Bruce Springsteen performed on July 4 at Palais Omnisports de Bercy in Paris. Credit: David Wolff – Patrick/Redferns via Getty Images
Bruce Springsteen fans have long parsed the lyrics of his songs for relevance to their personal lives. A recent New Yorker magazine profile offers inspiration for their work lives.
The article, “We Are Alive,” by David Remnick, the magazine’s editor, is a superbly reported piece and a great read. It’s enhanced on my iPad with embedded snippets from Springsteen hits like “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Born to Run,” and “Ain’t Got You,” that I could listen to as they were mentioned in the text.
Every successful person can be a model for others–Springsteen admired Elvis, who he still recalls seeing in 1957 on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” (See too, the post by my colleague Susan Adams, “Eight Inspiring Career Lessons From The Life Of Sally Ride.”) But the people who I find most intriguing are those who’ve overcome extreme adversity, bucked a trend, or had the courage to take an unconventional path. Springsteen has done all those things.
In reporting his profile of Springsteen, Remnick nterviewed Springsteen; spoke with his wife, manager and band members; and observed him in action–rehearsing and at concerts. These are the career lessons that emerge from between the lines.
1. Build strong alliances. Springsteen’s deep work relationships have endured longer than many marriages. in addition to Landau they include Steve Van Zandt, Springsteen’s childhood friend and guitarist-wingman. Several other band members–Garry Tallent, the bass player, Max Weinberg, the drummer, and Roy Bittan, the pianist–have been with him since the 1970s.
Except for those who run their own companies, few people will have precisely that luxury in today’s volatile work world. But we can all build networks of mentors and respected colleagues who serve as a sounding board throughout our careers and sustain us during tough times.
2. Stay in shape. Our health affects everything we do, including work – especially as we age. Springsteen, 62, is probably among the few musicians (and people of his generation) who have never done drugs. Having exercised vigorously for 30 years, he has practically the same size waist as he did as a teenager. His extreme fitness makes possible strenuous performances, lasting more than three hours. Remnick describes his on-stage theatrics as “joyously demonic, as close as a white man of Social Security age can get to James Brown circa 1962 without risking a herniated disk or a shattered pelvis.”
Infectious energy is part of what Springsteen is selling at concerts. Remnick writes: “He wants his audience to leave the arena, as he commands them, ‘with your hands hurting, your feet hurting, your back hurting, your voice sore, and your sexual organs stimulated!‘” Could Springsteen be describing himself here?
3. Resist the weight of your past. We all go through life with emotional baggage. Some of us carry little tote bags; others haul around steamer trunks. There’s a danger that we will see a punitive parent in a tyrannical boss, for example, or tremble in front of an audience as we recall childhood bullies.
Springsteen, who came from a working-class family, grew up with a father who was bipolar, and whose volatile personality dominated the household. Songs like “Adam Raised A Cain,” reflect his continuing pain, while “Born to Run” is about his escape. Some people are paralyzed by the past; Springsteen used it as a catalyst.
4. Do what comes naturally. Springsteen didn’t finish college, and took refuge in the Asbury Park music scene during the 1960s and 1970s. But there too, he was a bit of a misfit, since he wasn’t good at copying songs off the radio — something that was widely done at the time. Instead, he wrote his own songs, and that became the key to his success.
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5. Be a lifelong learner. Springsteen’s music started with what Remnick describes as “early operettas of humid summer interludes and abandon out on the Turnpike.” Today it is much more literary and more worldly–partly due to the influence of Jon Landau, his longtime manager, who introduced Springsteen to books by John Steinbeck and Flannery O’Connor, and films by John Ford and Howard Hawks.
“Springsteen started to think in larger terms than cars and highways,” Remnick writes. “He began to look at his own story, his family’s story, in terms of class and American archetypes. The imagery, the storytelling, and the sense of place in those novels and films helped fuel his songs.”
By reading, traveling and listening to country and folk music (especially Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie), he also developed a political consciousness. He read Joe Klein’s biography of Guthrie, and memoirs by the civil-rights lawyer Morris Dees and the antiwar activist Ron Kovic. “In his desire to extend a counter-tradition of political progressivism, Springsteen quotes from Irish rebel songs, Dust Bowl ballads, Civil War tunes, and chain-gang chants,” Remnick writes. Springsteen’s latest album, “Wrecking Ball ,” is a commentary about the recession. Lately he’s been reading Russian fiction.
In the process, his work became more multifaceted. Remnick observes:
“He was singing now about Vietnam veterans, migrant workers, class, social divisions, deindustrialized cities, and forgotten American towns, but never in an idiom that threatened ‘Bruce’—the iconic family-friendly rock star. From the stage, he began to deliver paeans to his causes and ask for donations to local food banks, but the language was never threatening or alienating, and the gate receipts and record sales were beyond fabulous.”
6. Don’t forget where you came from. During the late 1980s, Springsteen wrestled with the contradictions of simultaneously being a millionaire rock star, with all of its accoutrements, and being a social activist. He also feared that he had inherited his father’s tendency toward depression. Springsteen describes that period to Remnick with extreme candor:
“‘My issues weren’t as obvious as drugs,’” Springsteen said.”‘Mine were different, they were quieter—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. It’s both things: 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. Just gone. There’s no room for them. There’s one voice, the voice you’re speaking in.’”
7. Find a refuge. Work isn’t everything. We all need balance. While suffering from depression during the late 1980s, Springsteen lamented the void in his personal life. In 1991, he married Patti Scialfa, a singer in his band, and they now have three young-adult children.
“It took some doing to get Springsteen, an ‘isolationist’ by nature, to settle into a real marriage, and resist the urge to dwell only in his music and onstage,” Remnick writes. Scialfa, told him, “’When you are that serious and that creative, and non-trusting on an intimate level, and your art has given you so much, your ability to create something becomes your medicine.’” To create a family and a relationship, “‘he worked really, really, really hard at it–as hard as he works at his music.’”