I am about a quarter of the way through Bruce Springsteen’s new autobiography, Born to Run (what else was he going to call it?), and I’m totally loving it. I don’t know a lot about music, but I know what I like and The Boss has been a part of my life since art school, 40+ years ago in the wilds of Pittsburgh.
I probably first encountered Springsteen by flipping through albums at a record store, more than likely National Record Mart, which had 2 locations in downtown Pittsburgh (for a while, it was also my go-to place for new comic books and magazines). I probably discovered him through the cover art for his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, which had a vintage big-letter postcard on the front. My family and I vacationed in that fading Jersey Shore resort town when I was really little (some will argue I still am), and my first vacation memories (circa 1959 to 1963) are of that place. It had a short boardwalk, bookended by 2 buildings, Convention Hall to the north and the Casino to the south. Opposite the boardwalk was a giant arcade/amusement center called The Palace, where we stopped each night before returning to our hotel across the street, the Hotel Charles.
So that album cover undoubtedly caught my attention. But one late winter night in 1975, I first heard Springsteen on Pittsburgh radio, in a time when DJs actually played music that was longer than 3 minutes and didn’t come off a prepared playlist from some corporate monolith. It was probably on WDVE and it was off his second album, The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, which came out in 1973. My memory is fuzzy, but I would guess it was “Rosalita,” The Boss’s surging paean to unrequited love. The one thing that was readily apparent was Springsteen told stories with each of his songs. His early records are filled with names like “The Rat,” “Jack the Rabbit,” “Weak Knee Willie,” “Sloppy Sue,” and “Big Bone Billy,” all characters haunting the Jersey Shore and New York City. I was captivated by this and the incredible saxophone work of Clarence Clemons, something you didn’t hear a lot on rock stations. I was a starving art student, who one night roamed the streets of Pittsburgh to look for change on the sidewalks and in the gutter to buy a soda, but I somehow found the $3.99 or so for this album, and I played it constantly. I was enamored with singer/storytellers then, including Harry Chapin and some new guy named Billy Joel, whom my art school classmates vilified me for when I brought his Piano Man album to school to play in class. These guys weren’t Led Zeppelin that was for sure. Springsteen was different than Chapin and Joel, though; edgier, more “dangerous,” more street-wise, more textured.
And then in the fall of 1975, Springsteen came to Pittsburgh’s Soldiers and Sailors Hall. I tried to coerce the girl I had a giant crush on to join me for this concert, but she was not as into Springsteen as I was (even though I took E Street Shuffle to her apartment and played it numerous times), and besides … she had met the guy she would eventually marry, so she definitely wasn’t as into me as I was, either. I invited my Duquense University friends, who we shall call “Pete” and “Neil,” because their names were “Pete” and “Neil,” to join me. Neil went with me, but at that point in time, he liked to go to any kind of concert or movie stoned, as in dropped acid stoned, so I ended up being a bit of a babysitter that evening (you should hear about the night we went to see Fantasia, and Pete joined us, stoned too … we’re talking combat pay). And it was a long evening … Springsteen played for at least 3.5 hours (something he continues to do to this day at the age of 67), not including the opening act, which was Richie Havens. I wasn’t much into Havens, other than his rendition of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” which I recall going on for pretty much ever.
I saw Springsteen the week before he appeared on both the covers of Time magazine and Newsweek in the same week, an unheard-of feat for a non-political personage. That was Oct. 27th, 1975. Born to Run, the album that catapulted him to that rarefied position in the country’s line of sight, had been released in late August and had taken the US by storm. I think he played all of his Greetings and E Street songs, along with the Born to Run ones, too. I remember an ethereal-looking woman with long reddish-brown hair (I’m a sucker for redheads), coming out and playing that sweet and slightly mournful violin intro to “Jungleland.” And, of course “Born to Run,” and “Thunder Road.” I don’t think I had heard much from Born to Run, the album, at that point in time, except the song for which the album was named; you couldn’t turn on the radio in those fall months of ’75 and NOT hear it. I ran out and bought that album the next day, and probably went without lunch for a week or so, until the next envelope with a $20 bill arrived from home. Oh, and the cost of that extravagant night out at Soldiers and Sailors Hall? About 3 bucks. Yep … I saw Springsteen the week before he hit it big—scratch that, EXPLODED—in America for $3.00. That was like less than a dollar an hour.
I still think “Thunder Road” is one of the most beautiful bits of storytelling in a song ever:
The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey, that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again, I just can’t face myself alone again
Don’t run back inside, darling, you know just what I’m here for
So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night
You ain’t a beauty but, hey, you’re alright
Oh, and that’s alright with me
If you can’t picture that little mini-movie in your mind’s eye, then shame on you.
My favorite Springsteen songs are “Tunnel of Love” and “Brilliant Disguise,” not the usual suspects when you’re making a list of people’s faves. Most would probably say “Born to Run” or “Dancing in the Dark” or “Born in the USA.” I love the duplicitous mystery of “Disguise,” and the coming-of-age, sexual tug and pull of “Tunnel.” After a while Bruce’s memorable cast of boardwalk characters faded from his songs and his music became more accessible and universal and less Jersey Shore oriented. But it also became very American, hymns to the country that was faltering in areas like manufacturing and city-life.
But oh, yeah, that book, Bruce’s autobiography. The good news is, he remembers it all, he’s honest and forthcoming, and he writes prose just like his songs. He’s a born storyteller, whether it’s in lyrics or on the printed page, and the book is funny, touching, genuine, and incredibly readable. I was on the fence about buying it, to be honest, but I made a special trip to the bookstore (such as they are here in San Diego these days) last Tuesday, the day it premiered, and opened it up to find beautiful, misty endpapers featuring The Palace and Convention Hall in Asbury Park. That slight bond, that geographical synchronicity of memory between us, convinced me to buy the book and I’ve enjoyed every page of it so far.
I firmly believe that like in comics (and probably everything else in popular culture), there are only a handful of true visionaries in music, especially since the dawn of rock n’ roll. Springsteen fits on that small list, along with Elvis and The Beatles, among a few others, artists who changed the course of American pop music, at least for me. He’s a true American icon and a born storyteller. Born to Run celebrates his life and music in much the same way his songs celebrate small-town America, by telling his own story in prose just as well as his evocative songwriting.