I’ll openly admit that I’ve been a fan of Bruce Springsteen for as long as I can remember. In high school, my sister and her boyfriend took me to a concert—my first true rock and roll experience, and the only events to ever come close in terms of energy, heart, and excitement, have been…well…other Bruce Springsteen concerts.
That said, a few days ago I convinced my husband, who didn’t grow up listening to The Boss and The E Street Band, to give Netflix’s Bruce Springsteen on Broadway a try. By the end of Bruce’s first childhood story, my husband was hooked. For the next two-plus hours we were under his spell, gripped by his raw honesty, the moving way he described both in words and then song, the central conflicts of his life: his relationships with family, community, God, religion, society, and most poignantly, his longing for connection with his mentally-ill father. His feelings about his father, an often depressed and emotionally-distant factory worker, fueled much of his songwriting, from his early work that focused on running away and being judged as not good enough, to his working-man ballads and songs of family strife and social injustice. His music seems to be just one facet of his life-long struggle to make peace with this devastatingly flawed relationship. Though he paints a vivid picture of the ecstasy he felt when he left his hometown of Freehold at age nineteen, like so many of us, his childhood memories continued to haunt him and influenced the way he created and continues to create meaning in his life.
He tells us of a single moment when his aging father offered something which he interpreted as a life-healing statement. Describing his response, Springsteen declares, “…that was all I needed!” As a therapist, I can’t help but think that he must have wanted so much more than what his father was able to provide, and I truly admire his deep-rooted determination to use what’s given to mend his childhood wounds. He talks about our role as parents, “We are ghosts or we are ancestors in our children's lives. We either lay our mistakes, our burdens upon them, and we haunt them, or we assist them in laying those old burdens down and we free them from the chain of our own flawed behavior. And as ancestors, we walk alongside of them, and we assist them in finding their own way and some transcendence.” This performance feels like his whole-hearted attempt to transform all of the ghosts that haunt him into ancestors, ancestors that might help him reach transcendence. To this end, he weaves together a tapestry of memories sown with beauty and pain, birth and destruction, connection and abandonment.
He uses a stately copper-beech tree that grew on his childhood street as a metaphor for life. Perched high in her branches, he felt like a ruler; king of his block. But on a recent trip to visit the old neighborhood, he found the tree cut down to the ground. The roots are still pulsing, still giving life—or so he believes. His story of the copper beech reminds me of something I once learned about trees. Scientists have discovered that before a tree dies, it sends its nutrients down through a labyrinth of underground connections to help nourish neighboring trees. It’s seems a selfless act, much like Shel Silverstein's depiction of The Giving Tree.
Of course, Bruce Springsteen has been writing and performing for decades and has certainly been well rewarded in the process. Still, one gets the sense that this Broadway show is his Magnum Opus, his attempt to make peace with his past and share whatever wisdom he’s gleaned along the way. Yes, The Boss likes to preach, and like the copper beech of his youth, he’s going to release everything he’s got inside. Whatever has given him strength along the way, he’s sending it out into the world to help others. Perhaps what he’s really doing is insuring that his legacy, at least among his faithful fans, will be that of an ancestor; a healer and not a haunter.
Dear Bruce, we were listening, we’ve been listening all along. Now take some time off and enjoy your family. Maybe when the weather gets nice, we’ll catch you down the shore. And by the way—when are you touring again? I'm a working Jersey girl interested in a seat that costs less than a thousand bucks on Broadway. Thanks!