Maybe Bruce Springsteen was much more affected by that "Wreck on the Highway" than we realized.
Opening up more than ever before, Springsteen reveals battles with depression throughout his life in a 16,000-word New Yorker profile hitting the stands this week. It turns out he wasn't just dancing in the dark; he was doing his fair share of brooding there, and even contemplating suicidal thoughts.
At the height of his stardom in the early '80s, "he was feeling suicidal," Dave Marsh, Springsteen's first biographer as well as longtime confidante, told the New Yorker. "The depression wasn't shocking, per se. He was on a rocket ride, from nothing to something, and now you are getting your ass kissed day and night. You might start to have some inner conflicts about your real self-worth."
That isn't just an acquaintance exaggerating. Even Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa, opened up to writer David Remnick about her husband's bouts with the blues — and admitted she shared them. She says Bruce's dark side "didn't scare me" because "I suffered from depression myself, so I knew what that was about. Clinical depression—I knew what that was about," Scialfa reiterates. "I felt very akin to him."
Even the most joyful side of Springsteen's performances may have had a bleak undercurrent, according to the man himself. He says in the article that, at times, his nearly four-hour shows were driven by "pure fear and self-loathing and self-hatred." Remnick extrapolates: "He played that long not just to thrill the audience but also to burn himself out. Onstage, he held real life at bay."
There may have been a silver lining to Springsteen's depression, though. If you're wondering why he's one of the few major rock stars who's never had a hint of a drug problem, the answer may be here. Remnick says Springsteen told him that he was so afraid of succumbing to "the thread of mental instability that ran through his family... that fear, he says, is why he never did drugs."
Remnick contends that Springsteen's father, whose anger and alienation figures into many of the son's early songs, "seems to have been bipolar" and suffered from "paralyzing depressions" that he took out on Bruce. Doug Springsteen was prescribed medications for his mental disorder but didn't reliably take them, per this account. "My parents' struggles, it's the subject of my life," Springsteen says in the story. "It's the thing that eats at me and always will... Those wounds stay with you, and you turn them into a language and a purpose."
But Springsteen had more than just the sins of the father, or Adam raising a Cain, to contend with. There was the fame and acclaim at ever-increasing odds with Springsteen's self of sense-worth and identity. On his bleakest album, 1982's "Nebraska," Springsteen wasn't just affecting a mood. He was living it; Marsh says it was then that Springsteen was most depressed, and, in a funk, drove from one end of the country to the other and then headed right back the other way. Remnick describes it as "a cloud of crisis" and "intervals of depression that were far more serious than the occasional guilt trip" about being a well-paid populist.
But Springsteen's wealth has created its own share of identity problems, as fans have guessed over the years. One amusing passage in the New Yorker story has Steve Van Zandt recounting a knock-down, drag-out argument over the song "Ain't Got You" in the late '80s. It's one of the few times Springsteen has ever alluded to his own financial gain in a song, which Van Zandt thought was a horrible mistake. "We had one of the biggest fights of our lives," says Springsteen's longtime guitarist. He remembers Bruce saying "'It's just who I am, it's my life.' And I'm like... 'Nobody gives a s--- about your life. They need you for their lives'... We fought and fought and fought and fought." Van Zandt lost the battle on that one, but believes he won the war: "I think something in what I said probably resonated."
If Springsteen has moved past a lot of this inner turmoil, how'd he do it? "Obviously, therapy," says Scialfa. "He was able to look at himself and battle it out." Springsteen has been seeing a psychotherapist since 1982 — something that he hasn't made a secret of, since he's introduced the song "My Father's House" in concert by recounting discussions with his therapist about the impossibility of fixing the past by endlessly reliving it.
But the most fascinating aspect for Springsteenologists may be the contention that Bruce's epic concerts have been his way of self-medicating for depression.
"My issues weren't as obvious as drugs," he tells the New Yorker. His were "just as problematic, but quieter. With all artists, because of the undertow of history and self-loathing, there is a tremendous push toward self-obliteration that occurs onstage... There's a tremendous finding of the self while also an abandonment of the self at the same time. You are free of yourself for those hours; all the voices in your head are gone... There's no room for them. There's one voice, the voice you're speaking in."