Swept Away by Springsteen

Born to Run

by Bruce Springsteen
Simon and Schuster, 510 pp., $32.50
Bruce Springsteen performing at the Bottom Line, New York City, August 1975
Barbara E. Pyle/Contact Press Images
Bruce Springsteen performing at the Bottom Line, New York City, August 1975

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.


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