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“It’s life-giving, joyful, sweat-drenched, muscle-aching, voice-blowing, mind-clearing, exhausting, soul-invigorating, cathartic pleasure and privilege every night. You can sing about your misery, the world’s misery, your most devastating experiences, but there is something in the gathering of souls that blows the blues away.”
This is Bruce Springsteen explaining what he does in the arenas and stadiums of the world and why he does it.
And that pretty much nails it — ‘it’ being the power of rock ‘n’ roll at its grandest. This is one of the many reflective passages in Springsteen’s more than 500-page memoir, “Born to Run,” and it’s indicative of the kind of analysis he brings to himself, his relationships and his work.
The book, seven years in the making, is exhaustive and revealing. The result most certainly stems from his manager Jon Landau prompting him to see a psychotherapist in 1982 when Springsteen’s dark moods got the better of him, something he most certainly inherited from his father, Doug. Springsteen was greatly helped by both counseling and pharmacology — as he writes — but that black dog of depression has not left the building. It hit him hard at various points: when he turned 60, and again a few years later. (He’s 67 now.)
Biographers have written about this before, but these are Springsteen’s own words. He says he was like “a freight train bearing down, loaded with nitroglycerin and running quickly out of track. During this period I can be cruel: I run, I dissemble, I dodge, I weave, I disappear, I return, I rarely apologize. … I have days when my boundaries wobble, my darkness and the blues seem to beckon and I seek to medicate in whatever way I can.”
"I have days when my boundaries wobble, my darkness and the blues seem to beckon and I seek to medicate in whatever way I can."Bruce Springsteen
There will be fans and readers who can scarcely believe it. Springsteen has all anyone could want — a loving wife and family, fame, several well-appointed homes, a massive income and a reputation for delivering the most cathartic rock ‘n’ roll shows on the planet. Part of the strength of “Born to Run,” not unlike William Styron’s “Darkness Visible,” is the reveal that depression or bipolar disorder (as Springsteen says he has to a degree) plays no favorites.
There is plenty of love, but plenty of conflict too — with band members, management, his father, the women in his life. “Born to Run” is no tell-all tale, but Springsteen fesses up to all manner of bad behavior. He wrestles with the cost of mega fame and admits there were times when it took its toll, but he’s also quick to recognize that this is what he sought, even when he was just a scruffy kid from Freehold, New Jersey playing in bar bands. He always dreamed big.
Me, I began listening to Bruce Springsteen back in 1974 when my freshman college roommate at the University of Maine — also named Bruce and also from New Jersey — commandeered our dorm room turntable and stereo system with “Greetings from Asbury Park” and “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.” Though they didn’t have the hard rock punch I liked then, I liked those albums in a Van Morrison/Bob Dylan-ish sort of way.
And then came "Born to Run," summer of '75. Bang! There were the twanging, shimmering, explosive guitar riffs of the album’s title song, the big Phil Spector-esque production, the story of a runaway American dream, the romance of the road. The excitement of adventure, not fulfillment exactly, but the possibility of a better life.
He wrote it sitting on the edge of his bed in a cottage in West Long Branch, New Jersey. “I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth, like the last record you might hear… the last one you’d ever NEED to hear,” Springsteen writes. “One glorious noise … then the apocalypse. From Elvis came the record’s physical thrust; Dylan, of course, threaded through the imagery of not just writing about SOMETHING but writing about EVERYTHING.”
(The Boss likes ALL CAPS for emphasis.)
“Born to Run” was the most pivotal song in Springsteen’s career, although “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Hungry Heart” are in the mix too, for different reasons, namely expanding his status from huge cult star to mass-appeal superstar. He doesn’t dominate the airwaves anymore, but he just completed “The River Tour 2016” where he revisited his 1980 hit album that not only sold out the TD Garden in February, but did the same at Gillette Stadium last month.
Springsteen’s memoir is part of a trend: Boomer rockers — even those with other biographies — are churning out autobiographies, wanting to have their say before the lights go out. If they’re not exactly setting the record straight, they’re at least giving their perspective. Springsteen is keeping company with Keith Richards, Marianne Faithfull, Patti Smith, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Throwing Muses’ Kristin Hersh, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and a big he said/he said double-header this year from Beach Boys Brian Wilson and Mike Love.
Suited For The Long Haul
I saw Springsteen live (with my aforementioned friend Bruce) for the first time in a Lewiston, Maine hockey arena in March 1977 and again in Augusta in August the following year. In Lewiston, he brought a rowdy crowd to a hush, started a rap about and his father, young Bruce trying to sneak back in late at night, catching hellfire for it and Bruce saying, “It’s my life…” segueing into The Animals’ song of the same name. It gave me chills then; it gives me chills thinking about it now.
In Augusta, it was even more powerful, starting with “Summertime Blues” and encompassing not just the stories of wild abandon — the stories on the “Born to Run” album, and earlier faves like “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and “Spirit in the Night” — but the harsher tunes from the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” album. There was the title song, of course, and “Factory” about soul-killing monotony and drudgery, followed with the desperation felt by the characters in “Racing in the Street.”
After the regular two sets, he left the stage on a stretcher — a shtick he lovingly adapted from James Brown — and then, miraculously, he was revived! He came back and left us as he always does, with the party-hearty uplift of “Born to Run,” “Raise Your Hand” and “Quarter to Three.” I think it lasted about three and a half hours.
I’ve always liked that as good as Springsteen’s songs are, he considers himself and the E Street Band — his most long-lasting ensemble — to be a garage band of sorts, one that is happy to cover rock and soul classics.
In the memoir, Springsteen presents himself as a highly flawed character. His ambitiousness, cockiness and ego make him feel like king of the world onstage — lifted up by the music and applause — but somehow empty, restless and purposeless offstage. It’s something that changed, or at least evolved, when he married his longtime friend and backup singer, Patti Scialfa.
I don’t think any rocker’s written a better analysis of himself and the field he works in. Writes Springsteen: “The failure of so many of rock’s artists to outlive their expiration date of a few years, make more than a few great albums and avoid treading water, or worse, I felt was due to the misfit nature of those drawn to the profession. These were strong, addictive personalities, fired by compulsion, narcissism, license, passion and an inbred entitlement, all slammed over a world of fear, hunger and insecurity.
"I was physically built to endure and by disposition was not an edge dweller."Bruce Springsteen
“Youth and death have always been an intoxicating combination for myth makers left among the living. And dangerous, even violent, self-loathing has long been an essential ingredient in the fires of transformation. When the ‘new self’ burns to life the twins of great control and recklessness are immutably linked … Now, if you’re not one of the handful of musical revolutionaries — and I was not — you naturally set your sights on something different. In a transient field, I was suited for the long haul. I had years of study behind me. I was physically built to endure and by disposition was not an edge dweller.”
That last bit, about not being an edge dweller, rings true. During one of the many Facebook conversations that arose upon the publication of “Born to Run,” a friend, Andy Meyers — singer and guitarist for the Toronto based art-punk band The Scenics — wrote: "Springsteen is one of those guys who has updated rock 'n' roll archetypes like Roy Orbison and Phil Spector, and delivered them in a way that is highly accessible to the masses (not that Orbison and Spector weren't). Kind of like what Tom Petty did with The Byrds. So, it's not that he's not good, or that the music lacks substance. It is just designed for mass consumption, and stays within those parameters. Even if he loves and covers the band Suicide or the music of Pete Seeger, it stays within those parameters.”
Collaborations And Commentary
Springsteen has had many notable moments in his long and illustrious career, but a few from my world came during live shows and in interviews with other artists.
My favorite rock star comment about the swelling Springsteen mania occurred back in 1981. I was talking to Ray Davies in Minneapolis, and he says, “Ask me what I think about Bruce Springsteen?” I ask. He responds proudly, “I don’t drive.” Davies didn’t at the time and was implying as a non-car guy he couldn’t relate. (Six years ago, Springsteen and Davies’ sang The Kinks’ “Better Things” on a collaborative album Davies did with various artists called “See My Friends.”)
The most daring Springsteen show I saw him play was a solo, mostly acoustic, two-hour gig at the Orpheum in 1995 in the wake of the stark “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (his second foray into that territory, the first being “Nebraska”). It was serious Springsteen, singing songs of some import and conflict, including a bluesy, minor-chord rewrite of the misinterpreted “Born in the U.S.A.” It was not, as Ronald Reagan (and many others) believed, a “Go America!” song as suggested by the uplifting chorus. It was about being misled by the government, tricked into war — sent "off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man” — and how we treat soldiers who’ve risked their lives. It was inspired by Springsteen meeting Vietnam vet and paraplegic Ron Kovic, who wrote the “Born on the Fourth of July” memoir and adapted the screenplay for the award-winning movie.
During that same show, someone in the crowd yelled, “Welcome back, Boss!” Springsteen replied, “Aw, shaddup.” When a female fan professed her infinite love, he responded, “Too much lovin’ drives a man insane.” After another woman’s love-struck proclamation he said, “I don’t get any pleasure out of that darlin'." And this, early on in the show: “I don’t need any whistling or cheers to let me know how well or how poorly I’m doing.” Yes, he was telling his audience that for all the glorious gigs there had been (and would be to come), good-time Bruce was not in the house that night.
"I don’t need any whistling or cheers to let me know how well or how poorly I’m doing."Bruce Springsteen
In 2011, Springsteen brought the house down for about 10 minutes when he joined Boston-based Celtic-punk rockers Dropkick Murphys for three songs one night during their string of shows around St. Patrick’s Day. They played “Badlands,” which the Dropkicks had played live previously, “Peg ‘o My Heart” (a reworked Irish ballad from 1913) and “I’m Shipping Up to Boston.”
The guys in Dropkick Murphys had met Springsteen in 2006 in New York when he introduced himself after their show. In 2010, they sent Springsteen "Peg o' My Heart.”
"We reworked it and changed the time signature,” singer and bassist Ken Casey told me. "It had this ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll vibe. We were like 'This sounds like something that the E Street Band would pull out.' That's how we got the idea to invite Bruce to sing on it. Thank God for modern technology. We were able to send him [a link to] the song across the world. All we said was 'We thought it would be great to trade off on verses.’ You don't really give the Boss instructions."
My former colleague at the Boston Globe, Steve Morse, caught the benefit show Springsteen did in 2003 at the Somerville Theatre, writing, “Springsteen played a two-and-a-half-hour show that was almost beyond transcendent, mixing songs from throughout his career, reworking many [songs] dramatically, and giving verbal commentary that illuminated many of them like never before. He was fully prepared: He had practiced at home for this, according to manager Jon Landau, then arrived and did a two-hour-plus show.” (It was a benefit for DoubleTake — a cash-strapped, locally based arts magazine, whose founder, Dr. Robert Coles, had become a friend. The magazine folded in 2005.)
A Blue-Collar Guy
Springsteen is both driven and contradictory, an over-thinker who values the spontaneity of shouting out a song on stage with his band kicking right in. He’s most certainly a control freak. Over the years, he’s edged his way into the political arena. He’s not a hard-core lefty rocker of the Billy Bragg stripe, but he became a Woody Guthrie fan in the ‘80s and learned about folk music and politics from Guthrie’s life. For all of Springsteen’s riches — and the irony of him really, really desiring those riches — he’s felt like a regular, blue-collar guy. It’s who he was when he was young and it’s a class — as a writer and activist — he identifies with most — not the winners in society, but the losers or those treading water.
He was raised in a democratic family. Though he’s not held any Hillary Clinton benefits or rallies, he recently called Donald Trump a “moron.” For some of us, this deliciously adds to the pain felt by ardent fan Chris Christie, who like some others in the Springsteen fan base, love the music and miss — or willfully ignore — the message.
Springsteen made one of the coolest uncredited cameos in rock. Lou Reed and Springsteen knew each other, but it’s not likely there was much audience overlap. One of Reed’s most harrowing, violent and sad songs is the epic title track on 1978’s “Street Hassle.” During one of the passages separating the three-string led movements leading into the final segment “Slipaway,” Springsteen mumble-raps, “Well hey man, that’s just a lie, it’s a lie she tells her friends. ‘Cause the real song, the reason where she won’t even admit to herself, the beatin’ in her heart, it’s a song lots of people know. It’s a painful song, a little sad truth. But life’s full of sad songs. … With a pretty kiss for a pretty face can’t have its way. Y’know, tramps like us, we were born to pay.”
It’s not a joke, really, but it lets you in on Springsteen’s willingness to invert the thrust of “Born to Run” — his most famous song — and bury it on a great, albeit obscure, album, insisting he not be credited. (Reed wrote the passage; Springsteen did two takes.)
In “Born to Run” the book, he unearths much of what had been buried. Is he likable? Sometimes. Do you wish he’d get off his pedestal or shorten his spiel? Occasionally. His ego is, well, monstrous and his control freak side is pretty tenacious. But you have to really admire his willingness to bare his soul — exposing raw nerves and rough edges — giving us more insight into the personality that created all those life-affirming, celebratory-in-spite-of-it-all concerts that have stoked the fan base for four decades.
Springsteen is at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge from noon to 2 p.m. today. The event has long been sold out.