Fathers loom large in Bruce Springsteen’s songs, and in his own personal mythology. Rosalita’s father is blowing his last chance to get his daughter in a fine romance. A father puts his boy up on his lap behind the steering wheel and says, “Son, take a good look around…this is your hometown.” And nearly twenty-five years later, in “Long Walk Home,” the singer’s father says,
Son, you’re lucky in this town
It’s a beautiful place to be born
It just wraps its arms around you
Nobody crowds you
Nobody goes it alone
If those lines effectively encapsulated Springsteen’s vision for what our American society should strive toward, they also say something about what Springsteen needed from his own father–an unconditional love with the distance and wisdom to let Bruce make his own mistakes.
Instead, the two seemed ever at odds, especially as chronicled in Springsteen’s two great songs about fathers, 1978’s “Adam Raised a Cain” and 1981’s “Independence Day.” Throughout that legendary era from Darkness on to Born in the USA, fathers played a starring or supporting role in several lyrics, from “Mansion on the Hill” to “Factory.” But “Adam” and “Independence” seem to function almost as bookends, the starting point and destination of a journey from rage to pity, from confusion to understanding.
It’s a striking, impenetrable image: The son and the father, facing off, one inside and one out, “with that same hot blood burning in our veins.” The distance is insurmountable; the barriers too strong. It’s never over; “it’s relentless as the rain.” Echoes of the closing lines of “Factory”: “You just better believe it, somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight.” And yet, they’re not just prisoners of circumstance, or the working class; they’re “prisoners of love, a love in chains.” Love can liberate, it can empower, it can free you…but it can shackle two men together who may never find a common ground. Like a father and a son.
For me, the musical journey Springsteen explores with regard to fathers comes to some kind of resolution in “Independence Day,” with the line, “Papa, now I know the things you wanted that you could not say.” It’s a moment of understanding and mercy; one can only imagine that Springsteen himself internalized the rage that filled his own home, and through working beyond that rage, came to realize what may have motivated it. Springsteen’s own ambition pushed him out of his home and into the world from a fairly young age, and in running down his own dream, he must have at some moment realized what his own father sacrificed to build his family and provide.
I don’t know if there’s forgiveness in this song, or even anywhere in Springsteen’s music, for the fathers that fail their sons. But that understanding is something. And it’s an understanding that cuts both ways; “we chose the words…we drew the lines.” It was a relationship built on a darkness that could not be easily overcome by two emotionally immature men. It’s also a rare moment of liberation for a Springsteen narrator, even if that freedom from his home ultimately leads him to walking a dark and dusty highway, all alone.
Years later, in “Living Proof,” Springsteen would sing of his own experience encountering fatherhood for the first time. There’s little recrimination, or acknowledgement of his own father haunting the hallways of his soul. Instead, having a son is transformative for him personally, forcing him out of himself and into a relationship with another person that can never be denied. And if Douglas Springsteen was rattling around Bruce’s head as he lived those moments, or wrote those words, we’ll never know–but it certainly seems as though Springsteen’s escape down life’s highway has left him free to embrace the fullness of his own life.