Saturday, October 29, 2016

Springsteen Memoir Is Born to Be Read

My interest in Bruce Springsteen’s recently-released memoir contrasted sharply from the anticipation I experience before going to one of his concerts. I’m usually aware of some of the songs he’s likely to perform in three-four hour shows, due to set-list postings on social media. However, with a traditional proclivity for variation, there are commonly a few spur-of-the-moment additions midway through the show.
Months ago, when news spread about the forthcoming Springsteen memoir, I expected to learn more about the rock and roll star I’ve appreciated for over 40 years than just the requisite publicity gleaned from press releases and tabloids. I’d been looking forward to reading Springsteen’s autobiography, which debuted at number one on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list and remains in second place after three weeks, since I ordered it from Amazon early last summer.
Having recently finished reading the 508-page book, I certainly know a great deal about the performer I first saw live at Madison Square Garden, as the opening act for Chicago, in 1973.
I read the jacket synopsis then saw there were 80 chapters, averaging about six pages each. The first connection that came to mind was a typical new Springsteen record, comprised largely of songs under five minutes. (One of my favorite Springsteen lyrics from “No Surrender” is: “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.”) For Springsteen, however, shorter songs are not always standard. Many from his vast catalog are six-ten minute epics that are frequently extended in concert.
In one passage from the book, Springsteen’s longtime manager, Jon Landau, advises him that “longer is not always better,” then added, “Neither is shorter.”
Accordingly, the brief chapters reminded me of distinctive concert moments between songs when Springsteen recounts stories from his life. In “Born to Run,” the compressed episodes are more intimate and, perhaps, were cathartic as he wrote them in longhand over a seven year period.
  A pattern emerges early in the memoir as Springsteen cleverly sprinkles several of his, as well as other, song titles to suit the narrative.
I generally read popular fiction with a few non-fiction titles and memoirs mixed in every now and then. Among the latter have been pleasing autobiographies by Harry Belafonte and Keith Richards, plus the excellent 2012 Springsteen biography, “Bruce” by Peter James Carlin.
Springsteen is quite candid about some personal issues, yet he plainly fails to mention the names of the countless women he dated before he met Julianne Phillips, his first wife, and his current spouse, Patti Scialfa. One has to wonder if he feels wrong to kiss and tell, keeping them out of the spotlight, or just views them as fleeting moments.
As Springsteen writes about constantly changing, discarding or altering albums in progress, it confirms years of rumors about his obsession over complete control of what he eventually issues. Though sometimes seeming like it borders on the manic, the results of his body of work are proof that his passion has led to his overwhelming success.
One revealing passage that indirectly hit home is when Springsteen writes about first hearing himself on the radio: “I was standing on a street corner before a college gig in Connecticut as a car pulled up to a light and I heard ‘Spirit in the Night’ blasting from the radio, your number one rock ‘n’ roll dream come true! You never forget the first time.”
He later adds, “…forty-three years later I still get the same thrill when I hear new music of mine…”
I totally relate to that sentiment because I was thrilled when I saw my first byline in print on a front-page article in 1977. All these years later, I still get a kick when I see my name under a headline for the occasional freelance story I write.
An especially emotional chapter concerns Clarence Clemons. Springsteen vividly recalls his first encounter with the “Big Man” in Asbury Park: “I looked at the back of the room and saw a big black figure standing in the shadows. There he was. King Curtis, Junior Walker and all my rock ‘n’ roll fantasies rolled into one. He approached the stage and asked if he could sit in.”
He later incorporated Clemons becoming an E Street Band member with lyrics that always gets a roaring crowd response, in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “…the change was made uptown when the Big Man joined the band.”
Springsteen’s friendship with Clarence Clemons grew and intensified over 40 years until his death five years ago, as is evident in the following: “Clarence was elemental in my life and losing him was like losing the rain.”
For months at concerts, following the tenor sax man’s death five years, an image of Clarence Clemons was featured on a screen behind the band.
Though an editor more than likely compacted and smoothed out some rough edges, the crystal-clear prose about his youthful memories, especially in the early chapters, is pure Springsteen, similar to the hundreds of songs he’s written throughout his career. The writing is powerful, illuminating and, at times, poignant, particularly in the last portion of the book when he writes about family, his devoted relationship with the E Street Band and bouts with depression and therapy that affected him over the last thirty years.
Some elitists over the years have criticized his lyrics that portray hard-working blue collar characters, while he has amassed a fortune. Springsteen candidly writes: “I’m glad I’ve been handsomely paid for my efforts…but I truly would have done it for free.”
Regardless of whether or not you’re a rock and roll fan, or never appreciated Springsteen’s appeal, set aside any preconceived notions, not only for what you’ll learn about Bruce Springsteen, but because this autobiography, by one of the genre’s all-time influential musicians, recounts how he followed his heart and nurtured what many dream, but few achieve. “Born to Run” is a distinctive memoir that gives both casual readers and longtime fans a detailed and insightful account of Springsteen's life and work. 
For years, his fans have recognized his value and talent as an exceptional songwriter, but, now, closing in on a highly successful, prolific half century music career, Bruce Springsteen’s appealing, comprehensive, revealing memoir proves it all night that this native New Jersey rocker was also born to write prose.