Born to Run
Simon & Schuster £20
Church Times Bookshop £18
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN has always been able to tell a good story. His songs — 18 albums’ worth by now, tracing a life from blue-collar New Jersey to the cover of Time magazine — employ the kind of intimate episodic detail that might have made an autobiography unnecessary.
We do get some of that same story here — the “barricade of broad, working class backs”, say, that he encounters as a child in a bar. But Born to Run also tells us about the work it takes to escape that life, or transcend it — to become (in a moniker he dislikes and never once uses) “the Boss”.
Both these stories begin in the same place, and Springsteen’s introduction to it sets a tone that has as much music in it as any of his songs: “Here we live in the shadow of the steeple, where the holy rubber meets the road, all crookedly blessed in God’s mercy, in the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, race-riot-creating, oddball-hating, love-and-fear-making, heartbreaking town of Freehold, New Jersey. . . Let the service begin.”
It’s a riff on the way he introduces the E Street Band on stage, and the religious language will also be familiar to fans. “This was the world where I found the beginnings of my song,” he says, of the Roman Catholicism in which he was raised. There, “I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward. It has walked alongside me as a waking dream my whole life.”
It is a complicated relationship, but, he tells us, “I came to ruefully and bemusedly understand that once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic. So I stopped kidding myself. I know somewhere deep inside I’m still on the team.”
There are all sorts of teams, though, that Springsteen seems happy to join, perhaps curiously for someone whose individual status is so totemic. He is generous to his friends, treating band members like family, demonstrating the kind of care that seems unlikely in a rock-and-roll setting.
It is his reading of the people around him which marks out his own soul: the beginning, perhaps, of both his social compassion and his storytelling talent. Take this, on his long-time collaborator Clarence Clemons: “Clarence’s hands were always like heavy stones but when he placed them upon your shoulders, the most comforting, secure feeling swept through your body and heart.” It is a snapshot that tells you as much about the teller as the told.
Rolled up against frank descriptions of his own battles with depression, it all works to warm reader to author. “I am here”, he says, to provide proof of life to that ever elusive, never completely believable “us”; and that, fellow reader, is why we love him.
Simon Joseph Jones is the publications manager for Quakers in Britain. He is a former editor of Third Way magazine.