In performances in the early- and mid-1970s, Bruce Springsteen sometimes played “Wings for Wheels,” an early version of what would become his famous rock-and-roll romance, “Thunder Road.” The best-known rendition of the song, preserved as part of a well-circulated concert bootleg, was in 1975, when 25-year-old Bruce played The Main Point in Philadelphia, six months before his third studio album, Born to Run, would lead Springsteen, in the words of Ed Sciaky, the DJ who introduced him that night, “to conquer America and the world.”
“Wings for Wheels” is a great song, different from “Thunder Road” in its rawer and less pretty look at young masculinity. In it, Springsteen weighs his car against his girl, with the car coming out ahead — “This 4/4 is gonna overheat / Make up your mind girl I gotta get her back out on the street.” He yearns to take his companion “to some sandy beach where we’d never grow old” and he begs her to do what he cannot seem to do for himself: “make me feel like a man.”
Springsteen is now close to 70, which you would not guess if you’d attended any one of his recent record-breaking four-hour concerts or if you read his 500-page memoir, Born to Run, published this week and just as hyper, giddy, and jam-packed with words and ideas and desires as any of his music or his live performances. If you are a Springsteen fan, you will not spend an instant wondering if this book was ghostwritten: It is eager, hammy, yearning, unmistakable, and inimitable Bruce from start to finish.
But one of the book’s most unexpected pleasures is Springsteen’s willingness to pick apart the kind of masculinity — the cars, the perspective on girls, the making of the man — to which he has been so firmly attached in our imagination. Springsteen is an iconic American white guy, associated with totems — guitars and highways and leather jackets — obsessed with Steinbeck and Elvis and obsessed over by male scribes from David Remnick and Eric Alterman to Leslie Fiedler. In his memoir, Springsteen unexpectedly lays bare the contradictions, complexities, and downright artifice on which his very public version of manhood has been built.
Which is important, in part, because so many of his fans are women. And yes, many of those women love the cars and the guitars just as much as the guys, and are no less vital in our enthusiasms (or rueful in our realities) than Springsteen’s male admirers. But a lot of us have also long heard (or perhaps wanted to hear) in Bruce something more nuanced and appreciative in his portraits of the Candys, Marys, Janeys, and Rosies. We have loved that he doesn’t just sing about perfect beach babes, but about women who’ve been around a time or two, who put our makeup on and our hair up pretty, who push our baby carriages down the street and drink warm beer, and may not be beauties but are alright nonetheless.
By many measures, Born to Run is for us. It cracks the macho exterior and really pulls out the guts of Bruce’s thinking on identity, on his own manhood. It reveals an appreciation and respect for women, and questions about men and how they’re made, that many of us have long suspected underpinned his music.
Other critics have already noted that one of the great revelations of Born to Run is the admission that Bruce himself didn’t even know how to drive a car until he was in his mid-20s, making all those ballads about escape down the highways of New Jersey a manufactured fantasy, a projected idea of what male self-direction entailed. “When I say I didn’t drive I mean I DID NOT KNOW HOW,” he writes. I was even more struck by the story of how he came to find imaginative salvation in cars to begin with: not as a place to score (though there is plenty of that) or a getaway, but when, as a boy, he was so scared of lightning that he “caterwauled until my parents would take me in the car” — safe on rubber tires — “until the storm subsided.” He then “proceeded to write about cars for the rest of my life.”
A lot of the book is about Bruce as a boy. Doted on by a grandmother who’d lost a daughter as a child, Springsteen describes himself as slightly ruined by her overindulgence — made into “an unintentional rebel, an outcast weirdo misfit sissy boy” at 7. But he was also deeply shaped by that grandmother, and by his exuberant and steady Italian mother, Adele. A rebel and an outcast, Springsteen writes of how, when he was 12, his mother became pregnant and he saw it as “a miracle.” “I loved the maternity clothes,” he writes, describing how he and his other sister “would sit in the living room in the final months of her pregnancy, our hands resting upon her stomach, waiting for our little sister to kick.” When the baby was born, Springsteen writes, “I was enchanted with her. I was thankful for her. I changed her diapers, rocked her to sleep, ran to her side if she cried, held her in my arms.” It is a testament to how poisoned we are in our ideas of what pubescent boys — especially the angry misfits who go on to become fist-pumping rock stars — are like that I had to read this passage several times to make sure I was understanding the chronology correctly, and that in the 1960s, a disaffected teenage Bruce Springsteen had indeed doted on his pregnant mother and changed his baby sister’s diapers.
But that’s not the only surprise. In a tome that could easily have been a gratifyingly dirty sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll tell-all, there are … no drugs. At least none consumed by Springsteen, who was always “too scared” to try them. In the early 70s, he writes, “Everybody wanted to give you drugs all the time. I was a stubborn young man and set in my fearful ways.” Springsteen spent the weekend of Woodstock in New Jersey. “From where I stood the whole thing up north looked like too much of a hassle, too much traffic, too many drugs.” There it is kids, the revelations of a rock god: There was too much traffic!
Wary of his father Douglas’s dark relationship to alcohol — one that traumatized young Bruce so much that he blinked uncontrollably and chewed the flesh on his knuckles to callouses — adult Bruce doesn’t even take a drink until his early 20s, before finally discovering that he’s “a merry drinker simply prone to foolish behavior and occasional sexual misadventure.”
There is a lot of sex in Born to Run, with too many women to count, women who — with the exception of his first kiss and his two wives — Springsteen takes care not to name. But even in the stories of his exploits, there’s a shyness and an unexpected reluctance to be the man he is assumed to be. “Who cares what’s going on at the Playboy Mansion?” Springsteen remembers thinking as he turns down invitations. “That’s not real.” Mostly, his stories about women reflect appreciation and respect, and his regrets at not having lived up to most of the ones he’s dated. And also, there’s just a little too much information to be cool. Take, for instance, his memory of inspiration for his concert staple “Rosalita”: “a sweet blonde who I believe was the first gal I had successful intercourse with, one fumbling afternoon at chez mama (though, due to the fog of war, I can’t be absolutely sure.)” This is less rock-and-roll tell-all than “Oh, my God, dad! Stop!”
Springsteen is unashamed to explore, from a perspective of whiteness and maleness, his impressions of race and gender. He writes often about race relations, the fights between the blacks and whites that he’s sung about taking place in his hometown, but also about the chasms of experience that couldn’t ever wholly be bridged with his long-term professional partner, the E Street Band’s late saxophonist Clarence Clemons. “For a long time he was alone, and no matter how close we were, I was white. We had as deep a relationship as I can imagine, but we lived in the real world, where we’d experienced that nothing, not all the love in God’s heaven, obliterates race.” Clemons, who died in 2011, gets some of the warmest and funniest writing in the book; Bruce’s love for him is boundless and heartbreaking. “It’s hard to imagine that Clarence was once a normal person,” he writes, and you can practically hear him laughing and shaking his head all over the page. “One thing … about Clarence is that Clarence was very important to Clarence. In this he was not so different from most of us, except by fabulous degree.”
But Clemons isn’t the only one whose love prompts Springsteen to consider the limitations of his own identity. He writes of how, in 1984, “I wanted my band to reflect my evolving audience, an audience that was becoming increasingly grown up and whose lives were about men and women.” It was tricky, he writes, because he understood his audience’s imaginative investment in the world he’d created, and that up until then, that world — his band — had been male. “But in 1984, I wanted, on my stage, that world of men and women; so, I hoped, would my audience.” Springsteen hires Patti Scialfa, a Jersey musician whom he’d first interviewed by phone for a back-up singer gig when she was in high school, and who would go on to become his second wife, to whom he’s married today. But when Scialfa first joined the band, Bruce writes of his own discomfort at critiquing how she dressed for a concert, and his dawning realization that “The E Street Band carried its own muted misogyny (including my own), a very prevalent quality amongst rock groups of our generation.”
Springsteen doesn’t linger too long on racism and misogyny, but they pop up over and over, clearly threading through his memories of work and life, as he tries to work out his identity, his place in the world, and his relationships to the people he loves and relies on: from his black singing idols to his bandmates to his mother and grandmother, his wife, equestrian daughter, and his female fans. It’s not lugubrious or overworked; his writing about identity, like so much of the Springsteen canon, is earnest and sometimes corny, but often lyrical in its efforts to make real sense of this country and its inhabitants, himself included. A lot of that he does through therapy, and a moment of earned narrative relief comes as he first meets his therapist: “I walk in; look into the eyes of a kindly, white-haired, mustached complete stranger; sit down; and burst into tears.”
Born to Run, like Springsteen’s music, is half a raucous celebration of desire and ambition and pleasures and half a stark reckoning with the costs of those impulses, as well as with pain loss and injustice. It’s a sad book. In part because it feels like the admission of completion: not of a life or a career— I understand rationally that they are still going. But my lizard brain reacted to Born to Run as I did to the last encore of its author’s lengthy concerts — as a winding down, an acknowledgment that there is no sandy beach on which we will never get old. Here is the story of his life, and it’s no accident that he’s telling it now, and not 20 or 30 years from now because, well …
Here, along with the revelation and cornball charm and the crowded prose is the admission that the immortality he chased as a young man will elude him, as it has already eluded some of his bandmates, the stadiums he’s played, and as it will elude all of us. He also wants us to know that that’s alright. In fact it’s central to the joy of the music he’s been driven to make. Bruce writes of his passion for the songs he heard on the radio as a kid, especially for the voices of Sam Cooke and the Drifters, singers who “sound simultaneously happy and sad.” I can’t think of a better description of Springsteen’s own music, or the book he’s given us here, a celebration and an elegy all at once.