In Donald Barthelme’s 1975 novel “The Dead Father,” an entity representing fatherhood is hauled by cables across a barren landscape, through weather fair and foul, by that entity’s son. It’s a post-modern allegory, and it gets good and weird in spots, but we get the message – we carry our fathers with us, just as our fathers carried theirs.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” the iconic songwriter and performer’s just-published autobiography, has been touted in some corners as a tell-all tome outlining the triumphs and travails of the greatest American rock 'n' roll life of the late 20th century. That’s misleading. In fact, “Born to Run” is as much about Doug Springsteen as it is about his famous son.
Springsteen, it seems, has been hauling his father across the landscape from the beginning – at times, trying to outrun him in one of those classic fast cars he loved to write about in the early days, and at others, trying to drown that paternal voice in a sea of ceaseless activity, frantic rock ‘n’ roll and honest hard work.
“I was not my father’s favorite citizen,” Springsteen writes early on in “Born to Run”.
“As a boy I just figured this was the way men were, distant, uncommunicative, busy within the currents of the grown-up world… When my dad looked at me, he didn’t see what he needed to see. This was my crime.”
The elder Springsteen, an Irishman presiding over a lower working class family in a downscale part of New Jersey, worked a series of factory jobs during his son’s childhood, none of which fulfilled him or helped him get ahead of the financial curve. Springsteen paints a portrait of his father that is an indelible one, particularly for readers who might havee had a similar ghostly-but-tempestuous presence in their own family – home from work, silent and stoic, perched at the kitchen table downing his nightly six pack, Doug Springsteen viewed the world with thinly veiled disgust through the cloud of smoke generated by his ever present pack of Camel cigarettes. His silence is broken only by unpredictable eruptions that threaten violence without ever really devolving to the physical. Young Bruce – a sensitive mama’s boy fawned over by his mother and grandmother - is viewed as an interloper, and becomes the focus of the father’s undefined but ever-present rage.
Surely, thousands of men could tell similar stories of their childhoods, but the difference here, of course, is that Springsteen would transform his observations from the personal into the universal, in the process, giving us the most devastatingly incisive songs about fathers and sons in the history of pop and rock. “Adam Raised a Cain”; “Factory”; “Independence Day”; “The River”; “My Father’s House” – none of these were “hits” for Springsteen in any conventional sense, but they form the backbone of his body of work. And they offer insight into the passion, the desperation, the desire to move and keep moving, and the need to get out of town that fueled his early efforts, as well as the compassion, attention to the demands of community, sense of duty, and devotion to the ideals of an imagined egalitarian America that define his adult work.
If all of this sounds heavy, realize that Springsteen has a keen ear for humor, writes beautifully and lithely even when he’s dealing with the deepest and darkest recesses of soul and psyche, and balances an ego he admits is sizable and robust against an unfailing tendency toward often hilarious self-deprecation. He also has been savvy enough to let the Father/Son dynamic inform and frame the book, rather than heavy-handedly dominate it.
The author doesn’t skimp on any of the details here – his obsession with Elvis, the Beatles, and the more soulful side of Top 40 pop is delineated as it progresses into a pure and fiery focus on the guitar; His belief that his mother’s tireless optimism, focus on family and indomitable work ethic is what kept the Springsteens together is dealt with in language that possesses the flow of poetry, but none of the navel-gazing; We hear in fine detail about his earliest ensembles, his gradual metamorphosis from bar band guitar hero into songwriter and bandleader, the significance of his friendship with “consigliere” Little Steven Van Zandt, and his earliest days with the Bruce Springsteen Band, prior to its rebirth on E Street. All of this the fan will find fascinating, and even the casual reader, compelling.
But this is the man who wrote lyrics like “Lost but not forgotten, from the dark heart of a dream/Adam raised a Cain”; “Daddy worked his whole life for nothin’ but the pain/Now he walks these empty rooms lookin’ for something to blame”; and “Through dimensions of fear, through dimensions of pain/See my daddy walkin’ through them factory gates in the rain”. Even before he was mature enough to realize it, Springsteen knew that he was at once born to run toward his rock ‘n’ roll dreams and away from a paternal darkness that threatened to engulf him, if he stood still long enough to let it.
There is, as there must be, an eventual reckoning, no matter how fast you run, how many dark highways you navigate, or how many 4-hour concerts you play. For Springsteen, it came shortly before the mega mainstream success afforded him by “Born in the USA,” a success he’d greet with ambivalence, at best.
Having just released the bleak and hauntingly intimate “Nebraska,” Springsteen and a friend decided to hit the road. “I drifted away from my very lovely twenty-year-old girlfriend and packed for a cross-country road trip,” he writes. “I’d recently purchased a small cottage in the Hollywood Hills and figured I’d winter out west in the California sunshine. This was the trip where the ambivalence, trouble and toxic confusion I’d had volcanically bubbling for thirty-two years would finally reach critical mass.”
And man, did it ever. Realizing that he’d been running for pretty much his whole life, and that he had been purposefully sabotaging his romantic relationships in obeisance to a fear-fueled self-loathing, Springsteen crashed hard, giving in to a depression that would end up a lifelong companion, one that echoed his father’s. For the first time, music was not enough for him. He desperately needed human connection.
One brief failed marriage later, he’d find it at long last, in the form of singer Patti Scialfa, and the three children that would come in rapid succession between 1990 and ’94.
There can be little doubt that finding a deep love with a person who was his equal, and receiving as a blessing the news that comes as part of the deal with parenthood – that you are no longer the center of the universe, nor is your own self any longer your first concern – saved Springsteen’s soul, if not his very life. The hard-won ability to look outward toward the world of others instead of ceaselessly inward toward the roiling void surely helped, too. Springsteen made a peace of sorts with his by now increasingly mentally ill father near the end of Doug Springsteen’s life. He’d finally gotten to the end of that ride that started when the screen door slammed and Mary’s dress waved. And he found at journey’s end not a “walk in the sun,” but a tightrope stretched across a dark valley, one that would require an unerring sense of balance to navigate.
“We honor our parents by not accepting as the final equation the most troubling characteristics of our relationship,” Springsteen writes in the book’s final chapter. “I decided between my father and me that the sum of our troubles would not be the summation of our lives together. In analysis you work to turn the ghosts that haunt you into ancestors who accompany you. That takes a lot of hard work and a lot of love, but it’s the way we lessen the burdens our children have to carry. Insisting on our own experience, our own final calculus of love, trouble, hard times and, if we’re lucky, a little transcendence.”
That, in the end, has to be enough, for tramps like us.
Born To Run, by Bruce Springsteen
Simon & Schuster; $32.50 hardcover; 510 pages