From his early childhood days in Freehold, New Jersey to his 60th birthday and beyond, Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born To Run is an in depth, insightful, and extremely honest memoir encompassing the trials, tribulations and beauty of the musician’s (more like rock n roll icon’s) life.
What I personally found striking was his heartfelt and candid glimpse into his lifelong battle with depression.
As a young boy, Springsteen was raised by his grandmother. Due to her own emotional suffering, she placed all her energy into raising him, and though power dynamics were strained at times, his parents allowed her to play a pivotal role in his early upbringing. His father, who was at times a tough and abrasive man, struggled with alcoholism and would later be diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Springsteen grew up a little more “on his own” than most of his peers; his routine was less predictable, and less structured.
When his grandmother passed away, he was at a complete loss; he was a teenager alone in an abyss of depression. One might surmise that this was his catalyst into the music world.
Later on in his teen years, his parents moved west for California. They had to get out of that small New Jersey town but Springsteen – seeking to acquire his independence and hoping to make a name for himself in the Asbury Park music scene – stayed behind.
How did he cope with the roadblocks he encountered? Music, music, music.
Music – a genuine love of his – was Springsteen’s medicine in every sense of the word. Music was the wall he built around himself for protection. His concerts lasted for several hours; his home was the stage.
And the effects of this wall began to shine forth. Over the course of his young adulthood, he had a problem with fidelity. In general, he had difficulty striving towards a particular brand of stability. He did not want to need anyone. He did not want to attach.
After all, he thought, he had already experienced enough loss in his life thus far.
In his words, he was “better off in that lonely timeless world inside my head, inside the studio.”
“The road was my trusty shield against the truth. The road was always a perfect cover; transient detachment was the nature of the game,” writes Springsteen.
On a trip to California, however, he reached a suffocating, dark place; his walls were beginning to dismantle and his repressed emotions were coming to a head. He felt utterly depressed and anxious about desiring stability, needing to feel rooted and not knowing how to achieve it. After confiding in his close friend, mentor, and manager Jon Landau, Springsteen knew it was time for professional assistance.
There began his relationship with a psychiatrist for the next twenty five years of his life. He was prescribed medication to combat his depression and to help him emotionally heal.
But Springsteen was open about his lack of immunity. He recalled how in his first marriage, his walls and his defensive shell were still lingering.
“I was sliding back towards the chasm where rage, fear, distrust, insecurity, and a family-patterned misogyny made war with my better angels,” he wrote. “Once again, it was the fear of having something, allowing someone into my life, someone loving, that was setting off a myriad of bells and whistles, and a fierce reaction. Who’d care for me? Love me? The real me,” he writes.
After going through a heavy divorce, Springsteen got re-married, to Pattie Scialfa, his partner in crime and fellow E. Street Band member. They both came from similar backgrounds; they considered themselves ‘loners’ and both fostered a deep understanding of one another.
After the birth of the first of three children they would have together, Springsteen reached a remarkable turning point and a new sense of life was instilled within him.
“This new life revealed that I was more than just a song, a story, a night, an idea, a pose, a truth, a shadow, a lie, a moment, a question, an answer, a restless figment of my own and others’ imagination. Work is work but life is life and life trumps art always,” he writes.
At fifty nine years old, Springsteen found himself in another debilitating rut. The anti-depressant he was on stopped being effective, and once he turned 60 he experienced major depressive episodes that lasted on and off for a couple of years. After the death of his psychiatrist, he began seeing someone new, had success and stopped the medication he was previously on.
But the aftermath of that decision was primarily negative.
Springsteen went through the motions of daily life with a pervasive and all-encompassing sense of loss.
“Every meaningless thing became the subject of a world shattering existential crisis filling me with an awful profound foreboding and sadness,” he writes.
Thankfully, Pattie – always in tune with his emotional state – brought him in for a new medication regimen. Once he found the right medicine, he felt better. In his own words, he felt normal again.
When we think of Bruce Springsteen, we may think of his highly successful music career. Or we may think of his poignant and poetic lyrics, of the chemistry he has with the E. Street Band, of Asbury Park and his Jersey roots. We think of his legacy.
Underneath it all, though, is a human being. Just like you and me. And just like our fellow humans, iconic rock stars fall prey to sadness, anxiety and hard times. In Springsteen’s touching and truthful memoir, we discover how he has personally dealt with his depression and how he came out on the other side.
Born to Run
Simon & Schuster Audio