[The previous essays in this series are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.]

     Even those who aren’t his major fans might appreciate the artistry—and the many lessons on integrity, creativity, dedication, and craftsmanship—in Bruce Springsteen’s soulful, lyrical, and soul lyric-full memoir, Born to Run (2016).

     Springsteen’s maternal grandfather, who emigrated as a child from Italy to San Francisco, ultimately became a lawyer in Manhattan. 

     His recently-deceased mother worked as a legal secretary at Lawyers Title Inc. in Freehold:  “Truthfulness, consistency, professionalism, kindness, compassion, manners, thoughtfulness, pride in yourself, honor, love, faith in and fidelity to your family, commitment, joy in your work and a never-say-die thirst for life.  These are some of the things my mother taught me and that I struggle to live up to.”

     Among the themes of particular interest to law (and pre-law) students, and lawyers, are:

     ● The role of contracts

     In 1972, as Springsteen created the album Greetings from Asbury Park, (which “came from an unself-conscious place.  Your early songs emerge from a moment when you’re writing with no sure prospect of ever being heard”), he signed contracts that he would later characterize as “overreaching and counterproductive on [my producers’] part, leading to a lot of damage in the end. . . .

     “In the end, I would have signed [a producer’s] jockey shorts, if he’d presented them to me, to get my foot in the door. . . . I spent a few nights on my own trying to get through the biz speak, the legalese, of the contracts myself.  It was a joke.  I sat with [a producer’s] lawyer. . . who mildly explained the basic provisions of the contracts, but in the end, I just said “f— it’; I had to get in, and if these meaningless papers were the price, so be it. . . . I didn’t look back until much later, and by then, of course, it was too late.”

     Years afterwards, an independent lawyer “cheerfully informed me that these were the worst contracts he’d seen since Frankie Lymon’s.” 

     Springsteen’s reflections on the resulting litigation—and on the distinctions among his contractual, professional, and personal relationships with his producer—are well worth reading in full.

     Yet around 1988, after a “lawsuit with some trusted employees that had turned into a rather long and nasty divorce case,” Springsteen for the first time “insisted on written contracts with the band.  After all this time, to some, I suppose, it suggested mistrust, but those contracts and their future counterparts protected our future together.  They clarified beyond debate our past and present relationships with one another, and in clarity lie stability, longevity, respect, understanding, and confidence.  Everyone knew where everyone else stood, what was given and what was asked.  Once signed, those contracts left us free to just play.”    

   ● Protecting your independence

     Springsteen came to appreciate, even with regard to well-intended record companies, that “[I]f you don’t negotiate the terms of an agreed-upon partnership, your talents will be harnessed and guided in the direction others feel is best. . . . [I]f you want to fly by your own lights, reach the audience you feel your talents deserve and build a work life on what you’ve learned, value, and can do, be wary.”

     He refused to back down when record company executives insisted that he re-record the music for his second album with musicians of their choosing: “[T]hese guys thought we were just going to go away, return to our day jobs, go back to school, . . .  We had nowhere to go. . . and we loved music!”

     Over executives’ objections that they “wanted more vocal” on it, Springsteen retained the band’s final mix of his next album’s title—and career-making—track, Born to Run (1975):

     “Some [takes] had more voice but they didn’t have. . . the magic.  The singer was supposed to sound like he was fighting to be heard over a world that didn’t give a damn.”

     ● Playing to (and from) your strengths

     In 1970, after an unsuccessful audition in San Francisco, Springsteen realized that “I was good, very good, but maybe not quite as good or as exceptional as I’d gotten used to people telling me, or as I thought.”

     He soon “made the conscious decision to double down on my song-writing skills.  I felt this was the most distinctive thing I had going.” 

     Near the end of the book, he adds, “I figured if I didn’t have a voice, I was going to really need to learn to write, perform and use what voice I had to its fullest ability. . . . I studied everyone I loved who sounded real to me, whose voices excited me and touched my heart. . . . I learned to excel at those elements of my craft in a way I might otherwise never had if I had a more perfect instrument.”

     ● Establishing your role in decision-making 

     On the band’s return to New Jersey from San Francisco, Springsteen made “one of the smartest decisions of my young life,” and one which not all of his contemporary counterparts arrived at as quickly: “I was leading the band, playing, singing and writing everything we did.  If I was going to carry the workload and responsibility, I might as well assume the power. . . . Clarity ruled and allowed us to forge a bond based on the principle that we worked together, but it was my band.” 

     He later concludes, “Democracy in rock bands, with very few exceptions, is often a ticking time bomb.  The examples are many, beginning and ending with the Beatles.”

     On the other hand, Springsteen (who considered James Brown “my father, god and hero as a bandleader”) “didn’t get in your business unless I saw it was damaging what we were trying to accomplish or hurting you.”

     (“The Boss” names as one of his “primary heroes” another New Jersey-born superstar, who–although Springsteen does not note this–was frequently referred to as “Chairman of the Board.”)

     ● Mixing the downbeat with the upbeat

     Born in the U.S.A. (1984), the title track of Springsteen’s seventh album, was “inspired by” his encounters with “Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July, [and] Bobby Muller, one of the founders of the Vietnam Veterans of America, both men who fought and sacrificed, returning from the war in wheelchairs, men who became strong activists against the war.”

     It “remains one my greatest and most misunderstood pieces of music.  The combination of its ‘down’ blues verses and its ‘up’ declarative choruses, its demand for the right of a ‘critical’ patriotic voice along with pride of birth, was too seemingly conflicting (or just a bother!) for some of its more carefree, less discerning listeners. . . . Records are often auditory Rorschach tests; we hear what we want to hear. . . .

     “Over the years, I’ve had an opportunity to reinterpret [it], particularly in acoustic versions that could not be misconstrued. . . .”

     Upon learning that president Ronald Reagan, while campaigning in New Jersey for re-election, had praised “the message of hope” in his songs, Springsteen had “two responses: The first was. . . ‘F—r!”  The second was, ‘The president said my name!’  Or maybe it was the other way around.”

     As has been noted, “some have suggested that the title of Springsteen’s propulsive We Take Care of Our Own (2012), which was used by Barack Obama’s reelection campaign (and played at the presidential victory speeches of Obama and of Joe Biden) was, in light of that song’s lyrics, intended as ironic.  [Despite the chorus, “Wherever this flag’s flown/We take care of our own,” no United States flag is visible in the video.] [In addition,] the upbeat rhythm of Glory Days (1984) masks its protagonists’ wistful reflections that their high school years were the high points of their lives.”

     Yet another track from Born in the U.S.A. whose lamenting lyrics belie its rollicking rhythm was Dancing in the Dark, (not this but) “my song about my own alienation, fatigue and desire to get out from inside the studio, my room, my record, my head, and. . . live.  This was the record and song that’d take me my farthest into the pop mainstream.”

    Before its performance in “our first formal music video,” director Brian De Palma introduced to the singer “a pixie-ish, dazzlingly blue-eyed young girl” and instructed, “’At the end of the song, pull her up onstage and dance with her.’”

    Springsteen recalls, “Until Brian told me later he’d chosen her from a casting call in New York City, I thought she was a fan!”

     ● Working from both the heart and the mind

     “I’d seen other great musicians lose their way and watch their music and art become anemic, rootless, displaced when they seemed to lose touch with who they were.  My music would be a music of identity, a search for meaning and the future.”

     (Springsteen writes of Greetings from Asbury Park, “I never wrote completely in that style again.  Once the record was released, I heard all the Dylan comparisons, so I steered away from it.”)

     “Most of my writing is emotionally biographical.  I’ve learned you’ve got to pull up the things that mean something to you in order for them to mean anything to your audience.  That’s where the proof is.  That’s how they know you’re not kidding.”

      Discussing his creation of the post 9/11 album, The Rising (2002), Springsteen writes, “my own desire to use the language I learned as a musician to sort through what was in my own head turned me to writing those songs.  First, you write for yourself. . . always, to make sense of experience and the world around you.  It’s one of the ways I stay sane.”

     For the album, Magic (2007), “I wrote [songs] in my dressing room often before the show or after in my hotel room.  It became a way I meditated before or after a raucous night.”

     ● Honoring both preparation and unselfconsciousness 

     Although he refers to his “overweening need for control” in professional settings (before performing in a London theater in 1975, he tore down, as presumptous, all of the posters and flyers promoting him: “I need a clean environment to work in”), Springsteen observes, “My good friend Peter Wolf, the great front man from the J. Geils band, once said, ‘The strangest thing you can do onstage is think about what you’re doing.’  He was right. . . .”  

     Of his 2009 Super Bowl halftime performance, Springsteen notes, “Onstage your exhilaration is in direct proportion to the void you’re dancing over.”

     ● In “New Age” terms, “creating a space”

     Springsteen recalls that, although he’d been unimpressed by a Grateful Dead concert in the 1970s, he ultimately realized that “[t]hey had a unique ability to build community and sometimes, it ain’t what you’re doing but what happens while you’re doing it that counts. . . .

     “A lot of what the E Street Band does is hand-me-down shtick transformed by will, power, and an intense communication with our audience into something transcendent.  Sometimes that’s all you need.”

     ● Getting personal and professional help when necessary

     Before auditioning in San Francisco, Springsteen performed for spiritual seekers at Big Sur’s Esalen Institute, where a “very straight middle-aged entrepreneur from Texas” told him, “I’ve made a lot of money and I’m not happy.” 

     He writes, “It’d be years before I’d have to wrestle with that one, but there was something about him that touched me.”

     Near his book’s conclusion, Springsteen discusses his battles, in his sixties, with depression: besides seeing therapists, “I’ve been on antidepressants for the last twelve to fifteen years of my life, and. . . they have given me a life I would not have been able to maintain without them.  They work.”  (Another cultural icon of the 1970s and 1980s recently noted, in his own warm and down-to-earth memoir, the benefits he found in therapy.)

     Beyond professional assistance, “The only thing that kept me right side up during this was Patti [Scialfa].  Her love, compassion, and assurance that I’d be all right were, during many dark hours, all I had to go on. . . . The only real bulwark against [depression] was love.”

     From its often-moving meditations (including details of the author’s figurative and literal dreams) to the fluidity of its writing (keyboardist Danny Federici “had the shortest highway between his fingers and his heart I’d ever heard”), from its technical details (such as the early realization that “I’d been soloing like a madman for months on a bass guitar!”) to its contextual explications (“It’s part of what made our band unique: the cross-tensions of the fifties blue-collar world and sixties social experience. . . We are pre-and post-hippie sixties soul survivors”), and to its portrayal of a dedicated artist continually in search of both his own and his country’s identities, Springsteen’s recollections and retrospections remain refreshing, revealing, and rewarding reading.

     Special note to law review editors: 

    In 2025, Born to Run will have its fiftieth anniversary, and (until September 23) Bruce Springsteen will be seventy-five years old.

    It has been nineteen years, eight or nine Springsteen albums, and seven Springsteen tours since the Widener Law Review’s symposium issue on “Bruce Springsteen and the Law.”

     Verbum sap.