Barrelhouse Reviews: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

Review by Sonya Huber



When I reached page 501 in Bruce Springsteen’s new memoir, Born to Run, I was sitting in a Mexican restaurant called Nacho Hippo in the Myrtle Beach airport. I held the big hardcover in front of my face because I found myself crying into my nachos and then wiping liquid eyeliner across my face in a broad smear toward my temple. So that’s fair warning for you, should you attempt to read this in public.

Born to Run isn’t a weepy schmaltz show; instead Bruce Springsteen has created a book vastly different from the rock-star memoir or the cultural icon biography, a book that also has the ability to be read very differently by different fans. The professional Bruce fan gets insights into the dynamics of running the epic road show and solo career. In addition readers get a life story, a manifesto for engaged artistry, and a narration of cultural changes as documented through music.

Springsteen opens his heart to his readers, describing childhood struggles and adult mental health issues with a generosity that can only be compared to the full-out energetic joyful sweaty mess of a Springsteen concert. Because he’s a real writer and a master craftsman of story, the effect on the page is a series of direct communications with the author—and creating that intimacy between artist and audience is some of what Bruce does best.

The book is ridiculously quotable, but I don’t want to mess with your read. Bruce’s devotion to control of his audience’s experience makes me hesitant to cherry-pick any of these emotional nuggets for fear of changing how they’ll sound in context, which is where they belong. Throughout the book, Bruce mulls over his duty and devotion to his fans, making the audience itself a character and foil in the narrative; he takes on the challenge to develop his talents and career in order to rise to the perceived needs of a listener or a spectator at a live performance.

Bruce’s rigor and productivity as a writer and musician also come across as deeply entwined with the working class culture that bore him. His appeal crosses cultures, yet he’s aware of the limits of his appeal and the fact that his fan base is rooted in the white working class. Today, that subculture’s opinions and worth are often caricatured as a singular backward block riddled with racism and sexism, yet Bruce honors the ethic of showing up, punching the clock, and doing his work. When he turns that work ethic onto his own brain, he critically engages with the challenging elements of the culture that formed him, including the ideas of manhood as expressed through the fractured life of his father. He explores the cracks and the edges where his inspiration grew, narrating his thoughts on the collision of working-class and hippie cultures of the 1960s.

Rather than viewing his talents as a precious communication from some deity, Springsteen views his confidence on stage and drive to improve as stemming from a combination of talent, fierce desire, and years of work. It might seem ridiculous to hear Springsteen talk about having to compensate for his supposedly shitty voice, but such humility comes across as believable in light of his exacting views on artistic production. Bruce works like a man possessed, and he also very importantly refuses to pathologize his commitment to his music or his work. He acknowledges his methods are grinding and extreme, but he never dismisses the passion that fuels his vision or the good that results. At the same time it’s clear that he’s been a hard and exacting man to work for, as work and touring have often been the only container for his edginess and depression, giving the title Born to Run a resonance that he unpacks and re-examines.

Bruce’s whole career was designed as a machine to protect and amplify his voice and sensibilities, so luckily he trusts himself enough to write with all the grace and vitality he possesses. You get sentences like this: “My ranch house was wall to wall orange shag carpet. I know, it was Frank Sinatra’s favorite color, but I could feel a serial killing comin’ on.”  If you’re involved in any creative field, you’ll enjoy how the book reveals its own machinery as it clicks along: “My business is SHOW business and that is the business of SHOWING … not TELLING. You don’t TELL people anything, you SHOW them, and let them decide.” Bruce loves ALL CAPS… and ellipses, and thankfully no editor went over this with a squeegee to dampen down the language that captures the rhythm of Bruce’s music.

For any student or writer of memoir, the book is a fine literary example of choosing to tell some stories front and center while pulling back on others, avoiding the details of past rocky periods to allow for family privacy without sacrificing a sense of intimacy with the reader. Springsteen alludes to trouble with his behavior but builds the book as a love letter to his wife Patty Scalfia, then closes the curtain around her.

In the template for book reviews, the penultimate paragraph is reserved for “yeah, but….” so I’ll say that there were a few chapters in the last two-thirds of the book that could have used a few more sentences of elaboration. Yeah, two or three sentences in the 500+ block gave me pause. But all that is nit-picking for a book that cracks open with vulnerability, treading into the shadowy territory of race, misogyny, rage, depression, and scary dynamics in relationships, offering redemption only when it is hard-earned.

Bruce shares both the low points and the ways he’s gotten help with such intensity that it’s clear he wants to heave others out of the shadows with the same reach he extended to Courtney Cox in the video for “Dancing in the Dark.” In the process, his honesty challenges the culture of white male masculinity toward real change. He’s long chronicled the lone man driving into the sunset, and now he gives readers a second figure: the wizened hero pulling the car back around toward home, letting out the engines with his demons riding shotgun, intent on earning his legacy every day in the eyes of those he loves.