Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk.
Bruce Springsteen, Thunder Road
We all have stories to tell. Some may seem more important, depending on the teller and the telling, more alluring, more entertaining, more profound, but I posit that the greatest of storytellers can turn even the most mundane story into an anthem. Bruce Springsteen is a premiere storyteller and his autobiography, Born to Run filled with so much heart, grit, self-analysis, determination, sweat, and superhuman drive, you may have to stop reading once in awhile to catch your breath. In Born to Run, Springsteen tells his own story in his own way, nailing that sucker up on the cork board of his life for all the world to see, feel and interpret, revealing the fun, the failures, the hell-raising and the heartaches with the clear-eyed soulful vision of a poet, one who’s been around the block a few hundred thousand times and would go again in a heartbeat.
Part of mine own story is inextricably intertwined with Bruce’s music. He released Born to Run, the album, in August 1975, the year I started high school, and to my fervent freshman ears, the album sounded like a call to arms. How many times did I sing those songs while riding my bike en route to my lifeguarding job, or on the bus with the swim team coming home from a meet, all high on endorphins from our win, belting out Springsteen tunes in a glorious maelstrom of harmonic convergence. We knew all the words. Everyone in Jersey did. You pretty much couldn’t be from Jersey and not like The Boss. I’m pretty sure he’s a state treasure or something. It’s not just that Bruce is from New Jersey, it’s that he was New Jersey, every wild conundrum, incarnation and incantation, the fabulous and the foibles, and I swear I can’t listen to his music, not then and not today, without getting all choked up with emotion. The man’s music speaks to my soul. His book is no different.
Oh oh, come take my hand
we’re riding out tonight to case the promised land.
Bruce Springsteen, Thunder Road
I can’t read that line and hear the thrilling little guitar riff that follows without wanting to explode in exaltation or at least dance around the living room, so it was no surprise that I cried my way through Born to Run while riding my bike once again — this time for exercise not transportation — the story leaving me breathless with its spirit and hard-scrabble, wide-open honesty: the behind the scenes look into Bruce’s life and upbringing; the E Street Band whose members, after 40 years of playing together, he considers family; the dichotomy of mega superstar and common man; the uber adoration of his grandmother that gave him his self-described narcissism; his troubled and bipolar father who made every step Springsteen took a difficult one, but who later recanted after Springsteen won an Oscar for Philadelphia saying, “I’ll never tell anyone what to do again”; the mother who held it all together with her wit, loyalty to family, and exuberance; the Catholic upbringing which injected both a lyricism and mysticism into Springsteen’s writing before he even realized it; the social justice that was part of his life and band since the beginning, reflected most poignantly by his relationship with longtime pal and bandmate, Clarence Clemens — especially relevant today in a country teeming with racial injustice; and the love of his wife and family that ultimately saved him; all these pieces of the puzzle of one man’s story laid out for every man to help with their own stories, dissected and displayed with a poet’s grace and knack for association.
If you’re looking for drunken brawls and sexual exploits with all the torrid details, you won’t get much of that here, and while plenty of influential people appear in this book, to Springsteen, nothing much of it matters because nothing gets in the way of the music. He could do without food, water maybe, but not music.
Born to Run was released in 2016 so I’m a little late to the party, but if you have a library card and an app — I use Libby — you can listen to Springsteen read it to you, eighty or so chapters and eighteen plus hours of pure rock and roll bliss. There was not a page I didn’t find insightful, alluring, entertaining, shocking, or down right amazing, the story of a guy who despite all odds — what are they, like, a zillion to one? — and a lifelong (and familial) battle with depression, became a rock superstar and never once sat on his haunches, quite possibly the hardest working man in show business since the age of 14 to today. Treat yourself and listen to the audio. It’s like having a private concert with The Boss.