Thursday 8 December 2016

Bruce Springsteen: My battle with depression, mental illness and fiery passion for Patti

Bruce Springsteen was in London last week to launch his autobiography. Julia Molony had an audience with The Boss

Julia Molony

Published 23/10/2016 | 02:30

Born writer: Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa perform onstage at the 29th Annual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Born writer: Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa perform onstage at the 29th Annual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

It's clearly not enough for Bruce Springsteen to be the greatest live performer of his generation. Now, he's also gone and written a masterful autobiography that is as poetic and sure-handed as anything you'll find on the best-seller lists at the moment. If not more so.

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He's never been one who has struggled to gather a crowd. But the queue of people that snakes out of the doors of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London the day Springsteen is in town is not your average public.

They're too fashionably dressed, for a start. And closer inspection reveals why. They are a tightly edited selection of music and culture journalists, documentary-makers and media people from all over Europe, who have gathered here to pay their respects to Bruce, who is here to talk about his book.

If Bob Dylan is the Walt Whitman of rock and roll, Springsteen is its Ernest Hemingway. His literary voice in Born To Run shares a lot with his music. It is muscular, sincere, searching and shot through with the vulnerability which has defined him all his life.

The book begins (naturally) with his childhood in New Jersey, where he grew up as part of a sprawling Irish-Italian blue-collar family, dealing with its fair share of dysfunction.

Emotional disturbance was passed down in his father's line. "We are the afflicted," he writes. "A lot of trouble came in the blood of my people who hailed from the Emerald Isle. My great-great-grandmother Ann Garity left Ireland at 14 in 1852 with two sisters, aged 12 and 10... I don't know where it started, but a serious strain of mental illness drifts through those of us who are here, seeming to randomly pick off a cousin, an aunt, a son, a grandmother, and unfortunately, my dad."

Adored by his mother and grandmother, Bruce's heavy-drinking father's mental illness cast a long shadow over his early life. Springsteen senior was a distant figure. But from these beginnings, Bruce tells the story of how he set off on a single-minded and tireless quest for greatness on stage, via uncertainty and his own crippling run-ins with depression.

Springsteen says he has spent "30 years in analysis", and it's quite clear that forensic self-scrutiny has become a reflex for him. "I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I," are his opening lines.

Even despite his enormous success, he's always had a touch of imposter syndrome. No wonder his nickname, "The Boss," makes him wince with embarrassment. He is a man driven by self-doubt.

Today, he is dressed simply in his usual uniform of leather jacket and jeans. He looks remarkably good for 67, lean, tanned, still in possession of that coiled-spring energy which unfurls to such dramatic effect on stage.

He has a touch of an under-bite. When he smiles, his lower teeth are bared, which lends him a defiant, even slightly savage look. But then, there's something soft about his appearance too.

As a kid at school he was teased for constant blinking and it's a tic he has retained, layering his demeanour with a faltering, uncertain air.

His initial ambitions for the book were modest. It sprung out of an essay he published on his blog after playing at the Super Bowl in 2009.

He found that he enjoyed writing and carried on. It "was just setting down my experience. Initially I didn't even think I was writing a book, it was something that maybe my kids would enjoy referring to at some point.

"So it was just something that was enjoyable really... I just thought it would be something that would reveal a little bit more about where my music came from. So if you were a fan, it just might be informative for you."

The degree of self-revelation that is involved in writing the book didn't come altogether naturally, especially when it came to writing about his family. But Springsteen is a man who feels a great responsibility to his audience.

"If you're writing a book like this, one of the agreements with your reader is you're going to open up your life, to a certain degree, you know. I say, in the book, I don't talk about all of myself, or everything I've done, you know, but you do have to show the reader your mind."

Happily, his family were understanding about what he was trying to do, "I read my kids the things that I wrote about them before it came out so, you know, they would feel comfortable with it.

"Patti [his wife of 25 years]and I of course discussed that section of the book. I wanted to make sure she was comfortable with it and she didn't change anything.

"She was interested most in the kids' sections and outside of that really, you know, she's an artist and she understood. She wasn't necessarily comfortable with everything, and some of the things I wasn't sure whether I was comfortable with myself, you know. But she gave me a lot of room to express myself and I appreciate it from her."

Indeed, his appreciation of Patti is unstinting, it seems. "She is a one-woman, red-haired revolution: flaming beauty, Queen of my heart, waitress, street busker, child of some privilege, hard-time Jersey girl... When I look at her, I see and feel my best self," he writes of her.

When they first met, he was a little daunted. "Patti had a part of her that carried a charged sexuality; she could seduce and she could stir you to jealousy. There was a lot of emotional duelling, the occasional flying beauty product and plenty of arguing. We tested our ability to withstand each other's insecurities, hard. It was good," he says.

Patti supported him too in the decision to write so openly about his depression. While her support has been invaluable, the other thing that has helped him cope, he says today, has been the discipline of performance.

"I always think that I, I've played so long, you know, there was an element of where I needed to exhaust myself," he says.

"Exhaustion was my friend. Because once I did that [performed]... you're just too tired to be depressed, you know. It's like, to be depressed, you've got to have a certain amount of energy to go searching through the weeds, and see the one thing that's going to bother you, and just dwell on that merrily through the rest of the day, you know... there's an element of catharsis in playing.

"There's also a great cantering element, which wards off tricks of the mind, you know... it hardens your centre, and you come off with a very solid sense of who you are, and what you do. And that wards off a lot of the self doubt, and the sort of unreasonable, and unproductive questioning that comes with some of the depression."

He draws a great deal of strength too from his family, and the role of parenthood - something that didn't necessarily come automatically to him.

He struggles, he admits in Born to Run, to conquer his "self-centredness, my narcissism, my isolation".

Today he elaborates that he had to learn the art of "spending of deep, personal time" in parenting. That was something that he never had growing up from his father,

"I was used to my working taking all my time, which felt completely natural to me. And it was my sacred space, and, you know, 'don't interrupt the great mind - who knows what great thoughts I might be thinking'.

"So, to sort of, you know - 'hey, man, I need a ride to Billy's house, you know' - and be able to just close the book and give the ride, was something, it took me a while to get around to it.

"But with Patti's help, I figured out a lot of it, you know, so I have a good relationship with all my kids. And although I wouldn't say I was perfect, I did okay, you know."

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (Simon and Schuster) is out now.

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