The spiritual evolution of Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen is candid about the fact that it wasn’t religion, but therapy, that propelled his spiritual maturation. At least that’s how his wife, Patti Scialfa, put it to New Yorker editor David Remnick in a recent profile: “He was able to look at himself and battle it out,” she said.

How he achieved the seemingly impossible—that is, a fairly normal life for a rock-and-roll superstar; he is long-married with three kids—reads a lot like a religious journey. He begins in the bondage of his youth, journeys through the wilds of his ascending star and lands, at 62, in a contented place that balances his need for idolatry with his need for intimacy. You might say, Springsteen had to transcend himself in order to live with himself. Though he is not Jewish, his journey echoes Jewish texts and teachings.

In his telling, no amount of fame or fortune could erase the demons of his childhood, in which a tortured, wavering relationship with his bipolar father was paramount—though not unrivaled by growing up poor or the potential dangers stalking behind the frissons of his ambition.

“My parents’ struggles, it’s the subject of my life,” Springsteen told The New Yorker. “It’s the thing that eats at me and always will. My life took a very different course, but my life is an anomaly. Those wounds stay with you, and you turn them into a language and a purpose.”

From those wounds, he made music. He set out to prove himself to that hovering figure of a father who had tried to constrain him. He learned to perform away his pain. And in healing himself, through music, through performance, and the pursuit of self-knowledge, he discovered a means for healing others. “We’re repairmen—repairmen with a toolbox,” he said. “If I repair a little of myself, I’ll repair a little of you. That’s the job.”

It was not pre-ordained that Springsteen would understand or overcome his own suffering, or that it might awaken him to the pain of others. As with so many other extraordinary talents, it would have been almost too easy for him to fall prey to the promises of his own legend. His wife, Scialfa, explained: “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,” she said. “It’s the only thing that’s given you that stability, that joy, that self-esteem. And so you are, like, ‘This part of me no one is going to touch.’ When you’re young, that works, because it gets you from A to B. When you get older, when you are trying to have a family and children, it doesn’t work. I think that some artists can be prone to protecting the well that they fetched their inspiration from so well that they are actually protecting malignant parts of themselves, too. You begin to see that something is broken. It’s not just a matter of being the mythological lone wolf; something is broken.”

It is the curse of the gifted that the high that comes with creation can also hinder their own self-development. Stardom should not be confused with sophistication. Springsteen has admitted that at the core of his drive lie the darker parts of himself. “I searched out something that I needed to do,” he said. “It’s a job that’s filled with ego and vanity and narcissism, and you need all those things to do it well. But you can’t let those things completely swamp you, either. You need all those things but in relative check.”

Ego, vanity and narcissism can be enabling (even ennobling) gifts, he discovered, so long as they don’t rule. The idea fits nicely with a Talmudic teaching that instructs every person to carry in their pocket two contradictory messages—“For me the world was created” and “I am but dust and ashes”—as a reminder of the infinity of individual potential and the reality of mortal finitude. 

Blessings exist in harmony with curses. Springsteen accepts the vanities of his artistic madness as tools for transcendance— “You need those things, because you are driven by your needs out there—the raw hunger and the raw need of exciting people and exciting yourself into some higher state.”

Call it the erotics of Springsteen’s spirituality. It is a skill he cultivates: “I want an extreme experience,” he told Remnick. He wants his audience to leave a concert, “with [their] hands hurting, [their] feet hurting, [their] back hurting, [their] voice sore, and [their] sexual organs stimulated!”

The Jewish mystics described this state of being as the ability to experience eternity in a single moment. “The spiritual work of life is to be able to experience the full infinity of every moment,” writes Rabbi Mordechai Gafni.

Infinity is precisely what Springsteen tries to bring both to his personal performance and to his audience. Like the function of physical intimacy, he wants his audience to forget themselves for awhile. He even describes his role as akin to a religious leader. “You’re the shaman, a little bit, you’re leading the congregation,” he said.

But, unlike many religious leaders, he does not pretend that he is holier than his believers.

“[Y]ou are the same as everybody else in the sense that your troubles are the same, your problems are the same, you’ve got your blessings, you’ve got your sins, you’ve got the things you can do well, you’ve got the things you fuck up all the time. And so you’re a conduit. There was a series of elements in your life—some that were blessings, and some that were just chaotic curses—that set fire to you in a certain way.”

Ironically, whatever tensions he has resolved, whatever balance in self-perception he has achieved, it has not neutralized the impulse of devotees to deify him.

As neophyte bandmate Jake Clemons beamed, “Maybe he comes from the line of David, a shepherd boy who could play beautiful music, so that the crazy become less crazy and Saul the king finally chills out. Religion is a system of rules and order and expectations, and it unites people in a purpose. There really is a component of Bruce that is supernatural. Bruce is Moses! He led the people out of the land of disco!”

Read the full profile at The New Yorker