Everything Stood Revealed as Pure Horizon, Or: How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Love The Boss

Springsteen on Broadway (2018) | artwork by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

It starts unassumingly: a man and his guitar on a dimly lit stage. The scene is familiar to those of us who grew up on reruns of MTV Unplugged or VH1 Storytellers; the semi-informal, stripped-down performances of old hits, woven through with brief anecdotes and asides. But right from the start, something feels different. Springsteen on Broadway doesn’t begin with an iconic rock star walking across the stage to roaring applause—in fact, we don’t see the audience, or even the stage. Instead, the film opens like a film, cutting directly in on Springsteen’s face in tight close-up as he begins to speak, an unorthodox move that communicates two things in quick succession: this is what it’s like to be here, in this room, at this moment—and this guy ain’t messing around.

The immediate cadence of his voice, the casual, raw poetry of its rhythm and movement, quickly draws us in. And when he sets off into his opening monologue—no mere anecdotal rambling or cursory salutation here, but a full-on monologue—we start to realize we’re in for something else entirely:

DNA, your natural ability, the study of your craft, a development of and devotion to an aesthetic philosophy. Balls. Naked desire for fame, love, adoration, attention, women, sex, a buck. Then, if you want to take it all the way out to the end of the night, you will need a furious fire in your belly that just won’t quit burning.

Springsteen pitches his life’s narrative, his unexpected Hero’s Journey, somewhere between the sacred and the everyday—that same razor-thin line he’s danced nearly his entire career, and which his distinctive, lived-in baritone seems rather uniquely suited for—and invites us into his story. Weaving the opening monologue through a plaintive, pared-down version of his 1973 song, “Growin’ Up,” he quickly works to close the distance between performer and audience, creating a “gather around, I’ve got something to tell you” intimacy that feels at times like a fireside chat, and at others like a full-on revival. Springsteen works the room while maintaining his integrity; you know this is a performance, but it feels like the real thing. And, while it might sound a touch melodramatic to state it so directly, the cumulative effect begins to feel almost sacred:

Fans [are] waiting for you to pull something out of your hat, out of thin air, something out of this world. Something that, before the faithful were gathered here today, was just a song-fueled rumor…Now I’m here tonight to provide proof of life to that ever-elusive, never completely believable, particularly these days, “us.” That’s my magic trick. And like all good magic tricks, it begins with a setup…

As Springsteen reflects on his childhood growing up in Freehold, New Jersey (population: 11,895), mythologizing the people and places that shaped him while deconstructing the mythos behind his artistic persona and best-known songs, we’re slowly reminded of the sheer power of a well-told narrative. There’s an authenticity that pulls you in, a weary vulnerability that disarms, a clever turn of phrase that brings a smile, all held together with a reflective and reflecting grace that unites the many strands of Springsteen’s lifelong quest to better understand his country, his family, and himself—or, as he more aptly puts it, “my long and noisy prayer.”

And we need something like this, especially now. It fills that space in us that’s been craving something solid and substantial lately. So much seems uncertain, confusing, up in the air; there’s a continual sense of things being on edge or at a turning point of some kind—and whether it’s a crossroads or a point of no return is really anybody’s guess. It all feels disorienting at best and debilitating at worst. Most days, though, it hovers somewhere in between, creating a perfect vacuum for anxiety to thrive.

Spending 2 1/2 hours in a small dark theater with Bruce Springsteen, then, becomes a necessary antidote. Like many of the very best spiritual traditions, it restores and replenishes. His words, his music, his story gives us back a part of ourselves, briefly buoying our battered hearts and reminding us that we are capable of so much more—that our better angels are still in there somewhere, and can survive this moment, too, as long as we don’t entirely neglect or abandon them.

*

Somehow, and stupidly, I never really listened to much Bruce Springsteen music growing up. Or even after that. And it’s not like I thought I was too hip or cool for it as a kid—for a decent part of my childhood I lived on a fairly steady diet of Huey Lewis, Bruce Hornsby, Steve Winwood, and Kenny G, all while worshipping at the altar of Mr. Billy Joel—it was more just something that I never got around to. Like many kids in the ‘80s, I saw the “Dancing in the Dark” video countless times, ran laps in P.E. to “Born in the U.S.A.” and hummed “Glory Days” at baseball games, but that was about the extent of it. Springsteen cemented himself in my young mind as that guy—the beefed up, masculine, all-American rock star that he never actually was (or at least, wasn’t before and wouldn’t be for much longer). And mostly I decided, that wasn’t for me.

But I’m a firm believer that part of the alchemy that happens whenever we connect deeply with any work of art has a whole lot to do with where we’re at when we first encounter it. There’s a reason we connect with things (or don’t) that often has very little to do with the inherent qualities of the thing itself; we bring ourselves to the conversation we have with any artist or their work, and that, in turn, becomes an integral part of the experience. The artist—the musician, the writer, the filmmaker, the painter—builds the house for us, and we proceed to furnish it with the interiority of our own lives. I couldn’t connect with Bruce Springsteen, or at least the projection I’d formed of him, because I thought he represented something I’d already decided to reject.

To this day, and to my wife’s great chagrin, I refuse to wear sunglasses at any time, almost entirely because I grew up associating them with a certain type of person, and I didn’t want to be mistaken for someone like that. I know next to nothing about cars. I’m uncomfortable with “locker room talk.” I’d rather work through my feelings than pretend they don’t exist. In short: overt, traditional masculinity has always confused me, or perhaps more accurately, made me feel vaguely anxious. And if I’m being fully honest, a little bit sad, too.

So Bruce Springsteen—or who I thought he was—never really appealed to me. Over time, I came to respect Bruce, both for his longevity and his basic human decency, but I still didn’t voluntarily listen to his music; as far as I was concerned, it was the least interesting thing about him. For a period of time in my early 20s, I listened to Nebraska rather obsessively, but only because it was essentially the antithesis of what I thought a Bruce Springsteen record was—stripped-down, acoustic, raw, wounded, vulnerable. But outside of that, and despite being married to a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, I could never really connect to him.

But then I stumbled into watching Springsteen on Broadway last month. I didn’t set out to watch it, didn’t even know it existed—or that he’d been performing the show on Broadway for the past year—until it started playing automatically when I pulled up Netflix one night. Bruce started talking, and I wanted to hear more. Before I knew it, I couldn’t stop watching. He was offering up a story, masterfully delivered, full of deep reflection, openness, and vulnerability. This was something I could connect to without reservation; the earnest poetry of his monologues provided me with an entryway into his music, something I could finally latch onto. For the first time, I could buy into the story he was telling—the real story, not the one I’d imagined—and the music began to take on entirely new dimensions. I started tearing up at “My Hometown,” a song I’d long ago written off as sentimental John Cougar Mellencamp-Americana, because I finally understood the complicated nostalgia and sadness at its core. (I’m an embarrassingly easy mark for any kind of melancholy in the art I consume.) And it wouldn’t be the only time I felt tears sneak up on me.

The direct, immediate intimacy of the show was overwhelming, in a way I couldn’t fully understand at the time. I wasn’t sure exactly how he was doing what he was doing, the spell he was weaving, the magic trick he was elucidating, but I felt myself becoming converted. Nearly two and a half hours later, as he walked off the stage to loud applause, I fully believed.

And so now, decades past the point when I should have embraced Bruce Springsteen, I’m making up for lost time. I’m pushing him on anybody and everybody, only to find out that I’m basically the last person to this particular party; turns out, everyone but me had already figured out one of the few remaining universal American truths: Bruce Springsteen is fucking great.

*

Bruce Springsteen and Donald Trump were born just three years apart, and grew up only 64 miles away from one another. Though both were born white, male, and American—in a country that bestows a great power and privilege to its white American males—each took a vastly different path through this life, and ended up in much different places. But I would contend that, taken together, the President and the Boss make up two parts of a mythical American whole, offering up competing visions of our nation’s soul, and illuminating the deep division that has been with us since our earliest days.

Both Springsteen and Trump grew up under the shadow of intimidating fathers, withholding men who loomed large over the entire trajectory of their lives, shaping both the ways they came to see the world and the public personas they’d eventually assume on the public stage. “Now those whose love we wanted and didn’t get, we emulate them,” Springsteen says near the beginning of his show, “It’s the only way we have in our power to get the closeness and the love that we needed and desired. So when I was a young man and looking for a voice to meld with mine, to sing my songs and tell my stories, well, I chose my father’s voice, because there was something sacred in it to me.” Trump, as you might have guessed, was a little less poetic about it, standing up before the crowd at his father’s wake and telling the gathered guests, “My father taught me everything I know. And he would understand what I’m about to say. I’m developing a great building on Riverside Boulevard called Trump Place. It’s a wonderful project.”

And though it might seem unfair to juxtapose these two quotes, they actually get right to the heart of both men’s relationships with their fathers, and with themselves, and the kinds of people this has led them to become. Both men battled mightily with their fathers growing up—Trump, famously, was sent to a military academy by his father at age 13 “to be straightened out,” while Springsteen frequently clashed with a depressed, working-class, alcoholic father who didn’t understand him (he was “a bit of a Bukowski character”). But both boys instinctively craved a sense of paternal approval, and not getting that approval—or not enough of it anyway—eventually became a propelling engine for both men, even if it ultimately ended up propelling them in vastly different directions.

Springsteen aspires to be a better man; to own his mistakes and to learn from them, to right old wrongs and let go of those that can’t ever be righted, to treat people better, especially those close to him, to respect the sacredness and humanity of things, and, whenever possible, to have a damned good time doing so. Trump, on the other hand, appears to aspire to almost nothing at all outside of adulation and power; if there’s a desire to grow, or to be a better man in any way, it’s never been apparent at any point in his life—he seems to revel in a stubborn reluctance to expand his own horizons, proudly displaying his utter lack of self-awareness, vulnerability, or apology like some demented badge of honor. And it sure doesn’t seem like he’s having much fun.

I know men like both of these men, and the wrong one stumbled into being president. Because, while both are narcissists (even if only of them will freely admit to it), one of them seeks out the light and inspires us to be better human beings—yes, there is such a thing as healthy narcissism—while the other continually, instinctively plays to our lowest common denominator, stoking and manipulating our basest instincts for personal gain.

The one we identify with integrity and truth stands up on a stage at the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway night after night, reminding us that he’s a fraud: “Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something about which he has had…absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up.” Meanwhile, the one who lies to us continually, in almost tic-like fashion, stands up on the world stage every single day and swears he’s the real deal, all evidence to the contrary, making things up as he goes along and then attacking anyone who dares to challenge his narratives. And if you believe, as I do, that a president’s role is largely symbolic—and that a good deal of what they come to symbolize stems from their basic character and temperament—then you can imagine how much different the world would feel right now if the working-class kid from Freehold, New Jersey was running the show.

Of course, Springsteen, like any good rock n’ roller, has no interest in being a politician, let alone the President of the United States. But as he’s made explicitly clear over the years, perhaps moreso than any other entertainer, he does have a strong and vested interest in figuring out what it means to be an American, living in this time and this place, and trying to understand how that shapes a person’s soul.

And so, near the end of Springsteen on Broadway, Springsteen turns his attention to the past two years, and what they’ve done to his country. This, of course, is fraught territory for any performer—the moment when the real world shows up, and an evening’s entertainment runs the risk of turning into a lecture. Springsteen, though, occupies a rarified air; when he talks, people listen. Despite being outspoken on political issues since at least the mid-1980s, and a well-known Democrat to boot, he’s never been branded an out-of-touch Hollywood liberal, or derided as any kind of elitist by those on the right. He’s Bruce, man.

In his autobiography, he writes about going to pick his children up from school on 9/11, as shocked and shaken as any of us on that still incomprehensible day. As he’s driving through the city that morning, a car passes by and a man, recognizing him, shouts out of his rolled down window, “Bruce, we need you.” It’s instinctive in times of chaos or upheaval, this need for a simple, clear voice speaking about all the things you can’t quite find the words to articulate. It’s also a helluva responsibility for the person you choose to turn yourself over to, because you’re utterly manipulatable in these moments. The words they put to your fears and frustrations become a way to make sense of things, but also, eventually, start to take on a life of their own inside of you.  

So, before launching into “The Ghost of Tom Joad”—a decidedly political song from nearly 25 years ago that feels eerily relevant today—Springsteen works the room, seeking out common ground by letting us in on a bit of his own philosophy:

I never believe that people come to my shows, or rock shows in general, to be told anything. But I do believe that they come to be reminded of things—to be reminded of who they are at their most joyous, at their deepest, when life feels full. It’s a good place to get in touch with your heart and your spirit. It’s good to be amongst the crowd. Be reminded of who we are and who we can be collectively—and music does those things pretty well. Sometimes, they can come in pretty handy. Particularly these days, when some reminding of who we are and who we can be isn’t such a bad thing.

After a haunting, poignant rendition of “Joad,” Springsteen does something he hasn’t done the entire night, and won’t do again, segueing into his next song, “The Rising,” without any introduction. The message, though, is clear. When times are tough and things seem hopeless (“Joad”), faith and sustenance can be found in the strength of all those around you, working together to create change (“Come on up for the rising / Come on up, lay your hands in mine”).

Much like Trump, his generational, geographical shadow self, Springsteen instinctively knows how to read a hungry crowd and reflect back to it what it most wants, to give the people what they came to see. But again, there’s a key difference: Springsteen wants to bring us together, not divide us, to remind people “of what real faith in American democracy [looks like], and how sacred that is.” And it’s hard to think of any message more worth hearing in 2019, or any messenger better equipped to deliver it to us.

*

Bruce Springsteen is an intense and reflective man. There’s a sense, even in his joyous moments, that he’s carrying a weight with him most anywhere he goes—so it seems telling that he’s frequently spoken of the kinship he feels with Sisyphus. “I’m always rolling that rock, man,” he told David Kamp in 2016. “One way or another, I’m always rolling that rock.”

And while the rock he was rolling for most of his career was an external one, directed outwardly in an attempt to reflect us back to ourselves, in the past few years (beginning with the release of his autobiography in 2015, from which many of Springsteen on Broadway’s monologues are drawn) the rock he’s been rolling has largely been an internal one, an attempt to shake off old baggage and finally shed the demons of his past. After a career spent hiding behind his finely-honed public persona, he finally began to lay himself bare, and what he’s revealed to us in the process, highlighted in the strongest moments of Springsteen on Broadway, sure looks an awful lot like wisdom and grace.

It’s a coming-of-age story,” he recently told Esquire, “and I want to show how this—one’s coming of age—has to be earned. It’s not given to anyone. It takes a certain single-minded purpose. It takes self-awareness, a desire to go there. And a willingness to confront all the very fearsome and dangerous elements of your life—your past, your history—that you need to confront to become as much of a free agent as you can. This is what the show is about…It’s me reciting my ‘Song of Myself.’

It’s also, and not coincidentally, the primary work of therapy. And Springsteen should know: when he had his first breakdown in 1982—a darkness that descended upon him, seemingly at random, on the outskirts of a small Texas town late one night and laid him out for the next year and a half—it was therapy that ultimately stabilized and saved him. He began to open up, exploring and excavating all the painful emotions he’d long tried to bury deep inside as a means of self-preservation. Eventually, he found his way to a more authentic self, finally facing both his deep-seated fear of attachment and connection, and a long-standing anxiety, set in motion by his own childhood, that settling down into any kind of domesticated life would either stifle or destroy him.

What he learned instead, first in therapy and then by living it, is that human connection is a life raft that could help keep him afloat, pulling him out of himself and resolving many of the old wounds that had long driven him towards a need for total independence (which, often, is just a fancy word for isolation). In order to connect, he had to learn how to be more vulnerable, how to let himself truly need others instead of imposing his own formidable will upon them, how to let go of inherited notions of American masculinity and be a different kind of man instead—the kind who valued both independence and interdependence. And while it hasn’t always kept him out of the darkness he inherited from his father (he fell into another deep, years-long depression shortly after turning 60, and then fought his way through agitated depression—“no life here, just an endless irritating existential angst embedded in my bones”—for a couple of months in 2014) it has allowed him to bring that darkness into a better balance with the hope, resilience, and joie de vivre passed down to him by his mother and woven through his own family by his wife, Patti, who joins him on stage to harmonize on two songs (“Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise”). The result, to return to Walt Whitman, is a man who contains multitudes, and finally feels comfortable embracing all those disparate parts.

*

Springsteen on Broadway closes with “Born to Run,” because of course it does. It’s a song that’s been a centerpiece of most every show he’s played over the past 45 years, and for good reason. It’s well-suited for most any occasion; its palpable sense of urgency is malleable enough to fit whatever crowd Springsteen needs to repurpose it for, from 100,000 screaming fans at an outdoor festival to an intimate 960-seat theater on Broadway. It’s the summation of everything that makes Springsteen, well, Springsteen. And tonight it will serve as our benediction.

He ends where he began, in Freehold, New Jersey. He talks about visiting his old neighborhood one November, while writing his book, “looking for…I still don’t have a fucking clue.” As he talks, you realize all over again just how important his roots are to him, how this part of his persona has never been an act. He walks down his old block, looking for the big tree that connects the whole neighborhood—the one he’d told us about during the intro to “My Hometown” a couple of hours before—the childhood tree that he often climbed as a kid to get away from “a world that I didn’t care for much already.” But it was gone.

He’s sad and angry all at once, but eventually that gives way—as things often do in a Bruce Springsteen narrative—to some hard-earned wisdom:

But the soul’s a stubborn thing. It doesn’t dissipate so quickly. Souls remain. They remain here in the air, in empty space, in dusty roots. In sidewalks that I knew every single inch of like I knew my own body as a child. And in the songs that we sing. That is why we sing. We sing for our blood and for our people. Because that’s all we have at the end of the day.

He remembers standing there that night, in the shadow of the church, letting dirt run through his fingers. And how after a time, some “very strange but all too familiar” words floated into his mind, words he used to begrudgingly recite before class every single day at St. Rose of Lima. Tonight, though, they sounded a little bit different. Give us this day…just give us this day…

And by the time he finishes the Lord’s Prayer, thanks the audience, and launches into “Born to Run”—a song he spent six months composing at the tender age of 24, the one that birthed his fame and shaped the mythology that’s built up around him ever since—I can finally and fully say: I get it.

Springsteen on Broadway | Netflix