Bruce Springsteen

Published on December 4th, 2017

It’s been a busy year for Bruce Springsteen. The highpoint was the opening of his Springsteen On Broadway show – which has had its’ season extended though to June 2018. Bruce has also opened up his live concert archive and has recently released seminal shows from Stockholm (1988) and Jazz Fest (2006). His autobiography has just been released in paper back and the audio reading of the book has been nominated for a Grammy. We thought it was timely to re-visit this conversation with Bruce when the book was released late last year. Sean Sennett was the man at the other end of the phone.

IT’S Tuesday afternoon and Bruce Springsteen is driving through Manhattan. It was 40-odd years ago that he got off the bus from New Jersey and landed in New York City.

With a borrowed acoustic guitar, he made his way through the streets until he was standing outside a skyscraper known colloquially as the Black Rock. Fifty floors up was legendary record producer John Hammond, who had signed Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Billie Holiday.

After hearing one song from Springsteen, he simply said, “You have to be on Columbia Records.” Springsteen’s life changed forever, but despite the music, wealth, fame and platitudes, there was always a yearning to reconcile his past.

The singer admits he had an epiphany in his early 50s. Describing himself as a “card-carrying member of over-thinkers anonymous”, he accepted that “the light at the end of the tunnel was in fact … a train”.

Now 67, that realisation of life sped up led to a terrific outpouring of new work over the past decade and a half. His autobiography, Born To Run, was recently released along with a companion album, Chapter And Verse.

Springsteen has sold more than 64.5 million albums in the US alone. If you need a CV, he once joked, he “was born in the USA, arrived in a pink Cadillac, [was the] winner of an Academy Award and brought you such great hits as “Dancing In The Dark”, “Born To Run” and “Hungry Heart”. He is, he says, “The man who paid the cost to be The Boss.”

In Born To Run, Springsteen details his troubled childhood, his traumatic relationship with his father, his battles with mental illness and the transformative power of rock’n’roll. He began work on the tome after writing an essay recounting his 12-minute performance at the 2009 Super Bowl.

“I wrote that and I just continued writing in the voice I had found there,” he explains of the process. “I just wrote from memory in longhand about my life, and then I rewrote everything. I did that about two or three times. I think all the musical experience that I’ve had helped me shape sentences and paragraphs; it helped me to find rhythm in the prose and it felt like a natural extension of what I’d done.”

Springsteen married his E Street Band backing vocalist Patti Scialfa in 1991. His previous marriage to actor and model Julianne Phillips was short-lived, while his union with Scialfa has produced three children, sons Evan, 26, and Sam, 22, and daughter, Jessica, 24.

His wife and children were all privy to his writing before Born To Run hit the stands. Writing about relationships and family is a constant in his work.

As a young man, Springsteen had a preternatural instinct to weave his autobiography into his set list. Solving the problem of himself provided a rich vein for the art that followed.

“It was just what I needed to do as a songwriter,” he says on reflection. “That kind of writing, for me, was instinctive. [Writers] write what we need to hear, and I found that medicinal and helpful. We are repairmen, and the first things we search for are the things that are going to repair us. In doing so, I hope it helps repair some of my audience.”

Peter Ames Carlin’s 2012 biography, Bruce, made Springsteen’s struggle with mental illness public. In Born To Run, the singer explains it’s taken “50 years of therapy and two psychologists” to get him to where he is today. His life is dotted with destructive and inevitable downward spirals.

“I’ve just pulled a perfect swan dive into my abyss,” he writes of the time after his Born In The U.S.A. success in 1984. “My stomach is on rinse cycle and I’m going down, down, down.”

Springsteen’s anxieties began early. Raised to a large degree by his paternal grandmother, who had lost a young daughter in a road accident, he was doted on. As a six-year-old, Springsteen was allowed to go to bed at 3am and get up at 3pm. Anti-social times for a small child, it perfectly suited his rock’n’roll body clock later in life.

Bruce’s father, Doug, a World War II veteran, was often out of work and suffered bouts of depression and paranoia. Doug drank ritually every night and constantly berated his son. Bruce, as a boy, was nervous, blinking a hundred times a minute and biting his knuckles until they bore calluses.

In Freehold, New Jersey, the St Rose of Lima Catholic school cast a shadow of influence, mystery and misery over his childhood. School days included humiliation and occasional beatings from the nuns, while the streets he grew up on bred racial tension and violence.

A rich man in a poor man’s shirt, Springsteen admits that while time may or may not heal all wounds, a certain amount of success can make them more palatable. “I think that if your life is going well, it does,” he says with consideration.

“And it’s contingent on the arc of your life. I was lucky that the things I dealt with and was struggling with, and the things that were difficult for me in my youth, all the pain I had to go through, I was able to resolve a lot of it. I did that as my parents got older, [and] as I got older, which is fortunate because there are sins which aren’t redeemable and there are lives that can’t be reframed. I was very fortunate that I was able to have that experience.”

Born To Run opens with talk of a magic trick. To pull off the trick, Springsteen, at the dawn of the 1970s, had four clean aces in his sleeve: “youth, a decade of hardcore bar-band experience, good homegrown musicians and a story to tell”. There was no plan B.

“I wouldn’t advise someone else to never have another option,” he says with a laugh. “I decided when I was very young that I did not have another option. (Music) was my skill, it was the only thing I seemed to be competent and good at. I was simply never going to stop, regardless of where it took me. I don’t think that would have changed if I’d had success or not. I would have been a lifelong musician. That was the lay of the land for me.”

When he was 19, the physical grip of his father, if not the psychological one, was released. Doug needed to get out of Jersey, and with Bruce’s mother, Adele, and younger sister, Pamela, this portion of the Springsteen family moved to California. His other younger sister, Virginia, had fallen pregnant in her senior year of high school and was already married. Springsteen, who had only just evaded the Vietnam draft, opted to stay put in the family home.

“I knew I wasn’t going to go, because I had my own life,” he reflects today. “I had the band. I was making a living. I wasn’t going to be able to bring all those things with me to California, and I couldn’t leave them because I had already established myself. I was independent. I was young, but still, I was pretty well formed.”

Springsteen recognises that, as he entered adulthood, he was essentially following his father’s blue-collar lead. He “put on his father’s work clothes” and went to work.

The artistry is one thing, but the thousands of hours in the studio crafting such seminal albums as Born To Run (1975), Darkness On The Edge of Town (1978) and The River (1980) is built on a blue-collar work ethic.

At one point in the book, Springsteen has a dream where he’s sitting next to Doug in a stadium as the performer we know as “The Boss” tears the roof off. In the dream, he nudges his dad and says, “That’s how I see you.”

“It was kind of a revealing dream,” says Springsteen. “It kind of made me look into what was involved in the creation of my stage persona. I realised his voice was very strong in it.”

Lean and wiry in the ’70s, Springsteen bulked up in the ’80s. The gym became therapy. If he had nothing left in the tank, he was less likely to be visited by the depressive mongrel Churchill called “the black dog”. The rock star would use the concert experience, or an exercise machine, to wear himself out.

“I’ve got enough bad things running around my head; the show remains incredibly medicinal and centring. Once I book the show, I may be backstage, I may be tired, I maybe want to go to sleep, but that walk, whatever it is, 25 metres from the dressing room to the stage, it’s never failed me. Something turns on between those two points.”

This story first appeared in Stellar magazine. Born To Run (Simon & Schuster) and Chapter And Verse (Sony Music) are out now. For information on Bruce’s live concert archive visit