Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Shuster, 2016)
A review by Bill Kelly
Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run is on the streets.
I didn't stand in line with the other 4,000 fans to get an autographed copy, a selfie and thirty seconds to shake hands and exchange words with the Boss, but if I did I would have told Bruce to get an index, as every serious work of non-fiction should have one.
I wanted to read Springsteen's book for a number of reasons - to see who his ghost writer is, to hear what he has to say about a few particular people, to see if there were any key South Jersey connections and to find any personal associations between my life and his, as we both grew up Jersey Shore Guys at the same time.
But without an index as a search guide I couldn't "research," cut to the chase, cheat or read the Cliff Notes, and would just have to buckle down in the front seat, riding shotgun on the passenger side, and read it, all 510 pages with color photo supplement.
I also wanted to know if this was to be like a Billie Holiday or Howard Hughes imaginative autobio or more like Dylan's (Volume 1), that actually answers some questions and at least tries to get to the heart of things, which in this case cuts close to home.
I didn't have to look far for a South Jersey connection - there on the front cover is Frank Stefano's 1978 black and white photo of Bruce in front of Stefano's Haddonfield home, leaning against his $6,000 1964 Corvette convertible, as if waiting for you to take that long walk from the front porch to his front seat - let the screen door slam, and the trip begin.
As Bruce explains it he met Frank Stefano through Patti Smith, another South Jersey connection, and they're both in the book.
But like Dylan's auto bio it isn't always who you mention but who you leave out, and a few prominent names go unmentioned – like for instance President Obama and Governor Chris Christie, both big fans on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Bruce backed Obama for President, campaigned for him and sang at his inaugural, but like Sinatra and JFK, they apparently had a falling out. It was the other way around with Christie, who gets first row seats to Bruce concerts, but was snubbed by the boss until after hurricane Sandy, when Christie moved beyond party politics and gained Bruce's admiration, however temporary. Both understandable snuffs.
If Dylan is the conscience of our generation, then Bruce is the spirit, and both are the only living contenders to Walt Whitman's title of America's unofficial Poet Laureate. And there's an affinity between them that's quite evident, and there paths would cross down the road a number of times, most notably when Bruce introduced Bob to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But they also were at Sinatra’s funeral together and met a number of times privately and Bob probably edges out Bruce on influence and seniority.
The answer to the first question is the Ghost Writer is Bruce himself, and it isn't hard to imagine the person who penned "Blinded by the Light," “Thunder Road,” "Born to Run" and "Spirits in the Night" could write a complete sentence and put the story into words and paragraphs instead of rhymes and rhythms.
“Madman, drummers, bummers, Indians in the summer, with a teenage diplomat…- The screen door slams. Mary’s dress waves like a vision she dances across the porch…- In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream. At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines. Sprung from cages on highway nine, chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin’ out over the line…- Crazy Janey and her mission man were back in the alley traden’ hands, ‘long came Wild Billy with his friend G-Man all duded up for Saturday night. Well, Billy slammed on his coaster breaks and said, ‘Anybody wanna go up to Greasy Lake? It’s about a mile on the dark side of Route 88 I got a bottle of rose so let’s try it….”
They’re well baited hooks that grab you and the take you for a ride that feels like magic.
But it isn't reassuring to read his opening line of his book - "I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I a member in good standing amongst those who 'lie' in the service of truth...But I had four aces in youth, a decade of bar band experience, a good group of homegrown musicians attuned to my performance style, and a story to tell."
And a story to tell it is indeed, but only one we've heard through his songs and music, and by others, not from the man himself, and he warns us from the get go that he’s a bit of a fraud and will ‘lie’ in the service of truth, so hold on to your hats and keep your elbows in the window.
As one fan told him, after hours in line, he got his 30 seconds with the Boss and said, - "You know Bruce, if this book thing doesn't work out you can always write songs."
And for the millions of Bruce fans who grew up with him, it's time to jump into his skin and rewind the ride from the front porch, - beginning with the typical family problems everyone experiences, skipping high school graduation to go to the Village, getting evicted from Freehold, Greetings from Asbury Park when it was still the pits, back and forth up and down E-Street a few times, on to world tours and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame up to now. And the rides not over yet.
You don't have to read it from beginning to end but can pick it up anywhere you are interested and it will still make sense - it is in chronological order, until the end, when he regurgitates some of the early feelings that were hard to express early on, such as how he found his voice, realized it wasn’t so hot, and knew he had to overcome that with other finer attributes, like spirit, style and a little magic.
The book is written in a bare bones Hemingwayesque prose much like the parting note - in case you didn't know - "About the Author: Bruce Springsteen has been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and the New Jersey Hall of Fame. He is the recipient of twenty Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, and the Kennedy Center Honors. He lives in New Jersey with his family. For more information go to www.brucespringsteen.net."
Just as a local newspaper columnist complained about Springsteen fever, - he just didn't get it, you have to understand the music to appreciate it, or appreciate it to understand it – as they go hand in hand.
Bruce is well known as a Jersey Guy, but like Frank (Sinatra) and Jack (Nicholson) and Joe (Piscopo), they are NORTH Jersey Guys - with closer affinities to New York and are Giants, Devils and Mets fans, rather than the South Jersey connection to Philly and Philadelphia Eagles, Flyers and Phillies fans. There is a difference, and I know of only a few occasions when Bruce ventured down and performed south of Toms River. He did it early in his career at the Earlton Lounge bowling alley in Cherry Hill and the Satellite Lounge in Wrightstown, both of which get a mentioned in the book.
The Satellite gets a whole chapter because the gig was the first for a new drummer, and the owner threatened to kill Bruce if he reneged on his contract and didn't play, but would love him if he did. Greg Gregory of Somers Point was a Temple student and bartender at the Satellite and recalls charging Bruce a dollar for a beer.
Early in his career Bruce also played Ocean and Burlington Community College gigs, that put him just over the Jersey Mason-Dixon Line.
Then there was the time in 1988 Bruce sat in and jammed on a few songs with Jackson Browne on the makeshift stage in the parking lot of Bally's casino in Atlantic City, the first and only time Bruce has ever played a casino.
Then there was the 2002 Rising Tour show at Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall, but that’s pretty much it.
Bruce is a North Jersey Guy, who made it in New York mainly through the efforts of his agent and promoter Mike Apple and John Hammond, Sr., who signed him to CBS Records, both of whom are seriously dealt with in the book.
But he also acknowledges the Delaware Valley fans were the first to really embrace him, with a tip of the hat to David Dye (now at World Cafe WXPN) and Ed Sciaky both acknowledged.
Another local South Jersey Shore music writer Kurt Loder of Ocean City gave a five star Rolling Stone magazine review of Springsteen's The Rising album, and David Kamp writes a flattering cover story profile of Bruce in Vanity Fair that refers to Bruce's suffering year-long bouts of depression, that some attribute to his alcoholic father, who was hot and cold with his kids and packed up and moved to California in 1969, leaving behind 19 year old Bruce and 17 year old daughter with child.
While his Italian mother was full of love and family, maybe it was his salt and fire Irish father who inspired Bruce to pick up the guitar and believe he could, like the Beatles and the Stones, make a living playing rock and roll.
As Bruce said in his R&R Hall of Fame speech, “I’ve gotta thank him because – what would I have conceivably written about without him? I mean, you can imagine that if everything had gone great between us, we would have had disaster. I would have written just happy songs – and I tried it in the early ‘90s and it didn’t work; the public didn’t like it.”
More so were the influences of Sinatra, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, all of whom he would cross paths with down the road, after his mother bought him a $60 guitar and he began to play with local garage and bar bands.
Bouncing around for years, playing with a series of bar bands – The Castiles, Steel Mill, Earth, Dr. Zoom & the Sonic Boom, Sundance Blues Band, until he gets the Bruce Springsteen Band together in 1971 and as with the evolving E-Street Band, there's no disputing who is the boss, though they did get a big boost from Mike Apple, who signed Bruce to contracts as an individual - not as a band, and in 1972 he got Bruce the audition with John Hammond, Jr., the legendary CBS Records A&R man who signed Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce.
While Dave Marsh wrote the 1998 Born to Run biography - you can't copyright a title - it was another music journalist Jon Landau who wrote “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Landau then stepped in as a producer who gave Bruce the advice and direction he needed to go even further, and his role is well amplified in the book.
Some of the stories Bruce tells make the book – like the time they travel onto the Indian reservation in the Southwest, where they found Thunder Road, the time they got thrown out of Disney Land because Steve Van Zant wouldn’t take off his bandana, how he met Patti his second wife at the Stone Pony, how he met Sinatra through Patti’s pedicurist, and Dylan and Jack Nicholson at Frank’s funeral.
The business end of things wasn't his major interest and making a lot of money not a motive, but making the magic in the performance was - and he honed his band to do it right, night after night, and they pretty much did.
Bruce says that outside the bouts of depression, he only felt he lost the magic a few times – first when he played his first large scale stadium show in Ireland, then at a Madison Square Garden show when he performed "American Skin," about the police killing of a young black boy, to which the police benevolent association took exception, and then while practicing for the E-Street Band revival after 10 years hiatus.
The last time, after weeks of practice behind closed doors in the Asbury Park Convention Hall, Bruce felt the music was dull, uninspiring and the spirit lacking, until he opened the doors and let the fans waiting outside in.
Suddenly he came to life, looked into the faces of the fans who expected magic, and he reached back and found it - just as he found it in Ireland and at the Garden, the fans provided the missing ingredient that mad the magic - just add love.
They get it.
And for the fans, old or new, who read this book, who get in the car with Bruce, they too will get it, and go back, back to Greasy Lake, drink the rose wine, dance under the stars and among the lightning bugs, fairies and the fell the magic in the spirits in the night, the magic that Bruce has brought us over these many years, a trip that's still unfolding, as the magic is still there, if you want it. Just get in and go for a ride with Bruce behind the wheel.