Review: ‘Born to Run’ by Bruce Springsteen

Born to RunBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. Bruce Springsteen can write.

Sure, anyone who’s paid attention to the career of the man who wrote songs such as “Adam Raised a Cain” or “Spare Parts” or “Hungry Heart” (“Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack / I went out for a ride and I never went back” – there’s a whole tale in two lines) or – of course — “Born to Run,” knew Springsteen could tell a story. Forget the songs; he would devote long portions of his concerts to hypnotic monologues.

But “Born to Run,” Bruce’s memoir, still caught me by surprise. The man can really, really write.

Rock ‘n’ roll memoirs, even good ones, usually give you stories of touring and recording while skimming over the actual lives of the authors. Graham Nash’s book is full of marvelous tales of the Hollies – he and Allan Clarke had known each other since they were kids – but somehow remains cautiously distant. (And the stories of Crosby, Stills and Nash are generally tedious.) Rod Stewart’s book is humbler than I expected, with plenty of good humor, but it’s disposable. Keith Richards’ “Life” offers more revelations about his guitars (and, to be fair, his grandfather) than about his inner core.

That’s OK; it’s not like I expect a great deal of self-reckoning from these books. If you want novelistic examination, you’re better off with a biography by someone like Peter Guralnick or Philip Norman — and even they wade carefully into their subjects’ psyches.

But Springsteen never lets himself off the hook, and he has the gift of describing his soul with, well, soul.

Music is just the beginning. For Bruce, music is the very air he breathes, the food he eats, the lifeforce itself. For him, it’s always 1965, he’s in a big American car, and the AM radio is playing the hits. He shares his loneliness with Roy Orbison, bonds with Steven Van Zandt over bar bands and jukeboxes, and lets Jon Landau tutor him in the origins.

Still, it’s when he puts music aside that “Born to Run” really sings. Springsteen talks candidly about his struggles with romance – how he’d get to the three-year mark in a relationship and head for the exit. His matter-of-fact memories of his first marriage, to Julianne Phillips, shiver with doom:

… The bedside lamp caught a glint of my wedding ring. I’d never taken it off; something inside of me told me I never would, never should. I sat on the edge of the bed, gave it a light tug and watched as it slid off my finger. An ocean of despair swept over me and I felt faint.

(Of course, anyone who listened halfway closely to his 1987 album “Tunnel of Love” knew the marriage was on shaky ground.)

Then there are the battles with his father, the taciturn and troubled Doug Springsteen, who’d come home from work and sit, silent, at the kitchen table, his son helpless (or furious) to reach him. It’s a familiar picture for anyone who heard one of Bruce’s concert monologues, but in “Born to Run” the relationship is a spectre that haunts the entire book – not least because Bruce apparently inherited some of his father’s depressive illness.

About that depression. I don’t think even William Styron offered such a visceral take on the subject. It’s a surprise when Springsteen first brings it up – this rock ‘n’ roll beast, this joyful, passionate performer, has been in therapy for more than 30 years – but as he grows older, richer and wiser, he seems like he’s handled it.

Then, in the book’s waning pages, as he enters his sixties, it returns with a vengeance: first mostly keeping him in bed for more than two years, then after some recovery causing a crash. “For the first time, I felt I understood what drives people toward the abyss,” he writes. “The fact that I understood this, that I could feel this, emptied my heart out and left me in a cold fright.”

I’ve been there. I’ve seen others go there. But I never imagined Bruce had walked that path.

None of this is to imply that “Born to Run” also isn’t as jubilant as the “pulling out of here to win” close of “Thunder Road.” Bruce offers sharp character sketches of Mike Appel, the motor-mouthed manager made of equal parts faith, bravado and music-biz underhandedness; Danny Federici, the organ-playing savant; and any number of forgotten pals from his early Jersey years. Bruce, of course, hasn’t forgotten at all.

The book is also shot through with Springsteen’s never-say-die determination, the kind of heart that allows him to play in crummy bars and empty bedrooms, never losing sight of the mountain peak. His resolve in the face of his insecurity is enough to make you nod your head when he talks about the do-or-die nature of the “Born to Run” album, which came after two well-received but poor-selling LPs. Hell, it took him until the early ‘80s to start buying things like a rock star, so deep in debt – and so wary of ending up back in the spare bedroom of the surf shop where he’d spent the early ‘70s – was he until “The River.” Indeed, even now, when his daughter is a dressage champion and he’s well established in the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon, he talks about remaining close to his working-class roots.

He’s also a fan: A scene late in the book, when he gets to sit in on a Rolling Stones rehearsal, is every “Satisfaction”-playing hopeful’s fantasy come true – and it’s Bruce’s, too.

All along, you can feel the hunger for connection that Springsteen has always craved. It’s there in his band, it’s there in his concerts, it’s there in his marriage and family – and it’s there in this book. Human beings, Springsteen insists over and over again, are fragile; it’s the electricity in our souls that makes us more than we are. Without that, we’re just skin and bone.

“Before he passed, I stood over my father and studied his body,” he writes. “It was the body of his generation. It was not shined or shaped into a suit of armor. It was just the body of a man.”

The brilliance of “Born to Run” is that, for his father and Bruce and everybody else, that’s just a part of a beautifully written story.

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Review: ‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review of “The Underground Railroad” contains what might be considered spoilers. At least they were to me. For that, you can blame Google.

Now, it was not my intention to run into spoilers when I began reading Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. I knew little of the book besides what I’d read in reviews when it came out: that it was about the journey of a runaway Georgia slave in the mid-19th century on an Underground Railroad made flesh — a genuine subterranean track of steel and locomotives and hidden train stations and clandestine conductors. That was enough; I got caught up in it very easily.

But about a third of the way into the book, Cora, the runaway, enters a South Carolina fantastically different from the one I was familiar with from school. At this point, Whitehead made a reference to a 12-story structure called the Griffin Building.

This started me down an Internet rabbit hole. I understood the literary license of an altered South Carolina, but having some familiarity with the state — and a fascination with skyscrapers — I started to wonder where this Griffin Building was and if it still existed. Did I walk by it in Charleston? Was it in Columbia? Greenville? What happened to it? And could such a building have existed in the South of the 1850s, before the days of common safety elevators? It sounded like a fascinating story in itself.

(The spoilers start here.)

Curiosity having gotten the better of me, I typed “Griffin Building” into Google. Foolish me. Immediately, I got referred to … reviews and synopses of “The Underground Railroad.”

In other words, there IS no Griffin Building. Whitehead made it up, like Ralph Ellison did with the paint factory in “Invisible Man.”

And thus, in a tiny way, broke the spell the book had cast over me.

This wasn’t a terrible thing, not like having a friend reveal that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father before you see “The Empire Strikes Back.” (For the three people who haven’t seen “The Empire Strikes Back,” sorry. Would it help if I didn’t tell you about Rosebud?) Nevertheless, it was mildly disappointing, because until that point, aside from the Underground Railroad itself, I thought Whitehead’s book was more anchored in reality than metaphor – and I was completely absorbed in that reality.

This is largely because of the opening section of the book, a tour de force chronicle of the Middle Passage and plantation life.

I haven’t read much in the way of slave narratives or antebellum histories, but I can’t remember reading a more casually incisive description of American slavery. In Whitehead’s brutal storytelling, you never forget that slaves are seen as barely animate property; the owners and overseers call the enslaved “it,” coolly erasing their humanity in one word. They’re whipped and raped and degraded. Their only value is as field workers or concubines.

I struggled to get through that opening portion. Not because of the writing – which is uniformly brilliant – but because of the characters’ cruelty, rooted in history, sharp edges showing.

Cora, the character at the heart of the novel, is the daughter of a slave named Mabel, who had fled their plantation when Cora was a child. The abandoned Cora finally bolts herself, as much in pursuit of her mother as freedom. She and Caesar, another slave, make their way to a stop on the Railroad, with slavecatchers led by the grim Ridgeway in pursuit.

From here, Whitehead’s South becomes a combination of reality and dream (or nightmare, depending on the action). The unnamed South Carolina town, which appears to treat blacks well – at least, they are allowed jobs and reasonable housing – turns out to be a cover for an insidious plot. Cora then escapes to North Carolina, where she is housed in a tiny attic crawl space (shades of Anne Frank) and watches a daily display in which blacks and their white helpers are tortured and put to death amid a cheery, “Music Man”-type gathering. (Or, perhaps, “The Lottery.”)

Then it’s to Tennessee, where she’s caught by Ridgeway and his bizarre band. There’s one more escape – to a utopian community in Indiana – and a final showdown with Ridgeway.

Whitehead’s metaphorical plotting has a point: He’s tracing a path of African-American history, in Cora’s stops obliquely referencing the Scottsboro Boys, the Ku Klux Klan and perhaps a cross of Back to Africa with New Harmony or Oneida. Thanks to Whitehead’s imaginative gifts, the book’s atmosphere is constantly energized.

But there also seems to be a bit of 19th-century dime novel in the book as well. Ridgeway, in particular, comes across as a kind of Bond villain, an almost-cultured man capable of brisk violence as well as a taunting patience. Even when he’s off stage, you know he’s going to emerge for a final battle, like a monster in a horror movie.

“The Underground Railroad” concludes on a rather inconclusive note, as if Whitehead is saying a future of reconciliation and equality, after all this injustice, is not yet written. (He’s right, of course.) It’s both somewhat unsatisfying and absolutely appropriate.

Which gets back to my Googling and spoiler revelations, which felt like a spell being broken. It’s a spell that would have broken anyway – by the end of the South Carolina chapter, it’s obvious that Whitehead is using a kind of magical (metaphorical?) realism to tell his tale – but I wondered when I would have figured that out for myself, rather than through perusing year-old reviews.

But maybe that’s appropriate, too. Americans have too often told stories of slavery and the Old South that soften the reality, whether it’s through singing darkies or noble plantation owners or the so-called Lost Cause. But no amount of magic can remove the stain of slavery – and racism — on American history. So despite its touch of the unreal, “The Underground Railroad” always has a hard reality, just below the surface. It’s one we’re still grappling with more than 150 years later.

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