Fear and self-loathing in Bruce Springsteen

Tue, Jan 15, 2013, 00:00

Bruce Springsteen’s decision to take antidepressants was coloured by the fact that his father didn’t or wouldn’t. But it took a lot of psychotherapy for him to reach that point.

That is the stark admission we get from Bruce, the recent biography by Peter Ames Carlin. While the book wasn’t authorised per se, Springsteen gave Carlin countless interview hours, facilitated meetings with family and friends, and opened up his personal scrapbook to the author.

The fact that Springsteen has spoken openly about his chronic depression and other issues, and his use of medication to deal with those problems, has been welcomed by some in the fields of medicine and psychology as a breakthrough, given his popularity as a performer. It’s been quite a year for Springsteen as his mental health has been written about widely .

Last July, the New Yorker magazine published a long, in-depth interview with him in which he talked about how deeply affected he had been by his father’s paralysing depressions and how worried he became that he would be unable to escape the thread of mental ill health that ran through his family. There was also the revelation that Springsteen has been seeing a therapist since 1982.

For the Carlin biography, Springsteen talked to the author about his use of anti-depressants. Carlin said in an interview: “A big part of how this book advances the story is [by] being very upfront about how his dad was manic-depressive. He had a serious untreated mental illness for his entire adult life. We were talking about depression and I said to him, ‘Bruce, you said something to me that made me wonder, and it seemed like you were telling me that you take antidepressants. Am I correct?’ and he said, ‘Yeah.’

“And I said, ‘How would you feel about me putting that in the book?’ and he was silent for a second and then he said, ‘Yeah, that’s okay.’ ”

The link is made between Springsteen first taking medication in 2003 and the surge in his creative endeavours, through successive album releases and tours, since that date. Carlin writes: “Within days [of taking the prescribed medication] Springsteen felt like a shroud had been lifted from his shoulders. It was, ‘Get me this stuff now, and keep it coming.’ ”

Taken together as a joint examination of Springsteen’s psyche, both the New Yorker interview and the new biography paint an extraordinary and in some ways surprising picture of fear and self-loathing.

In an entertainment industry where such personal information about one’s mental health is usually managed carefully – if not hidden – the Carlin book offers a very rare insight into the inner turmoil of a creative artist.

Springsteen has always alluded to how his troubled childhood and his difficult relationship with his father caused him to seek solace in the curative powers of rock music. One time, in the 1980s when he was on stage during a show, he recounted a story that surprised many in its detail and level of confession.

He said: “My father worked as a guard down the jail once. I can remember him coming home, real pissed off, drunk, sitting in the kitchen. At 9 o’clock at night he used to shut off all the lights – every light in the house – and he used to get real pissed off if me or my sister turned them on.

“He’d sit in the kitchen with a six-pack, a cigarette . . . He’d make me sit down at the table in the dark. I remember just sitting in the dark . . . no matter how long I sat there, I could never see his face.

“Pretty soon he’d ask me what I thought I was doing with myself. We’d end up screaming at each other. My mother – she’d always be in the front room crying – and then trying to pull him off me. I’d always end up running out the back door, running down the driveway screaming at him . . . ”

The fear that he had inherited his father’s deep depression and sense of isolation led Springsteen to avoid casual drug use. He feared their effect on his fragile psyche. (Later in his career, he warned a member of the E Street Band that he would be sacked on the spot if he took cocaine in his presence again.)

“My issues weren’t as obvious as drugs,” he told the New Yorker. “Mine were different, they were quieter. Just as problematic but quieter. My parents’ struggles – it’s the subject of my life. It’s the thing that eats at me and always will. My life took a very different course but my life is an anomaly. Those wounds stay with you and you turn them into a language and a purpose.”

Running to stand still

Those wounds and the desperate longing for escape bleed directly through into a lot of the lyrics on his breakthrough Born To Run album. From the New Yorker article and the biography, we learn that Springsteen hit a wall in 1982 and was so paralysed by depression and haunted by what he had seen his father going through that he began therapy.

At the time, he had just finished the Nebraska album and was questioning why all his relationships had become a series of “drive-bys”. By all accounts, he sought out help only after once driving all the way from New Jersey to California and then straight back again.

For an unhealthy number of years, he would leave his house late at night, get in his car and drive over to his parents’ old home in Freehold, New Jersey, where he would sit outside.

At a concert later on, while introducing his song My Father’s House, he recounted the story of how he was so perplexed by his constant need to drive back to his childhood home that he sought an answer from his therapist.“The therapist told me, ‘What you’re doing is that something bad happened and you’re going back thinking that 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 the therapist said, ‘Well you can’t.’ ”

Unable to communicate with his father when he was growing up, Springsteen talked to him through his songs, such as 1980’s Independence Day. Perhaps the most telling lyric is from Adam Raised a Cain on Darkness on the Edge of Town, where he writes: “You’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody’s else past/ Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain/ Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame/ You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames.”

Springsteen told the New Yorker: “My dad was very non-verbal – you couldn’t really have a conversation with him. I had to make my peace with that, but I had to have a conversation with him. It ain’t the best way to go about it, but that was the only way I could, and eventually he did respond. He might not have liked the songs, but I think he liked that they existed. It meant that he mattered. He’d get asked, ‘What are your favourite songs?’ And he’d say, ‘The ones that are about me.’ ”

Carlin writes of how the entire Springsteen enterprise is, and always has been, built on the personal redemptive powers to be found in rock’n’roll music. The remarkable four-hour concerts may be thrilling extravaganzas, but they were born out of his need to burn himself out.

As Springsteen tells David Rennick in the New Yorker: “With all artists, because of the undertow of history of self-loathing, there is a tremendous push towards self-obliteration that occurs onstage. You are free of yourself for those few hours. All the voices in your head are gone. Just gone. There is no room for them. [On stage] I’m a repairman, a repairman with a toolbox. If I repair a little of myself, I repair a little of you. That’s the job.”

* Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin is published by Simon & Schuster

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