Well Papa go to bed now it’s getting late
Nothing we can say is gonna change anything now
I’ll be leaving in the morning from St. Mary’s Gate
We wouldn’t change this thing even if we could somehow
Cause the darkness of this house has got the best of us
There’s a darkness in this town that’s got us too
But they can’t touch me now
And you can’t touch me now
They ain’t gonna do to me
What I watched them do to you
Springsteen, Independence day
In recent days, Springsteen and co. returned to NJ for two sellout concerts at East Rutherford’s Metlife Stadium, arguably E Street’s home ground. There they broke (and broke again) the standing record for their longest show on US soil (apparently they have played even longer somewhere else) with both shows coming in at around four hours each. This is a band whose core members (Jake Clemons excepted) are all sixty and up; incredible.
Springsteen concerts have always been legendary for the length of time the band spends on stage. Three-hour shows have been the norm for decades with Springsteen (to quote fellow New Jersian Jon Stewart) “emptying the tank every single night.”
This has led many to ponder what drives the man? What elemental force pushes him to give 110% every time he hits the stage? I don’t think the answer is out there beyond the footlights. I think it comes from a far more internal place. It’s not the love of the crowd he is chasing but rather a far more singular love.
I believe that it’s the approval of his father that has always been the driving motivation behind these marathon shows. I think that the roar of the crowd served to drown out his father’s internalised voice and that he has (at least in the past) clung to the spotlight for as long as he possibly could so as to forestall the inevitable return of that voice.
“When I was growing up, me and my dad used to go at it all the time over almost anything. But, ah, I used to have really long hair, way down past my shoulders. I was 17 or 18, oh man, he used to hate it. And we got to where we’d fight so much that I’d, that I’d spent a lot of time out of the house; and in the summertime it wasn’t so bad, ‘cause it was warm, and my friends were out, but in the winter, I remember standing downtown where it’d get so cold and, when the wind would blow, I had this phone booth I used to stand in. And I used to call my girl, like, for hours at a time, just talking to her all night long. And finally, I’d get my nerve up to go home. I’d stand there in the driveway and he’d be waiting for me in the kitchen and I’d tuck my hair down on my collar and I’d walk in and he’d call me back to sit down with him. And the first thing he’d always ask me was what did I think I was doing with myself. And the worst part of it was that I could never explain to him.” – Springsteen on stage in LA in 1985.
Though Springsteen has now largely come to terms with the familial conflicts of his early life and his father Doug has since passed away, for years he used the stage – and his audience’s adulation – to assuage the sense of low self-esteem instilled by his father’s constant Haranguing across that kitchen table back home in Freehold. The unrelenting interrogations as to the direction in which the teenage Bruce was heading left lasting scars on the young musician’s psyche.
“I could see the screen door, I could see my pop’s cigarette,” he would recount on stage in 1976 at the Palladium in New York. “We’d start talkin’ about nothin’ much. How I was doin’. Pretty soon he’d ask me what I thought I was doin’ with myself, and we’d always end up screamin’ at each other.”
This broken father-son dynamic literally haunted Bruce for years.
“I used to, uh, I had this habit for a long time. I would get in my car and I would drive back through my old neighborhood, back to the town that I grew up in. And, uh, I’d always drive past the old houses that I used to live in. Sometimes late at night … when I used to be up at night (laughs). And, uh, I got so I would do it really regularly … two, three, four times a week, for years. And I eventually got to wonderin’, What the hell am I doin’? And so, I went to see this psychiatrist, and, uh – this is true – and, uh, I sat down and I said, ‘Doc, uh, for years I’ve been getting in my car and I drive back to my town and I pass my houses late at night and, y’know, what am I doing?’ And he said, ‘I want you to tell me what you think that you’re doing.’ So I go, ‘That’s what I’m paying you for.’ So he says, ‘Well, what you’re doing is that something bad happened, and you’re goin’ back there, thinkin’ you can make it right again. Something went wrong, and you keep going back to see if you can fix it, or somehow make it right.’ And I sat there and I said, ‘That is what I’m doing.’ And he said, ‘Well, you can’t.’” – the Christic Benefit Concert, Los Angeles, November 1990
There is no denying that this largely negative influence upon Springsteen’s life has paid dividends to his fans. In his desire to prove his father wrong, he has given tens of thousands of people the concert experience of their lives but it wasn’t just Doug who gave the Boss his work ethic. His mother Adele was a major influence as well.
It might surprise his mother to learn that she was also a role model for the E Street Band. “The work part of what we did was intensely modelled on what she did, and the way she conducted herself on a daily basis,” Springsteen insists. “It was like, ‘Hey! We can’t be terrible one night and good the next night. We’ve got to be good every night.’ When somebody buys your ticket, it’s your handshake, it’s the old story, and they only have this night. They don’t care if you’re great the next night. What about tonight, y’know? I thought those things were real, and we took our fun very seriously. – Uncut Magazine 2002
Whereas the normally taciturn Doug would attempt to browbeat his son into doing what he believed was best for him, Adele led by example. Of the two parents, it may have been his father Bruce was desperate to prove himself to but it was his mother who earned his undying respect.
Eventually, Springsteen would be reconciled with his father. Doug, upon hearing that Bruce had become a millionaire from his musical endeavours famously said, “I’ll never tell anyone what to do again.” It’s a shame his son had to carry his hurtful and erroneous opinions around with him for so many years before he got to hear those words from his father’s lips.
Words and images are my own.