Bruce Springsteen's memoir tells how WMMR DJs jump-started his career

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Bruce Springsteen in 1972, getting his first glimpse of his first album, "Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.," which was released Jan. 5, 1973. The photo is included in Springsteen's new memoir, "Born to Run."

If you think it's tiring being a Bruce Springsteen fan, imagine what it's like to be Bruce Springsteen.

Smack in the middle of Born to Run (Simon & Schuster $32.50), the 500-plus-page autobiography that goes on sale Tuesday and that will bring its author to the Central Library of the Free Library on Thursday for a sold-out six-hour meet-and-greet, Springsteen tells of the marathon mixing sessions for Darkness on the Edge of Town, the 1978 album on which he found his "adult voice."

"I wanted everything, so I was getting nothing," he writes. "We kept on exhausting ourselves in the process, but exhaustion has always been my friend and I don't mind going there. Near the bottom of the fathomless pit, I usually find results. We failed until we didn't."

Wow, now that's a surprise. You mean to say that the Jersey rock-and-roll hero of blue-collar origins whose Irish Italian upbringing is vividly brought to life in the early stages of the book - there's a great anecdote about trash-picking broken radios with his grandfather, then fixing them up for $5 resale - turns out to be a man driven by a relentless work ethic? A guy known for putting on epic, all-night shows who just a couple of weeks before his 67th birthday outdid himself with a four-hour-plus, sweat-soaked concert at Citizens Bank Park that was the longest show he's ever played in the U.S.?

That guy, as you might have guessed, has toiled hard and dug deep on the unimaginatively but inevitably titled Born to Run. He worked more than seven years on the superb, self-analytical tome, bringing us along on a vision quest from humble Elvis- and Beatles-inspired beginnings to Born in the U.S.A.-size pop superstardom and its thorny aftermath, as he struggles to find satisfaction in a grown-up, married life that means he has to face himself in the mirror rather than go racing in the street.

Here's an alternative title for you: The Boss and His Search for Meaning. Because what Born to Run is really about is how, since his childhood living in his grandparents' rundown house in the shadow of a Catholic church - an institution from which he remains "estranged" but "still on the team" - Springsteen has used his music to examine the nagging existential questions that eat at him in ways that continue to resonate with enough fans to fill a stadium on a summer night in South Philadelphia.

Here he goes, again about Darkness: "I later realized we weren't making a record, we were on an odyssey, toiling in the vineyards of pop, searching for complicated answers to mystifying questions. Pop . . . had long ago become the way I channeled just about any and all information I received from living on planet Earth . . . that's how I used my music and my talents from the very beginning. As a salve, a balm, a tool to tease out the clues to the unknowable in my life. It was the fundamental why and wherefore of my picking up the guitar . . . I'm glad I've been paid handsomely for my efforts, but I truly would have done it for free. Because I had to."

Born to Run is a serious book because Springsteen can't help being serious. Coming home from the River tour in 1981, no longer in debt, career on the upswing, he's too edgy to chill. It "all should have been free and easy, but I'm not free and easy." His next record: The harrowing, severe Nebraska.

There are revelations. Not about drugs - he doesn't take 'em, if you don't count tequila. Or sex. The book is ribald at times, but he names no names other than his wife, Patti Scialfa, ex-wife Julianne Phillips (whose chapter reads like it was written by a lawyer), and the girl he shared his first kiss with, Maria Espinosa. All others are anonymous, all failures blamed on himself.

But there are bouts with depression - worse, not better, in his 60s - and a recent health scare and neck operation during which his vocal cords were tied off to the side. He lost his voice for two months. About that, he's strangely sanguine and vows to follow doctor's orders: "No crowd surfing!"

Along with the darkness, there's light.

There are funny stories about parenthood, starring Bruce Springsteen, awkward dad. His three young children weren't aware he was a superstar - they "didn't know 'Badlands' from matzoh ball soup," he writes. When stopped by autograph-seekers, he told the tykes his job was being "Barney for adults." Later, he and son Evan go see punk band Against Me!, and Dad scores major points when the bass player turns out to have "Badlands" lyrics tattooed on his arm.

Born to Run, whose publication is paired with Chapter and Verse, a new Springsteen retrospective album of early rarities and big hits - is full of picaresque stories, particularly on the way up the rock-and-roll ladder. Some of these are fleshed-out versions of semi-familiar tales. How Springsteen avoided being drafted at the height of the Vietnam War, for instance, and how his ball-of-fury father reacted when he heard his boy wouldn't be put in harm's way.

Others are fresher, such as the 1970 saga of Springsteen's amped-up, bluesy band Steel Mill traveling cross-country to play an eye-opening gig at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif.

We get the lowdown on E Streeters like Clarence "Big Man" Clemons, "Miami" Steve Van Zandt, and "Phantom" Dan Federici (and a bloodless chapter about when Bruce broke up the band).

We meet characters like Springsteen's grandfather, Anthony Zerilli, an Italian immigrant who, it seems, was the first to bellow the name "BAAAARRRRUUUUUUUUUUUUCE" before making his grandson endure "the pinch of death" in exchange for a $1 bill.

Springsteen's Central Jersey coming-of-age tales are evocative and captivating. He goes with his parents to see Chubby Checker (and the Diving Horse!) at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. Equipped with a guitar, he hitchhikes to clubs in Asbury Park, catches a bus to New York to play in Greenwich Village, and - shockingly for the author of "Thunder Road," "Stolen Car," and so many other operas of the turnpike - doesn't learn how to drive until he's in his early 20s.

The book is also poignant. That's not only due to the mano-a-mano drama with his factory-worker father, Douglas - who died in 1998 but who is forever pictured in Springsteen mythology as seething in a darkened kitchen, working his way though a nightly six-pack - and the tenderness and affection with which he writes about his now-nonagenarian mother, Adele. It's also because, when Springsteen was 19, his parents and youngest sister packed up and moved to California, leaving the aspiring young rock star to his own devices, aiming for the big time.

We know what happened next. Fast-talking early manager Mike Appel, fond of comparing his charge "to Dylan, James Joyce, Shakespeare, and Bozo the Clown," gets him an audition with legendary Columbia Records exec John Hammond, aced with one song: "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City."

When things look bleak, help arrives. First, in a chapter subtitled "A DJ Saved My Life," Philadelphia DJ David Dye - now of WXPN-FM (88.5), then of WMMR-FM (93.3) - walks into a sparsely attended gig at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr and bucks the E Streeters up with, "I love your band." Another 'MMR jock, the late Ed Sciaky, is also name-checked. Soon the legendary "I saw rock and roll future" review by soon-to-be manager Jon Landau in the Boston Phoenix would send him on his way, to the cover of Time and Newsweek and beyond.

Born to Run tells that tale of enormous success, and one rock star's dread of being overtaken by his personal demons, and the strain of mental illness that runs through his family tree.

It's about making music that aims to capture all the agony and ecstasy in the Roy Orbison, Sam Cooke, and Drifters songs Springsteen loved growing up, songs "where the singers sounded simultaneously happy and sad."

It's the story of a still-addicted rock-and-roll lifer who has good reason for never wanting the show to end: He's "never gotten anywhere near as far or as high as when I count the band in and feel what seems like all life itself and a small flash of eternity pulsing through me." And of that same guy, trying to figure himself out once he walks offstage.

ddeluca@phillynews.com

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