What Bruce Springsteen Taught Me Then—And Teaches Me Now

On 40 Years of Listening to the Sonic Squall from the Boss’s Soul

Writer Tom White first saw musician Bruce Springsteen perform in 1976, as a 15 year old. As the singer returns to perform in Los Angeles next week, White reflects on growing up, and growing older, with the Boss. Springsteen performing at Madison Square Garden in 2023. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

Bruce Springsteen was the first artist I saw in concert—in 1976, when I was 15. He had recently graced the covers of Time and Newsweek, and journalist Jon Landau, who would later become his manager, had dubbed him “the future of rock ‘n’ roll.” His early Dylan-esque reveries of streetwise characters on the margins, songs like “Sandy” and “Spirit in the Night,” felt lived-in and alive, and evoked charm and scruff. By the time he came out with 1975’s Born to Run, his music’s ever-bigger sound propelled working-class frustration and disillusionment into a high-octane overdrive of expansive dreams and open-road odysseys.

My frustrations were different: I was a lonely, awkward, self-absorbed, diffident suburban teenager, aching for a way out of myself. For me, Springsteen’s songs unlocked a liminal sweet spot between joy and fury that quickened my teenage rebellion fantasies and affirmed my angst-ridden realities.

The second time I saw Springsteen was at Madison Square Garden, in that transitory summer between high school graduation and freshman orientation. By then he was graduating too, from intimate concert spaces to cavernous ones, from Next Big Thing to bona fide rock star.

He brought a new vulnerability to his first-person confessions and laments. When he performed “Adam Raised a Cain”—a lightning-bolt-at-first-listen for me—you could picture him on his knees, pounding the floor, letting out a Brando-esque wail. He wasn’t just telling you about his fraught relationship with his father; this was primal-scream therapy. He was willing, in a room full of tens of thousands of strangers, to offer a sonic squall from the soul. This forced me to sit and listen. A catharsis of that visceral magnitude can power-drive you into silent submission. His concerts were epic transformations, doing what good art does.

As I grew—physically, emotionally, intellectually—I expanded my heart and mind to other music, other sounds, other affirmations. I hosted four different shows as a DJ at my college radio station: punk/new wave, jazz, classical, and the graveyard shift, the most freeform playground of all. I seldom, if ever, played Bruce. My musical palette broadened and deepened. His hadn’t. And while I would forever be in his debt for taking me to new places, I had moved on.

My musical palette broadened and deepened. His hadn’t. And while I would forever be in his debt for taking me to new places, I had moved on.

Like old friends from previous chapters in your narrative, some artists are of a certain time and place. The joyful fury and furious joy that fueled Bruce’s music lost its immediate relevance for me. But several decades later, Bruce returned—and I took notice.

In 2016, exactly 40 years after I stood in his audience at my very first concert, Springsteen published his memoir, Born to Run. The following year, as a sort of companion piece, he created and performed his one-man show, Springsteen on Broadway, which would later stream on Netflix. These works revealed to me an artist who had foraged through the attics, crawl spaces, and basements of his mind and reconstituted a life. They reminded me of the best aspects of a reunion—as a barometer of personal trajectory and an opportunity for rediscovery and recontextualization, where old friends reimagine friendships. Such became my reconnection with Bruce in my late-middle age—from a mutual place of wisdom and grace.

Media coverage around Born to Run homed in on Bruce’s description of his long battle with depression. Critics found it ironic that one who put everything he had into a four-hour offering of roof-raising exaltation would suffer from an illness that can lock you in a deep, dark world, where, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “It is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” But as someone who lives with depression, I understood. Depression is a monster; sometimes that monster is Shrek and sometimes it’s Godzilla. You pray for the Shrek days, but you prepare for the Godzilla days, deploying every weapon in your arsenal to keep Godzilla off your trail. And if that means, for Bruce, a scorching guitar solo, a larynx-ripping roar, a band that amplifies your pain, and if it takes four hours, night after night, city after city, then you do it.

With Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce mined his music for a deeper exploration into his process and evolution as an artist, not so much performing the songs we’ve all known for so long but reimagining them to suit the sensibilities of a then-sexegenarian who has seen and felt and lived.

It’s just him, on guitar and piano, with occasional accompaniment from his wife, Patti Scialfa, in a 960-seat Broadway theater. This was a next frontier for Springsteen, where he could center his prowess as a storyteller, scribe, and poet, and reimagine his oeuvre as an evening-length narrative.

Full disclosure: I watched Springsteen on Broadway 3,000 miles from Broadway, in the comfort of my living room in Los Angeles, on Netflix. Just as reading a book is a solo act and a deeply personal interchange between author and reader, watching Springsteen on Broadway let me engage in Bruce’s psychological/emotional/artistic journey. No need for dancing in the dark. Just processing on my own.

This manifestation of vulnerability, of personal excavation, inspired a new appreciation, a different connection—to an artist in service of and in full allegiance to his art, who is still searching, still seeking, but through different means, and who is willing to interrogate the mysteries and wonders of his long odyssey, and all that he created and shared along the way.

We all have chapters in our ongoing narratives that we would rather leave closed and unexamined. Perhaps we’d even want to excise them altogether. But Bruce, in this late-period exhumation, was more than willing to go there. While my teenage fandom was cause for escape, exultation, and empowerment, my late-middle-aged appreciation has inspired me to reexamine my own back pages for deeper truths about where I’ve been, and where I’m going.

The rock icon who once had me in his thrall is today a greater inspiration as a human, endowed with foibles and grace, darkness and light, demons and angels, in equal measure.


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