Seemingly the most notable piece of information gleaned from David Remnick’s celebrated 19,000-word profile of Bruce Springsteen (We Are Alive, Bruce Springsteen at 62) was that the band-leading singer-songwriter has been in psychotherapy for 30 years, in treatment for depression. That this detail warranted special press attention beyond the existence of the piece itself, tells us everything about a culture that still perceives a weakness or taboo in mental illness.
That the Boss—a giant of a man who has shouldered such burdens in song as the aspirations of the working class, the twin notions of freedom and democracy, not to mention love in its many guises from the destructive to the transcendent (so, just the basics!)—could be felled by the black dog as easily and mercilessly as the rest of us was perhaps a truth too foreign to grasp, despite the fact that in Springsteen’s lyrics it has always been in plain sight. Depression, a life half spent covering up, is what Born In The USA (pop’s most egregiously misappropriated song) is explicitly about.
The Born in The USA album itself is littered with some impressively brutalizing misery, anchored by a narrator ‘just tired and bored’ with himself, who yearns to be another person altogether (‘Wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face.’) I’m On Fire is about anxiety-ridden fever dreams brought on by an unfulfilled carnal fixation, a dull knife rending ‘a six inch valley through the middle of my skull,’; I’m Going Down, is about a man unable to leave a woman who no longer loves him; Downbound Train sees its protagonist in the grip of another dream, this one where his lover has not yet left him, gone with ‘a ticket for that central line.’ Glory Days’ narrator is trapped in a bar patroned exclusively by young adults whose lives peaked in high school; Cover Me is about literally barricading yourself against the world with the one person in it who maybe understands you, (‘Whole world is rough and it’s just getting rougher. Bolt the door and cover me.’) The men of all these stories display a vulnerability at odds with Springsteen’s public persona of the Herculean alpha who is at once an everyman, though they appear on almost every album he has ever released.
The E Street Band borrowed a nifty trick from The Cure on Born in the USA: by dressing up even the most anguished lyrics in irresistible pop hooks, their intent was made more explicit, not less; their strike to the heart smoothed by way of stealth delivery. Springsteen’s intention for the album was to reach as many people as possible with it. It came to deliver success well beyond that already ambitious desire.
However, the misery was only compounded for Springsteen personally when the album propelled him to the stratospheric, rarified heights of global rock superstardom. With its Annie Leibovitz cover image, seven Top Ten singles, 20 million copies sold and Rolling Stone branding him ‘Voice of the Decade’, the album encapsulated the bygone era of the blockbuster record as cultural juggernaut that peaked in the 1980s. The irony was not lost on the singer that his writing and singing about the raw socioeconomic deals dealt to an entire generation post-Vietnam—which had eroded not only basic fairness but hope, essentially, for a life lived on one’s own terms—had brought him untold personal wealth. At the time Springsteen said of this sudden access to money, ‘There were moments where it was very confusing.’
Nearly thirty years later he would describe this to Remnick in much starker terms, explaining that his live shows in the ‘80s were driven by ‘pure fear and self-loathing and self-hatred.’ And that even before the super-heated success of Born in the USA he had entered therapy to try and curb what he viewed as an hereditary depression handed down by his father. The hours-long shows were a way to blot out the darker urges of his psyche, at least for as long as they lasted.
Though we can’t be certain as to which denomination of psychotherapy’s broad church Springsteen personally adheres, we might agree that the chief aim of its project for those who engage with it is the psychic unification of the self. The sense-making of one’s life and past through the imposition of a cohesive, ongoing narrative upon the oftentimes chaotic and fragmentary nature of existence, in order to better understand our motives and actions and to actively cast a future of our choosing. The dialogue of psychotherapy is at core one of transformation; in creativity it can specifically focus on the transformation of lack—of say, a cogent sense of self, of good-enough parents, of material safety—into meaning. This sense of lack, of a perceived sense of not being whole, can fuel great fires of creativity, the writing of a great number of songs.
The dialogue between client and therapist can last for years, or in Springsteen’s case, decades. It is a relationship where one looks to the other for signposts and guidance thereby fulfilling the lack of in-family role models. There is a kind of devotion, a deep commitment to this relationship that can craft so much meaning where previously there was none. It can be a life-long palimpsest, constantly written over. Perhaps somewhat like the bond between a band and its audience, following and fuelling each other for almost forty years. This is what people mean when they say that a band scored the soundtrack of their life.
I am not a religious person but I was from a young age attracted to stadium rock shows. The sense of being lost to and sensorially overwhelmed by something much bigger than myself, to be lost in self-erasure, appealed to me greatly. This experience is described by many at a Springsteen show, as akin to ‘going to church.’ That this great, heaving throng of people are being held in sway by one person, essentially, and their band is something that must never sit quite right in those performer’s minds, I imagine. To be the object of tens of thousands of people’s simultaneously projected aspiration must, by the nature of power transference, dement you in at least some way. Probably enough to land any right-thinking person in therapy.
I’m too young to have grown to adulthood with Bruce Springsteen as my contemporary, though I will when pressed admit to a profound envy of anyone who did. Instead I found him some decades later when tracing back through the vast swathe of artists he influenced and who couldn’t exist without him. So this night at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne is the first time I have ever seen him play live, and he is 63. This is a temporal fact not borne out by Springsteen’s apparent physicality of a much younger man.
Original members of the E Street band have since moved off this mortal coil, and guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who for many years was better known to me as Tony Soprano’s consigliore Silvio, is not on this tour, instead replaced by Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine. His band soundtracked my adolescence far more than Springsteen did, and though ‘Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,’ might lack the lyrical subtlety of Born to Run, essentially their message is the same. Their pairing on stage is apt and Morello ably rises to the challenge of playing in his wildly contrasting, singular style alongside someone who so clearly influenced his own politics.
The seventeen-piece band now includes Clarence Clemons’ nephew Jake on lead saxophone, with percussion, keys, a trio of back-up singers, four guitar players, bass, violin and accordion, all held down by Max Weinberg’s load-bearing drums, beat out with an almost immobile, merciless precision like a carving in Mount Rushmore come to life with arms.
Springsteen the performer is more mythmaker than man, and he does little to dispel the crypto-religious overtones of the show by assuming the role of revivalist preacher in a soul revue, imploring the crowd throughout the night in a series of increasingly fervent calls and response, ‘Can you feel the spirit?!’ He runs around the floor of the arena, wheat fields of arms reaching out in his wake. On the stage, he leans out over the first few rows of fans offering up his guitar to be played. Near the end of the more than three-hour set, he submerges his head in a bucket of cold water sitting on the drum riser, and sponges almost as much over his neck and down the back of his shirt, which will be dry again in minutes. He stands over the crowd at the lip of the stage and twists the sponge over their heads, leaving them baptized and likely, grateful for a few seconds of cool relief from the heat of the lights and each other and from the frenzy they have been gleefully whipped into.
Legs are exhausted from standing and dancing—during these hours there hasn’t been even the shortest break. It seemed impossible that the field of energy conjured by the first chord, the physically tangible crackle of expectation that greeted Springsteen’s first appearance on the stage could be sustained for that whole time. But it was. It came to somehow pass through itself and into another realm of ecstatic receptivity when the encore ran through without pause: Born In The USA, Born To Run, and Dancing In The Dark, with each ratcheting up the excitement on the last. When the show then topped out with Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, I would not have been surprised if the houselights revealed the entire arena’s worth of people falling upon each other in almost post-coital exhaustion, elated.
‘For an adult, the world is constantly trying to clamp down on itself,’ Springsteen said to Remnick when explaining his relationship with his audience. ‘Routine, responsibility, decay of institutions, corruption: this is all the world closing in. Music, when it’s really great, pries that shit back open and lets people back in, it lets light in, and air in, and energy in, and sends people home with that […] People carry that with them sometimes for a very long period of time.’
And it’s true. I still feel dazed a day later, scratching around feebly to get it into words. The force of this show will stay with me much longer than that, for however long we have to wait for the particular alchemy of this man and his band to come around again. That might not be for another ten years, though we hope not, by which point, will Springsteen still be touring the world at the age of 73, casting out and recasting demons as life-affirming spectacle?
It seems impossible for it to be any other way. No retreat, baby. No surrender.
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