The best stories happen to those who are best equipped to tell them. Bruce Springsteen is all stories. His songs are stories. His shows are stories. He and his band are a story. Born to Run is the most accomplished of the recent cavalcade of autobiographies by retirement-age rock stars because Springsteen is rock’s yarn-spinner nonpareil. From digging through trash for abandoned radios with his grandfather in the 1950s to standing on the church steps after the funeral of that other New Jersey singer, Frank Sinatra, in 1998, he has the storyteller’s knack for turning experience into narrative and the advertising man’s ear for the memorable pay-off. Standing next to him on the latter occasion was Jack Nicholson, who turned to him and said, “King of New Jersey.”
The big story has already been told by his many biographers. A nine-stone weakling from New Jersey (which stands in relation to New York as Essex does to London) turned himself into America’s most adored rock star through hard work, but not without setbacks. Among them were an early management deal that halted his career in the mid-1970s, just as that career was getting going; a high-profile showbiz marriage that came apart in the late 1980s; and, in recent years, the deaths of prominent members of his musical gang, the E Street Band.
There is plenty in his version that biographers could never have told us. It should be required reading for any would-be band leader: democracy in rock bands is a ticking time bomb; get the girls dancing and you’re halfway there; when you are recording, you can’t feature everything, because, in effect, you would be featuring nothing; my band plays that well because I make the members do it; and, more lyrically, “I’ve never gotten as high as when I count the band in and feel what seems like all life itself and a small flash of eternity pulsing through me.” Then there are the snapshots. Clarence Clemons, the group’s saxophonist, had a huge ego. “In this, he was not so different from most of us, except by fabulous degree.”
He is generous about everyone, particularly his ex-wife, Julianne Phillips, and his ex-manager Mike Appel. The person he is toughest on is himself, and not just for the Born in the USA bandana. “Looking back at those pictures now,” he reflects, “I think I look simply . . . gay.”
Springsteen had fearsome rages as his career reached new heights in the 1980s. In the middle of an open-air show in Ireland in 1985, he debated calling off the tour. But then, as he admits, “This was the first and only stadium tour I’d ever performed or attended.” He shattered an expensive Takamine acoustic guitar by throwing it at his manager in Sweden after a newspaper published a picture of the bed that he and his wife were sleeping in that night.
Before Springsteen married Patti Scialfa in 1991, his attitude to women reflected his attitude to touring. “Man comes to town, detonates,” he writes. “Man leaves town and drives off into the evening; fade to black. Just the way I like it.”
Over the years, he has come to recognise his recurrent moodiness as clinical depression, an idea that most men would find hard to reconcile with their image of someone who seems to have achieved everything they could possibly want. Much of this was inherited from his father, Doug, who was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic late in life and is the de facto second lead in this book. Their attempts at bonding once the son is a superstar are touching and grimly amusing; they include a fumbling paternal offer for Bruce to move back into his old bedroom when his first marriage ends and a sea fishing trip off the Mexican coast that is almost the death of both of them.
What else? There is music journalism as only musicians are allowed to write it. “A lot of what we do is hand-me-down shtick transformed by will, power and an intense communication with our audience.” “The strangest thing you can do onstage is think about what you’re doing.” “I know I’m good, but I’m also a poser – that’s artistic balance.” And my favourite: “Elvis didn’t see it coming; he was it coming.”
Near the end, he describes playing the half-time show at the 2009 Super Bowl. It’s a high-pressure 12-minute performance for a vast TV audience. He prepares the usual way: two pairs of inner soles in his cowboy boots to prevent slippage; something sprayed on his hair to make it as immobile as concrete. He starts with one of his many road-tested lines (“Is there anybody alive out there?”), leaps on to the piano, jumps down to the stage, drops to his 59-year-old knees at the mike, and then, holding the stand like a dancer’s pole, leans all the way back until, as he writes, “I see nothing but blue night sky. No band, no crowd, no stadium. I hear and feel all of it in the form of a great siren-like din surrounding me . . . I see nothing but beautiful night sky with a halo of a thousand stadium suns at its edges.”
We’re lucky, if anybody was going to experience this moment of solitude amid the craziness, that it was Bruce Springsteen. For one thing, he is still capable of wondering at it all. For another, the best stories happen to those who are best equipped to tell them.
David Hepworth’s most recent book is “1971: Never a Dull Moment – Rock’s Golden Year” (Bantam Press)
This article appears in the 28 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories