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I grew up in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, 40 miles northwest of Freehold, where Bruce Springsteen is from. A couple of miles away from my childhood home is the town of Centerville, where a blue sign marks what was the “center point for Swift Sure Stagecoach Line running on the Old York Road between Philadelphia and New York in [the] mid 1700’s.” During much of my adolescence, I viewed New Jersey like that sign: a place you pass through to get somewhere else.
Three days after I graduated high school, I totaled my first car—a red ’92 Camaro Z28—500 yards from that sign. I suspect that the mixed CD I was playing that day had a Springsteen song on it, probably “Thunder Road.” For a long time, I loathed Springsteen: my parents loved him and that was reason enough. I didn’t understand him. I didn’t understand New Jersey. I didn’t understand myself.
But by the time my head went through the airbag, colliding with the top of the black steering wheel, I had Springsteen songs like “Jersey Girl” and “Atlantic City” on the CD mixes I’d burn on my parents’ Dell computer. I had begun to identify myself in his music: the searching and angst of youth and growing up in this place. I was getting out of New Jersey for the first time, headed off to Poughkeepsie, New York, in the mid-Hudson Valley, for college.
I was enthralled by the blank page of my youth that Springsteen discusses during his one-man show, Springsteen on Broadway prior to launching into a rendition of “Thunder Road.” He says: “Maybe there’s nothing like that moment in your life of being young and leaving someplace, all that youthful freedom. You feel—finally being untethered from everything you’ve ever known: the life you’ve lived, your past, your parents, the world you’ve gotten used to and that you’ve loved and hated. Your life laying before you like a blank page. It’s the one thing I miss about getting older. I miss the beauty of that blank page.”
I moved back to Whitehouse Station, at 31-years-old, for the first time since the year after college. I had spent the prior year in California, and five years before that in coastal Virginia. And for the first time, I began falling in love with the place I had always run from and had been quick to blame for the things I hated about myself. This just so happened to be during Springsteen’s Broadway stint.
In a profile for Esquire by Michael Hainey, Springsteen calls his one-man show on Broadway a coming-of-age-story: “I want to show how this—one’s coming of age—has to be earned. It’s not given to anyone. It takes a certain single-minded purpose. It takes self-awareness, a desire to go there. And a willingness to confront all the very fearsome and dangerous elements of your life—your past, your history—that you need to confront to become as much of a free agent as you can. This is what the show is about…It’s me reciting my ‘Song of Myself.’”
“DNA,” Springsteen says as the show opens. His show, his career, his life—a search for what makes him tick. It’s easy to identify with the basics of his childhood—“a lifeless sucking black hole of homework, church, school.” And then Elvis shows up on a Sunday night in 1956 when he’s seven years old and a “freer existence exploded into unsuspecting homes all across America.” In order to do what Elvis was doing, “All you had to do was risk being your true self.” It’s a monumental action to take, and one that establishes the foundation for the next couple of hours because it’s the foundation of Springsteen’s career: he’s been searching for himself—risking being his true self—his entire life.
Springsteen’s young life is weighed down by his father: “I chose my father’s voice because there was something sacred in it to me. When I went looking for something to wear, I put on a factory worker’s clothes because they were my dad’s clothes. And all we know about manhood is what we have seen and what we have learned from our fathers and my father was my hero and my greatest foe.”
The show shifts from poignant to comedic: there is a seriousness to the tone that shouldn’t be surprising, considering Springsteen’s long struggle with depression. He moves from the childhood sugar pops that aren’t sugary enough to memories of the sainthood he places upon his mother, her current battle with Alzheimer’s at age 93, and the lyrics of “The Wish”: “If pa’s eyes were windows into a world so deadly and true/You couldn’t stop me from looking but you kept me from crawlin’ through.”
“Dancing in the Dark” bleeds into “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which seems fitting. With every song, Springsteen inches closer to arriving at his absolute truth. As he rides “this train” in “Land of Hope and Dreams,” he sings, “Well tomorrow there’ll be sunshine/Sunshine/And all this darkness past. Well, big wheels roll/Through fields where sunlight streams/Oh, meet me/In a land of hope and dreams.” The lyrics connect with Springsteen’s childhood dreams—the American dream.
While writing his book, he goes back to the neighborhood where he grew up, looking for—“well I still don’t have a fucking clue.” He returns to find his great tree—the tree of his youth—gone. He felt like “some kid suffering some irretrievable loss…It had been there long before I was, and I assumed it would be there long after I was gone…But some essential piece of it was still there.”
The past, Springsteen seems to be saying, is unavoidable. It shapes us and shakes us, and all we can do is accept that. “And we live amongst ghosts,” Springsteen says, “always trying to reach us from that shadow world.”
Geoff Watkinson has contributed to Guernica, storySouth, Brevity [Blog], The Humanist, The San Diego-Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot, and Switchback, among others. His first nonfiction collection, 'Have Some Faith in Loneliness & Other Essays,' is due out in 2019 (Dreaming Big Publications). He is a lecturer in the English Department at Seton Hall University, and he is the founder/managing editor of Green Briar Review (www.greenbriarreview.com). Read more of his work at geoffwatkinson.wordpress.com/publications, or find him on Twitter: @GeoffWatkinson.