Springsteen’s father looms large in ‘Born to Run’ autobiography
By Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune (TNS)
Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, “Born to Run,” is more aptly titled than even diehards might realize.
“Born to Run,” of course, was also the title of the album that brought him the double-trouble of Time and Newsweek cover stories in 1975 and launched him into an uneasy stardom. It contains songs that have become fixtures at his concerts — notably the title track and “Thunder Road,” but also “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “Night,” “Backstreets” and on and on. It’s a song cycle that loosely explains his desperate desire to escape the town that, for better or worse, shaped him — Freehold, N.J. But at the end of the album, in the pulp opera of “Jungleland,” the fleeing lovers don’t get out. “They wind up wounded, not even dead …”
Springsteen’s memoir tells the same tale: He’s spent his whole life trying to get out of Freehold, but it will always be with him. His upbringing — a working-class Italian-Irish family literally living in the shadow of the neighborhood’s Catholic parish steeple — is embodied by a number of well-drawn characters: the smothering grandmother, the resilient mom, his plucky sisters. But the figure who looms largest of all, the one who did more than anyone to cast who Springsteen became, was the one whom Springsteen could never please: his father, Doug. A factory worker who often sat at the table in a darkened kitchen and drank beers and smoked cigarettes in silence after work, Doug Springsteen rarely engaged with his family. When he did, his bitterness bubbled over into verbal abuse.
“When my dad looked at me,” Springsteen writes, “he didn’t see what he needed to see. This was my crime.”
Springsteen spends a good chunk of the next 40 years trying to lift that stone from his back — a burden he doesn’t even fully recognize until he starts seeing a therapist. On his first visit to the doctor’s office, he breaks down in tears, and some of the unburdening, some of what he learned about himself and dad and “the ties that bind,” to quote one song title, provides a narrative thread through 500-plus pages. The potential for maudlin sentimentality is great. But Springsteen keeps the tone relatively breezy and conversational. The voice in this book is a more confiding version of the one heard on stage. It is self-deprecating and sometimes withering in its honesty, especially when judging himself.
He readily acknowledges that he’s a decent guitar player and an OK singer who wills himself into becoming a band leader and rises to the top of a small bar-band scene on the East Coast. Songwriting becomes the key to getting out of those bars, a way to match the endgame of his heroes Elvis Presley and the Beatles: world domination.
“I thought I was a phony … but I also thought I was the realest thing you’d ever seen,” he writes. That mix of bravado and deep-seated insecurity is why a man plays and plays until he exhausts himself, his band and even his audience in shows that stretch past three, even four hours. Playing live, he writes, was “my lifeline to the rest of humanity in the days when those connections were tough for me to make.”
When the songs started to flow, the voice started to emerge. At first he was perceived as a folk singer, which explains how his first album became such a muddle. Once his record company reluctantly acquiesced to the idea that Springsteen was not the “new Dylan” but a rocker fronting a gang-turned-bar-band, he brought in his buddies from Jersey to record with him. After making a few key personnel shifts (bringing in ringers such as Roy Bittan on keyboards and Max Weinberg on drums) he found his voice on record.
The songwriting shifted into adult themes in 1978 with the “Born to Run” follow-up, “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” with his father as central figure in many of the key songs. The combustible music stews in turmoil even at low volume (the title track, “Racing in the Street”) and the guitars blast to the front of the mix for the first time on a Springsteen album. The lengthy and now-legendary tour afterward strung together prove-it-to-the-world concerts unrivaled even in Springsteen’s own history. The E Street Band became the singer’s foil, and no two shows were alike. If you could afford a $7.50 ticket and gas to the next town, it was a rite of passage for a certain generation of fans to follow the tour until the cash ran out or the car broke down.
It was a great run, but things got hazy in band politics and Springsteen’s personal life in the mid-’80s. His first marriage and his longstanding relationship with the E Streeters both crumble. He doesn’t sugarcoat his relationship with the band. First he parts ways with his best friend, Steve Van Zandt, who wants more of a partnership at the top of Springsteen Inc., and after the mega-million-selling “Born in the U.S.A.,” he eventually tells them all — Clarence Clemons, Weinberg, even long-standing sidekicks Garry Tallent and Danny Federici — that it’s over. “I felt I’d become not just a friend and employer for some, but also banker and daddy,” he writes.
Though he yearns for a wife and family, Springsteen owns up to his emotional unpreparedness for the responsibility. He credits his second wife (and longtime band member), Patti Scialfa, with steering him toward some balance as they rear three children together. It turns out that the isolation, the disconnection, the emotional containment that had helped young Bruce weather his childhood had become impediments to being a husband and father. It’s hardly a new tale: Who doesn’t know adults who are consumed by their work, or use it as an escape from emotional connection with wife, children and family? Springsteen’s honesty in these passages is unsparing (especially when aimed at himself), frequently moving and also welcome. It belongs to the narrator we hear in songs such as “Brilliant Disguise,” “If I Should Fall Behind” and “One Step Up.”
Redemption is hard-won in Springsteen songs, and sometimes it never comes. His best songs are coated in ambiguity. Such is life — his life. For fans, the singer’s patriarchal issues are well-known. They were the subject of numerous between-songs monologues at concerts and populated the biblical, mythical struggles in some of his greatest songs: “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Independence Day,” “My Father’s House.” Doug Springsteen is central to Springsteen’s story, and that relationship is the core of a tome that is by turns poignant, poetic, comical, bombastic and unsettling. Even in his 60s, Springsteen says, he copes — often badly — with the psychological detritus left over from a childhood in which his father’s epic silences, distant disapproval and booze-fueled rages left scars that still haven’t fully healed.
This memoir is not about settling scores or assessing blame. Instead, Springsteen tries to understand his father, and by extension, himself. Once he realizes this, he finds a kind of peace.
Why should it matter? Because Springsteen has always said that he could not be who he is if he did not look into the eyes of the audience and recognize himself. There’s a neediness in that, too, isn’t there? Hence, the never-ending shows.
Springsteen is at his best when writing about the man who drove him to start a band, to break out of Freehold, to play himself into exhilarating exhaustion night after night. After Doug’s death, he describes a dream in which he sees his father in that sea of faces in the audience at one of his concerts. The singer climbs off stage and kneels next to the father, “and for a moment, we both watch the man on fire onstage.”
The singer leans over to the man who had spent so many decades of his life suffering silently in the dark and says, “Look, Dad, look … that guy onstage … that’s you … that’s how I see you.”
‘BORN TO RUN’
By Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Schuster, 528 pages, $32.50
©2016 Chicago Tribune
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