THIS IS THE FIRST OF THREE ARTICLES, in which I discuss Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run.
AFTER READING A SERIES OF MEMOIRS WRITTEN BY WOMEN, all filled with wonderfully lyrical and sensory-rich prose, I was struck by the raw, male voice in Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run. Consider the simple declaration of the opening line in his preface: “I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I.”
Raw and refreshingly modest for someone with so much success. That little three word sentence, “So am I,” reminds me of all the writers I know, including myself, who, in spite of any success we have experienced suspect that underneath it all are tinged with a bit of fraud. And this is how, before the story even begins, Springsteen sets the tone for the rest of the memoir: raw, honest, self-deprecating, and funny.
The first sentence of chapter one, sets us firmly in place and time with a summary of his early life, which succinctly uses concrete details that anyone who has grown up in a neighborhood can relate to.
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.
…On these streets I have been rolled in my baby carriage, learned to walk, been taught by my grandfather to ride a bike, and fought and run from some of my first fights. I learned the depth and comfort of real friendships, felt my early sexual stirrings and, on the evenings before air-conditioning, watched the porches fill with neighbors seeking conversation and respite from the summer heat. (p. 3)
Springsteen writes not only of experiences that made him the same as the rest of us but also of those experiences that made him different. He shares with straightforward vulnerability the influences that have made him who he is: raised primarily by doting grandparents who give him everything and all the freedom he wants, Bruce becomes a boy tyrant who is sent into a rage when he has to conform to school schedules.
The grinding hypnotic power of this ruined place and these people would never leave me. I visit it in my dreams today, returning over and over, wanting to go back . It was a place where I felt an ultimate security, full license and a horrible unforgettable boundary-less love. It ruined me and it made me. (p. 11)
Starting with his street and family and moving outward into the world, Springsteen details how he became enamored of music, bought his first guitar, joined his first band, and began singing as a revolutionary act at Sunday matinees. He is honest about his first musical endeavors in a way that is both humorous and engenders sympathy for the humiliation he felt:
What was even worse, we were so excited about acquiring reverb, my lead guitarist and I plugged into our rented amp, turned the reverb on full and reduced our sound to a quivering, echoing mash, a cheese-ball shitstorm of submerged instrumentation that sounded like it was being puked up from the bottom of some dragon-infested ocean. (p. 65)
I had to read the last part of that sentence several times, just to marvel at its visual efficacy.
But Springsteen continues on, driven by a need to sing and play and produce music. He writes reflectively as he looks back to the time he hears his own music on the radio:
As I stood on that corner listening to “Spirit in the Night” through a stranger’s car window at a stoplight, I finally felt like a small piece of that glorious train. It was more than a thrill. It was all I wanted to do: find a way to honor those who’d inspired me, make my mark, have my say and hopefully inspire those who’d pick up the flag long after we were gone. (p. 184)
In Born to Run, I expected a chronicle of Springsteen’s musical career, along with all the ups and downs that come with success; his memoir is all this and more. As Springsteen details the rise of his career, it’s evident that he worked very hard. Yet he doesn’t take all the credit.
You never completely control the arc of your career. Events, historical and cultural, create an opportunity; a special song falls into your lap and a window for impact, communication, success, the expansion of your musical vision, opens. It may close as quickly, never to return. You don’t get to completely decide when it’s your time. You may have worked unwaveringly, honestly, all the while — consciously or unconsciously — positioning yourself, but you never really know if your “ big ” moment will come. Then, for the few, it’s there . (pp. 324-325)
Ultimately, Springsteen returns to his family and his past as he reflects upon his own journey. His memoir is, like all good memoirs, about healing the past and building a positive future.
I’ll end with a final quote:
We honor our parents by not accepting as the final equation the most troubling characteristics of our relationship. I decided between my father and me that the sum of our troubles would not be the summation of our lives together. In analysis you work to turn the ghosts that haunt you into ancestors who accompany you. That takes hard work and a lot of love, but it’s the way we lessen the burdens our children have to carry. Insisting on our own experience, our own final calculus of love, trouble, hard times and, if we’re lucky, a little transcendence. (p. 503)
Have you read or started reading Born to Run? Please share your first impressions.
If you haven’t, it’s not too late. Pick up your copy and join us again in late November for Read Like a Writer, Part 11, in which I’ll take a closer look at pace, tone, and word choice in Born to Run.