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Learning from depression with Bruce Springsteen

by Levi Dayan

[originally published 11/15/19]


Life is good when you’re the boss. That’s certainly a reasonable takeaway from glancing at Bruce Springsteen’s nearly 50-year musical career. Since his debut in 1972, Springsteen has gone on to make one of the best selling albums of all time, Born in the USA. With that album, Sprinsteen broke a record for most top 10 singles on one album, a record that has only been tied by Michael and Janet Jackson and Drake. He won an Oscar in the mid 90s for his contribution to the film Philadelphia, he’s been playing arena shows since long before I was born, and has become among the most lionized artists of the rock canon, with songs such as “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road,” and “Badlands” permanently embedded into classic rock radio rotation. Even as Springsteen turns 70 this past week, he still somehow manages to dominate conversation; he published a memoir a few years ago, had a show on Broadway the last couple of years that was also given a Netflix special, and this past year has both released his most acclaimed album in years and has been the subject of a major motion picture.

Amongst all of this commercial success and critical acclaim, it makes sense that Springsteen the musician, and especially Springsteen the person, are both sometimes dwarfed by Springsteen the icon. Though he’s inspired diverse artists, ranging from The Clash and Patti Smith to Kanye West, there are many who still view him as a tired boomer symbol of American exceptionalism. Perhaps the only thing Oberlin students and Ronald Reagan have in common - though with drastically different connotations–is that Springsteen is seen by both as a flag-bearing totem of white masculinity. This perception couldn’t be further from the truth.

I had a completely unique introduction to Springsteen that I’m sure absolutely no one can relate to: my parents. Along with The Beatles, The Band, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and Hank Williams, Springsteen is one of the few musicians who I feel like I’ve been hearing longer than I’ve been alive. When pressed, my mom will always say her favorite song of all time is “Thunder Road,” and while I wouldn’t choose favorites, I can’t say she’s wrong either. Meanwhile, I’d say a solid 90% or so of my deepest conversations with my dad have involved Springsteen in some way or another. My dad has a bottomless well of knowledge when it comes to the Boss. It seems every other day he has a random anecdote about how “Working on the Highway” originally had much darker lyrics, or how Springsteen would drop songs from a classic album such as Darkness on the Edge of Town, simply because they didn’t fit in with the rest of the album thematically. Some of these songs, such as “Fire” and “Because the Night,” would later become hits for other artists. Given this context, no matter how analytical and unsentimental I try to be when writing about Springsteen’s music, it’s impossible for me to pretend this isn’t something really deep and personal to me.

Another thing that may have been passed on to me from my family is depression and anxiety. I’ve heard people say that all generations of Jewish people seem to be depressed in the same way; I can’t speak to the truth of that, but I can say that depression and anxiety have been causing issues in my family long before my sister and I had the misfortune of coming of age in these particularly miserable times. I was diagnosed with asperger's syndrome at a young age, and spent much of my early childhood in blissful ignorance of my various idiosyncrasies. I wasn’t sure why I always had to go to speech and behavioral therapy, but didn’t really give it any thought as long as I got to go home and watch TV afterwards. By the time I transitioned from middle school into high school, which was coincidentally around the same time my obsession with music exploded, it soon began to hit me that a lot of people didn’t really understand what I was going on about most of the time and preferred not to have to deal with me. I blamed myself entirely, and even as schools changed, social situations shifted, and some things improved for me, I always blamed myself for every single issue I faced. Things have improved a lot since then, but I remain all too familiar with the feeling of being crushed by the weight of the world, overwhelmed by my natural condition, or feeling helpless in times of change.

Similarly, Springsteen has also had more than his share of mental health struggles. As he grows older and turns introspective, he’s been more open about these issues than ever, especially in his memoir and Broadway show. Like me, Springsteen grew up as a weird, insecure, somewhat alienating child. Springsteen has also suffered from depression, and described his struggles in a recent interview with Esquire, saying:

“I have come close enough to [mental illness] where I know I am not completely well myself. I’ve had to deal with a lot of it over the years, and I’m on a variety of medications that keep me on an even keel; otherwise I can swing rather dramatically and . . . just . . . the wheels can come off a little bit. So we have to watch, in our family. I have to watch my kids, and I’ve been lucky there. It ran in my family going way before my dad.”

Much of Springsteen’s book and broadway show seems to center around these hereditary themes, and the futility of trying to escape your own past, in addition to that of your family. I’m blessed to have had a much, much more peaceful upbringing than Springsteen, but the feeling of being destined to suffer living through these conditions is something that I can relate to as well.

Like many people, I certainly wouldn’t have guessed these things about Springfield. I definitely knew he had more than his share of sad songs — hearing “The River” as a four or five year old was probably the first time a song made me step back and think “holy shit, that was depressing” — but sad songs are everywhere. I knew he had a reputation for being a “poet of the losers,” but I always thought that was a sort of character he played up (in some ways I was right - in Springsteen on Broadway, he talks about he never had a job and didn’t know how to drive until his 20s, despite being the patron saint of the working man who writes about cars and youth escapism like most people breathe). I merely associated his music with my parents and my childhood, and didn’t really think much of the deeper meaning of his lyrics.

But the moment that changed was when I listened to Nebraska for the first time, an album my dad always talked up (he once recommended it to my sister by telling her it “kind of sounds like Elliott Smith”) but one that had zero recognizable songs for me. Hearing the guy who did “Glory Days” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” sing such devastating, bleak, and personal songs left a major impact on me. For the first time, listening to Nebraska, I felt like he was right in the room next to me, singing to no one through the wall, rather than singing for a packed stadium where he belonged. Eventually I began to realize that, in some way or another, all of his albums are kind of like this. Darkness on the Edge of Town, possibly my favorite of his albums, might be even bleaker than Nebraska, with choice lyrics including “you're born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else's past,” “you're born with nothing and better off that way,” “I lost my money and I lost my wife. Them things don't seem to matter much to me now.” Even Born in the USA, his big “sellout” album, is full of songs of inner hardship: the title track is a bitter, emotional protest, “Downbound Train” connects economic failure with romantic failure, “I’m On Fire” is about being overtaken by lust, and “Dancing in the Dark,” the big hit from the album, is as much of a telling portrayal of depression and boredom as is possible for a pop song. And don’t even get me started on “The River,” the one I knew was depressing even as a child with no understanding of the universe: “is a dream a lie that don’t come true, or is it something worse” — I mean, jesus fucking christ.

That’s not to say Springsteen is a total downer, though he certainly can be when he wants to. In addition to the themes of class struggle, romanticism, and escapism, a feeling of hope connects all of these songs, the idea that even if we can’t overcome the hardest facts of life, we can learn to live with them and to make the most out of what life has given us. Above all, Springsteen’s music shows that pain and sensitivity are not vices or virtues, but rather everyday emotions that no one should be barred from expressing. This is a big part of why his music has resonated with my experiences. His songs are nothing if not driven by emotion, by a deep sense of caring for yourself and others around you. It’s earnest without being sentimental, emotional without being overwrought, depressing without being hopeless, and uplifting without being blindly optimistic, and above all, beautiful without being too precious. His music does what all of the best music does: filter the pain of both the personal and the universal into something beautiful and accessible.

In short, even though it can be frustrating to see his songs misinterpreted and his music conflated with the image projected onto him, there’s also something comforting about a man as open about his insecurities and emotions being so widely embraced by the public. And it goes without saying that seeing someone who is sort of a giant in my life speak openly and without shame about struggling with depression is an incredibly empowering thing for me personally.

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