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Bruce Springsteen: Born to Be Honest

A psychologist reviews the Boss's new autobiography

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One Saturday afternoon in the early 1980s, I was home visiting my mother who lived in a small two-bedroom apartment in the wealthy community of Rumson, New Jersey. I was in my early 30s. I was walking down Bellevue Avenue, admiring the gorgeous and stately homes partially hidden behind walls and high hedges. As I reached Ridge Road, I stopped in front of one of these mansions. I knew it belonged to my high school musical hero, Bruce Springsteen. Everyone knew. And, no, unlike what Springsteen admits doing at Graceland, I did not climb the wall and try to meet my hero. I just remember looking with a longing, a nostalgic ache, desiring something I couldn’t articulate. I guess I wished I could go inside, see Bruce in his “natural state,” hang out, get close to him, or be a fly on the wall, observing what mattered to him. It’s a bit embarrassing now to admit to being such an adoring “fan”; somehow, it doesn’t sit so well with my more cynical and dignified adult identity. Still, even when I first heard him and his band, Steel Mill, playing on the Jersey Shore in the late 1960s, I wanted to get to know him. Even then, Springsteen had that effect on his fans. As a performer, he gives until he—and we—drop, exhausted, but feeling that we had just been transported to a better place. We want to get closer to the source of that experience and visit that place again.

What a delight then, it was, to read Bruce Springsteen’s new autobiography, Born to Run. He lets readers into so much more than his home. He lets us in to his most private experiences with an astounding candor and psychological-mindedness, beginning with accounts of his earliest childhood in Freehold, New Jersey, all the while meticulously tracking his long (and meteoric) public journey to the very top of the rock and roll world and popular culture.

Springsteen’s ruthless honesty and clear-eyed introspection no doubt derive, in large part, from the fact that he has been in psychotherapy for over 30 years. In fact, he says as much when he describes the results of his work with psychiatrist, Wayne Myers, as lying “at the heart of this book.” Much attention has been paid to Springsteen’s revelations about the depression that marked much of his life, a depression partly inherited from his father, Doug, but which also found its roots in a childhood filled with neglect, emotional cruelty, and unstable attachments. Springsteen describes the psychological impact of these troubled roots with the insight of a veteran of the analytic couch. He emphasizes the toxic impact of his father, an explosive alcoholic tormented by persecutory and paranoid thoughts. (“He loved me but he couldn’t stand me.”) His mother is somewhat idealized, but he does begrudge her inability to leave his father, instead covering for him, sacrificing her own interests – and those of her children—in the process. (“My mom and pops were bound by an unknowable thread. They’d made their deal a long time ago; she had her man who wouldn’t leave and he had his gal who couldn’t leave. Those were the rules and they superseded all others, even motherhood.”)

Springsteen describes a childhood terrain that was psychologically empty and dangerous, one devoid of protection, but one that also fostered his determination to make something of himself that he could control and that would be his ticket out of a world that, even as a child, and even with its comforting hometown familiarity, he knew was parochial and repressive. Fortunately for us, Springsteen’s solution was to become a musician.

Much of Born to Run is naturally the story of Springsteen’s evolution as a musician, first as a guitarist and then as a singer/songwriter. It is a detailed and carefully considered narrative that simultaneously tracks his external production and career highlights (he meticulously describes his experience of each of his albums and tours) and what was going on in his personal life at each step along the way. Fans of his music will love the glimpse behind the curtain he offers up as he traces his career from musical roots laid down on the Jersey Shore, to the breakthrough Time- and Newsweek-cover success of his Born to Run album, through his efforts to engage his audience in political activism, to attaining superstar status through the nuclear popularity of his Born in the USA album and stadium tour, all the way up to his embrace of family life today.

It is no coincidence that Springsteen’s current family life is squarely situated in New Jersey, not far from the Italian/Irish neighborhood of Freehold in which he spent his earliest years. He made his bones as a musician fronting bar bands all over Monmouth County and south Jersey with his incendiary guitar playing and original songs. Having grown up on the Jersey Shore and having had the privilege of hearing Springsteen in one of his early bands, (his group, Steel Mill actually played at my high school prom!), I can testify to his early musical prowess. But despite his regional fame as an electric Clapton-esque guitar gunslinger, Springsteen freely admits that there were other guitarists better than he, and certainly others with a better voice, and so he realized early on that the road to success for him would have to lie in his songwriting, his amazing ability to tell stories and perform them in ways that took his audience into his embrace and that spoke to their collective pains and triumphs.

As he tells it in Born to Run, Springsteen’s origin story is one of a fiercely ambitious young man dedicated to hard work, a constant process of learning, and a self-confidence and sizeable ego surprising for someone incubated in such a disturbed family environment. The answer has to lie, it seems to me, first, in Springsteen’s innate God-given musicality and poetic soul, and, second, in his determination to fight back against his father’s degradations and to find a voice and career that loudly announced his presence to a mother preoccupied with her own worries and marital stresses and strains.

What comes through strongly in Born to Run is how hard Springsteen worked to achieve his success. He pursued his ambition with a laser-like focus. Sure, serendipity played a role as it must in any artist’s fame—being in the right place, meeting the right people, making the right choices at the right time—but in Springsteen’s account, he self-consciously made decisions at crucial junctures that were to pay off in spades down the road. He auditioned for John Hammond by himself and not with his band, a harbinger of his lifelong need to be in complete control of his musical future, including the financial and working conditions of the soon to come E Street Band (a need for control that was sorely tested by his legal battle with his early manager, Mike Appel, and that, again, was triggered by his best friend and fellow guitarist Steve Van Zandt who wanted more creative control, a demand Springsteen rejected and that led to Van Zandt’s departure from the E Street Band for 10 years). Springsteen concentrated on writing and did so all the time he was touring, carrying with him notebooks and tapes full of unfinished songs, many of which ended up gracing his future albums. Springsteen saw himself as a “working man”—and this was his work, work to which he brought a blue-collar ethic.

Averse to mood-altering substances, Springsteen deliberately avoided alcohol (for the most part), drugs, and the bacchanalian excesses so often associated with the lifestyles—and downfalls--of rock stars. He describes himself as a “faux hippie,” steeped in the counterculture and politics of the 60s—another long-hair “freak”—but one that also stayed true to the blue-collar world of his childhood (“I never saw a man leave a house in a jacket and tie unless it was Sunday or he was in trouble.”) He fit in both—or neither—world. He was a rebel who cherished freedom but was critical of the hedonistic and narcissistic personal license that characterized some of his generation. “Personal license,” Springsteen argues, “was to freedom what masturbation was to sex. It’s not bad, but it’s not the real thing.”

The coming of age themes of independence, romance, and freedom – adorned as they usually were by images of cars and girls—that marked Springsteen’s early work never went away. But they were gradually subsumed by his desire to write about class and the pain and injustice an unfair system visited upon the lives of those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Although anticipated by earlier work, his album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, was his first, and among his most successful, attempts to find political meaning in the lives of the working class people, beginning always with his father, with whom Springsteen had grown up. It was emblematic of the creative ways that he sought to show listeners that if you open up individual lives, you find the world, and that social conflict is most poignantly seen in the private lives of individuals. Springsteen describes the songs on Darkness as “the purest distillation of what I wanted my rock ‘n’ roll music to be about.”

Freehold and much of central and south Jersey epitomized the de-industrialization of America, the loss of jobs and economic activity that devastated communities, depriving people of hope and meaning, and that trickled into the most private sphere of Springsteen’s existence—embodied in his father, Doug’s tragic life. Darkness describes the pain of a son witnessing his father’s decline, but one that that mirrored the social decline all around him. The album is spare, melancholy, at times angry, and yet filled with beauty and the promise of escape.

Beginning with this album, Springsteen begins a 40 year journey attempting to integrate the personal and the political, a journey highlighted by such lyrical masterpieces as—to name just a few—Factory, The River, Nebraska, Born in the USA, The Ghost of Tom Joad, Youngstown, Galveston Bay, The Rising, My City of Ruins, American Skin, Last to Die, Wrecking Ball, We Take Care of Our Own, and High Hopes. Springsteen’s carefully crafted characters embody the conflicts and suffering of the wider society, but tell their stories in highly personal ways. And, always, with Springsteen, there are notes of redemption, transcendence and hope. (“I want them to feel older, weathered, wiser but not beaten.”) His song Galveston Bay, from the album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, is a good example of the subtle detail with which Springsteen paints his characters in order to illustrate how the wider world inhabits our personal lives. The antagonists are two shrimpers, one a former South Vietnamese soldier, Le Bing Son, who emigrated to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon, and the other, an American army vet, Billy Sutter, who was wounded at Chu Lai and sent home in 1968. When Le Bing Son is acquitted of killing two KKK vigilantes who were trying to burn his boat, his American counterpart, Billy vows revenge. One late summer night, the American has his chance to stab Le, but Billy puts away his K-bar knife and chooses to “let him pass.” When the morning comes, both former allies kiss their wives goodbye and head out to sea to work. On an album filled with ex-cons, bank robbers, coal miners, border patrol cops, men who ride the rails from one backbreaking job to the next, and Mexican immigrants and drug dealers, the voice in Galveston Bay is one of tough optimism. Springsteen sees his job as one of capturing the suffering and pathos of the disenfranchised and powerless while battling against the cynicism that had grown in the world around him beginning in the 1970s. But the trick lies in the precision of the storytelling. As Springsteen, himself, says, “When you get the music and lyrics right, your voice disappears into the voices you’ve chosen to write about. Basically, with these songs, I find the characters and listen to them.”

Springsteen fans, of course, don’t merely love his characters and music, but view his 3-4 hour live shows as near-religious experiences. To those millions who have seen him, Springsteen leaves nothing on the stage and when he leaves it, he and his audience are spent, satisfied, and aglow with the fire of the connection made. In Born to Run, Springsteen talks repeatedly about the exhilarating power—on both sides of the stage apron—of his live performances. He says, “It’s a 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.” A veteran of hundreds of performances at bars in the mean streets of New Jersey, gigs at which the only way to make a buck and a reputation was to blow the audience away with style and intensity, Springsteen came to performing with self-confidence and with a commitment to transport his listeners out of their seats—and their minds. Night after night, he creates an ecstatic community, however briefly, and believes that this is one of his main ways of helping us feel connected to something bigger than our lonely isolated selves.

Of course, in a memoir as psychologically minded as Born to Run, touring is also seen as defensively serving Springsteen’s emotional needs as well, helping him avoid his depression and ward off the possibility of a stable romantic intimacy that he both craved but feared. In his public stage life, he was secure, but in his private life he was lonely, insecure, and disconnected. He feared intimacy with a woman because of a belief that he was undeserving, fearful of burdensome responsibilities, and secretly dreading some some inevitable rejection. The “road” provided him with the illusion of intimacy without risk. Springsteen is hard on himself here and doesn’t let us, his fans, down easy, either when he says, “During the show, as good as it is, as real as the emotions called upon are, as physically moving and as hopefully inspirational as I work to make it, it’s fiction, theater, a creation; it isn’t reality….And at the end of the day, life trumps art….always.” Performing, for Springsteen expressed his genuine feelings of exultation but was also a cover, providing a transient detachment and an opportunity for an almost daily reinvention of himself.

In the end, psychotherapy and antidepressant medication wasn’t enough to fix what ailed Bruce Springsteen. It was love that did that, the insistent and forgiving love of Patti Scialfa, his wife of almost 25 years, and their three children—Evan, Jessica, and Sam. Springsteen was compelled to endure the healing but painful vulnerability of love, the presence of which, he admits, “shames your lack of faith while raining light upon the good you’ve created.”

Born to Run is Springsteen’s attempt to tell the story of his art, but it is a story steeped in a complex narrative about his real life. It is an extraordinarily honest and sensitive story about someone who has left his mark in music, politics, and in the lives of so many of his fans. It is written with a beautiful (if a times, a bit self-conscious) lyricism and narrative drama. In the story of his life, Springsteen underlines the healing power of love, the need for a secure home, and the value of facing one’s demons in order to enjoy true freedom. He helps us see that our political acts have private consequences and our most personal acts a political dimension. He is the heir to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger as a songwriter who brings us to account for what we are doing—or not doing—to stand up for those who are less fortunate than us and against those who are taking us into what often looks like a new Gilded Age.

Springsteen succeeds in his intention. In his own words:

“I fought my whole life, studied, played, worked, because I wanted to hear and know the whole story, and understand as much of it as I could. I wanted to understand in order to free myself of its most damaging influences, its malevolent forces, to celebrate and honor its beauty, its power, and to be able to tell it well to my friends, my family and to you.”

Readers will see that he tells it extremely well.