Ten life lessons from Bruce Springsteen
The rock star approaching 70. It’s a difficult age. If they are not already dead, the big beasts of rock music inevitably resign themselves to being the diligent curators of their own legend, endlessly repackaging their back catalogue and, on the road, becoming their own tribute band, playing sold-out stadia to an ecstatic, insatiable fanbase who know that this music will never come again.
The unlikely exception is Bruce Springsteen.
What makes Springsteen unique is that – like that other son of New Jersey the late Philip Roth – he has somehow managed to do his most interesting work in old age. Springsteen turns 70 on 23 September 2019 and his sixties have been marked by a dazzling run of creative triumph. Among the grand old masters of popular song, only Keith Richards has written an autobiography anywhere near as good as Springsteen’s coruscating 2016 memoir, Born To Run. Springsteen followed his book with a one-man show at the 960-seat Walter Kerr Theatre in New York. Springsteen On Broadway became the hottest ticket on the Great White Way since Hamilton, grossing $113 million from 236 shows and is now showing on Netflix, blowing away a generation who were not born when Springsteen first sang “Born In The USA”. Apart from two duets with his wife, Patti Scialfa, for most of the three hours on stage Springsteen was alone with his acoustic guitar, a piano and – above all – his memories. He played 15 songs like God’s own busker, but mostly he just stood there and talked. The nature of late Springsteen has been ferociously, scathingly confessional and you do not need to be a fan to learn crucial life lessons from him. You just need to be somebody’s husband, somebody’s father, somebody’s son.
You just need to be a man.
1. Marry your second wife first
“I figured now was the time to take advantage of the sexual perks of superstardom,” Springsteen wrote in his autobiography. He was in his thirties and the peak of his -celebrity – his 1984 album, Born In The USA, would sell 30m copies worldwide. But promiscuity wears out quickly. “I wanted something serious,” Springsteen writes. “I wanted to get married.”
Springsteen married Julianne Phillips – model, actress, knockout – in 1985. “She was 24, tall, blonde, educated, talented, a beautiful and charming young woman,” he wrote. The marriage lasted only four years because Springsteen fell in love with Scialfa, a singer and musician he knew from the music scene on the Jersey Shore, someone far closer to his own age and background than his stunning first wife. They celebrate their 28th wedding anniversary this summer and have three grown-up children. When introducing Scialfa at the Walter Kerr Theatre, Springsteen called her, “The queen of my heart, my flaming beauty, my Jersey girl.” His first wife was dazzling. But his second wife is his soulmate.
The love of your life will not necessarily arrive at a moment that is convenient for you. But you will know her when you see her.
2. Learn to laugh at yourself
Springsteen insists that the public image of “Bruce Springsteen” – the denim-and-work-booted bard of blue-collar America – is as much of a stage persona as Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. That is not him, Springsteen insists. That was never him. When he was writing all those early songs about cars, he didn’t have a driving licence. He never worked in a factory. He has been a professional musician all his working life. And the guy who sang about escaping and never going back currently lives ten minutes away from where he grew up. “Born to come back,” Springsteen mused on Broadway. “Who would have bought that? Nobody.”
“I couldn’t get out of bed... I was uncomfortable doing anything. Everything brought waves of an agitated anxiety"
3. Take your talent deadly seriously
Springsteen’s charming self-mockery about wearing working man’s drag hides an artist who takes himself very seriously indeed. He believes in the power of music to unite, to inspire, to bring joy and meaning to disenfranchised lives. In times of national trauma, Springsteen has never doubted he was the artist to tell America’s troubled story. He has written about Aids (“Streets Of Philadelphia”, winner of the Best Song Oscar in 1994) and Vietnam veterans (“Born In The USA” – drained of all chest-thumbing jingoism when he played it as an anguished blues on Broadway). He recorded an entire album about 9/11 (The Rising, which concludes with “My City Of Ruins”, his most heartbreaking song). Springsteen can laugh at himself, but deep down, he never skimps on the self-esteem.
Humility is a great virtue. But never underestimate your abilities.
4. Don’t lose your mojo, man
A few years back, Springsteen suffered a depression that threatened to bury him. “I couldn’t get out of bed,” he writes. “Hell, I couldn’t even get a hard-on. I was uncomfortable doing anything. Everything brought waves of an agitated anxiety that I’d spend every waking minute trying to dispel.”
Sleep was the only escape, but even 14 hours of kip wasn’t enough. Scialfa pulled him from the depths of depression and saved his life. “She steadied me, gave me the confidence to feel I’d be all right and that this was something that was just passing. Without her strength and calm, I don’t know what I would have done.”
There is a bond between a man and a woman that can only come with time. You can’t find it in a bar and you can’t get it at first sight. The love of a good woman will get you through anything. Even a crippling depression.
5. Be kind to nobodies
I met Springsteen more than 40 years ago, backstage at the Palladium in New York when I was a young man in a cheap leather jacket with no interview scheduled, nothing arranged and nothing I could possibly do for someone who was totally exhausted after just playing for four hours. But because he is a decent man, Springsteen gave me a hug, pulled up two chairs and was endlessly generous with his time. After that, he had me on his side for life.
6. Work harder than the rest
Campaigning for Barack Obama in 2008, Springsteen spoke of every American deserving “the dignity of work”. Bruce believes in the healing power of hard graft, the transcendence of honest toil. He has always worked far harder than his competition. When most acts are heading for the aftershow party, Springsteen is just getting warmed up. He has a legendary work ethic that teaches us success is largely an act of will. When the competition is relaxing, you have to be working.
7. Reboot, but never start from scratch
The Walter Kerr Theatre was the smallest venue that Springsteen had played for 40 years and reinvented him for the 21st century. Those of us who had wandered away from him suddenly found him again. A new generation met him on Netflix. To keep things alive, you can’t keep peddling the same old routine.
But while Springsteen On Broadway was a bold move, the reboot deployed a skill set he had been honing for more than half a century. On that stage, he talked and he played. He knew he could do it – talking from the heart, playing like a demon – because he has been doing it all his life. So even when you are rebooting your brand, never stray too far from the stuff you do best.
8. ‘It’s not where you’re at. It’s where you’re from’
So said Ian Brown of The Stone Roses. But roots matter. Every man needs a neighbourhood. Springsteen moved his family to Los Angeles at the start of the Nineties and it jarred – New Jersey’s most famous son living in California. It is no coincidence he was least interesting in the Nineties. The decade was a “lost period” for him, Springsteen told Rolling Stone. “I didn’t do a lot of work. Some people would say I didn’t do my best work.”
At the end of the Nineties, Springsteen moved his family back to New Jersey. It is difficult to imagine Springsteen On Broadway working if he had been commuting via LAX.
Before his race is run, a man needs to be a citizen of somewhere. A sense of where you belong is vital to a happy life.
Bruce Springsteen reminds us that you can make new friends, but you can’t make old friends
9. Your father does not define you
Although the stage persona – the frustrated factory worker who senses his life slipping away, the tormented working-class man who dreams of escape, even if it only comes at the bottom of a bottle – was never really Bruce Springsteen, it was exactly like his father, Douglas, who died in 1998.
Douglas Springsteen cast a long shadow over much of his son’s life. He fought in the Second World War and came back to a land not fit for heroes. It made him – like many of that generation – an angry, frustrated man. This made life difficult for the sons they brought into the world. Douglas worked in a rug mill. He drove buses, taxis, trucks. He worked in a Ford factory and a Nescafé plant. He did what he had to do to earn a crust. He always bitterly referred to his son’s instrument as “that fucking guitar”. Douglas had jobs, not a career. He didn’t enjoy it. But our lives are not defined by our fathers. “I’ve got to thank him,” Bruce said of his father when inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame shortly after Douglas’ death. “Because what would I have conceivably written without him?” We grow up in the domineering shadow of our father. But we do not have to live our entire lives in it.
10. Cherish your friends
If you live long enough, you learn to truly value your friends because you start to lose them. On the cover of 1975’s Born To Run, Springsteen poses with his Fender Telecaster as he leans grinning on the shoulder of an unseen friend. On the back cover you see that friend – Clarence Clemons, The Big Man – blowing his saxophone. Clemons, who died in 2011 of complications from a stroke, was a massive part of Springsteen’s music and mythology. The sound of that mad, wailing sax on “Born To Run” is what first elevated Springsteen to glory.
More than this, Clarence was his oldest of friends. “Together we told a story that was bigger than anything I had written in my songs,” Springsteen said. “When he played, he whispered that story in my ear. And we carried it together for a long, good time. And losing him was like losing the rain. I’ll see you in the next life, Big Man.”
Cherish your friendships. Because very soon you pass a point in your life when they are impossible to replace. Bruce Springsteen reminds us that you can make new friends, but you can’t make old friends.