I’ve just finished reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born To Run.
It’s a strong book, as strong as his best songs. That same mix of drama, fervent belief, bluster and a sense of the ridiculous that marks his live show is here in every chapter.
Perhaps surprisingly it leaves you with a strong sense of what it’s like to be Bruce Springsteen, onstage and off. For such an iconic figure that’s quite an achievement. There are moments of pride and humility. The blow-by-blow account of his Superbowl performance, where he anxiously tries to compress the essence of his three-hour show into twelve minutes, is a highlight. But it’s far from being triumphalist. He seems to have a fairly robust and realistic idea of what he’s good at, what he’s worked to achieve and how he makes up for his shortcomings. It’s a surprise to learn he rates his voice as not being one of his greatest strengths – just something whose limitations he has to learn to work around. There’s a revealing passage where he’s built up a reputation across New Jersey as a standout performer with his band, to the extent where he knows and accepts with pride they’re probably the best band in New Jersey. They then go to California to audition in various clubs and he describes with honesty and humility his shock and dismay in finding that in this bigger pond there are bands that are better – at everything.
The biggest surprise in the book is how candidly he writes about his struggles with clinical depression and the strain of mental illness inherited from his father. The book’s pre-publicity mentioned it but I didn’t expect it to feature so strongly throughout. In fact its presence grows stronger and darker as he gets older. In some ways it’s the opposite of Leonard Cohen’s story, in which the black dog seemed to lose its grip with age. In Springsteen’s case it gains strength into his 60s.
While the narrative swings from confessional, to reportage, to the gospel-like rants about the power of rock’n’roll that we hear from the stage, it does so in a disciplined, appropriate and thought-out manner. It gives the impression of a man who thinks very carefully and seriously about everything he does; his plan allows space for freedom and fun, but for much of his life that space was the three hours we saw him on stage. The book shows the struggle of a man trying to find that release in the rest of his life.