I tell you, moving house knocks it out of you. Still, sometime between my birthday a couple of weeks back and popping it back up on a new shelf, I found the time to tear through Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born To Run (it was never going to be called anything else, was it?).
It is an absolute blast to read. Written completely solo and without the assistance of a ghost-writer, the voice is clearly that of Bruce – at times cuttingly honest, at others poetic and then written as though delivering a sermon from the stage on the LIFE SAVING POWERS OF ROCK AND ROLL!!! (yes, the caps-lock button is Bruce’s friend). Contained within its five hundred or so pages is the story of how a young man from a poor, working class family in the town of Freehold, New Jersey, fell in love with music, got a guitar, learned how to make it talk, refined his craft and cracked the code. It’s fascinating and joyous stuff.
This being a memoir / auto-biography, the story is going to be somewhat one-sided. This is Bruce’s version. So while in Born To Run, Bruce describes the recording of Tunnel Of Love, for example, by writing that Bob Clearmountin ‘tidied up’ his playing so it sounded as if he knew what he was doing, it’s Peter Ames Carlin’s 2012 Bruce that fills the picture out by pointing out that Bruce and Bob actually used samplers, drum machines and synths to create a lot of the music and then bought in members of the band to “beat the machine” – if they did the part was recorded, if not… well not every member of the E-Street featured and not every member of the band were impressed by the process but then Bruce is the Boss, a fact he gently underlines on a number of occasions in the pages of his own book; “I’d declared democracy and band names dead after Steel Mill. I was leading the band, playing, singing and writing everything we did. If I was going to carry the workload and responsibility, I might as well assume the power”.
The part of the book that deals with the period before the release of Born In The USA is both the largest and juiciest. There’s a wealth of information about the source of Bruce’s art, his influences and his decisions. These were lean times – it wasn’t until after The River tour that Bruce had anything resembling financial success thanks to lawsuits and recording costs inflated due to his infamous perfectionism – and there’s a huge amount of detail as to what drove him to take certain choices with his music. While there’s no real breakdown of what inspired each and every song (that already exists in Songs) there’s a great amount of revelations to be found.
Bruce is surprisingly candid when it comes to more personal elements too. I was a little surprised by some of his descriptions of his fellow E-Streeter’s – especially the late Danny Federici – but then his undeniable love for these band-members is also evident as his heartbreak at their passing.
Many of the column inches covering this book in the press have been at pains to mention that Mr Springsteen is equally revealing when it comes to his struggles with depression. Having managed to suppress what he describes as a consequence of the same mental plagues suffered by his father through years of working and touring, Bruce’s own depression came jumping up into his face . He is very open with his fight with and its effect on both him and his loved ones. As a fellow sufferer of that Black Dog it’s inspiring to read. His relationship with his father as a young man – while hinted at in song – is revealed in a much deeper and, at times, darker light and there’s a real sense of emotion and release when, post diagnosis with Paranoid Schizophrenia, Bruce’s father becomes a softer man and the two find some form of closure.
Part of not embracing the full ‘rock star lifestyle’ means that there’s not a huge amount of rock star stories to be found here and you’d be forgiven for skimming a go-nowhere Frank Sinatra story or those chapters (yep) dedicated to horse riding and Bruce’s equestrian escapades. Indeed, post-USA the structure is more vignettes than linear bio and some of those don’t really feel all that vital but, then, Bruce spent the larger part of that time period between E-Street lives building and raising his family and seeking a sense of calm that had previously alluded him so I’d hardly argue that this is a fault.
But there is still plenty to enjoy in the latter section of the book including some real eye-openers even post-USA. Bruce shines a little more light on the ‘missing’ album from the period between ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ and Greatest Hits – it was another ‘men and women, relationships’ themed album but steeped in that minimal, loops and beats sound he’d employed for SoP. During a drive with Roy Bittan, his trusty piano player mentioned that perhaps it was the lyrical content of this new music that audiences were having trouble connecting to. Unable to find a unifying voice and sound for it, the album was shelved “and there she sits” – ‘Secret Garden’, ‘Missing’ and ‘Nothing Man’ would see the light of day. Bruce may have shot The Professor down but it dawned soon enough – he’d lost his ‘voice’. Post Greatest Hits he went to find it and that’s why Ghost of Tom Joad is more of an important album than that subtle masterpiece may have been considered: “the songs on it added up to a reaffirmation of the best of what I do. The record was something new, but was also a reference point to the things I tried to stand for and still wanted to be about as a songwriter.”
Particularly interesting and surprising – given how logical and inevitable it must have seemed to all outside of Bruce’s head – is that up until the last minute, he still doubted whether reuniting the E-Street Band was the best move – not feeling the fire despite the band’s force, initially building a set list that drew heavily from Tracks and eschewed hits and classics (fuck but I’d love to hear that set!) It wasn’t until the fifty or so fans that had stood outside the rehearsals trying to hear the sounds drifting out were let in to watch that Bruce felt the spark.
Given the level of detail assigned to the writing and recording of earlier works, it’s a little surprising and perhaps disappointing that the post E-Street reformation era isn’t deemed sufficiently interesting to warrant the same treatment. The Rising onwards saw Bruce’s career and popularity reborn after a lacklustre nineties yet the six albums recorded since are breezed over – with the exception of Bruce noting how disappointed he was that Wrecking Ball did not garner the impact and attention he felt these songs warranted. From my point of view and deviating slightly that’s down to the fact that his and Ron Anellio’s attempts to sound sonically relevant and ‘now’ detracted from the quality of the song writing. That being said it was surprising to read the candour with which Bruce realised that, after years of doing so, he simply wasn’t the right person to record or produce his music any more.
Despite the slightness of its third act – I guess if he’d been as thorough here the book would’ve been simply too long as well – Born To Run is, without question, one of the best musician’s autobiogs I’ve read. Hugely insightful, informative and written with a trueness of voice that equals Bruce’s finest music, it’s an essential read for any fan and a bloody important one for anyone with even a passing interest.
Released to accompany the album is Chapter and Verse. Given that it took close to twenty-five years and eleven albums for Bruce to release his first Greatest Hits and in the twenty years that followed there were another three such compilations to the six studio albums… it’s hard to believe that another new compilation were needed to do so, it does kinda reek of cash-grab.
Of the eighteen tracks on Chapter and Verse, thirteen have already been released many in the same order on other compilations. That’s not to say the songs aren’t required listening – any album that contains ‘The River’, ‘My Father’s House’, ‘Born To Run’ and ‘The Rising’ is easily going to stand strong. In some respects the running order here is more beneficial than other instances – lifting ‘Long Time Comin” from it’s sandwiching on Devils And Dust‘s weaker tracks really allows it to shine. But, given that fans will already have either the existing compilations, the albums these tracks are culled from or both, it’s hard to argue a case for their recompiling.
So – the big USP of Chapter and Verse comes down to this; the first five songs have not been released previously and pre-date Bruce’s recording career with Columbia. But are they worth shelling out for? In a couple of words, sorry but not really…. These songs are notable for the progression they represent (even the jump in style between the two cuts from Springsteen’s first band The Castiles) but, ultimately are only being heard because who one of their members went on to be. The Steel Mill song ‘He’s Guilty (The Judge Song)’ is a standard southern-blues stomper recorded in San Francisco as the band tried to use California to break out of Jersey-only stardom but highlights what Bruce himself realised; for every Allman Brothers Band there were a hundred Steel Mill’s and there’s little here to distinguish them above the pack. The exception, though, is The Bruce Springsteen Band’s ‘The Ballad of Jesse James’ which, of the five ‘new’ tracks is the keeper.
For myself, and I’d wager a few others, I’d rather the previously-unreleased material shone some light on either the E-Street Band’s take on Nebraska (that the fabled Electric Nebraska exists in its entirety is confirmed in Born To Run) or Bruce’s shelved album from the nineties… so I’ll drop one such track here – ‘Waiting On The End of the World’, written for that album and taken a stab at with the E-Street Band at the time of Greatest Hits which, for my money, is still the best Springsteen comp.
If you are still looking for music to ‘accompany’ the reading of Born To Run, there’s a Spotify playlist that Bruce (or someone on his team, most likely) put together containing all songs referenced and important: