Listening to Bruce Springsteen read his autobiography Born to Run has, of course, gotten me listening to my Springsteen collection and thinking about how I’ve followed the guy ever since my old pal Ed told me about this amazing guy who played a concert at his college back in the early 1970s.
The most powerful thing about Springsteen is, in my humble opinion, his drive and commitment to excellence.
I learned in the book that he set his mind to be a great guitarist and worked at it until his fingers ached. I mentioned the other day the anecdote he told about going to watch good local bands just to see what the lead guitarist did, then racing home to spend hours trying to replicate what he saw and heard.
Long ago, I heard the story about how, when he created the song “Born to Run,” his goal was to create the best rock song we ever heard, and he worked for months to fine-tune the sound and make it so.
I also remember the story about the Born in the U.S.A. album, when Jon Landau told him the only thing missing was a sure-fire big hit single, and so he went home and wrote “Dancing in the Dark” overnight. It peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the only thing that kept it from hitting the top was Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” as iconic a #1 song as we’ll ever hear.
The point is that the man worked so hard at his craft that, when he wanted to become the biggest and best in central New Jersey and later the whole USA, he did it. When he wanted to craft the best rock song we ever heard, he delivered. When he was challenged to come up with a sure-fir big hit single, he went home and did it.
The intensity of it all took its toll; he writes about demons of isolation and depression, unable to have anything approaching a “normal” life or relationship until he let down his guard with second wife Patti Scialfa in his 40s.
And that’s what I glean from years of listening and a good hard listen to the story he told about himself: If you want to be Bruce Springsteen, superstar performer, The Boss, you have to sink your teeth into the work, and work, and work, and work, and work. To become Bruce Springsteen, your art has to consume you, mind, body and soul.
The vast majority of us can’t maintain that ferocious fire inside. Some of us flame out or never manage to light a match, or somewhere in between. But to be a Springsteen, or a Dylan, or a Sinatra, making a decades-long career out of it, you have to give it more than most of us can possibly imagine.
There’s a scene in the movie Eddie and the Cruisers where Eddie, whose intense style clearly mirrors Springsteen, is pushing his band to create music no one has ever heard before, trying to make something great.
“Why?” says his buddy Sal. “We ain’t great. We’re just some guys from Jersey.”
“If you can’t be great, then there’s no sense in ever playing music again,” Eddie says, smoldering.
I love that scene, even though I couldn’t comprehend why someone with the ability to be great would stop trying.
Sometimes, though, when I listen to “Born to Run” or “Thunder Road” or omg “Jungleland,” I feel like I get a peek inside that drive to be great, when the music gives me a sense of how to “love with all the madness in my soul.” It’s a bright, hot fire.