Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen's memoir set for release on Tuesday, is a virtuoso performance, the 508-page equivalent to one of Springsteen and the E Street Band's famous four-hour concerts: Nothing is left onstage, and diehard fans and first-timers alike depart for home sated and yet somehow already aching for more. With a triptych organization — Growin' Up, Born to Run, and Living Proof are the book's three sections, each divided into many short chapters — the autobiography tacks between the story of a young musical ferocity who becomes a global star central to rock 'n' roll history and a surprising reflection on a troubled early family life and the devastatingly long reach of mental illness.
That Springsteen can write, we knew; he has spent the past 40 years telling intricate tales of human joy and suffering through his music. Family, home, faith and redemption, work and identity are familiar Springsteen themes, but Born to Run drives into new territory that sometimes invites out-loud laughter (Springsteen's humor is subtle and truly funny) and at others cracks the heart right open. Here we read the great arc of a life in rock 'n' roll, one that starts in Freehold, N.J., on the night in 1956 that Elvis premiered on The Ed Sullivan Show. The next day, Springsteen's mother allowed her smitten son to rent a guitar. He was 7 years old.
From the days in Asbury Park where each member of the early band cleared $3 a night to the discovery that E Street could fill the great stadiums of Europe with fans who literally swooned, and through the night when the band ignited the 2009 Super Bowl crowd with four songs in 12 minutes, Springsteen details step by step how he became The Boss. Does his writing in these sections, including accounts of his first encounters with E Street musicians Steve Van Zandt and Clarence Clemons, rely too frequently on excitable capital letters? Maybe. Springsteen's prose is good enough that he doesn't need to rely on these distracting, shouty crescendos.
Born to Run reaches its zenith in the sections that focus on Springsteen's family life. His dad, Doug, who died in 1998, and his mom, Adele, who now, in her 90s, can be seen joyously dancing at her son's concerts, are central to the tales. There's anger and bewilderment at Doug, whose terrible unpredictability more than once shattered the family and who was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. There's gratitude for Adele, who during the turbulent times provided her son with the kind of plain and pure parental support that he needed.
At times, Springsteen's tone is self-lacerating. He writes that for years, in part stemming from his painful relationship with his father, he took refuge from intimacy in emotional distance, and sometimes even in "bullying" behavior. "I wanted to kill what loved me because I couldn't stand being loved," he writes. Yet what shines through the book is that these are the self-criticisms of someone who, as a grown man, became exquisitely tender toward his dad and was able to forgive others more readily than he was able to forgive himself. For his fortitude in coping with mental health issues, Springsteen credits years in therapy and antidepressants — but also, over and over again, the steadying presence of his wife, musician Patti Scialfa. "In my life, Patti is a singularity," he says. Once again Springsteen makes it clear that a woman's power sustains him.
Many passages in Born to Run are aimed at Springsteen's loyal fans, people with whom he has an "intense" and "transcendent" connection. These include folks who drive hundreds of miles — or fly across continents and oceans — to attend a concert. His focus in the book on his depression and the darkness he has "studied and fought against for the better part of sixty-five years" may surprise those of us who thrive on his constant exuberance onstage.
Born to Run hits point blank at the mind and the heart because, like many dozens of Springsteen songs, it's fundamentally about how each of us can work to stay in touch with our humanity — and at the toughest times, how we, like Springsteen himself, may will it into present existence.
Barbara J. King is a professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve, and her forthcoming book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. She has been rocking out at Springsteen concerts since growing up in New Jersey in the 1970s. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape