Bruce Springsteen's memoir beautifully dissects his own masculinity


In performances in the early- and mid-1970s, Bruce Springsteen sometimes played "Wings for Wheels," an early version of what would become his famous rock-and-roll romance, "Thunder Road." The best-known rendition of the song, preserved as part of a well-circulated concert bootleg, was in 1975, when 25-year-old Bruce played The Main Point in Philadelphia, six months before his third studio album, Born to Run,would lead Springsteen, in the words of Ed Sciaky, the DJ who introduced him that night, "to conquer America and the world."

"Wings for Wheels" is a great song, different from "Thunder Road" in its rawer and less pretty look at young masculinity. In it, Springsteen weighs his car against his girl, with the car coming out ahead — "This 4/4 is gonna overheat / Make up your mind girl I gotta get her back out on the street." He yearns to take his companion "to some sandy beach where we'd never grow old" and he begs her to do what he cannot seem to do for himself: "make me feel like a man."

Springsteen is now close to 70, which you would not guess if you'd attended any one of his recent record-breaking four-hour concerts or if you read his 500-page memoir, Born to Run, published this week and just as hyper, giddy, and jam-packed with words and ideas and desires as any of his music or his live performances. If you are a Springsteen fan, you will not spend an instant wondering if this book was ghostwritten: It is eager, hammy, yearning, unmistakable, and inimitable Bruce from start to finish.

But one of the book's most unexpected pleasures is Springsteen's willingness to pick apart the kind of masculinity — the cars, the perspective on girls, the making of the man — to which he has been so firmly attached in our imagination. Springsteen is an iconic American white guy, associated with totems — guitars and highways and leather jackets — obsessed with Steinbeck and Elvis and obsessed over by male scribes from David Remnick and Eric Alterman to Leslie Fiedler. In his memoir, Springsteen unexpectedly lays bare the contradictions, complexities, and downright artifice on which his very public version of manhood has been built.

Which is important, in part, because so many of his fans are women. And yes, many of those women love the cars and the guitars just as much as the guys, and are no less vital in our enthusiasms (or rueful in our realities) than Springsteen's male admirers. But a lot of us have also long heard (or perhaps wanted to hear) in Bruce something more nuanced and appreciative in his portraits of the Candys, Marys, Janeys, and Rosies. We have loved that he doesn't just sing about perfect beach babes, but about women who've been around a time or two, who put our makeup on and our hair up pretty, who push our baby carriages down the street and drink warm beer, and may not be beauties but are alright nonetheless.

PHOTOS: Bruce Springsteen early in his career

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Bruce Springsteen through the years
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Bruce Springsteen through the years
Bruce Springsteen performing at the CNE Stadium in Toronto, Canada on July 24, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 11: REDBANK Photo of Bruce SPRINGSTEEN, Bruce Springsteen performing on stage - Born to Run Tour, 27 (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1973: Photo of Bruce Springsteen (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Bruce Springsteen (Photo by Richard McCaffrey/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Bruce Springsteen (Photo by Richard McCaffrey/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
American musician Bruce Springsteen plays at the Trenton War Memorial, Trenton, New Jersey, November 1974. (Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images)
Singer Bruce Springsteen walking down Sunset Strip with his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, 1975. He is in Los Angeles to promote his album Born To Run. (Photo by Terry O'Neill/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - CIRCA 1983: Bruce Springsteen circa 1983 in New York City. (Photo by Laura/IMAGES/Getty Images)
American rock singer and songwriter Bruce Springsteen stands onstage, holding an electric guitar at his side during a concert, 1980s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
**FILE PHOTO**LANDOVER, MD - AUG. 25: Opening night of Bruce Springsteen's four sold-out concerts at the Capital Centre in Landover, MD on Aug. 25, 1984. (Photo by Lucian Perkins/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Bruce Springsteen, circa 1984 (Photo by SGranitz/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - CIRCA 1984: Bruce Springsteen circa 1984 in New York City. (Photo by Robin Platzer/Images/Getty Images)
American Bruce Springsteen performs, on June 29, 1985 in La Courneuve, outside Paris. AFP PHOTO MICHEL GANGNE (Photo credit should read MICHEL GANGNE/AFP/Getty Images)
Bruce Springsteen performs during a concert at Barcelona's Olympic Palau Sant Jordi April 9. Springsteen and his E-Street band started their 1999 World tour in Barcelona on Friday. ??�
Rock 'n' roll superstar Bruce Springsteen wraped up his worldwide 'The Rising' tour on October 4, 2003 at Shea Stadium in New York. REUTERS/Albert Ferreira AF
Bruce Springsteen inducts Irish rock group U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York March 14, 2005. The 20th annual ceremony also honoured The Pretenders, Percy Sledge and the O'Jays as well as blues-guitar great Buddy Guy as members of rock's elite. REUTERS/Mike Segar MS/KS
Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Springsteen (Photo by Brian Rasic/Getty Images)
American Bruce Springsteen performs, on October 10, 1988 during an Amnesty International concert Abidjan. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 17: Bruce Springsteen Visits 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon' at Rockefeller Center on November 24, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/NBC/Getty Images for 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon')
Musician Bruce Springsteen (L) receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from U.S. President Barack Obama during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., November 22, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. musician Bruce Springsteen (C) performs with guitarists Stevie Van Zandt (R) and Nils Lofgren on his "The River Tour 2016" at the Letzigrund stadium in Zurich, Switzerland July 31, 2016. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
Bruce Springsteen performs during The River Tour at the LA Memorial Sports Arena in Los Angeles, California March 17, 2016. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Singer Bruce Springsteen and his wife Patti Scialfa listen to U.S. President Barack Obama speak at the USC Shoah Foundation 20th Anniversary Gala in Los Angeles May 7, 2014. Springsteen performed at the event. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ENTERTAINMENT)
Bruce Springsteen poses at the 2013 MusiCares Person of the Year Tribute and Dinner in his honor in Los Angeles February 8, 2013. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT)
U.S. President Barack Obama is pictured with singer Bruce Springsteen (R) during an election campaign rally in Madison, Wisconsin, November 5, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS USA PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION ELECTIONS ENTERTAINMENT)
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By many measures, Born to Run is for us. It cracks the macho exterior and really pulls out the guts of Bruce's thinking on identity, on his own manhood. It reveals an appreciation and respect for women, and questions about men and how they're made, that many of us have long suspected underpinned his music.

Other critics have already noted that one of the great revelations of Born to Run is the admission that Bruce himself didn't even know how to drive a car until he was in his mid-20s, making all those ballads about escape down the highways of New Jersey a manufactured fantasy, a projected idea of what male self-direction entailed. "When I say I didn't drive I mean I DID NOT KNOW HOW," he writes. I was even more struck by the story of how he came to find imaginative salvation in cars to begin with: not as a place to score (though there is plenty of that) or a getaway, but when, as a boy, he was so scared of lightning that he "caterwauled until my parents would take me in the car" — safe on rubber tires — "until the storm subsided." He then "proceeded to write about cars for the rest of my life."

BUY: Pick up copy of Bruce Springsteen's book

A lot of the book is about Bruce as a boy. Doted on by a grandmother who'd lost a daughter as a child, Springsteen describes himself as slightly ruined by her overindulgence — made into "an unintentional rebel, an outcast weirdo misfit sissy boy" at 7. But he was also deeply shaped by that grandmother, and by his exuberant and steady Italian mother, Adele. A rebel and an outcast, Springsteen writes of how, when he was 12, his mother became pregnant and he saw it as "a miracle." "I loved the maternity clothes," he writes, describing how he and his other sister "would sit in the living room in the final months of her pregnancy, our hands resting upon her stomach, waiting for our little sister to kick." When the baby was born, Springsteen writes, "I was enchanted with her. I was thankful for her. I changed her diapers, rocked her to sleep, ran to her side if she cried, held her in my arms." It is a testament to how poisoned we are in our ideas of what pubescent boys — especially the angry misfits who go on to become fist-pumping rock stars — are like that I had to read this passage several times to make sure I was understanding the chronology correctly, and that in the 1960s, a disaffected teenage Bruce Springsteen had indeed doted on his pregnant mother and changed his baby sister's diapers.

But that's not the only surprise. In a tome that could easily have been a gratifyingly dirty sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll tell-all, there are ... no drugs. At least none consumed by Springsteen, who was always "too scared" to try them. In the early 70s, he writes, "Everybody wanted to give you drugs all the time. I was a stubborn young man and set in my fearful ways." Springsteen spent the weekend of Woodstock in New Jersey. "From where I stood the whole thing up north looked like too much of a hassle, too much traffic, too many drugs." There it is kids, the revelations of a rock god: There was too much traffic!

Wary of his father Douglas's dark relationship to alcohol — one that traumatized young Bruce so much that he blinked uncontrollably and chewed the flesh on his knuckles to callouses — adult Bruce doesn't even take a drink until his early 20s, before finally discovering that he's "a merry drinker simply prone to foolish behavior and occasional sexual misadventure."

PHOTOS: A look back at Springsteen's best collaborations

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Bruce Springsteen collaborations
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Bruce Springsteen collaborations

17. Lady Gaga, Elton John, Blondie, Sting, Shirley Bassey / 'Don't Stop Believin'

Bruce and Lady Gaga singing Journey's famed '80s anthem along with Elton John. Sounds almost like an acid trip, but it actually happened and here is the evidence from the Rainforest Fund's 21st Birthday Celebration benefit concert at Carnegie Hall Thursday, May 13, 2010 in New York City.

16. REM / 'Man on the Moon'

Bruce joined REM at a vote for change concert. He starts singing at about 4:10 into the performance, duets with Michael Stipe and then breaks off a pair of cool guitar solos. This is a performance any child of the '90s will appreciate.

15. Neil Young / 'All Along the Watchtower'

The Godfather of Grunge and The Boss team up on the Bob Dylan classic popularized by Jimi Hendrix in what seems like an unrehearsed 2004 duet.

14. The Rolling Stones / 'Tumbling Dice'

At a concert in Rio Lisboa earlier this year, Mick Jagger brought Springsteen, who was vacationing there at the time, out on stage to join the band on its 1972 classic from 'Exile on Main St.'

13. Dave Grohl and Elvis Costello / 'London Calling'

In 2003 at the Grammy Awards, the boss joined Elvis Costello and Dave Grohl, of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame, in a tribute to The Clash's Joe Strummer.

12. Joan Jett / 'Light of Day'

The '80s rocker invited Springsteen to join her onstage for the title song written by Springsteen from 'Light of Day,' a 1987 film she starred in with Michael J. Fox.

11. Phish / 'Glory Days'

Bruce joined the ultimate jam band to rock out to one of his own classics, 'Glory Days,' at Bonnaroo in 2009.

10. U2 / 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For'

'I'm looking for the Boss,' Bono exclaims in the middle of the song ... and almost magically Springsteen materializes.

9. John Fogerty, Jackson Browne and Eddie Vedder / '(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love & Understanding'

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band with Jackson Browne, John Fogerty and Eddie Vedder a Nick Lowe song that was popularized by Elvis Costello in East Rutherford NJ, at the Vote For Change concert on October 13, 2004.

8. Bob Seger / 'Old Time Rock and Roll'

This performance in New York City is one of just two times, according to Rolling Stone, the two have shared a stage.

7. Chuck Berry / 'Johnny B. Good'

The earliest rock influencer that Bruce has performed with is Chuck Berry on his iconic hit during the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1995.

6. Axl Rose / 'Come Together'

The Guns 'N' Roses frontman and Bruce performed a duet of the Beatles' 'Come Together' at the 1994 Hall of Fame Inductions Ceremony, when John Lennon was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a solo artist.

5. Melissa Etheridge / 'Thunder Road'

Etheridge tells an amusing story about having called Springsteen on the phone to ask 'what if?' The result: a very cool unplugged version of 'Thunder Road.'

4. Billy Joel / 'New York State of Mind'

'Are you ready for the bridge and tunnel summit meeting?' Bruce asked the crowd at the 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert in 2009. The 'King of Long Island' met New Jersey on 'neutral ground' at Madison Square Garden, and this is what happened.

3. Paul McCartney / 'I Saw Her Standing There' and 'Twist and Shout'

The two rock legends came together for an amazing finish to Springsteen's final concert of Hard Rock Calling 2012 in London. The collaboration was amazing, but not amazing enough for concert promoters. It's not in the video above, but promoters -- to the great surprise of McCartney and Springsteen -- pulled the plug on their encore when the show broke the building's sound curfew.

2. Bon Jovi / 'Born To Run'

The two Jersey boys looked and sounded like they've been (or maybe should have been) touring together for decades as they rocked out on 'Born To Run' at Madison Square Garden during the 12/12/12 Sandy Relief concert.

1. Eddie Vedder, Tom Morello / AC/DC's 'Highway to Hell'

In a moment of rock awesomeness, Bruce was joined by Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, for a cover of AC/DC's 'Highway To Hell' at a show in Melbourne, Australia in February 2014.

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 29: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band with Billy Joel perform onstage at the 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concert at Madison Square Garden on October 29, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 12: Musicians Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi and Max Weinberg perform at '12-12-12' a concert benefiting The Robin Hood Relief Fund to aid the victims of Hurricane Sandy presented by Clear Channel Media & Entertainment, The Madison Square Garden Company and The Weinstein Company at Madison Square Garden on December 12, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Clear Channel)
Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen during 'Vote For Change' Closing Night Concert - October 13, 2004 at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey, United States. (Photo by Debra L Rothenberg/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK - OCTOBER 30: Bruce Springsteen (C) performs onstage with the Edge (L) and Bono (R) of U2 at the 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concert at Madison Square Garden on October 30, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage)
(L-R) Musicians Bruce Springsteen and Axl Rose performing. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/DMI/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 23: Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters (Left), Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello perform during the 45th Annual Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden on February 23, 2003 in New York City. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)
Jackson Browne, John Fogerty, Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen (Photo by Debra L Rothenberg/FilmMagic)
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There is a lot of sex in Born to Run, with too many women to count, women who — with the exception of his first kiss and his two wives — Springsteen takes care not to name. But even in the stories of his exploits, there's a shyness and an unexpected reluctance to be the man he is assumed to be. "Who cares what's going on at the Playboy Mansion?" Springsteen remembers thinking as he turns down invitations. "That's not real." Mostly, his stories about women reflect appreciation and respect, and his regrets at not having lived up to most of the ones he's dated. And also, there's just a little too much information to be cool. Take, for instance, his memory of inspiration for his concert staple "Rosalita": "a sweet blonde who I believe was the first gal I had successful intercourse with, one fumbling afternoon at chez mama (though, due to the fog of war, I can't be absolutely sure.)" This is less rock-and-roll tell-all than "Oh, my God, dad! Stop!"

Springsteen is unashamed to explore, from a perspective of whiteness and maleness, his impressions of race and gender. He writes often about race relations, the fights between the blacks and whites that he's sung about taking place in his hometown, but also about the chasms of experience that couldn't ever wholly be bridged with his long-term professional partner, the E Street Band's late saxophonist Clarence Clemons. "For a long time he was alone, and no matter how close we were, I was white. We had as deep a relationship as I can imagine, but we lived in the real world, where we'd experienced that nothing, not all the love in God's heaven, obliterates race." Clemons, who died in 2011, gets some of the warmest and funniest writing in the book; Bruce's love for him is boundless and heartbreaking. "It's hard to imagine that Clarence was once a normal person," he writes, and you can practically hear him laughing and shaking his head all over the page. "One thing ... about Clarence is that Clarence was very important to Clarence. In this he was not so different from most of us, except by fabulous degree."

But Clemons isn't the only one whose love prompts Springsteen to consider the limitations of his own identity. He writes of how, in 1984, "I wanted my band to reflect my evolving audience, an audience that was becoming increasingly grown up and whose lives were about men and women." It was tricky, he writes, because he understood his audience's imaginative investment in the world he'd created, and that up until then, that world — his band — had been male. "But in 1984, I wanted, on my stage, that world of men and women; so, I hoped, would my audience." Springsteen hires Patti Scialfa, a Jersey musician whom he'd first interviewed by phone for a back-up singer gig when she was in high school, and who would go on to become his second wife, to whom he's married today. But when Scialfa first joined the band, Bruce writes of his own discomfort at critiquing how she dressed for a concert, and his dawning realization that "The E Street Band carried its own muted misogyny (including my own), a very prevalent quality amongst rock groups of our generation."

BUY: Pick up copy of Bruce Springsteen's book

Springsteen doesn't linger too long on racism and misogyny, but they pop up over and over, clearly threading through his memories of work and life, as he tries to work out his identity, his place in the world, and his relationships to the people he loves and relies on: from his black singing idols to his bandmates to his mother and grandmother, his wife, equestrian daughter, and his female fans. It's not lugubrious or overworked; his writing about identity, like so much of the Springsteen canon, is earnest and sometimes corny, but often lyrical in its efforts to make real sense of this country and its inhabitants, himself included. A lot of that he does through therapy, and a moment of earned narrative relief comes as he first meets his therapist: "I walk in; look into the eyes of a kindly, white-haired, mustached complete stranger; sit down; and burst into tears."

Born to Run, like Springsteen's music, is half a raucous celebration of desire and ambition and pleasures and half a stark reckoning with the costs of those impulses, as well as with pain loss and injustice. It's a sad book. In part because it feels like the admission of completion: not of a life or a career— I understand rationally that they are still going. But my lizard brain reacted to Born to Run as I did to the last encore of its author's lengthy concerts — as a winding down, an acknowledgment that there is no sandy beach on which we will never get old. Here is the story of his life, and it's no accident that he's telling it now, and not 20 or 30 years from now because, well ...

BUY: Pick up copy of Bruce Springsteen's book

Here, along with the revelation and cornball charm and the crowded prose is the admission that the immortality he chased as a young man will elude him, as it has already eluded some of his bandmates, the stadiums he's played, and as it will elude all of us. He also wants us to know that that's alright. In fact it's central to the joy of the music he's been driven to make. Bruce writes of his passion for the songs he heard on the radio as a kid, especially for the voices of Sam Cooke and the Drifters, singers who "sound simultaneously happy and sad." I can't think of a better description of Springsteen's own music, or the book he's given us here, a celebration and an elegy all at once.

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