Bruce Springsteen became a womaniser, a body builder and a rock god – all to prove his scornful father wrong. Helen Brown reports
REVIEW: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, published by Simon & Schuster
Catholic guilt, the “steel swamp” of New Jersey, the grindstone graft of his parents’ lives – young Bruce Springsteen felt he was “born to run” from it all.
And he did escape, in a sense, into the life of a rock star. But if there’s one thing he wants you to learn from his strikingly honest new memoir, it’s that you can run all you like from the environment that made you, but you can’t hide.
Today, he feels able to credit his New Jersey childhood and the poetry of Catholicism for the electrical charge of his songs about otherwise uncelebrated blue-collar lives. And his parents’ work ethic continues to drive him, sweating and triumphant, aged 67, through live shows that can last four hours.
But, as Springsteen devotees will already know, the heart that drives those lightning-bolt shows is dark and brooding.
When Springsteen found fame in the late 1970s, the weird polarity he experienced of terrifying isolation and his fans’ extreme adulation mirrored his troubling childhood experience.
Until the age of seven, he was raised mostly by his Irish grandmother, Nana McNicholas.
She had taken to her bed for two years after her daughter, aged five, was killed by a truck while out riding her trike.
When baby Bruce was born – the first child of her only son, and the first infant in the house since the death of her daughter – she “seized on” him.
“Her mission,” Springsteen writes, was “my ultimate protection from the world within and without.”
He became her “lord, king and messiah rolled into one”.
Nothing was out of bounds in the “terrible freedom” she granted.
He ate what and when he wanted, stayed up until 3am and watched television until the test pattern came up. His parents felt like “distant relatives”.
As his grandparents aged, their home crumbled and they fell into poor hygiene.
Physical and emotional boundaries crumbled. Springsteen still dreams about this ruined house, where he slept on the couch springs, tucked under his grandmother’s armpit.
He remembers her “soiled undergarments, just washed, hanging on the backyard line, frightening and embarrassing me”.
After Nana McNicholas died, school, rules and conformity came as a shock to Bruce.
The family lived in the shadow of the steeple of St Rose of Lima Catholic church, “where the holy rubber meets the road”.
It made a great impression on the young songwriter. His friends and siblings would ride their bikes around the building, past the priests and nuns who Bruce saw as “creatures of great authority and unknowable sexual mystery”.
They collected rice to throw at strangers’ ceremonies – weddings or funerals – and stood on the cracked sidewalk gazing after the long, black limousines that carried people away from either.
While his Italian mother – recently invited on stage for a hug – was loving, his father, Dutch Springsteen, was an unpredictable bully, later diagnosed with schizophrenia.
After a “ritual six-pack” of beer, the man would address his son only as “outcast weirdo misfit sissy boy“.
“I haven’t been completely fair to my father in my songs, treating him as an archetype of the neglecting, domineering parent,” Springsteen concedes, after decades of therapy. “It was… a way of ’universalising’ my childhood experience. Our story is much more complicated. Not in the details of what happened, but in the ’why’ of it all.”
The need to impress and rebel against Dutch lit a fire under Springsteen’s ambition.
Scrimping for gear, never taking another job, not touching alcohol until he turned 22, the teenager plugged away at his goal of becoming “a rock god“.
Early on, he accepted that, while he had a good splash of ego and talent, he had no “natural genius”.
“I have a barman’s power, range and durability, but I don’t have a lot of tonal beauty or finesse,” he says.
“My voice gets the job done. But it’s a journeyman’s instrument and on its own, it’s never going to take you to higher ground. I need all my skills to get by.”
But he came to realise that sounding like the leader of a local bar band, his small town grit, was actually the secret of his appeal.
Dutch had a less fruitful impact on his son’s relationships with women, passing on “a misogyny grown from the fear of all the dangerous, beautiful, strong women in our lives crossed with the carrying of an underlying physical threat, a psychological bullying that is meant to frighten and communicate that the dark thing in you is barely restrained. You use it to intimidate those you love.”
Springsteen is frank about the “appalling” way he ended his first marriage and the ways in which he has been saved by his second.
It was to impress his father that Springsteen became studiously muscle-bound in the Eighties. (Looking back, he thinks that he “looked gay”.)
He swings a wrecking ball at his dated tough-guy facade, writing frankly about the decades-long struggle with depression that left him with “cold, black tears pouring down my face like tidewater“.
“Hell,” he confides, “I couldn’t even get a hard-on.”
Though there may be a little too much therapese for some readers, Springsteen would not have been capable of writing such a warm, humble and human book without the hours he’s put into analysis.
“This is how we claim our lives,” he says, in a beautiful send-off.
“There are irretrievable lives and unredeemable sins, but the chance to rise above is one I wish for yours and mine.” – The Sunday Telegraph