Springsteen gets personal

The singer-songwriter's new memoir delves into his poor, troubled childhood, his career and his many stabs at romance

NEW YORK • Long dark highways and thin white lines; fire roads and Interstates; the skeleton frames of burnt-out Chevrolets; barefoot girls sitting on the hoods of Dodges; pink Cadillacs; last-chance power drives; men who go out for a ride and never come back.

Bruce Springsteen's song lyrics have injected more drama and mystery into the myths of the American road than any figure since Jack Kerouac. He knows this, of course.

So it is one of the running jokes in his big, loose, rangy and intensely satisfying new memoir, Born To Run (what else was he going to call it?), that he did not begin to drive until he was well into his 20s - around the time he landed simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek.

His brooding and violent father had been too impatient to teach him and, anyway, he could not afford a car.

When Springsteen was forced to sneak behind the wheel, licenceless, to handle some of the driving on his earliest tours, his ineptitude terrified his band members. He did not exactly, when young and virile, ride through mansions of glory on suicide machines. He mostly stuck out his thumb. He had been born to hitch.

"Every sort of rube, redneck, responsible citizen and hell-raiser the Jersey Shore had to offer, I rode with 'em," he writes in Born To Run.

Bruce Springsteen in a 2007 photograph. Judging by early tweets about his memoir, Born To Run (above right), he suffered periodically from serious depression.
Bruce Springsteen in a 2007 photograph. Judging by early tweets about his memoir, Born To Run, he suffered periodically from serious depression. PHOTO: NYTIMES

These rides matter because Springsteen's songs, like the blue-collar poetry of Philip Levine, are intensely peopled. Wild Billy and Crazy Janey, Johnny 99, Mary from Thunder Road, Wayne from Darlington County, Jimmy the Saint and Bobby Jean had to come from somewhere.

This memoir suggests Spring- steen met many of them while cackling over there in the shotgun seat.

The headline news in Born To Run, to judge by the early news media tweets, is that Springsteen, who turned 67 last Friday, has suffered periodically from serious depression.

I will admit that this information shook me. If Springsteen has to resort to Klonopin, what hope is there for anyone?

But these sections are not the reason to come to Born To Run. The book is like one of Springsteen's shows - long, ecstatic, exhausting, filled with peaks and valleys. It is part seance and part keg party, and then the house lights come up and you realise that: A), you look ridiculous dancing to Twist And Shout and: B), you will be driving home in a minivan and not a Camaro.

His writing voice is much like his speaking voice. There is a big, raspy laugh on at least every other page. There is some raunch here. This book has not been utterly sanitised for anyone's protection and many of the best lines would not be printed in this newspaper.

Most important, Born To Run is, like his finest songs, closely observed from end to end. His story is intimate and personal, but he has an interest in other people and a gift for sizing them up.

Bruce Springsteen in a 2007 photograph. Judging by early tweets about his memoir, Born To Run (above right), he suffered periodically from serious depression.
Born To Run.

His father was a frequently unemployed bus driver, among other blue-collar jobs; his mother a legal secretary.

They were fairly poor. In their houses - half-houses, more often - there was generally no telephone and little heat. Meals were cooked on a coal stove.

Born To Run is potent on the subject of social class.

In Springsteen's part of New Jersey, it was the "rah-rahs" (preppies) versus the greasers and there was no doubt which side of that line he was on. At some of his early shows, guys in chinos spat on him.

"I could still feel the shadow of that spit that hit me long ago when I moved to Rumson in 1983, 16 years later," he writes.

He had found fame and bought a decent place.

Yet: "At 33 years old, I still had to take a big gulp of air before walking through the door of my new home."

He suggests there is a freight of psychic payback in Darkness On The Edge Of Town, his most fully realised album.

"For my parents' troubled lives, I was determined to be the enlightened, compassionate voice of reason and revenge."

He got his first guitar, a rental, after seeing Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show. He had a serious work ethic and went on to play in a string of well-regarded bands with names such as Child And Earth and Steel Mill.

My kids didn't know Badlands from matzo ball soup... When I was approached on the street for autographs, I'd explain to them that in my job I was Barney (the then- famous purple dinosaur) for adults.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN in his book about raising his three children without rock-star mementos in the house

When his word-drunk first record, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., appeared in 1973, he was lumped with the so-called New Dylans, folk singers such as Loudon Wainwright III and John Prine. But there was a crucial difference.

Unlike those performers, Springsteen onstage, thanks to his long bar-band apprenticeship, could blow audiences backwards.

He writes that he has never thought much of his singing voice. As good a guitar player as he is, others were better. It was his songs, he realised early, that would have to put him over the top. If this book has one curious blind spot, it is that we never quite understand how those words came into being.

He studied the songwriting of people such as Bob Dylan, Donovan and Tim Buckley, he writes. But so did many others. If his early reading was an influence, he does not say. The words were apparently just there, available, on tap. And they stayed there, even when his lyrics became pared down. Songs such as The River and Stolen Car are as evocative in their details as are Raymond Carver's best short stories.

Born To Run takes us, album by album, through his career. These chapters sometimes feel clipped and compressed, as if he has wedged the data in his heart onto a Thumbdrive.

The book takes the reader through his many stabs at romance, which tended to end badly.

He details the failure of his first marriage, to actress Julianne Phillips, and the success of his second, to singer-songwriter Patti Scialfa, whom he describes, in a childhood photo, as "a freckle- faced Raggedy Ann of a little girl".

He raised his three children without rock-star mementos in the house.

"My kids didn't know Badlands from matzo ball soup," he writes. "When I was approached on the street for autographs, I'd explain to them that, in my job, I was Barney (the then-famous purple dinosaur) for adults."

His eldest son says, in shock: "Dad, that guy has you tattooed on his arm."

Springsteen's work ethic has never abandoned him, or he it.

"I'm glad I've been handsomely paid for my efforts," he writes, "but I truly would have done it for free."


• Born To Run (hardback) is available for order from Books Kinokuniya at $52.55.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 25, 2016, with the headline 'Springsteen gets personal'. Print Edition | Subscribe