Born To Run
The title of his most iconic song, Born To Run is also the title of Bruce Springsteen’s terrific new memoir. There are dozens of excellent reviews of the book already published, not to mention the numerous audio and video interviews Springsteen has done to promote it, so what follows isn’t a review, just some notes on and reactions to parts of Born To Run that struck me most powerfully.
The Mansion On The Hill
Springsteen grew up on the precarious edge of the working-class in Freehold, NJ in a family dominated by his Italian mother’s (and her sisters’) boundless energy and determination, and the madness passed down through his Irish ancestors to his brooding father (and to Bruce himself). This part of the story is generally well-known (and told through many of Springsteen’s songs: e.g., “Adam Raised A Cain“,”Independence Day“, “Walk Like A Man“, “The Wish“).
But five miles away, in tiny, affluent Englishtown, lived Bruce’s grandfather, Anthony Alexander Andrew Zerilli.
“He came to America around the turn of the century from Vico Equense, a stone’s throw from Naples in southern Italy, at the age of twelve; settled in San Francisco; and found his way east, graduating from City College to become a lawyer…. He served three years in the navy, had three wives, spent three years in Sing Sing prison for embezzlement (supposedly taking the rap for another relative). (–snip–)
As a child, this modest farmhouse was a mansion on a hill to me, a citadel of wealth and culture. My grandfather had paintings, good ones, He collected religious art, robes and antique furniture. He had a piano in his living room. He traveled, appeared worldly and just a little dissolute.” (pp. 20 – 21)
Which adds new layers of meaning to Springsteen’s desolate song, “Mansion On The Hill“. The children in the song aren’t just outsiders; they’ve been inside that house where “all the lights would shine (with) music playing, people laughing all the time“.
“At Sunday dinner, he held court, yelling, ordering, discussing the events of the day at the top of his voice. It was a show…. His love of living, the intensity of his presence, his engagement in the day and his dominion over his family made him a unique male figure in my life. He was exciting, scary, theatrical, self-mythologizing, bragging…like a rock star!” (p. 22)
After 50+ years as a public performer and over three decades of intensive talk therapy, Springsteen is masterfully skilled at telling the stories he wants to tell. Born To Run is, in places, a remarkably honest, revelatory and soul-baring work. And even when he’s concealing important episodes and stories from his life, Springsteen is upfront about that fact too:
“Writing about yourself is a funny business. At the end of the day it’s just another story, the story you’ve chosen from the events of your life. I haven’t told you ‘all’ about myself. Discretion and the feelings of others don’t allow it. But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise: to show the reader his mind. In these pages I’ve tried to do that.” (p. 501)
One consequence of Springsteen’s approach is that we get a lot more about his early life than about recent years. So, there are over 200 pages devoted to the first 24 years of his life, up until the writing and recording of “Born To Run”. The middle third covers the next 15 years of his life, until the birth of his and Patti Scialfa’s first child. Then there’s a relatively brief, and somewhat more opaque, 140 pages covering the second half of his career/adult life.
One of the stories we (mostly) miss is the story of the pivot point of Springsteen’s entire career: his decision not to reunite with the E Street Band in 1995.
The part of the story we do get?
“We’d never made a greatest hits record and we decided (note: it’s unclear who the “we” is here) it was time to remind people a little of what we’d done…. I picked up the phone, called the guys, explained what I wanted to do and that it was a one-shot. On January 12, 1995, we gathered in Studio A at the Hit Factory, scene of many of our USA sessions; exchanged hugs and warm greetings; then set to work…. Greatest Hits did nicely, gave my midnineties drift a little focus and a kick, then we once again went our separate ways.” (p. 398)
The part of the story that’s missing is the song Springsteen wrote during those recording sessions, “Blood Brothers“. As presented in the documentary of the same title, it’s a song he’s writing about the enduring relationships with his bandmates. But the song takes a sidewards turn in the last verse:
“Now I don’t know how I feel, I don’t know how I feel tonight,
If I’ve fallen ‘neath the wheel, if I’ve lost or I gained sight;
I don’t even know why, I don’t know why I made this call,
Or if any of this matters anymore after all.
But the stars are burning bright like some mystery uncovered,
I’ll keep moving through the dark with you in my heart, my blood brother.”
That last line could just as easily be “I’ll keep moving towards the light with you in my sight, my blood brother” (or something like that), and then the song serves as a reunion anthem for the band, leading to a triumphant world tour, and then (most likely) settling into a regular slot on the “oldies” circuit of bands that continue making albums (of decreasing quality and frequency) and touring behind their old hits.
Instead, “Blood Brothers” gets buried on the Greatest Hits album, and Springsteen is left with “one song left over from the project…a rock song I’d been writing for the band but couldn’t complete” (p. 398). It turned out to be “the song that helped me crystallize these (social) issues and their currency for the second half of my work life…’The Ghost Of Tom Joad‘” (p. 399).
This is the point (one of a few, and arguably the most significant, in Springsteen’s career) where he makes a decision to “follow his muse” (or, perhaps more accurately, the deep and murky waters of his own troubled psyche), and the decision pays off. Not financially. The Ghost Of Tom Joad would be the worst-selling album of his career to date. But artistically.
Before 1995, Springsteen’s album titles were doggedly earth-bound: Greetings From Asbury Park, Born To Run, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Nebraska, Born In The USA, Human Touch.
After 1995 his albums take on increasingly spiritual and other-worldly names: The Ghost Of Tom Joad, The Rising, Devils & Dust, We Shall Overcome, Magic, Working On A Dream.
I don’t know what it signifies, because the raw materials for his songs remains largely the same—the struggles of daily life, work, family, love, friendships. But there’s something (or so it seems to me) about the way Springsteen cast himself into the wilderness of marriage, family and fatherhood on the one hand, and out of the comfort zone of leading one of the best rock and soul bands in the land, that made it possible for him to enter his 50s with his creative powers not just preserved, but renewed.
Working On A Dream
It’s clear from the brief (2 page) chapter about Springsteen’s 2012 album, Wrecking Ball, that its reception, particularly in the US, was one of the biggest disappointments of his professional career.
“I knew this was the music I should make now (in the wake of the Wall Street-induced Great Recession). It was my job. I felt the country was at a critical juncture. If this much damage can be done to average citizens with basically no accountability, then the game is off and the thin veil of democracy is revealed for what it is, a shallow disguise for a growing plutocracy that is here now and permanent…. (Eventually) I came to terms with the fact that in the States, the power of rock music as a vehicle for these ideas had diminished.” (p. 469-70)
I know what he means. I felt the same way about Wrecking Ball. Springsteen’s assessment that “Wrecking Ball was one of my best, most contemporary and accessible albums” (p. 469) is, for my money, right on target.
But in some ways, I’m even more disappointed about the reaction to 2009’s Working On A Dream…and not just the reaction of Springsteen’s fans. Unlike most of his albums, there’s not even a paragraph (let alone a chapter) in Born To Run devoted to the songs of Working On A Dream.
That’s a shame because some of Springsteen’s most deeply and beautifully romantic songs are on that album: the hard-rocking “My Lucky Day“, the never-say-die “What Love Can Do“, the lush “This Life“, the fragile and mysterious “Life Itself“, the gorgeous and expansively romantic “Kingdom Of Days“. These are love songs for the long haul, love songs for those who’ve been through the long haul, survived the breakdowns along the way, bear the scars of life’s battles, and can still gaze into each other’s eyes and see love’s light flickering and alive.
It’s not something he’s ever done, and he’s not primarily a writer of love songs, but Springsteen’s been writing long enough and well enough that, if he wanted to, he could do an entire show (tour?) built around his songs of love and romance and friendship. It would make for a lovely evening.