What “Springsteen on Broadway” says about fathers, forgiveness, and how a generation says goodbye

[A guest post by John Duffy which takes a different look at Springsteen’s massively successful run on Broadway. -AC]

For years I tried to get my father to a Bruce Springsteen show. I finally succeeded in 2012. But I on the way there was anxious. Would he enjoy it? Be bored? Would it be too loud? After all Dad was a greaser turned folkie who, by the time Bruce came along was raising a family with my mother and going to night school, not concerts.

The luxury I enjoyed charting my life through the poetry and liberation of rock and roll had not been his. But I needn’t have worried. As we walked back to the car after the show that night he smiled, clapped my shoulder and said, “thanks. I get it now.”

Deep connections between fathers and sons are not always so easy. The troubled relationship between Bruce and his father Douglas is well known to listeners over the last forty years, so it’s no surprise it served as a major theme in “Springsteen on Broadway,” the 14-month residency at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York that Bruce closed out December 15 after 235 shows. It’s now available on Netflix.

The show is a funny, poignant, and frank confessional journey through Bruce’s life and music. Its most powerful moments explore the fragile emotional geography of his childhood, in particular the lingering ghost of his father.

In choosing the fifteen songs he performs in the show, Bruce could’ve picked any number of his songs written over four decades to illustrate their turbid relationship— “Walk Like a Man,” “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Factory,” “Independence Day”—songs that run the gamut of emotion from admiration to anger, defiance, disappointment, and pity.

Instead, he sings the rarely heard “My Father’s House,” a song in which a man is so empty of his father’s love that he dreams he is a child running scared through the dark wilderness to reach home. There, shaking from fear, he is greeted by his father’s warm and open arms. When he awakens from the dream, the singer rushes to the house only to find a woman he doesn’t know living there.

In real life Douglas was an alcoholic and a bully. “My father used to call me an outcast, misfit, weirdo sissy boy,” Bruce wrote in his 2016 autobiography “Born to Run.” His mother Adele was the opposite: compassionate, gentle, patient. Yet the rejection heaped on him by his father proved a potent fuel for the singer.

Written in 1982 and characteristic of the stark Nebraska album it can be found on, “My Father’s House” is as fierce an indictment of Douglas’ fathering as Bruce ever wrote. But in its Broadway performance, sung almost in a whisper, it is tempered with a wisdom it took the singer another thirty-six years to find.

Despite the hurt, Bruce yearned for his father’s acceptance, and found it, in a way, through imitation. “When I was searching for a voice…It was his voice,” he says in the middle of the song. “I put on a factory worker’s clothes because they were my dad’s clothes…my father was my hero, and my greatest foe.” But a feeling that over the years he hadn’t been fair to his father in songs or in stories was a prime motivator for this most recent chapter. The song’s last line “where our sins lie unatoned…” is key. Is it just the father’s job to ask forgiveness, or do the children have a part to play as well?

A look around at any E Street Band arena show over the last twenty years will prove the power of Bruce’s music to bridge generations; like me and my own father, a man of the same post-war cultural shifts as Bruce. But the gap between their generation and that of their fathers was for many, unbridgeable, and America still lives with its many scars.

After all it was the men and women who survived the Depression and vanquished global tyranny who came home to build a head-down prosperity meant to sustain their new world. Then came rock n’ roll, and “the unwashed, the invisible, powerless kids” would demand much more than their parents were willing to cede. Then there was a senseless war, assassinations, civil rights, sexual liberation, the permanent paranoia state; and the chasm widened. And it created the one America stares into now.

Douglas was a man of his time, and Bruce of his. Much of their acrimony though wasn’t just a product of the times, or a product of their tough working-class reality, or the fault of rock n’ roll. Douglas wasn’t a bad father because his son was a hippie. He wasn’t a bad father because he drank and was emotionally unavailable. In the 1980’s the elder Springsteen was diagnosed with schizophrenia, while Bruce himself would suffer through several crippling bouts of depression as an adult. It was this ironic genetic connection—as well as Bruce becoming a father himself—that would serve as pathway for their eventual reconciliation.

Douglas’ generation is gone, or nearly so. He left a little early in 1998 at the age of 73, just five years older than Bruce is now. Adele is 94. Their generation’s children, like Bruce and like my father, are now entering their own final act. The years of their impact, influence, and cultural currency are numbered, and their children now stand in their place.

If “Springsteen on Broadway” is meant to close the book on the fracture between Bruce and his father, it also aims to settle the debts between the generations they represent. In that sense it serves as an act of forgiveness and an act of penance; a benediction and a new beginning. For them and maybe, for the rest of us.

John Duffy is an English/Social Studies teacher living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He’s been writing about music, culture, history, and the places they intersect since 1997. He’s presented academic papers on Springsteen, the Tragically Hip, and Woody Guthrie.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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