Hammond, who signed Bob Dylan a decade earlier. His first album, January 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, was a rhyming extravaganza that sold few copies. Many critics lumped him in with all the other “new Dylans” — like John Prine and Loudon Wainwright – but that all changed in September 1973 with his second album, a knock-out with the ambitious title The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, was released. It showed off his great vocal range, his street-smart lyrics and his uncanny ability to turn real-life neighborhood characters like Wild Billy, Crazy Janey and Madam Marie into mythic archetypes.
In May 1974, Boston’s The Real Paper music critic Jon Landau wrote some of the most famous words in rock history: “I saw rock and roll’s future and his name is Bruce Springsteen.” That was fuel for Springsteen's rocket booster, and then his anthemic Born to Run was released in August 1975. Two months later Springsteen was on the cover of both Time and Newsweek — an unprecedented honor for a rock 'n' roller. He was truly on his way. The book’s second section, “Born to Run,” deals with the trials and tribulations of becoming a rock star and the troubles that can happen when all your dreams — and more — come true.
The third section, “Living Proof,” deals with the challenges of aging, his failed first marriage to model/actress Julianne Phillips, and the eventual discovery that his soul mate, Patti, was right in front of his face. It's here he deals with his mental health issues in an attempt to understand the wild ride. One particularly moving section is his tribute to sax player Clarence Clemons, the “Big Man,” a great player who lent the otherwise all-white E Street Band just enough soul to have credibility with all audiences. Clemons’ death from a stroke in 2011 was a blow from which Springsteen may never fully recover, but penning this moving eulogy must have been cathartic all the same.
With apologies to Jon Landau (who later became Springsteen’s producer and manager): I have seen the future of rock-star autobiographies and its name is Born to Run.