Born to read. How boring is that? You could have been:
Born to Be Wild
Born to Be Bad
Born to Lose
Born in a Trunk
Born Before the Wind
Born to Run
Rock and roll is the universal elixir the alchemists sought. Most US kids know the formula, share autobiographical characteristics, the cultural DNA of the mid twentieth century: the disappointed father who in the economic growth following World War II can’t seem to turn anything into gold; his solitude, his drinking, his passive or active aggressive tendencies; his criticism of life in general, of his home and family in particular; his anger, controlled or not, his anger; his hatred of the jobs and loans and duns they’re able to squeak by with. His depressions. His relationship with his company store. The sixteen tons he loads at work, and the sixteen tons he brings home every day. His wife, your mother, if they stay together, and if they don’t. His loner kid who wants a guitar. The only sports the kid is into are surfing or the pool hall or guitar. The chaos of alienation, isolation, and depression stirs the dull dust of discontent.
Many of the working class guys I grew up with could tell this story, have told this story, do tell this story. Up to the point where they don’t turn into gold. Then the story breaks, and they’re forced to contend with a present silence. Where did the existential choice to turn to rock and roll fail them? Bruce Springsteen was born to rock and roll. His autobiography, “Born to Run” ( 2016), tells the story most guys could tell, until, of course, he turns to gold. But whether we turned to gold, silver, bronze, or lead, the story will sound familiar to those born around 1950, in the heart of rock and roll, in a US small town.
Small towns can be deceiving. Freehold, New Jersey, for example, is only a couple of hours drive to Brooklyn. What defines a small town though isn’t necessarily its proximity to the big city, but the local high school, where family values are tested in a melting pot and loners come of age, and the local churches, which, while professing belief in the same big bang book, remain at odds over how to read it. A local factory or refinery will help define a small town, or a mill, or a nearby ocean beach. A rail or main street might separate two sides of the town, and the one high school maintains the same resulting socioeconomic distinctions. The promise of high school is the get out of Dodge free card. But then there’s a draft, and the cycle repeats.
The voice of “Born to Run” seems to have been edited the way a song might be mixed and remixed, filtered and sifted, until it’s as close to the pure gold style of a bestseller it’s gonna get. It’s clear and articulate, unfettered by literary or personal idiosyncrasies, professionally orchestrated and well organized. Which is to say, it sounds written, not spoken, something seemingly at odds with the roots of rock and roll. But the book itself is not rock and roll, nor was it intended to be. It’s about a working man who as a kid makes an existential decision to turn himself into a musician, a songwriter, an artist. And then turn the musician into gold. And then to sum it all up, to talk about the alchemy of his life.
I especially liked the way the changing relationship with his father unfolds in non-contiguous chapters as Bruce and his father age, learn, change, yet remain the same, yet change again. Just so, the book balances a lot of balls in the air simultaneously, moving in turns from family to songs to concerts to the business of popular music and back to family again. Readers won’t doubt the veracity of the story, no matter how exaggerated or played down its various parts might be, for they will have lived much of it themselves.
But rock and roll is a circus, and the circus can’t stay in any one small town. It must move on. And when it leaves town, it’ll take one or two loners with it, every time. The circus is a road show, a tour. And the circus is always looking for a new act, something to refresh its atmosphere and surprise its audiences. A new song. The same song, but a new song. Or, a new song that creates a similar feeling the old song made. That’s part of the alchemy. Does it really need all the spectacle? How big does the circus need to get? How many rings before you lose track of the center. What happens when the quintessential, archetypal circus outgrows the small town?
Springsteen seems a kid who runs not for the sake of running, but because he can’t keep still. His book is not tabloid. It’s respectful, aims for honesty and transparency while steering clear of details that might only smear the message in further misunderstandings or too quickly satisfy the reader who comes on with preconceived notions and unquestioned assumptions. Springsteen admits to the frailties and insecurities that plague most of us, the depressions and anxieties that drop by out of nowhere to say their hellos and pay their respects every now and then, and the doubts about what we might be doing or how we are doing it at any given moment, including in the spotlight. If he sounds egotistical, narcissistic, self-centered, lonely, at times, it’s because he is, which he freely admits and tries to explain, but he’s also funny and full of fun, balanced, humble when he knows he needs to be. He seeks help when he realizes he can’t go it alone, or his understanding of what’s happening to him is incomplete. He’s critical of things he loves, the people and places and circumstances that help make him who he is; which is to say, he’s not cynical. He’s realistic. His book provides lesson after lesson of songwriting, concert making, of being a son and husband and father and businessman and citizen – lessons about working, about blue collar commitment to tools, about respect for others as well as how to build your own stage.
There’s a scene late in the book where Springsteen takes his then teenage son to see a new, young band the kid’s been following. Backstage after the show, the bass player shows father and son a tattoo he has of the father on his arm. His son is gobsmacked, but later finds it funny, while Bruce realizes the tattoo says much more about the bass player than it does about him. That’s not him in the tattoo; it’s an image. An image of what? For that, you’ll have to read “Born to Run.”
Entertainment is circus. Circus is defined by its boundaries, the circle, the entrance, enchantment in a spotlight (a smaller circle), the victorious exit amid applause. Though real life is also circular, boundaries are more fluid, and spectators get mixed up with the clowns and acrobats and the freaks. What goes around might come around, or not, might come around and slap you upside the head or whiff on by. Performers come and go, tents get moved, the circus goes on. Send in the clowns.
“Born to Run” is about identity, finding one’s own, wanting it to be authentic and hoping to stay true to it, and what it takes over time to fuel that identity, its costs, and what it takes to forge an identity in a cold deck stacked against it. But you can’t just choose any identity. The existential question that involves defining the meaning of your own life can’t ignore whatever privileges or handicaps you are born into, regardless of how relatively light or heavy those appear to be. And one’s identity changes over the years. People change, even if the proximate cause of change is a world that won’t stay still. Being born to run turns out to be an advantage in a society that moves about like a circus. And the work is never over, the existential self-identity crisis. It’s a life long work. And one struggles against the identities others may try to insist upon, impose, brand: failure and loser; hero and savior; outcast and outlier; man of the hour or woman of the year; runner up or has been; employee of the month or slacker.
But to say one is born to anything, however seemingly noble or rotten, is to concede, to acquiesce to chance, to renounce the birthright of being human, which is to choose. It’s not enough to be born once. One must be born again. But it’s not enough to be born again once, either. One must be born again every day. That’s the cycle. Every day there is a choice to be made. It’s no good saying, as some do, simply, I am what I am. One is born to nothing. Birth is hard work. But it’s the only thing we really have to do, to give birth to ourselves. Born to choose.