The other day, word dropped of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize and almost immediately Twitter lit up. Either Dylan deserved it because he’s great or he didn’t because he’s overrated. But a third option was the most interesting: Dylan didn’t deserve it because music is not literature.
That argument posits an interesting idea: are songs literature in the same way a short story or a poem are? Is it fair to compare Dylan to people like Alice Munro, Orhan Pamuk or Tomas Tranströmer? I think it is; after all, artists like Dylan were inspired as much by authors and poets as they were by other musicians. Rimbaud’s just as important to a musician like Patti Smith as Dylan’s music is.
Still, the question was on my mind as I wrapped up Bruce Springsteen’s new memoir. Why? Because like Dylan, Springsteen’s music is literary in nature. The early albums are wordy and verbose, sure, but throughout his career, Springsteen’s songs are concise little pieces. There’s storylines and characters, thematic moods and ideas. Until now he’d never written a book, sure, but throughout his career you could argue he’d written volume after volume of short stories.
Think I’m kidding or over exaggerating? Let’s examine a song of his: “Roulette,” an outtake from The River and included in the new box set The Ties that Bind. Over a slashing guitar progression and a pounding rhythm section, Springsteen sings from the point of view a fireman taking his wife and kids fleeing from a nuclear meltdown.
But what set his song apart from similarly themed songs is how fleshed out his character is. He’s scared, yes, but he’s angry: “my life’s just canceled null and void / well, what you gonna do about your new boy,” he shouts as the band hits a crescendo. By song’s end, his character’s left town, been arrested trying to sneak back in and broken out of jail. What could’ve been a simple anti-nuclear song is given power by the way he fleshed out the details and invested his character with emotion. It’s the power of his storytelling. It’s on full display in Born to Run, his new autobiography.
In a little over 500 pages, Springsteen traces his backstory and influences, his ideas on music and how they’ve changed over the years. It’s generally a linear read and several of the stories are ones fans have heard before. His infamous teenaged motorcycle crash is retold in basically the same form as his monologue on Live 1975-85, for example.
Indeed, throughout the years, Springsteen has turned his early years into something resembling mythology. Take the famous story where Clarence Clemens makes his introduction as a wind gust knocks a door off of its hinges, which became part of his song “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”. It sounds too good to be true, but both parties insisted it really happened; “A good omen,” writes Springsteen.
That story, along with many other vaguely familiar ones, are all here, fleshed out and woven into the bigger picture. Namely one of a driven musician, someone who’s very good at his craft, but also relentlessly ambitious, constantly pursuing opportunities and focused on his goal of well-crafted, commercial but clever rock music.
For example, when members of the E Street Band weren’t working for what he going for, he wasn’t above firing them; when it came time for him to go in a more polished, clean-sounding direction on Tunnel of Love, he wasn’t above making them compete against studio demos – or even dropping them entirely and bringing in session musicians. In the pages of Born to Run, Springsteen doesn’t exactly deny the story, but he writes how the music on Tunnel was “too personal” for him to use the full band. It wasn’t the first time he’d pulled a stunt like that, either.
Born to Run opens with his early life in Freehold, New Jersey, where his parents lived with their parents. There was a lot of tension in the house and some undiagnosed mental illness: his father was schizophrenic, prone to long silences and bouts of irrational paranoia, while his grandparents used him as a surrogate for a child they’d lost years before. He grew up poor and something of an outcast: he didn’t fit in and lingered outside social cliques. After seeing Elvis Presley on TV, he fell hard for music and learned to play guitar. By the time he was in high school, he was a seasoned 60s musician, right down to the long hair (which caused his high school to ban him from attending graduation.
Over the next few years, he worked his guitar chops and played in a succession of local bands: the Castilles, Earth and eventually Steel Mill, a hard-rocking group which built a devoted following. But as he matured, so did he outlook on music: he’d regularly break up bands and try something new when he felt inspiration. Hard rock gave way to folk, which led to the full-band R&B of Bruce Springsteen Band that eventually led to a solo audition for Columbia Records executive John Hammond and a record deal as “the new Dylan.”
Springsteen’s narrative moves fast and doesn’t linger especially long on any one period. Most (but not all) of his records get their own chapters and off-stage drama is kept more or less to a minimum. For example, his on-stage meltdown at the MUSE concert – where he dragged an ex-girlfriend on stage so security would escort her from the building – isn’t mentioned. At the same time, Springsteen shines a light into other areas: he breaks down his iconic song “Born to Run” into components, explaining how the song came together and what he wanted it to be:
“It wasn’t an easy piece to write. I started my title song that afternoon but I didn’t finish it until six months of trial and tribulation later. I wanted to use the classic rock n roll images, the road, the car, the girl… what else is there?… but to make these things matter, I would have to shape them into something fresh, something that transcended nostalgia, sentiment and familiarity.” (208-09)
Throughout the book, his drive and passion comes through: he loves music, his wife and kids, his friendships with Steven Van Zandt, Clarence Clemens and Danny Federici, his farm and especially his parents. At the same time, he’s honest about himself and his foibles: how he was angry and thoughtless as a young adult, about his struggles with depression and the way he’s angered people over the years. He’s perhaps a little selective, but he’s self aware in a sense I don’t get from most musician’s memoirs (see: Neil Young in Waging Heavy Peace).
However, my biggest gripe with Born to Run also comes from the way it was written: in snatches, over a period of years. And it also comes from the way Springsteen writes: short little bursts. Such are enough for a song, but in a book, they lead to short chapters. And although the book is well over 500 pages and a solid, through read, the chapters are short, sometimes only a few pages long. It’s a little disjointed, but it’s a minor gripe.
All in all, Springsteen’s memoir is a well-written, entertaining and lucid look at his past. True, it’s a little selective and only part of the picture, but that part of the parcel when it comes to autobiography (chase it with Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin or Boss by Gillian Gaar for a more complete picture). I enjoyed it a bunch and you’re half as interested in Springsteen and his music as I am, you probably will, too.