Exile on E Street: The Pilgrimage of Bruce Springsteen

March 24, 2017
Title: Born to Run
Author: Bruce Springsteen
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publish Date: September 27, 2016
Pages: 528 (Hardcover)
Price: $32.50
ISBN: 9781501141515

One morning, home from college, I went to an early morning garage sale, digging for treasures, and pulled out a gently worn cassette copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love. What I didn’t know then was that this was one of the lesser gems of his catalog, a dwarf star next to earlier albums like Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. But, it was the perfect album for a young man finding his way in the world. Written in the mid-1980s when Springsteen’s first marriage was fading away, Tunnel of Love is a masterwork of small emotions, light touches, and parables of the difficulty of devotion. For myself as a young man of 20, it was a streetlight over a dark road, words which unlocked intuitions which I was too immature to yet understand. Much of his work trades in the currency of driving as a metaphysical journey, as Springsteen works out questions of love, fidelity, friendship, and justice. And driving back to college in my burgundy Chevy Caprice classic, it was in that car that Springsteen’s work came alive for me. Over the course of the last two decades, and in many other cars, Springsteen’s music has been a constant companion. As I, like the narrators of his albums, work out the big questions, Springsteen’s music has been both a puzzle and provocation. Not every album was a home run, but for him, that wasn’t really the point as much as it was a true chronicle of his own questions and pursuit of better answers.

Over the last three decades, multiple works have been written about Springsteen’s life, by journalists, philosophers, and theologians; from biographical details to kabbalistic reflections upon arcane lyrics. But until Born to Run, Springsteen’s own words had been only put down in interviews, piecemeal reflections of a man building musical bridges and driving over them. For the hardcore fan looking for “behind the music” details, this book is full of “who was where and when”, and for the devotee, there are bountiful allusions which contextualize the musician’s best and worst work.

But this book, I think, is not about music, though it drips with details of concerts, Springsteen’s love of music, and the liberating power of rock and roll. And it is not a book about celebrity, for it is nearly vacant of name-dropping and stories deliberately designed to generate envy. Written over the course of seven years, as Springsteen worked through depression, counseling, and grief, this is a book that is more an invitation than a complete picture. Much like the metaphors of driving which permeate his earliest albums, this autobiography is less an attempt to spell out for the reader who Springsteen is than it is a passenger seat on his ongoing journey.

For comparison, consider the decades-old debate as to what kind of book Augustine’s Confessions is. By the measure of the modern autobiography, it seems frustrated and belaboring, devoid of many pertinent personal details. There, we find out nothing of Augustine’s concubine, and little of his son. Instead of poignant details which would unlock Augustine’s mind for the reader, we find his own ponderous ruminations about creation, eternity, and time. To borrow a metaphor from philosopher Michel de Certeau, it is far less a map than an itinerary: it provides marks along the way, but at no time does it offer us a singular view which would allow us to master it. We are, as it were, along for the ride.

Augustine’s intention, it seems, is to give us not only his conclusions, but his way to them, a way to which he points the reader. Augustine is not, after all, interested in writing his life so that we may be like Augustine, but so that we may be like Christ. He unties the knots of his early life and refastens them in ways which link together moments which were severed, finding unity between a childhood encounter with a pear tree and a twenty-year affair, creating analogues between intellectual movements which to the naked eye seem far apart. In writing, Augustine is journeying toward God and displaying how, in that journey, all the fragments of the past knit together.

Springsteen’s Born to Run is poignant, and at times, gorgeously written, and in many ways, both an analogue and anti-type to Confessions. For whereas Augustine’s journey begins in the folly of youth and ends in the church, Springsteen’s journey moves him from the church out into the road. Nearly 150 pages pass in the book before Bruce picks up his first guitar, with the first third of the book covering his earliest years. By his own account, his childhood was a hard, working-class one, strung in a tension between his father’s undiagnosed mental illness and his mother’s grace. And in the background of this childhood stood the Catholic Church, with young Bruce straddling the divide before and after the era of Vatican II.

There is a never-recorded song, “If I Was the Priest”, which Springsteen wrote during this time; he played the tune on his second-hand guitar for studio executives, hungry for his shot to make his first major album (Greetings from Asbury Park). In the song, Springsteen transposes the Trinity into an old-West saloon, with Jesus the sheriff calling young Bruce to follow him out of town and into the wilderness. The song becomes a window into Bruce’s relationship with faith, and interestingly, in this song, all of the elements of the faith are present—the Trinity, priests, the sacraments turned into bar food. In the song, it is Jesus who calls Bruce out on the road, to go to parts unknown.

This unreleased song—a story about leaving behind his religious upbringing because of a call from the transcendent—is, not accidentally, integral to the Springsteen mythology. For as his autobiography Born to Run unfolds, Springsteen leaves his home of Freehold, New Jersey—and with it the Catholicism of his youth—in search of his musical future; he self-consciously journeys in search not only of a career, but of a people he can call home. As a teenager, Springsteen was left behind by his parents to live in New Jersey when his mother and father moved to California, and so, Springsteen first sought refuge in his bandmates and his craft. Early successes with his first bands The Castilles and Steel Mill made him hungry for a sound and a community which was always before him. As we read his accounts of meeting early members of his E Street Band, we see him pulling them to him as a new family, yet unable to view them as collaborators. We watch him transition out of rogue singleness to struggling family man (for as much as his band was a part of his search, they were not the ultimate destination). This journey—for a new family, a new home, for a destination on the road always out in front—is ultimately a journey toward wholeness, with the E-Street Band as his faithful followers.

As the autobiography unfolds, though the Church has been left far behind in his childhood, the language of faith, discipline, grace, and salvation haunts Springsteen’s account. He speaks of his album Born to Run as a spiritual journey of desire, of music being unable to save him, of losing himself in performance and finding himself in composition. Through his life, he finds other musicians as gods among us, miracles in the death of friends, and grace in reconciling himself to his own family. In describing the composition of his solo album Nebraska, recorded in-between anthem albums of Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A., he writes of being immersed in the work of Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic writer whose poems teem with the grotesque workings of grace and the perverse revelations of God.

The book weaves its way through concerts, musical triumphs, and friendships, through past and present—always moving forward chronologically, but (like Walter Benjamin’s angel) always looking backwards, in an attempt to bring together the past as he moves into the present. For this is not a dispassionate story about music so much as a ride through a modern Confessions: it is the search toward an integrated life, always with the language of faith and the lingering smell of religion. The narrative ends on a quiet evening, with Bruce having moved back to his hometown, standing in the churchyard of his youth, an “unwilling disciple” repeating the Lord’s Prayer in the shadow of the steeple of St. Rose’s. This, he says, “I presented as my long and noisy prayer, my magic trick…that it might strengthen and help make sense of your story.” And with that, the Boss leaves his readers, having modeled for them what he hopes that they too might find: home.

The ending chapters of Augustine’s Confessions are perhaps the most perplexing part of the theologian’s work, for, after detailing his own influences and conversion, Augustine launches into three books of mediation on time, eternity, and God. The stark juxtaposition of narrative with theological reflection has baffled interpreters for centuries; on one level, the last books feel as if they are a different work entirely. But in these final chapters, I think, we gain perspective on the preceding chapters. In the final chapters, Augustine wrestles with themes of creation, order, and grace; the reflections there are miniature versions of much larger treatises that he writes elsewhere, shorthand outworkings of the relationship between God and the world that dominates his theology. The fact that they appear appended to his own autobiography is, I think, for Augustine, inconsequential—for Augustine is working out his life in light of God’s work, not as a side project. For Augustine, his own story is understood in terms of a larger project of reunion to God.

Likewise, Springsteen’s Born to Run is an integral work, in which his own story as a musician is not the point: it is part of a larger tapestry as he searches, reaches, and drives toward a peace which lingers as his destination. Springsteen’s musical style has changed since his first album, no longer charged with the anxiety of youth; he has long since traded the blues stylings of Roy Orbison for the more folk-driven sounds of Woody Guthrie. But for Springsteen, like Augustine, it was never ultimately about the music. It was about something more important: the pursuit of that which is both before him on the road, and yet always under his feet; behind the words, awaiting him in the churchyard.

About the Author
  • Myles Werntz is Director of Baptist Studies and Associate Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University, where he directs the Baptist Studies Center in the Graduate School of Theology. He is the author and editor of five books in theology and ethics, and writes broadly on Christian ethics of war and peace, immigration, ecclesiology, and discipleship.

What are your thoughts about this topic?
We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

There are currently no comments. Why don't you kick things off?