86 pages 2 hours read

Bruce Springsteen

Born to Run: Biography

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


Born to Run (2016), by rock icon Bruce Springsteen, is both memoir and critical analysis. He details his formative years, early struggles as a musician, and musical influences, and he examines rock music as both a cultural phenomenon and a force for social change.

During his career, Springsteen has earned 20 Grammy Awards and an Academy Award, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, was a Kennedy Center honoree in 2009, and received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.


Born in Freehold, New Jersey, to Irish and Italian parents, Springsteen’s earliest memories are of his extended family and the Catholic Church. Although poor, the family always finds ways to get by. His father, who has alcoholism and a mental health condition, is emotionally distant, and his mother compensates by instilling in her children a strong work ethic and a clear moral compass. Springsteen’s grandmother spoils him, the family’s only boy, giving him a sense of entitlement and privilege. Attempts to make him follow a regular schedule fill him with anger, an emotion he has trouble managing well into adulthood.

His first taste of rock and roll is Elvis Presley, which transforms him: He sees in the hip-swiveling rebel a way out of Freehold’s “stultifying confines.” The Beatles open his eyes to the potential for fun, camaraderie, and the subversive symbolism of long hair—a world starkly different from his parents’ industrial, working-class reality. He saves money, buys an acoustic guitar, and tries to mimic the sounds from his records. He practices diligently and buys an electric guitar and, with other neighborhood musicians, forms his first band, The Rogues. They play a few gigs—he even gets a taste of being the front man, singing “Twist and Shout” for the local Elks Club—but the band fires him because of the sound of his cheap, untuned guitar. Discouraged but undeterred, he dedicates himself to improving his guitar chops and eventually is invited to join another band, The Castiles, who rehearse in the home of a local couple who nurture young artists.

The Castiles work hard and earn a reputation as a solid local band, booking increasingly prominent gigs. Band members are replaced, the group grows tighter, and Springsteen immerses himself in the Jersey Shore music scene, meeting fellow musicians, some of whom become mentors, and others (Steve Van Zandt and Clarence Clemons) lifelong friends. Although not yet a social crusader, he dodges the Vietnam War draft. He has lost friends to the war and doesn’t want to become another casualty. Around this time, his parents and younger sister move to California, leaving him and his older, married sister on their own.

The Castiles book an audition at Greenwich Village’s Café Wha?. Branching out beyond New Jersey proves transformative for Springsteen. He revels in the 1960s-era diversity of the Village, the first place that feels welcoming and tolerant of his “weirdness.” The Castiles, however, aren’t in Springsteen’s future. Half the band is arrested in a drug sweep, ending their playing days forever. Springsteen continues with a blues/rock trio. They immediately begin booking gigs, and Springsteen, now an established front man who pens his own material, gains attention for his powerful stage presence. The group adds a few new members and begins touring as Child, the earliest incarnation of the E Street Band.

Child acquires a manager—Tinker West—and changes its name to Steel Mill. Tinker books them several gigs in California. They’re ready to move past New Jersey’s club and bar scene but are unsure how they’ll fare on a larger stage. Their California gigs are successful, but because of so much quality competition, they head back to New Jersey’s sure gigs. Springsteen takes creative control, renaming them The Bruce Springsteen Band. He adds horns and backup singers for a more soul and R&B-influenced sound. This hurts their reputation as a blues-based hard rock band, and he must start from scratch, playing in small bars and clubs again—but it’s worth it to control his band’s direction.

The band ends its relationship with Tinker, and Springsteen signs with Mike Appel, a tenacious manager who arranges auditions with a few record companies. Columbia expresses interest and agrees to produce the band’s first album, Greetings from Asbury Park. They tour, but album sales are disappointing. Nevertheless, they begin working on a second album, The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. Springsteen signed with Appel as a solo artist but records as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The third album, Born to Run, captures everything he wants to articulate in that moment—themes of escape and the search for a better future—in a sonic landscape featuring the E Street Band at its best. The album is a cultural phenomenon and makes Springsteen a star.

Forced to deal with fame and fortune, Springsteen keeps his head down and focuses on his music. He realizes his creative wheelhouse is writing about the broken dreams and shattered lives of the working class, and he continues that trend with The River (featuring his first top-10 hit, “Hungry Heart”) and Nebraska. Meeting Vietnam War activists awakens Springsteen’s awareness of the plight of veterans, and his next album, Born in the USA, is a statement on both the war’s collateral damage and his entry into the pop/rock genre. His best-selling album yet, it propels him into the stratosphere of rock superstardom.

Married to actress Julianne Phillips but uncomfortable with it, Springsteen tries to adjust to his sudden and intrusive fame. He wants to focus on love and family life. He records Tunnel of Love, his first solo effort, which begins a 10-year hiatus from the E Street Band and a burgeoning relationship with backup singer Patti Scialfa. One evening when Phillips is out of town, Springsteen and Scialfa’s relationship turns serious. Realizing she’s special, he divorces Phillips and moves in with Scialfa. They buy a secluded home in the Hollywood Hills and have three children. In addition, Springsteen uses his fame to support political and social causes.

As a dedicated family man, Springsteen realizes his fears of settling down have roots in his unsettled relationship with his father, who eventually finds some relief with the help of medication. Relying on the wisdom of age and hindsight, Springsteen repairs that relationship as best he can. When his father dies, he sees him in a new light—as a man who bravely battled demons and lived a life straight out of one of his son’s songs.

Springsteen continues to record and tour, but 10 years after his split with the E Street Band, he decides to arrange a reunion. Early rehearsals reignite their fire, and fans are ecstatic to see the bandmates together once again. Age, however, catches up with them. Keyboardist Danny Federici dies of cancer, and Clarence Clemons dies of a stroke. While these members are irreplaceable, he moves forward with Clemons’s nephew, Jake, taking his uncle’s place.

Springsteen and Scialfa buy land in New Jersey and raise horses, hosting rodeos and equestrian events for friends and family. His bouts of anxiety and sadness continue. Turning 60 triggers a crippling episode that lasts several years, though medication staves off the “abyss.” His album Wrecking Ball (2012) doesn’t get the reception he anticipates—though the tour is a success—and he realizes that the music industry is changing. Still, he continues to write from his heart and record music that “collides” with social and political realities. Now in his 70s and having seen life’s highs and lows, Springsteen relishes home and family as well as his career, two aspects of life that aren’t, as he once thought, mutually exclusive.

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