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Who's the Boss? Springsteen's autobiography 'Born to Run' reveals complexities, character

Bruce looking at his first album for the first time

Bruce looking at his first album for the first time Art Maillet

Bruce Springsteen takes meds.

By the time he drops this nugget in his new memoir, Born to Run (Simon & Schuster), he’s already exposed enormous chunks of his psyche — as a son and father, a sideman and bandleader, a singer and songwriter, a regular guy who lives close to the town where he grew up, and one of the best-selling and most recognizable musicians on the planet.

He’s told us about the way mental illness has pervaded his life, first as the son of a terribly withdrawn man who went undiagnosed until late in life. He also hints more than once at how unbalanced his own mind often was — not without humor, but quite seriously.

The fact that he takes Klonopin is a surprise in part because Springsteen, nearly alone among rockers of his stature, has long resisted the lure of drugs. Though he lived a not-long drive from upstate New York, the Jersey kid opted not to bother with Woodstock, which, he writes, “looked like too much of a hassle, too much traffic, too many drugs.”

It’s also because his longstanding image as rock’s Mr. Clean makes him easy to caricature as a square, straight up. And make no mistake, with its ALL-CAPS interjections and torrents of exclamation marks, Born to Run reads like it was written by Dad. It just happens to have been written by the best Dad imaginable.

The push-pull between genius and guff is Springsteen’s defining trait as a performer, and it animates the book as well. His gee-whiz tone can drive a reader insane, and he’s hale and hearty telling the story of a fishing misadventure with his father: Yep, this is the cornball from the records, all right. Then he turns right around and hits you with something so acute it can stop you cold.

A few examples of the latter: In 1988 the E Street Band joined Amnesty International’s global tour, and he salutes “Amnesty’s mighty road crew (whose human rights were consistently violated with long working hours and untenable conditions during the tour).” He explains the term “greasers”: Italian-American kids in his part of New Jersey who, “If they could keep out of jail... would go on to be the spine of American society — fixing the cars, working the factories, growing the food, and fighting the wars.”

On stagecraft: “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.” On local fame: “Here on the boardwalk I now play the role of the ghost of Christmas past.... There is even a ridiculous bust of me somewhere in town primed and ready for seagull shit.” There are more.

Bruce’s sexy-but-chaste image is a remnant of the religion beaten into his young head (sometimes literally): “As I grew older, there were certain things about the way I thought, reacted, behaved. I came to ruefully and bemusedly understand that once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic.” He writes, quite seriously, of “serving” his audience: “I’m a repairman. That’s part of my job. So I, who’d never done a week’s worth of manual labor in my life (hail, hail rock ’n’ roll!), put on a factory worker’s clothes, my father’s clothes, and went to work.”

Springsteen’s identification with the working class can seem suspicious. But despite some teenage New York City escapes to surround himself with fellow hippies, he was never completely comfortable in those environs. “In New York City, I was ‘the magic rat’ in his maze,” he says of a late-’80s sojourn there. “Yeah, the museums, the restaurants, the shops, but I was still SMALL-TOWN!”

Springsteen wrote the heart-wrenching 1980 song "The River" in tribute to his sister and brother-in-law; the dead-end lives of 1982’s scary solo demo Nebraska were narrated with such glum clarity that they seemed to reach deep into their author’s own psychoses. Springsteen followed Nebraska with its tonal obverse, 1984’s boisterous Born in the U.S.A.; one balanced out the other. Yet not even this admitted control freak could manage listener expectations.

To this day, the title track of Born in the U.S.A. scrambles in the heads of uninterested listeners alongside its contemporaneous country cousin, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” leading well-meaning liberals to conclude that Springsteen is a flag-waving idiot. He’s neither of those things, and he finds the fact that “Born in the U.S.A.” continues to be misheard as something other than a Vietnam veteran’s dead-end cry of anger frustrating but understandable: “Records are often auditory Rorschach tests: we hear what we want to hear.”

The other, more troubling blot test is the one surrounding “American Skin (41 Shots),” which Springsteen wrote in response to Amadou Diallo’s murder by New York City police, its subtitle the number of bullets fired. To this day, he writes, cops still give him the stink-eye over the song. It’s a story that has especially eerie resonance now, at a time when police unions have seemed to close ranks not only to any differing viewpoints but, altogether, to common sense.

Race is a consistent actor in Born to Run’s pages, and in Springsteen’s career. He reset his viewfinder on the Mexican immigrants gaining mass in southern California in the mid-’90s, by his own admission recasting his earlier stories of Jersey drifters for an emerging new American underclass on 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad.

Throughout, he worries — and knows — that his rhythms are too foursquare for the mass black audience but strives for a more perfect union of audiences anyway. Two of the book’s most exultant stories recount two different bands — E Street and the Sessions Band — getting over to primarily black audiences in South Africa and New Orleans.

Springsteen’s principled reputation can seem inflated until you start digging, after which it becomes apparent that, no, he really does what he says he will, which is invariably the right thing. He sometimes portrays himself as a cad in self-flagellating manner, but he’s a gentleman in that he refuses to surrender anyone’s privacy, his own included.

But he lets you inside his own head to an unprecedented degree — and that’s saying something for one of the most intensively interviewed rock stars of all time, and for someone whose reputation rests in large part on the fact that he cogitates so damn much on every single public decision.

That sometimes-pained process comes into a different light with Born to Run’s candor about Springsteen’s own battles with mental illness. Even that doesn’t quite prepare you for what happens near the very end of Springsteen’s 500-plus pages — a harrowing account of six hellish weeks when the Boss, on his doctor’s advice, went off the meds he’d been taking since the ’90s and could barely leave his bed before a pill righted him again. Here as elsewhere, he credits his wife, singer Patti Scialfa, for being his guiding light.

All in all, he’s a thoroughly decent guy. If you think that’s an overrated quality, let’s avoid each other until after Election Day.