Anyone who has been to a Bruce Springsteen concert will immediately recognize the tone he brings to his autobiography, Born to Run. It’s the voice of his onstage storytelling: hearty, comic, forthright, earthy, sometimes poetic, and grounded in the everyday yet somehow larger than life. Springsteen’s prose revels in “the carny barker’s and tent preacher’s 110 percent belief in whatever was flying out of his mouth at any given moment”—a description of his ex-manager that often applies to Springsteen’s own delivery. He tempers that exuberance with acute self-consciousness, a rocker’s impulse to puncture his own pretensions, and revelations about his own vulnerabilities. Yet even on the page, Springsteen displays the instincts of a lifelong performer.
He has been stirring up audiences as a guitarist, a songwriter, and a showman since he was a teenager in the 1960s. For a generation or two of listeners, Springsteen has been rock’s steadfast working-class hero, the self-made superstar who never forgot where he came from and a flesh-and-blood affirmation of tenacity against long odds. He ascended from Jersey Shore dives to the arenas he still headlines worldwide, where he sweats through three-hour shows at the age of sixty-seven, at once generous and demanding.
His songs have sought the noble in the commonplace, the archetypal in the quotidian. His characters’ hopes can collapse under bitter circumstance, but they strive to hold on or hold out. He turns anecdotes into parables, and his music underlines them with tunes and riffs that sound like they’ve been around forever. At his marathon concerts, somber reflections eventually make way for rock-and-roll jubilation.
His autobiography is named Born to Run after the make-or-break hit single that brought him nationwide attention in 1975. The song is an overpowering surge of rock and a torrent of words that envisions a young couple about to seize their chance in a “runaway American dream,” heading out toward where “the highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.” Soon Springsteen’s lyrics would trade that pulp-movie romanticism for terse realism, as he insisted that rock should grow up with its makers and its audience.
Through the decades, Springsteen has stuck to what may be the most principled career path in big-time rock. Good intentions and a sense of responsibility have always anchored his understanding of how to stoke a party. He has sung about duty and escape, about crime and retribution, about racial tensions and economic pressures, about love and estrangement. Although he has been rich and famous since the mid-1980s, he empathizes with the unglamorous and unprivileged. “I always felt the audience should look at the stage and see a reflection of themselves, their town, and their friends,” he writes.
The piece of me that lived in the working-class neighborhoods of my hometown was an essential and permanent part of who I was. No one you have been and no place you have gone ever leaves you. The new parts of you simply jump in the car and go along for the rest of the ride.
In public, Springsteen embodies a mythic figure he decided to believe in long ago: the rocker as everyman-turned-superman, as hero, spokesman, conscience, and clown. His public story, unfolding over decades, is one of reaching manhood, finding lifelong comrades (his E Street Band), and facing the changes of maturing and settling down without losing the mysterious, joyful essence of rock. That essence, for Springsteen, isn’t youth, lust, rebellion, or braggadocio (though it touches on them all). Instead, it’s a performance of honesty, community, and moxie. He offers unabashed homilies. “My records are always the sound of someone trying to understand where to place his mind and heart. I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits,” he writes. “I walk in someone else’s shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I’m compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on. It’s one foot in the light, one foot in the darkness, in pursuit of the next day.”
Even as his autobiography extends that performance, it also reveals what a job it has been for Springsteen to live up to his self-imposed standards. Between recountings of recording sessions and triumphant world tours, he tries to describe exactly how driven he has been as the person behind the myth, disclosing how fears and compulsions have shadowed his success. Throughout Born to Run, Springsteen’s vitality and sense of mission face a formidable counterweight: his lifelong battle with depression, described in detail but without self-pity. “Manic depression, the bipolar personality. It’s the prize in the Cracker Jack box in our family,” he writes.
He grew up witnessing what he later realized was mental illness in his distant, embittered, disapproving, and sometimes pathologically paranoid father, a figure who haunts both his songs and, throughout the book, his recollections. As a boy, he once tried to break up a violent argument between his parents by hitting his father with a baseball bat. “He turned, his face barroom red; the moment lengthened, then he started laughing,” Springsteen writes.
As an adult, Springsteen came to recognize bipolar tendencies in himself, which at times have all but paralyzed him. He started psychotherapy in the 1980s, and he has been taking antidepressants for more than a decade. That admission is at odds with the stalwart, indefatigable figure he presents onstage, but it’s fully in line with the hard-won sincerity of both his songs and his persona.
Springsteen treats his own public presence as standing for his values. He is nicknamed the Boss for his buck-stops-here control over his band, but his lifelong sympathies are not with management but with labor. His songs evoke characters like his father and his childhood neighbors in the hometown, Freehold, New Jersey, that he unaffectionately calls a “dump” but continues to revisit. While Springsteen has spent considerable time living in California—a place he would also eventually write about—he still lives in New Jersey, although in a zip code more bucolic than Freehold’s.
The dutiful streak in Springsteen’s work became overt at least as early as 1978 with the weighty, despondent songs on Darkness on the Edge of Town, and it has only deepened in the decades that followed. He has always presented himself as the opposite of the sheltered, self-indulgent rock star. Instead he has been a workaholic, toiling to deliver insight and compassion, knocking himself out for the enlightened entertainment of his audience. More than once in his autobiography he calls his career his “service.”
He grew up as a student of rock history who wanted to rewrite the rock myth for himself, seeking longevity as well as impact and avoiding self-destructive excess. He has been decidedly uninterested (by all accounts including his own) in recreational drugs other than alcohol:
The rock death cult is well loved and chronicled in literature and music, but in practice, there ain’t much in it for the singer and his song, except a good life unlived, lovers and children left behind, and a six-foot-deep hole in the ground. The exit in a blaze of glory is bullshit…. I was interested in what I might accomplish over a lifetime of music making, so assumption number one is you are going to keep breathing.
Among his many ambitions, Springsteen volunteered to shoulder the responsibility of telling America about itself. The cover of the album that made him a superstar, Born in the USA (1984), had him standing in front of a giant flag. While the verses of the album’s title song express the bitter reflections of a Vietnam veteran bottoming out, the fanfare of its chorus was mistaken for jingoism in the year Ronald Reagan was elected. In later years, Springsteen would play the song as a stark, bluesy howl of undeniable pain.
On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, Springsteen writes in Born to Run, he went to a Jersey Shore beach to gaze at Manhattan after the World Trade Center towers fell. Then, as he was driving home, “a car careening off Rumson–Sea Bright Bridge shot past, its window down, and its driver, recognizing me, shouted, ‘Bruce, we need you.’ I sort of knew what he meant, but…” He would address September 11 both metaphorically and directly on his next album, The Rising.
Springsteen’s life story is no secret. It has been told and retold in his song introductions onstage—a kind of literary genre in themselves—as well as countless plainspoken interviews. His music, official and unreleased, has also been minutely tabulated and analyzed by critics, academics, and knowledgeable online fans. Springsteen and his circle cooperated with the authors of two careful, exhaustive biographies: Dave Marsh, whose two books on Springsteen’s life and music were merged and extended in 2003 as Bruce Springsteen: Two Hearts, and Peter Ames Carlin, whose 2012 Bruce updated the reporting into the next decade, including information about Springsteen’s use of antidepressants.
Beyond an occasional trivial detail, Springsteen doesn’t contradict his biographers. His book traces the same well-documented career, recognizing the same crossroads. Yet Springsteen also depicts what his biographers can’t: textures, images, psychological states, and what happens between the cycles of recording and touring. Away from his work, Springsteen portrays himself as damaged and lost, fearful of intimacy, and sometimes incapable of simple enjoyments.
There is, in every autobiography, the matter of ego. Springsteen doesn’t display any false modesty in Born to Run, yet he stays endearing throughout. He neatly balances his confidence as a performer with acknowledgments of follies, misjudgments, and deep-seated troubles. He apologizes for self-absorption and insensitivity, particularly to women in his past. And he’s unimpressed with himself; he assesses his voice largely as a reason to write better songs:
I have a bar-man’s power, range and durability, but I don’t have a lot of tonal beauty or finesse…. My voice gets the job done. But it’s a journeyman’s instrument and on its own, it’s never going to take you to higher ground.
The book describes incongruities between Springsteen’s life and his public image. The muscular rock star who dominates giant stadium stages says he grew up as a sensitive mama’s boy. The songwriter who salutes the toll and the dignity of hard physical labor barely experienced it himself, doing household repairs as a teenager to buy a guitar; since then, he’s only worked as a musician. And the songwriter who situated so many of his songs in cars didn’t have a car or driver’s license until he was in his twenties (although that didn’t always prevent him from driving).
Rock autobiographies are often devoted to settling scores, claiming credit, and justifying missteps and scandals; there’s little of that in Born to Run. Instead, he writes that during his twenties his typical romance lasted only two or three years before “the image of myself, physically and emotionally, would be punctured, and my flaws revealed.”
He stays magnanimous to figures like the ex-manager, Mike Appel, who signed him to blatantly exploitative contracts (but who did get him his fateful audition at Columbia Records). Springsteen points to his own willful naiveté about business for that expensive mistake, and he’s almost jovial about the lawsuit from Appel that kept him out of the recording studio for two years. He writes, “The deposition transcripts make for fun and fascinating bedtime reading and appear verbatim along with Mike’s side of the story in Mike’s book, Down Thunder Road.”
Springsteen constructs his autobiography beginning with a child’s bright, immediate perceptions of his block in Freehold. There, he writes, “I climbed high upon piles of dirty snow, swept high by midnight plows, walking corner to corner, the Edmund Hillary of New Jersey.” His horizon expands from the provincial—Springsteen’s 1973 debut album was pointedly titled Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey—to the national and then international scope of his touring. By the end of the book, Springsteen has sold millions of albums, performed worldwide, thought through the political implications of his songs, raised a family, and relentlessly analyzed himself and his music all the way along. “My writing,” he says of himself in the mid-1970s, “was focusing itself around identity issues—who am I, who are we, what and where is home, what constitutes manhood, adulthood, what are your freedoms and your responsibilities.”
The entire first half of Born to Run gets Springsteen only to 1975, just two years and three albums into his recording career, and it rekindles the sensations of his childhood and teens. He enumerates his motley Italian and Irish relatives (despite his Dutch last name), faces the alcohol-fueled rage and dead-end despair of his father, and revisits the corporal punishment Catholic education that he would try and fail to slough off. “I came to ruefully and bemusedly understand that once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic,” he writes.
This was the world where I found the beginnings of my song. In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward.
He offers a wry Rosebud moment about the early-childhood beginnings of his love for automobiles:
Someone made the mistake of telling me the safest place in a lightning storm was in a car because of the grounding of the rubber tires. After that, at the first sound of thunder, I caterwauled until my parents would take me in the car until the storm subsided. I then proceeded to write about cars for the rest of my life.
Springsteen was enthralled by seeing Elvis Presley and the Beatles on television. He practiced hard to become a hotshot guitarist and dancer while in high school—it attracted girls!—and he dared to step forward in his early bands as a lead singer.
He worked his way up in a Jersey Shore scene centered in the tattered resort town of Asbury Park, where rock, soul, doo-wop, Top 40 pop, and surf instrumentals held sway. From then on, his own music would largely remain grounded in those basics, looking back to the oldies even as he sought to deepen what a four-minute song could say.
If anything, his musical structures grew less elaborate and his lyrics grew more succinct through the years as he committed himself, by both intuition and intellect, to a stripped-down, classicist idea of rock, proud to link to the past. The song “Born to Run,” as he explains in the book (not for the first time), drew purposefully and intentionally on a chosen group of influences from a decade and more earlier. Its whipcrack drumbeat and chiming chords—a consonant roar topped by a glockenspiel—are a homage to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Its twangy guitar tone and leaping central riff revive the surf-rock of Duane Eddy. Springsteen’s sustained, dramatic vocal delivery is his homage to Roy Orbison. And the flood of verbal images owes a lot to Bob Dylan.
But even as he looked back, Springsteen raised the ante on himself. There’s a valiant, doomed romance in the lyrics—“I want to die with you Wendy on the street tonight/in an everlasting kiss”—as the music escalates nonstop; by the end, it’s too urgent and impassioned for words, and all Springsteen (and, ever since, his arenas full of fans) can sing is “Whoa, oh, oh.”
The stage skills he learned on the Jersey circuit have served him ever since; he could perform for, and unite, audiences across the class spectrum. (The book gleefully delineates various cliques’ sartorial and behavioral distinctions as observed from the bandstands of his youth.) He also met musicians who would become the core of his E Street Band and would perform alongside him for the rest of their lives—notably the saxophonist Clarence Clemons, “the Big Man,” who died in 2011. Clemons would not only pump up the band’s sound but would also embody, onstage through the years and on the album cover of Born to Run, Springsteen’s ideal of friendship and racial harmony—although his audience, to his lasting regret, has always been overwhelmingly white.
Episodes that are barely noted in the Springsteen biographies become exuberant set pieces in Born to Run, like his years of low-rent living on the Jersey Shore and some harrowing cross-country road trips, including one that had his late-1960s band, Steel Mill, incongruously performing at Esalen in Big Sur. (A few Steel Mill songs finally get their official release on Chapter and Verse, a companion album to Springsteen’s book.)
Springsteen made a pivotal decision when he gave up the regional renown of Steel Mill to concentrate on writing songs that stood up on their own. From then on, he was intent on being fully in charge of his music, with or without a band. Going solo brought Springsteen his Columbia Records contract after he played “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” on a borrowed guitar for the esteemed talent scout John Hammond. The company thought he’d be a folky singer-songwriter like James Taylor. He wasn’t; he was a rocker with years of twist-and-shout experience, and coupling his verbal flair with his band and his flat-out showmanship would eventually make him a star.
The autobiography shifts as it moves into Springsteen’s more public phase after the album Born to Run; it’s less freewheeling, more measured and discreet. His musical reminiscences dovetail with what he has said in documentaries, interviews, and biographies. Each album brought a reassessment of Springsteen’s mission statement and often a sharp musical turn from its predecessor, in a process of endless self-questioning.
In the recording studio, Springsteen put himself and his band through long, painstaking sessions, writing far more songs than he’d need for an album and torturing himself over arrangements and mixes. “We were on an odyssey, toiling in the vineyards of pop, searching for complicated answers to mystifying questions,” he writes about the recording of “The River” in 1979. “We needed to ruminate, contemplate, intellectualize and mentally masturbate ourselves into a paralytic frenzy.”
His music seesawed between introversion, like the quiet, low-fi cassette recordings on Nebraska (1982), and extroversion, with the pop-ready gleam and blare of Born in the USA, which addressed troubled lives in songs upbeat enough to make it the best-selling album of 1984. It was Springsteen’s commercial peak, and it made him uneasy. He wanted to join the lineage of rock stars who had inspired him—big-time hit-makers—but he feared betraying his principles. “What was the danger of dilution of your core message, your purpose, the reduction of your best intentions to empty symbolism or worse?” Springsteen writes.
Remarkably, he partly rolled back his pop stardom without becoming a has-been. There was no repeating a formula from Born in the USA; he softened the E Street Band’s cannon-shot impact and turned away from shouts to questions as he began writing about a pop subject he had avoided: “my experience with relationships and love.” At the same time, he ventured into his first marriage, to the actress Julianne Phillips in 1985. It didn’t last. “I was still emotionally stunted and secretly unavailable,” he writes. “I was sliding back toward the chasm where rage, fear, distrust, insecurity and a family-patented misogyny made war with my better angels.” On tour promoting the 1987 album Tunnel of Love, he took up (in a flurry of bad publicity) with the band’s backup singer, Patti Scialfa, whom he would go on to marry in 1991. He separated from Phillips in 1988, and still castigates himself. “I failed her as a husband and partner,” he writes.
He settled in as a husband and then father with Scialfa; he writes with amused self-deprecation about giving up his night-owl musician’s hours to spend mornings with his children. With domestic stability and, eventually, middle age, much of the book’s drama ebbs, even as Springsteen battles new sieges of depression in his sixties. But he enjoys, with convincing wonderment, the laurels of rock survivorship, like entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and playing the high-tension Super Bowl halftime show. He attends funerals, too, for lifelong band members, and replaces them so the tours can go on.
Meanwhile, the perennial challenge persists: what to do for the next album. He agonizes, “Where does a rich man belong?” before returning to write about social issues as a sympathetic outsider with albums like The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995), with songs about migrants, farmworkers, smugglers, and unemployed steelworkers. His reaction to the financial crash of 2008 was the album Wrecking Ball (2012), which held some of the angriest political statements of his long career. He writes, “I’d been following and writing about America’s post-industrial trauma, the killing of our manufacturing presence and working class, for thirty-five years. So I went to work.”
The book has a few stretches of mealy-mouthed diplomacy. Springsteen treads warily as he writes about dissolving the E Street Band in the late 1980s to record and perform with other musicians. He reconvened them in 1999, realizing that “there would be, in my lifetime, no other group of musicians with whom I would step onto the stage with a quarter century of blood, sweat and tears under our belt.” He’s still working with those guys; no wonder he’s reticent. And with The Rising in 2002, which returned him to the center of rock despite his age, the E Street Band’s synergy was unmistakable. But he doesn’t pretend that tensions didn’t exist over money, musical credit, and leadership.
A telling point in Springsteen’s autobiography is a line from “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” on The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, his second album. “Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny,” he sang. In the book, he writes, “Not that it would all BE funny, but that it would all SEEM funny. Probably one of the most useful lines I’ve ever written.” As in his songs, Springsteen’s earnestness and his overworked conscience are never far from the surface of Born to Run. But it’s the rocker in him—the noisy, rambunctious, over-the-top trouper—whose voice gives life to his words.