SPRINGSTEEN (SAINT IN THE CITY: 1949-1974) IS A NEW BOOK FOCUSING ON THE DAYS BEFORE 1975’s BORN TO RUN ALBUM POSITIONED BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AS ‘THE BOSS’ OF BLUE-COLLAR AMERICAN HEARTLAND ROCK.
Through a 1950s childhood that bordered on hardline poverty, and a 1960s youth spent in a variety of bands around his home state of New Jersey, Springsteen’s development during his early years has been researched in great detail by author Craig Statham, and is recounted in many thorough interviews with friends and contemporaries.
Springsteen’s interest in music began when he saw Elvis perform on TV, and his mother finally bought him his first guitar when he was 13. But it was not an especially happy or settled home. Springsteen’s father Doug suffered from depression – an illness the artist himself has succumbed to, and spoken of openly, in recent years.
In this fascinating exclusive extract from the book, Statham explores the young Springsteen’s troubled and difficult relationship with his father.
But as Bruce began to mature and follow his own path, there came a serious deterioration in his relationship with his father.
One of the underlying reasons for this may have been the lack of money Doug was bringing into the house. He flitted between jobs, never staying too long in any single one, and pulling in just enough money to keep his family above the breadline. A friend who played with Bruce in the South Street house later noted it was ‘borderline poverty’.
Doug perceived himself to be a failure, as his son would later concur.
He was gradually browbeaten by the realisation that life would never offer him any more than he currently had. But whilst this would present an excuse to vent one’s spleen on occasion it would hardly explain the rages that would later provide such rich material for his son’s concert monologues. These were not born of social circumstances, but genetic factors; Doug suffered from bipolar disorder. His aggressive persona certainly had an impact on those who met him. Steve Van Zandt later recounted that he was ‘scary’. So by the time the younger Springsteen began to stray from the conservative social mores that his parents, and society generally, wished him to follow, the scene was set for a clash between the two. Doug tried to edge Bruce towards being a lawyer (perhaps influenced by Anthony Zerilli).
What he got was a son who didn’t fit in at school, had abandoned religion, and was becoming increasingly distant and drawn towards what was widely considered an alternate lifestyle.
Being in a band was, according to Van Zandt, socially unacceptable – he jokingly noted that his parents would rather he was a thief.
Adele [Bruce Springsteen’s mother] would try the softer approach, persuading and cajoling. Doug approached the situation in various ways. Sometimes he would load the family into the car and drive, but often his response was a feral one, likely not helped by his excessive drinking, which was amounting to a six-pack of beer each night.
In 1956, he was arrested for driving whilst above the legal limit. Springsteen has recalled: ‘My father… he was a guard down at the jail for a while. I remember when he worked down there, he used to always come home real pissed off, drunk’.
On the night Bruce’s family held the graduation party in his honour, he headed to New York City to stay with a friend. He returned home with a girl and his father vented his anger. ‘(He) pulls me inside by the collar with one hand, leaves her outside – I don’t see her again for a while – drags me up to my room, and takes out all the light bulbs so I’ve got to sit there in the dark by myself’.
With such an uncomfortable relationship it is little wonder that he looked for any opportunity to escape the tension. Often he would sleep on Vinnie Manniello’s porch. He has also recounted many times in concert how, from the age of around 11, he would run away, to be picked up by his mother after being apprehended by the police. In later years he would make his own way back.
I used to take off… up to New York City… and I worked some jobs down in the Village for a while till the cops, till we either ran out of money, me and this cat Skibotts, or till the cops just, uh, proofed us in port Authority sitting around and send us back home. And my pop every night, riding back home in the bus I could see him sitting there, I knew when I’d get home, he’d be waiting for me sitting there in the kitchen, he shut off all the lights in the house… He’d just sit in the kitchen smoking cigarettes, drinking a little beer, waiting for the kids to come home… and he used to lock up, used to lock up the front door so that me and my sister used to have to come in ’round the back… and if we came home early, after he hadn’t been sitting there too long, it wasn’t too bad, but if we came in late or if I’d been gone for a few days, I knew that no matter when I came back that he’d be there waiting for me… And I’d stand there in the driveway and look through this screen door and I could see the light of his cigarette butt, and I’d slick my hair back real tight so he couldn’t tell how long it was. I’d try to make it through the kitchen and he’d wait till I hit the bottom step, then he’d call me to come back and sit down there in the dark and talk to him. And in the wintertime he’d close all the doors to the room and just turn on the gas jets to the stove so it’d get real hot in there and we’d sit there and he’d be telling me, he’d be telling me, I could always hear his voice, I could always hear his voice but I could never see his face… he’d start off talking about nothing too much at all, how I was doing, what was happening at school, pretty soon he’d be asking me where I was getting my money from, or what I thought I was doing with myself and how my whole life was a waste, and we’d end up screaming at each other, my mother’d end up running in from the front room to try and keep us from fighting with each other. I’d always end up running out the back door, out into the street, running out into the street, telling him, telling him, that it was my life and I was gonna do what I wanted to do…
In his later concert monologues, Springsteen would frequently make light of the clashes between the two. But at the same time he expressed the underlying menace that his father posed:
When I was growing up, there was two things in my house that my father hated. One was me and the other one was the guitar. He used to hate that guitar, man, with a vengeance. I remember he’d sit in the kitchen and drink six-packs of beer till his nose got red… and he’d come upstairs, right, ‘Stop playing that goddamn guitar!’ – I said ‘Pop, this is a Fender guitar, this is not a goddamn guitar’ but he never used to listen, he used to think that everything in my room was the same make by the same company. I had a goddamn guitar to go with my goddamn stereo that went with my goddamn radio and all my goddamn records…
The result was a home life that was uncomfortable for all involved, but provided a foundation for his later work analysing his relationship with his father. The relationship between father and son has been covered many times in Bruce’s songs, most notably INDEPENDENCE DAY and ADAM RAISED A CAIN. But it is the unreleased, introspective and autobiographical FAMILY SONG which sheds the greatest light on the pain the relationship caused to the younger Springsteen. He foregoes metaphor or skirting around the edges of his hurt, and simply pours his feelings onto the page. Biting line after biting line reveal the travails of his relationship with both his father and mother.
But beneath the rage that boiled on Doug’s surface was an undoubted love of his son. Whilst the younger Springsteen rebelled against the formality and conservatism his father yearned for, this love struggled to emerge. But occasionally it would leave a lasting impression on the son. In 1984 he recalled the touching story of returning home from his draft physical:
My father, he was in World War Two, and he was the type that was always saying ‘Wait till the army gets you. Man, they’re gonna cut that hair off of you. I can’t wait. They gonna make a man outta you’. We were really goin’ at each other in those days. And I remember I was gone for three days, and when I came back, I went in the kitchen, and my folks were there, and they said ‘Where you been?’ and I said ‘Well, I had to go take my physical’. And they said ‘What happened?’ and I said ‘Well, they didn’t take me’. And my father sat there, and he didn’t look at me, he just looked straight ahead. And he said ‘That’s good’. It was, uh… I’ll never forget that. I’ll never forget that…
And Springsteen himself has noted that he loved his father deeply, even if he did not show it, or even feel it, at the time. If we were to attempt to decipher whether Springsteen’s rocky relationship with his father was the inspiration that provided the foundation for his later achievements we would simply be wading into the minefield that is the nature versus nurture argument. But the relationship certainly impacted him for many years, as is witnessed by the writing of songs such as ADAM RAISED A CAIN and INDEPENDENCE DAY, in the late 1970s and early 1980s respectively.
The relationship between father and son would improve in later years. But it still stung, perhaps only subconsciously, and in 1990, during a performance at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Springsteen recounted visiting a psychiatrist to understand why he was driving past his old house three or four times a week. The answer came that he was attempting to fix something that had gone wrong in the house.
Later events would prove that the rift between the two had been largely, if not completely, healed. After the BORN IN THE USA tour, the two spent a week fishing in Mexico. And when Springsteen returned home with an Oscar for his recording of STREETS OF PHILADELPHIA his dad appears to have fully come to terms with the fact that he had failed his son, contritely telling him, ‘I’ll never tell anybody what to do ever again’.
At the time of Doug’s death, Bruce spoke of a ‘loving relationship’.
Extract © Soundcheck Books.
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