Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen review: Darkness on the edge of genius
Springsteen is one of the great short story writers, says Roddy Doyle. At his wildest he is Damon Runyon; at his very best he’s Raymond Carver
Born to Run is often great fun – Bruce Springsteen was writing about cars before he could drive one. But it is the tension between the fun and the burden of his rearing and, especially, his relationship with his father, that gives the book its real power. Photograph: Reuters/Eloy Alonso
Roddy Doyle: Bob Dylan, with Chronicles: Volume One, and Patti Smith, with Just Kids, have written great autobiographies. Has Springsteen? Maybe. There’s a great book inside this book, and it isn’t hiding. It’s there to be read and it’s wonderful. When he writes about his music, playing it, recording it, composing it, the book is terrific. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Born to Run
Simon and Schuster
Bruce Springsteen is one of the great short story writers. I decided that when I was 16 and listening to his record, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle for the first, second, third, fourth times; when I’d started to read fiction seriously, when I knew that I was changing, somehow, as I read The Third Policeman, Catch 22 and Dubliners. Songs from his later records, especially Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska, confirmed that impression. Springsteen is a writer. I compare most musicians to other musicians, composers to other composers. But Dylan, Springsteen, Patti Smith and a few others – I compare these people to the great writers, their songs to novels and stories. At his wildest Springsteen is Damon Runyon; at his very best he’s Raymond Carver.
Dylan, with Chronicles: Volume One, and Smith, with Just Kids, have written great autobiographies. Has Springsteen?
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There’s a great book inside this book, and it isn’t hiding. It’s there to be read and it’s wonderful. When he writes about his music, playing it, recording it, composing it, the book is terrific. He writes about each album as if it’s a plot to be worked out, a cast of characters to be brought to life, and one central character to carry the story that runs through the songs.
He captures the excitement and anxiety, the novelty of recording and playing, the labour, the tension, the ideas that produced the songs that became the soundtrack to millions of lives. He knew what he was good at but doubt and self-loathing were constant presences. He listened to a master of the album, Born to Run: “All I could hear was what I perceived as the record’s flaws. The bombastic big rock sound, the Jersey-Pavarotti-via-Roy-Orbison singing, the same things that gave it its beauty, power and magic. It was a puzzle; it seemed you couldn’t have one without the other.”
The book is often great fun – he was writing about cars before he could drive one. But it is the tension between the fun and the burden of his rearing and, especially, his relationship with his father, that gives the book its real power.
Writing about his masterpiece, Darkness on the Edge of Town, he recalls a childhood moment: “The grinding, deafening sound of plastic being cut on an open factory floor. I am standing inches behind my dad, holding a brown paper bag containing his night-shift lunch, an egg salad sandwich. I call to him in the din, feel my mouth move, my vocal cords strain, but nothing . . . no sound. He eventually turns, sees me, mouths a few unheard words and takes the bag.”
There’s so much in that memory – pride, fear, noise, food, love, silence, pain – and Springsteen manages to explain how this material, these lived moments, became the stuff of his best work: “Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life, the working, the working, just the working life.”
Springsteen never worked in a factory. But he watched – he witnessed; he lived. The first chapter, an evocation of his very early years growing up in Freehold, New Jersey, reminded me – in the little details, and the Catholicism – of Terence Davis’ film, The Long Day Closes: “I hear my grandmother calling me in, the last sound of the long day.”
His grandmother was an overbearing presence. She’d lost a child, Springsteen’s father’s older sister, at five. Springsteen was the first baby born into the house since the death, so his grandmother “seized on me with a vengeance”. This would lead to “hard feelings with my father and enormous family confusion. It would drag us all down.”
His father was an angry, silent, drinking, chain-smoking man at the kitchen table. That was the way men were, the boy thought – “distant, uncommunicative, busy within the currents of the grown-up world”. His father railed against the world and he took it out on his son. Here is the most impressive, and most difficult, sentence in the book: “He loved me but he couldn’t stand me.” It’s hard to read – it’s upsetting – but it goes a long way towards explaining the darkness – the wailing – that is in the best of Springsteen’s work.
The chapter on Darkness on the Edge of Town should be the best thing in the book. But it isn’t, because it’s too short. There’s a film called The Promise, about the making of Darkness. It’s as brilliant and, in a sense, as excruciating a portrayal of artistic integrity as I’ve seen. Springsteen just wouldn’t give up or give in until the record was exactly what he wanted. The film, in this case, is much better than the book. What there is in the book is illuminating and very entertaining but there just isn’t enough of it. It’s the book’s one big flaw: it’s too short where it should be longer, too long where it should be much shorter.
The second of the book’s three parts ends with Springsteen’s partner, Patti Scialfa, announcing that she’s pregnant. That’s great news for the Springsteens but bad news for those who agree with the man in the Donaghmede Inn: “Kids are like farts – you can just about tolerate your own.” His happiness was hard-won but one good paragraph would have done the work of many of Born to Run’s final chapters.
Yet, in that last third Springsteen writes beautifully about his father and his father’s death, and the comfort he took from seeing his children cry because their beloved grandfather was gone. Another death, Clarence Clemons’, inspires this description of a life-long friendship: “Clarence’s hands were always like heavy stones but when he placed them upon your shoulders, the most comforting, secure feeling swept through your body and heart.”
The book is over-written at times, word piled on word, image on top of image. There are too many exclamation marks and WHOLE SENTENCES WRITTEN IN CAPITALS. But, quite soon, it stops being important. In fact, it becomes quite like his onstage banter, his build-up to a song being unleashed, and you half-expect to find Clarence Clemons at your shoulder as you read. And in all the charging excitement, the simple brilliance shines. The child Springsteen enters a bar to get his father to come home, and meets “a barricade of broad, working class backs”.
I missed my stop on the Luas because of Born to Run. I looked up from Springsteen’s description of driving across America in a blizzard and found myself at Citywest Campus station, five stops from where I needed to be. Tramps like us, baby, we were born to commute.
Roddy Doyle’s version of Don Giovanni plays at the Gaiety Theatre on September 29th, October 1st and 2nd as part of Dublin Theatre Festival and at Cork Opera House, October 5th and 7th