Trouble in the Heartland

By Evelyn McDonnellDecember 3, 2016

Trouble in the Heartland

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

I FELL for Bruce.

I was in 10th grade, a tomboy heading awkwardly into adulthood. Springsteen had already been featured simultaneously on the cover of the country’s top newsweeklies, Time and Newsweek. But I lived in Beloit, Wisconsin — a town in the middle of dairy farms with a struggling industrial base and a small liberal arts college — where even his hit “Born to Run” had not quite penetrated the hard walls erected by geographic isolation and small-town myopia. (Today, Rock County — yes, that’s really its name— is Paul Ryan country.) Listening to his latest album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, was an act performed in private; the record arm-wrestled with Patti Smith’s Easter on the turntable in our living room, where I would sit and listen for hours, gazing out on cornfields. During the summer, we sold popcorn at drive-in movie theaters or ripped the tassels off the corn, neutering it. When, on his next album, The River, Bruce sang to the “little girlie in the blue jeans so tight / Driving alone through the Wisconsin night,” well, in my mind, that was me.

People called him the Boss, but in his white T-shirt, the dark-haired troubadour on Darkness’s cover looked like the guys I used to smoke pot with at the local park. He sang about “the working, the working, just the working life” and about cars, those guys’ number-one obsession. Written and recorded while its maker was going through a bitter breakup with his manager, Darkness depicted a country going bust after decades of economic growth, where the hope of social mobility was being snatched from the lower, working, and, eventually, middle classes. “There’s trouble in the heartland,” Springsteen sang — didn’t I, a teenage girl embedded in that trouble but also itching to break free, know it. His fourth album reached deep into the dark heart of adolescence, then extended a hand offering sympathy and maybe even escape. I believed in the love that he gave me, the hope it could save me, and the faith it could raise me above those badlands. Yeah, I crushed on Bruce. But like all idols, he was a stand-in, a Platonic ideal of the romance I sought in real people around me. If this proletarian son of New Jersey could have such a deep understanding of that girl dancing on the porch while the radio played, wouldn’t one of my weed buddies someday pull up in his Mustang and take me away to the promised land?

Darkness connected not just with my adolescent angst but with my surroundings. In the liner notes for The Promise, the box set edition of Darkness released in 2010, Springsteen says that he “wanted to write about life in the close confines of the small towns I grew up in.” He penned most of the album while living on a farm in Holmdel, New Jersey. More than any other single artist — more than the punk bands who were just beginning to drive my rebellion and would empower me for decades to come — Bruce wrote about the world in which I lived.

Still, New Jersey was a long drive down interstates 90 and 80 from Wisconsin. Fortunately, in 1979 Doubleday published a book that explained my new hero’s East Coast roots and inspired me as much as his music. Dave Marsh’s Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story influenced a generation of future writers. Like me, Marsh was a Midwesterner, from Detroit — Beloit’s sister city. A founding editor of that town’s seminal music rag Creem, he didn’t just write the history of a great man; he wrote about what Springsteen’s music meant to him, as a critic and a fan, and what it meant to rock history, and to the United States, and to class consciousness in the United States, and to the failure — and dogged pursuit — of an American dream, if not the American dream. I was already a teenage fan of the Boss, but by describing with such knowledgeable authority and personal passion the musician’s import, Marsh made me a disciple.

All of which is a long-winded response to a colleague’s comment that I didn’t strike him as someone who would be a fellow Springsteen fan. I’m more of a punk, feminist lover of grooves than a fist-pumping stadium rocker. But then it’s not the Bruce of Born in the U.S.A. that I love. I love the Bruce of Darkness and Nebraska, The Rising and High Hopes. I see the Boss not as a rock star but as a rabble-rouser, a working-class hero, the descendant of Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie. The ghost of Tom Joad.

Even more than fostering a lifelong love of Bruce, Marsh’s Born to Run made me want to write about music. It was the first book that showed me that pop journalism could be political and literary — that you could combine history, sociology, musicology, and memoir into one form. In my three decades as a working music critic, I’ve met a lot of other people who were similarly inspired — you can read such testimony on Goodreads. Other texts followed in my “rockcrit” education: Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, Simon Frith’s Sound Effects, Gerri Hirshey’s Nowhere to Run. But by cloaking itself in the veneer of a celebrity bio, Born to Run was the gateway drug to a literary addiction and a career.

Thirty-seven years later, there’s a new Born To Run out: this one is written by the Boss himself. Marsh’s are scarcely the biggest shoes the musician has to fill. Bruce’s autobiography is one of the most anticipated books of the year, at least by hungry-hearted booksellers. It follows in the footsteps of several rock star memoirs that have set the bar high for the genre, and not just in terms of sales — most notably Patti Smith’s National Book Award–winner Just Kids and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Vol. I, which of course just helped the icon earn the Nobel Prize for literature. Smith is a longtime peer and collaborator of Springsteen, and Dylan is his ultimate hero — their precedents loom large.

But told in the folksy style that his fans know well from the yarns he spins at his epic shows, Born to Run doesn’t have the high-art gloss of those books. As a piece of writing, it’s even bested by Life, the autobiography of Keith Richards — but then that page-turning tome was aided and abetted by co-writer James Fox and propelled by some serious depravity. Even Marianne Faithfull and David Dalton with their tell-most Faithfull provided a slice of cultural life that fascinates more than Springsteen’s saga of massive success and dogged control.

Still, Born To Run surprises and compels. Its author reveals a psychological depth and vulnerability that is brave for a star of his magnitude. Speaking openly and at length for the first time about his abusive, mentally ill father and his own struggles with debilitating depression, Springsteen makes clear that darkness didn’t just lie at the edge of his life; it was at times a black hole at the source and center of his being. He understands the demons that bedevil American culture not merely as an empathic fellow traveler, but on an intimate, lived level. When it comes to issues of race and gender, Bruce sometimes stumbles on the page, but he’s a man on a quest for understanding — not looking to blame the “other,” as do so many aging white men who feel their grip on American power slipping. Springsteen has been a powerful advocate for the oppressed not just because he grew up a member of the working class, which we’ve known since the first Born to Run book, but also because he grew up damaged, both by nurture and probably nature. (Mental illness runs in his family.) In this moving memoir, the Boss pulls back the curtains of the myth-making machinery and shows that for him, the political is personal.

The first chapters rivet with vivid details of, as the song says, “Growin’ Up” in Freehold, New Jersey. His mom was of Italian heritage, his dad Irish and Dutch; Catholicism is engrained in his blood, if not in his choice. They were “pretty near poor” — not Angela’s Ashes/Grapes of Wrath destitute, but deprived enough that their first house was heated by one lone kerosene stove. With crazy relatives and tragically dead ones, the family was what today would be politely described as dysfunctional. Springsteen rather unstintingly portrays himself as a firstborn wild child spoiled by a doting, domineering grandmother: “In this house, due to order of birth and circumstance, I was lord, king and the messiah all rolled into one.” Countering this cultivated egomania were the, at best, neglect, at worst abuse inflicted by his jealous, unstable father. Teaching him to box, Dad landed a punch “just a little too hard … I sensed what was being said: I was an intruder, a stranger, a competitor in our home and a fearful disappointment.” This familial dynamic won’t surprise anyone who has listened to “Adam Raised a Cain” and “My Father’s House.” Still it’s not easy for a man of Springsteen’s blue-collar credentials to admit victimization. He doesn’t blame his father. In fact, the central conflict seeking resolution in this book is his grappling with the realization that his dad’s behavior was the result of mental disorders, not evil intents. The penultimate moment — proud and tragic — comes after Pop dies, and Bruce dreams that he’s kneeling next to him in the crowd at one of his own shows. “[F]or a moment, we both watch the man on fire onstage. I touch his forearm and say to my dad, who for so many years sat paralyzed by depression, ‘Look, Dad, look … that guy onstage ... that’s you … that’s how I see you.’”

As well as revealing the sins of patriarchy visited upon his body and soul, Bruce also writes his struggles with his own culpability as, well, a cad. It’s as if, having revealed his childhood weakness, Springsteen overcompensates by showing off what a love-’em-and-leave-’em traveling man/cowboy he could be. (Turns out the man of my teenage daydreams was as much a failure at being a knight in shining armor as all those stoners around me.) In the first half of Born to Run, Springsteen depicts women outside his family as bit players whom he treats with disregard and even disdain. The unrepentant womanizing put me off so much I almost wrote off the rest of the book, not to mention my lifetime hero. Fortunately, Springsteen’s life — and his telling of it — got saved by a rock critic, some therapy, and one badass rock ’n’ roll mama.

Jon Landau appears in Born To Run to no small fanfare: “Enter the king” reads the section title, though then Springsteen, never one to completely relinquish center stage, equivocates, adding: “(Small ‘k’).” The Boston journalist wrote probably the most famous lines in “rockcrit” history: “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Landau eventually became his subject’s confidant, manager, and producer. You can see his effect on the Boss’s career in the way this book’s narrative tightens after his entrance. Landau helps Bruce get rid of (then replaces) a charismatic but problematic manager, finds him a good shrink, and provides him an intellectual and historical context for his lone-ranger act. (Arguably, Landau is Bruce’s Tonto.) “Jon Landau was the first person I met who had a language for discussing these ideas and the life of the mind,” Springsteen writes. “Jon and I related both as conspiratorial music fans and as young men in search of something.” The former MC5 producer grounds Bruce and guides him through an artistic career that ultimately creates a new standard for how long a megastar can sustain a meaningful and consequential output.

Bruce finds Patti Scialfa, his second wife and the mother of his three children, on his own. At a bar. She’s singing; he’s listening. He’s met his match. Springsteen’s affection for and devotion to his wife are palpable and sincere. She is his rock. As he struggles to find his place as a husband and father, and battles debilitating anxiety, she at once holds him accountable to himself and stands with (not by) him. Ironically, Born to Run becomes the title of a beautiful love story.

Really, that title captures the central irony of Bruce Springsteen in its full psychological complexity, as this book reveals for the first time. The song of that name is a classic-rock anthem, a mini-operetta about destiny, individualism, and love — the ultimate Promethean romance. But it turns out that the urge to escape may be hardwired into the singer’s makeup in a way that is not liberating, but fateful. He doesn’t choose to run; he is born that way. And ultimately, this is a man who wants to — who believes ethically that he must — sit down and make good with the world, not flee it. His commitment to all the so-called trappings of normal life — to family, and job, and colleagues, and community — is what is so important about Bruce Springsteen, his essential quality as an artist who works in the idioms of rock and soul music.

Springsteen was reared on the great popular music of the 1950s and 1960s, on Elvis Presley, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin. But he has not peddled the traditional escapist rock-star fantasy of the troubadour gypsy, at least not since his early days; he does not sell a celebrity lifestyle of glamour and riches. He has always tried to stay true to his class roots, not as a gimmick — not because “factory” was the fashion he was selling — but because he wants to represent. He wants to be his father on that stage, vanquishing depression, yes, but not becoming someone or something else. Coming into his fame at the same time as the birth of punk, this journeyman-outsider chose to become the anti-rock star. He didn’t even drink until after he signed his record deal, and while he admits to having some fun on the road, the turning point of this book is his rejection of the traditional sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll narrative. Yeah, he married a model for a minute, but then he left Julianne for Patti, the Jersey girl next door. “I sensed there was a great difference between unfettered personal license and real freedom,” he writes,

Many of the groups that had come before us, many of my heroes, had mistaken one for the other and it’d ended in poor form. I felt personal license was to freedom as masturbation was to sex. It’s not bad, but it’s not the real deal. Such were the circumstances that led the lovers I’d envisioned in “Born to Run,” so determined to head out and away, to turn their car around and head back to town. That’s where the deal was going down, amongst the brethren.

He turns around and heads back to town. The prodigal son lands back in Jersey, not Hollywood or Belize. That’s the Bruce Springsteen story.

Besides, if you’ve ever been to a Springsteen show (and I’ve seen every tour since 1981, except this past one), you know that he’s a master storyteller. As noted, Bruce writes like he talks. There are colorful characters, embarrassing details, and a moral as punch line at every climactic finale. He’s a smart guy, a well-read autodidact with a driving intellect, but he tends to write in capital letters rather than big words. He’s not always so good at deconstructing the big picture, but his aim is true. Race is a crucial but unresolved theme in the book. Springsteen’s live shows are based on the revival styles of the great soul singers; some folks would call that appropriation. And he’s clearly uncomfortable with how monochromatic his following is, but then again, he’s crying all the way to the bank. The E Street Band was purposely multiracial; he makes a big deal in Born of the two-tone image of him with black saxophonist Clarence Clemons on the cover of the album Born to Run. But while Bruce was probably aware how deeply strange it must have felt for the Big Man to answer to a little guy called the Boss, he wasn’t about to stop calling the shots. Early in his 1979 book, Marsh recounts word for word one of Springsteen’s classic live skits from the 1970s, in which he and guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt meet Clemons on the boardwalk for Asbury Park. They think he’s going to rob them, but he just wants to play some music. The scene is overplayed for laughs, the white guys are making fun of their own engrained racism, and Clarence goes along with it, playing the misunderstood bogeyman. But if Bruce tried to tell this story now, it would go down like a lead zeppelin. He knows this, and he writes about his bandmate with feelings of both hopeless divide and deep connection. The chapter about Clemons’s death is moving and sincere, another turning point in this narrative.

At other times, Bruce can be damn funny. He ruthlessly tears apart his and his bandmates’ sartorial style:

In ’84, I abandoned everyone to their worst instincts and they came through glowingly. The eighties ruled! C’s Gap Band box cut, Nils’s bandana and satin jockey jacket, Max’s perm, Roy’s Cosby sweaters, and my soon-to-be-iconic bandana and pumped muscles. Looking back on those photos now, I look simply … gay.

Perhaps this Village People look explains Springsteen’s large LGBTQ following. Mostly, people recognize a champion of the dispossessed when they hear him, whether he’s singing about migrant workers or AIDS. Remember, way back in 2000, he alienated some of his own fan base by writing a song about Amadou Diallo, a black man killed by 41 police bullets. If Bruce is the iconic working-class white guy, then people take note: he hates the Donald! I fell for Bruce because he reminded me of my mom’s brothers, guys who worked with their hands, and of my friends’ dads at the GM plant. These were honorable people who labored and loved hard. The Boss validated the American working class, even if his own path led him to Art.

If you think this all sounds like Born to Run is some sort of “taming of the dude” morality play, you’ve missed the point. The part of the narrative where Bruce is just another longhair guitarist having quick sex with nameless women in his friends’ surf factory is the same old boring dirt. When our hero makes the pivot to accountability — to his bandmates, his family, his message, his audience, his art, the brethren — that’s when Born to Run takes its seat in the pantheon of great music memoirs.


Evelyn McDonnell is director of journalism and associate professor at Loyola Marymount University. Her most recent book is Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways.

LARB Contributor

Evelyn McDonnell is an associate professor at Loyola Marymount University, where she directs the Journalism program. She has written or co-edited six books, from Rock She Wrote: Women Write about Rock, Pop and Rap to Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways. Her next book, Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, a collection of original essays and artwork, will be published by Black Dog & Leventhal in October 2018. She is also series editor for Music Matters, a collection of short books about musicians published by ForeEdge/UPNE. A longtime journalist, she has been a pop culture writer at The Miami Herald and a senior editor at The Village Voice. Her writing on music, poetry, theater, and culture has appeared in publications and anthologies including the Los Angeles Times, Ms., Rolling Stone, The New York Times, the Guardian, Interview, and Option.


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