“Work to turn the ghosts that haunt you into the ancestors that accompany you.” Bruce Springsteen
I was inspired to write this after midnight from our hotel room in New York City after my wife and I enjoyed Springsteen on Broadway, an amazing show by The Boss himself covering his life and music. The quote above is not from the performance; rather it’s from his autobiographical book, Born to Run, which serves as the material on which the production is based.
Attending college and law school throughout Springsteen’s heyday in the 1980s, his music was an important part of my youth. From “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”, my fraternity’s theme song, to “My Hometown,” covering race relations and economic hardship, and “Born to Run,” an anthem of restless youth, I identified with his lyrics and message. This not to mention the rollicking good times my friends and I experienced at his energetic, pulsating, three-hours-plus concerts.
Springsteen is now 68 years old, ancient by rock and roll standards. It was clearly evident the importance he placed on telling his personal story, and the desire he has to show the depth of his music and lyrics beyond Top 40 fodder. The production features Bruce on acoustic guitar and piano, rearranging his hits to sound more like Bob Dylan or Arlo Guthrie than what you might remember emanating from your stereo speakers so long ago.
In the book and during the show he speaks of the troubled relationship he had with his alcoholic, bi-polar father. When Bruce was only 19 years old, his father moved his mother and youngest sister across the country from their longtime home in Freehold, New Jersey to San Mateo, California. His parents essentially abandoned him. It would be years before his fame and fortune. His 17-year-old pregnant sister was also left behind to fend for herself.
He covers the painful feelings over his mother’s ambivalence about how the move would tear the family apart. Knowing this, she went along out of devotion to her husband. Yet, as the book progresses through his life’s journey, Springsteen reveals how he came to terms with his family’s good and bad, and how grateful he was for his life experience. Had events not unfolded as they did, he may not have become the reverential figure of today.
I feel much the same way about my upbringing. I was born to a 24-year-old father and a 22-year-old mother, both of whom then lacked the maturity and economic wherewithal to support a son, and then, nearly three years later, a daughter. Like Springsteen’s family, my parents, running from their demons, moved from Indianapolis to Clearwater when my sister and I were teens. Unlike Springsteen’s family, however, we all moved. My parents seemed to lurch from one tragedy to the next, not learning from their youthful mistakes. Despite this, they remained devoted to one another, their marriage lasting more than 54 years until my mother’s death two years ago.
So strong was my parents’ devotion to one another, and so difficult was their struggle to make ends meet, that my sister and I became tertiary figures to the play that became our life. Both of us suffered lasting emotional scars. But, just as Springsteen states, without those scars I wouldn’t have become the man that I am.
I wanted a different upbringing for my three daughters, and my sister and her husband successfully raised a son and daughter as well. We’ve learned valuable lessons from our parents’ shortcomings. I wasn’t perfect raising my family, as I’ve made my share of mistakes. They were mostly different mistakes, although I’ll admit to repeating some.
“A man learns fatherhood through his father’s actions,” Springsteen said during the performance.
Like Bruce, I realize that if I don’t turn the ghosts that haunt me into ancestors that accompany me, I’ll just transfer my baggage to the next generation. “I decided between my father and me that the sum of our troubles would not be the summation of our lives together…There are irretrievable lives and unredeemable sins, but the chance to rise above is one I wish for yours and mine,” he writes.
Near the end of the show, Springsteen speaks glowingly of his now deceased father. Before launching into “Dancing in the Dark,” he describes his 93-year-old mother, who is “seven years into Alzheimer’s.” He uses the song to tell us about his mother’s love for dance and her positive influence on his life.
Anyone who’s both suffered through childhood trauma and then later raised a family of one’s own can identify with the powerful emotions conveyed during this show’s two and a half hours. I’m just happy that I had the opportunity to reflect on words of wisdom uttered by one of my boyhood heroes, who, as it turns out, is so much more than a rock and roll legend.
© 2018 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.