Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

The gospel according to Bruce

It's The Boss, in his own words, on his own terms and no one would expect anything else, writes Russell Baillie
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN

When Bruce Springsteen took the stage in Auckland in 2014, he started out with a solo acoustic version of Lorde's Royals to the delight of everyone present. He bent its lyrics to suit himself.

"Long ago I was the next big thing," he sang near the end. "Now I'm in love with being king."

Two years, many shows and 500-plus pages later, those rewritten lines may well describe the arc of Born to Run, Springsteen's highly-anticipated autobiography.

In the way he tells it - and you get the feeling no ghostwriters were harmed in the making - the path from next big thing-dom to enduring stadium rock kingdom becomes an odyssey.

Yes, like Springsteen himself, it can be blustery and shouty. The caps lock can go on and stay on a little too long, sometimes.

But it's also moving, revealing and insightful throughout. Even if Springsteen might have seemed like an open book via his songs and his seemingly one-on-one connection with his vast fanbase, this autobiography shows there's much more to the man.

Essentially his is the tale of how a scrawny New Jersey bar band player broke big, then somehow remained the muscular embodiment of American rock'n'roll.

But within all that are multiple self-portraits of the artist - as the hungry young man, the troubled son, the control-freak bandleader, the unfulfilled superstar, the eventually enlightened political songwriter, the happy lothario, the sufferer of crippling depression, the consummate showman.

Released this week, the gospel according to Bruce comes with an inevitable career overview album Chapter and Verse, which takes us from his pre-fame 1960s teenage band days to 2012 song Wrecking Ball in a whiplash-inducing 18 tracks.

The book though is more like one of Springsteen's live shows. A marathon with a roaring start and a multi-encore finish. If you leave before the end you may miss something.

It is in three sections - Growin' Up, Born to Run, and Livin' Proof - stretching to 79 chapters and an epilogue.

Within, Springsteen mixes a vignette style which reminds of Bob Dylan's Chronicles Volume One and knits them into a chronological memoir. One which, pleasingly for ardent fans, neatly recounts the travails behind his albums.

Though self-deprecating about many things, refreshingly, Springsteen offers no false humility when it comes to his songs. Hits like Born to Run and Dancing in the Dark weren't accidental - they were written to be hits.

As a writer though, Springsteen is at his most engaging and lyrical in the early chapters where his depiction of his childhood in a blue-collar Irish-Italian Catholic family begs to be turned into a movie.

There, Bruce the altar boy was caught between an indulgent grandmother, a loving mother, and a cold, distant father who saw his son as a competitor.

After his grandmother died and his parents upped sticks to California, he was effectively abandoned by all of them.

Still in Jersey, in his teens Springsteen became a struggling musician, playing in a series of touring bands and getting good at being a live rock'n'roll musician.

He then decided on two key things that would shape his career - he needed to write his own songs and be the master of his musical destiny.

He had enough of democracy in rock bands. He needed to be The Boss. Though you will find only one reference to his famous nom du rock, even if there is plenty of evidence to support his reputation as a hard taskmaster.

There are not many chapters in the pre-Born in the USA era without an account of another hiring and firing. He also writes affectionately and affectingly about the E Street band's late saxophonist Clarence Clemmons and the African-American musician's role in giving the group a personality.

There's also amusing account of him going on stage and counting in the title song to his biggest album, only to find much of his E Street Band were still backstage playing table tennis.

No one was fired. But no one ever played table tennis again.

And just as Springsteen has some hilarious hindsight about many things - his dancing on the Dancing in the Street video, or the time he and his bandmates were thrown out of Disneyland after they refused to take off their bandannas - he's also capable of beating himself up about his past behaviour.

He writes guiltily about enjoying the "sexual perks of superstardom" even before he was a superstar. And that after deciding he needed to settle down, he behaved "abysmally" in his short mid-80s marriage to actress Julianne Phillips. Their inevitable divorce was hastened by his taking up with bandmate Patti Scialfa, now his wife and the mother of his three children.

The height of his superstardom in his 30s also brought on anxiety and depression that would often manifest itself after the constant highs of his live shows, which took him into therapy.

He suffered another six-week bout of depression in the months after the global touring that ended its international run with that 2014 Auckland show. Managed by medication, the episode stopped.

However, the period spooked Springsteen, reminding him how the fallibility of his own mental health was possibly inherited.

"All of this brought back the ghost of my father's mental illness and my family's history and taunted me with the possibility that even after all I'd done, all I'd accomplished, I could fall to the same path.

"The only thing that kept me right side up during this was Patti. Her love, compassion and assurance that I'd be all right were, during many dark hours, all I had to go on.

"Mentally, just when I thought I was the in part of my life where I'm supposed to be cruising, my 60s were a rough rough ride."

Springsteen's rocky relationship with his dad - the inspiration for many of his songs - is a big part of Born to Run. They came to reconcile in his father's later years.

Winning an Academy Award for the song Streets of Philadelphia helped. Springsteen took the Oscar and plopped it down on the kitchen table in front of his father, who replied: "I'll never tell anybody what to do ever again."

Of the many self-portraits contained within Born to Run, the one of Springsteen being his father's son is possibly the most heartrending and in its own way, one of the most revealing.

It is a memoir with some flaws. He may repeat himself along the way and head off-topic. It may get wrong the famous early quote from reviewer Jon Landau (his future producer and manager) about him being the "future of rock 'n' roll".

"I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen," is what Landau wrote.

But it's a riveting rock memoir by someone happy to hammer a few more dents into his battered crown.

Born to Run certainly gives King Bruce a human touch. And reminds that it's not always easy being The Boss.

The Lowdown

What: Bruce Springsteen's autobiography Born to Run (Simon and and Schuster, $49.99)

When: Out now

Also: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, AMI Stadium Christchurch, Feb 21; Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland, Feb 25

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 05 Dec 2016 14:32:44 Processing Time: 1108ms