With His Autobiography, The Boss Goes Long and Deep

“Born To Run”

By Bruce Springsteen

Simon and Schuster

$14.53 Paperback

boss blogJPG

Now out in paperback, Bruce Springsteens’s autobiography “Born To Run” won’t disappoint the legion of Springsteen acolytes. It’s a largely revealing, consistently diverting and satisfying read.

The story of Springsteen’s growing up in “the bosom of the Catholic Church,” in the Jersey shore town Freehold will intrigue Catholic readers.

Some of them will nod their heads in concord with Springsteen’s descriptions of nuns’ knuckle rapping, being smacked in the head, having his tie yanked and being shut into a dark closet. These experiences, he writes, “left a mean taste in my mouth and estranged me from my religion for good.”

But Catholics will also relate to Springsteen when he writes: “I came to ruefully and bemusedly understand,” he writes, “that once you’re Catholic, you’re always a Catholic. I know somewhere … deep inside … I’m still on the team.”

Springsteen’s heritage helps readers understand the man and musician he became. The name Springsteen is Dutch, but Springsteen’s father Douglas was Irish and mother Adele Italian.

And Springsteen has said his acoustic, more introspective music comes from his Irish side, and his rock music comes from his Italian side.

Veteran fans are well familiar with Springsteen’s concert introductions to songs such as “Independence Day” and “The River,” which recall difficult kitchen table conversations with his brooding father.

While not diminishing Douglas’ dark and troubled nature, Springsteen’s portrait of his dad in these pages is more well rounded and sympathetic than he previously revealed.

As a boy, Springsteen writes, of having to collect his father from local bars, which were “citadels of mystery, filled with mean magic, uncertainty, and the possibility of violence.” The Boss also recalls, when he was older, defending his mother from his drunken, enraged father.

Springsteen “let him have it between his square shoulders.” Beyond his dad’s rage, Springsteen acknowledges there was “a gentleness, timidity, shyness, and dreamy insecurity.”

One of three sisters, who “have screamed, laughed, cried, and danced their way through life’s best and worst,” his mom Adele set her son a better example.

“Joy in your work and a never-say-die thirst for life” are among the numerous things Adele taught Springsteen. “The love I missed from my father, she tried to double up on,” he writes, and purchasing his first electric guitar, she encouraged The Boss’ musical career.

The story of Springsteen’s formative ascent through several band incarnations to signing his first contract with legendary Columbia Records’ producer John Hammond in May 1972 will most interest readers. And it will surprise them to discover the songwriter closely identified with car songs once didn’t know how to drive.

One of “Born To Run’s” more memorable moments occurs when, in his pre- E St. Band days, the unlicensed Springsteen is enlisted to share the driving in a 72-hour drive to a California gig.

While driving his then manager Tinker’s big truck, he was “weaving all over the highway,” Springsteen writes. “We were lucky I didn’t kill us. But by the time we got to California, I knew how to drive, and Tinker had spent many a sleepless hour.”

15 years after that episode, by the time of 1984’s “Born in the USA” tour, Springsteen was a superstar beyond his fervent imagination. Although his life was, on the surface, glamorous, Springsteen, in “Born To Run” most revealingly discusses his mental health struggles.

In 1983, on another cross-country drive, Springsteen writes, “the ambivalence, trouble, and toxic confusion I’d had volcanically bubbling for thirty-two years would reach critical mass.”

Regular psychiatric consultations and prescription meds helped Springsteen manage his dark moods until after his 60th birthday when he says, “I slipped into a depression” that “would last for a year and a half.”

“During these periods, I can be cruel: I run, I dissemble, I disappear, I return, I rarely apologize.” Readers will welcome this candor from someone so prominent on issues, which unfortunately some still consider taboo.

Through the apogee of commercial and critical success and nadir of anxiety and depression, Springsteen remains grounded and relevant and inspirational as an artist because he understands and values music’s power to transform and bind and heal.

His experience playing with the Americana style backing group The Sessions Band testifies to Springsteen’s faith in music’s enduring power. He and the band were headliners at JazzFest, New Orleans’ legendary musical festival in 2006, the first year after Katrina devastated the city.

The band’s playing overcame a skeptical audience unaccustomed to hearing Springsteen play a new style. “There’s a coming together, and a lifting, a fortifying that occurs when people gather and move in time with one another. It’s a beautiful thing.”

“Born To Run” isn’t perfect. Springsteen frequently employs all caps prose, which mars an otherwise laudable work and will annoy and distress readers. Nonetheless, the engaging, thoughtful “Born To Run” proves The Boss of the short piece can also go long and deep.





My Fairfield Years

In the fall of 1978, when I arrived at Fairfield University – a small Jesuit school in Connecticut – wanting to learn how to write I joined the staff of the school newspaper “The Fairfield Mirror.”

Interviewing Head Baseball Coach and Athletic Director C. Donald Cook about the upcoming baseball season was my first assignment.

Unproven and unqualified, having been on campus two weeks, I went to meet one of the more influential persons there. But, in Cook’s modest office in the Fairfield gym, an obscure freshman and the Athletic Director were on equal footing.

After years of playing their “home” games off campus, Cook’s enthusiasm furthermore for the baseball team’s new on campus home field taught me the first Ignatian lesson I learned at Fairfield: always cultivate gratitude.

Confident yet grateful after my experience with Cook, I covered the baseball, soccer, and rugby teams, and after a month, Sports Editor Steve Motta ‘79 gave me my own column, “Athlete of the Week.”

While writing for “The Mirror” was an education, I also appreciated the formal education I received.

Walter Petry’s Western Civilization classes my freshman year were my most memorable academic experiences at Fairfield.

His legendary quizzes were learning crucibles, unlike anything we had ever experienced. My heart sank when I received a 63 on the first quiz, but my mark was stellar compared to another classmate’s 29.

Mr. Petry paced the floor, pleading with us for a good answer, with his left hand scrunched up as if to snatch up the first decent one, which came his way.

His ardor for knowledge impressed my increasingly restless soul. One spring night freshman year, unable to concentrate on the books assigned to me, I walked to Nyselius Library and took out Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again.”

thomas wolfe

Thomas Wolfe.

Wolfe’s writing about a young writer establishing himself in Manhattan fueled my desire to take advantage of Fairfield’s proximity to the city. I visited my brother Jim and sister-in-law Susan there a couple times a year.

Accompanying them to art galleries, museums, movie theaters, bars, and restaurants dramatically enlarged my world. I wanted to absorb the visual, gustatory, and auditory sensations I experienced even if they almost overwhelmed me.

I studied Jim’s practical lessons. When you hail a cab, step off the curb and shoot your arm straight in the air. And he taught me how to handle cabbies to get where I was going without being taken for a ride. Jim finally taught me one last memorable lesson: never eat at a Needick’s.

Better equipped to live in the “real” world, I didn’t feel like an adult until I was the “Mirror” Sports Editor my senior year.

Striving to achieve the high standards “Mirror” Editor-in-Chief, the estimable Michael “Doc” Dougherty ‘79 established our freshman year, my good friend Carl Gustafson ’82 nonetheless carved his own trail as Editor-in-Chief.

Brimming over with enthusiasm, always running at full speed and volume, challenging us to reach higher, Carl brought out the best in us.

Encouraging us to play softball, go to dinner, support fundraising efforts, enter group academic and athletic contests together, Carl fostered a camaraderie, which brought us closer to each other than we had been to any other group of people.

That camaraderie informing us, and doughnuts, pizza, and Coke fueling us, each Sunday we worked into Monday morning and put out one of the best college papers nationally.

My time as a “Mirror” Editor finally prepared me to live in the world, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Although journalism seemed a natural progression, I sensed I wanted to do something else with my life.

What that could be began to emerge during my senior year when I rediscovered my profound appreciation for what I took for granted; Fairfield is a Jesuit school. Its Jesuitness drew this Georgetown Prep graduate to it.

And the Jesuit Volunteer Corps’ (JVC) Jesuitness encouraged me to apply to the JVC: to do a year of service living and working alongside poor people.

But I believed going into the JVC was buying me time until I figured out what I wanted to do.

However, after a year working at a Latino parish in San Antonio and second year working at a homeless shelter in New Orleans, I was on a journey I couldn’t have anticipated taking as a white male, who grew up in relatively affluent circumstances.

This journey has taken me from the St. Thomas Housing Projects in New Orleans to lean-to shacks in Pickens County, AL, from marching from New Orleans to Baton Rouge to protest the death penalty alongside Sister Helen Prejean to working to overcome racism in Birmingham, AL with people, who marched with Dr. King, from working with undocumented immigrants in Houston to working with African Americans in Washington, DC’s storefront churches.

If Campus Minister, the late Kim McElaney, herself a JVC alumna, hadn’t invited a JVC recruiter to campus in the fall of 1981, none of this would have happened.

But when you promote justice in the service of faith, you encounter more opposition than support, more defeats than victories, and you rely upon your steadfast friends’ unconditional love to remain faithful.

In my case, I rely upon my “Mirror” family. We’ve celebrated weddings and births. We’re happy when our friends’ children do well, but listen compassionately when our friends’ children struggle. We comfort each other as our parents’ health declines, and consoled each other when these parents finally gave up the ghost.

Numerous reunions have strengthened our bonds, and our Fairfield experience just gets better. At our most recent reunion in October 2015, something magical happened when I re-connected with Mary- Margaret Walsh ’84. A past Alumni Association President, she was a “Mirror” Arts and Entertainment and Executive Editor.

Dilly and Dally ClevelandJPG

Mary- Margaret and I in a Cleveland Hotel, en route to Chicago for Jim and Susan’s oldest son Ian’s July 2016 wedding.

We took a chance. And traveling between Connecticut and Washington, DC, 35 years after we met, we fell in love, and are engaged to marry.

In the end then, after all these years, Fairfield gave me love and companionship. Who could ask for more?


My Abolitonist Anniversary

On the road to abolition in central Texas in 19991.

On the road to abolition in central Texas in 19991.

October 24 marks a significant milestone for me. On that date in 1984, I joined 25 others on a three day 78-mile march, from outside New Orleans to the Louisiana state capital Baton Rouge to protest the death penalty.

I was 24, and after two years in the JVC, I had begun work at the Holy Ghost Community Center, providing direct assistance to persons in an uptown New Orleans community near the Magnolia Housing Projects. And I was restless to do more to promote justice.

The late George Lundy got me involved in the Ernest Knighton case that fall. He faced imminent execution, and George and others were trying to gain clemency for him from Louisiana’s Pardon Board. High on drugs, Knighton shot a convenience store clerk during a botched robbery in Bossier City. The bullet ricocheted off the clerk’s shoulder before traveling to his heart killing him.

Knighton’s impulsiveness argued for clemency. Circumstances in another contemporaneous Bossier City murder also demonstrated how racist and arbitrary Knighton’s sentence had been. In that case, three white men raped and murdered a young African American woman. They slit her throat, and let out a rebel yell of triumph. Yet, a jury spared these men’s lives.

The Knighton case was the march’s catalyst, and when I received the invitation to join it, I was ready to move. Catholic social justice types, civil rights leaders and civil libertarians formed our ranks. “A rag tag band of protestors,” was how one journalist described us.

We certainly weren’t properly prepared for that kind of march. It was in the 80’s that weekend, but we didn’t apply enough sunscreen and discovered moleskin’s virtues to protect blisters belatedly. As a result, we walked a marathon three consecutive days, sweaty and sunburned, with blisters and sore legs.

Misery engendered solidarity, which our mutual convictions about capital punishment strengthened. We slept on gym floors, and showered in strangers’ homes. We ran through BENGAY tubes, and cracked numerous jokes about our quarters smelling like old folks’ homes. Yet, generous volunteers fed us well, and the camaraderie we experienced as we got to know our new friends, over a few beers, nourished our souls and lifted our spirits and prepared us for the journey ahead. By the time we arrived at the capitol at dusk Sunday evening, our legs burning with lactic acid build up, I was a confirmed abolitionist.

As I committed to do more to end Louisiana’s death penalty, I soon discovered however how difficult and long the road to abolition would be. We were trying to change a law that the overwhelmingly majority strongly supported. We didn’t know how to address victims’ families’ members understandable anger or counter the perception we were bleeding hearts more concerned with murderers than crime. We were also largely a movement of white justice types that had to confront our own racism if we hoped to sustain our movement. Plus, we faced the typical internal personal and philosophical differences.

Until I left New Orleans in 1987, I worked alongside Helen Prejean to organize more actions against the death penalty, working imperfectly, messily, painfully, all too humanly through the above issues. I encountered similar issues when I worked with my good friend Rick Halperin and others to organize the statewide Texans Against State Killing march in 1991.

In 1993, I participated in the first Journey of Hope in Indiana. Persons who had lost a family member to murder but opposed capital punishment led this two-week educational tour, which represented a sea change in advocacy against the death penalty.

Family members’ powerful eloquent testimony exposed the myth all victims’ family members wanted vengeance. Journey members also exposed the lie the death penalty brings closure to them, when nothing can bring back their loved ones; executions merely compound their suffering. Compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation will heal victims, rehabilitate offenders, and turn our society away from vengeance, violence and death toward mercy, peace and life.

That message has gradually taken hold nationally. 18 states have abolished the death penalty and others such as New Hampshire and Delaware appear close to abolition. These realities, which seemed far-fetched 30 years give me great hope abolition will become universal in the United States.

The understandable anxiety persons experience in the age of Terrorism presents new challenges to death penalty opponents. However, I’m confident the tide has turned, and I will continue to write and speak about abolition. And one October 24 I hope I won’t commemorate another anniversary as an abolitionist.