On Springsteen and Other Fathers
by Rax King
My father dies towards the beginning of a year that ends with the release of Springsteen on Broadway on Netflix. He loved the Boss, the E Street Band, and especially Clarence Clemons, so this is just one more thing that he would have really liked…would have. But he’s never going to see it, just like he’ll never see a post-Trump America or the end of Game of Thrones.
As such, 2018 is the year that I become obsessed with Bruce Springsteen, and I mean obsessed. He has always been a hero to me but in 2018 he achieves godhead. The mere suggestion of him in conversation is enough to send me on a hysterical hyperloop of people-always-say-Bruce-is-from-Asbury-Park-but-actually-he-was-raised-in-Freehold-New-Jersey-he-didn’t-even-form-his-first-band-in-Asbury-Park-Asbury-Park-came-later. Grief has made me odd. I am mourning the loss of the first man to ever tell me stories. I need another man in my life, telling me other stories. Springsteen on Broadway is as timely for me as it is devastating.
It’s not the pure panacea that I wanted but it’s something closer and better. At first, though, I’m skeptical. For one thing, nearly everyone in the E Street Band is mentioned only in passing, aside from Clarence, who receives a moving tribute in the form of (what else?) ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,’ the song devoted to the mythological beginnings of the E Street Band. For reasons known best to himself, Springsteen chooses not to tell us the story of how Danny “Phantom” Federici got his name, and holds back tales of Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez’s many street brawls.
The only other band member who sees so much screentime is Patti Scialfa. It’s touching in a very affirming way to see a man of Springsteen’s age light up when he sees his wife come onstage to share the microphone for two songs off Tunnel of Love—an album we can almost forget was written during Springsteen’s marriage to somebody else. Well, Springsteen and Scialfa have now been married for many magnitudes of time longer than Springsteen and Julianne Phillips ever were. It is their right to tell the story they want to tell about their relationship and, to their credit, it’s so sweet and satisfying a story that it’s hard to begrudge the omission of certain details.
As for Federici’s only-passing mention, he is not alive to force further inclusion into Springsteen’s story, and Clarence Clemons isn’t with us to correct the Boss’ version of events with the same tongue-in-cheek humor that he always did. Springsteen on Broadway forces me to let a ghost—Federici, Clemons, Phillips—be a ghost. If I remain hungry for more at the curtain call, it’s because Springsteen is my hero, larger than life and therefore ringed in shadow where his head stands in the sun.
At this stage, I stop daydreaming about the screaming and the lights and the backstage shop-talk of the E Street Band and the exact sweaty smell of Steven Van Zandt’s schmattes and squint at Springsteen on Broadway with harder eyes. The show won’t convert those in your life who are ambivalent about the Boss. Two and a half hours of Bruce Springsteen unplugged is a big ask. Bruce Springsteen is an elder statesman and sometimes he really acts like it. Wouldn’t you? People have turned to him for wisdom for so long that it’s not his fault if he’s occasionally overserious.
Still, he maintains the same sense of humor about himself that he’s always had. My boyfriend, no huge fan of the Boss and bullied into watching this with me so that I would have somebody to hand me Kleenex, said, “I’m surprised that he’s, like, funny.” That’s the impression that Bruce Springsteen gives a non-fan: grit, severity, no wit, no light. They miss the wink, the whistle in his laugh, the bulldog’s under-set that creeps into his jaw when an audience is responding precisely the way he wants it to.
And that’s how I realize that the show is actually a masterpiece for those of us who turn to the Boss for advice. True, it has no room for the effervescence and light of his brighter songs, no ‘Sherry Darling,’ no ‘Glory Days,’ no summertime Jersey Shore Springsteen. But the project is a spiritual reckoning. How often do you get invited to someone else’s spiritual reckoning? Bruce Springsteen has reached an age when he finally believes us, having spent decades hearing us tell him how much we love him and value his understanding of the world. He trusts us enough to share precious, if necessarily curated, memories with us.
Cry inventory: I cry anytime Springsteen speaks about his father, duh, because our fathers were so alike, because we as children of broken men were so alike. I cry at both the intro and the outro to ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,’ the intro because it means Clarence has come to the party, the outro because it means it’s time for Clarence to leave. I cry throughout ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad,’ which is unusual for me, because I’m no great fan of the album The Ghost of Tom Joad, truth be told, and I cry during both duets with Scialfa because I mean it—the way these two still look at each other is no joke. I cry at the line “you gotta stay hungry/hey baby, I’m just about starving tonight” in ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and I can’t explain why.
As Hanif Abdurraqib pointed out on Twitter, the project forces us to imagine a world without Springsteen in it to take care of us, a world which we must assume is now closer at hand than it is far. He’s a sixty-nine-year-old performing a career-spanning selection of music, interspersed with stories from the length of his life. It’s hard to watch if you’ve recently lost somebody, harder still if Springsteen is somebody that you don’t want to lose. It conjures thoughts of the unthinkable. I loved it and I wish I hadn’t watched it. I’m not ready to confront Springsteen on mortal ground.
A word on my father, because it seems that he is who all my words are on this year. It is now December and that means my father died seven months ago. I got the call from my mother while I was working the front desk job at a doggy daycare. I answered the phone, even though personal phone calls were forbidden, because I knew what phone call this was and I wanted to hear it from my mother first. When she answered, she said, “Oh, honey. I’m sorry.”
I stumbled into a filing cabinet behind me and, anchored against it, slid all the way to the floor. I had a trainee that day and she stared at me and when I hung up I had to explain to this stranger that my father had just died. It was an hour before my boss could come relieve me of my post and I spent that hour wiping the stripe of continuous tears from my cheeks every time a customer came in. My trainee, merciful and frightened, filled out her W2 as slowly as she could until my boss arrived and I could go home.
My point is that 2018 was a year of death. Every year is a year of death and 2018 was mine, my year, my deaths. My point is that 2018 was not the year for me to watch Springsteen on Broadway. Everybody I love is more mortal to me than ever, now that death’s long, spindly fingers have planted themselves somewhere in my pie. As Springsteen himself explains during the show, the older you get, the more mortal you feel. You lose the boundlessness of youth. You realize that every decision you make is the not-making of other decisions. Every door you open is five doors closed. Your life closes in on a single path and then, I suppose, you’re supposed to zero in on it yourself, make it your own.
So it is with casual apologies to the Boss that I must finish not with him, but with my father. Bruce, if you’re reading this, I know you understand why, so I won’t apologize too hard. In April 2018, my father was fixing himself a plate of the devilishly expensive lox that my boyfriend and I had bought him for his 75th birthday. He noticed a wasp in his kitchen, rolled up a newspaper, and lunged for it like he’d lunged after many other vermin over the years. This time, he missed the wasp, instead falling to the floor and shattering his hip and leg.
He lay on the floor, unable to move, for hours. It was the middle of the day. Everyone was at work already. Nobody was passing by to hear his screams as they petered out into groans. He’d decided that he was going to die when a door-to-door sales team showed up at his door.
At this point, only his words on the matter will do, uttered between gasps from the ICU’s oxygen mask two weeks before he did die: “I gathered the last of my strength and shouted the words I’ve been waiting to say my whole life: help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” And then his cheeks cut his face into what I knew, despite the interloping oxygen mask, was a smile.
The two salesladies called him an ambulance and waited with him for it to arrive. While they sat, he jerked his head towards the kitchen floor. “Is there a wasp on my floor?” he asked.
They confirmed that there was.
“Is it dead?”
And he smiled. “Nice.”
Rax King is a dog-loving, hedgehog-mothering, beer-swilling, gay and disabled sumbitch who occasionally writes and works as assistant editor for Sundress Publications. She is the author of the collection ‘The People’s Elbow: Thirty Recitatives on Rape and Wrestling’ (Ursus Americanus, 2018). Her other work appears or is forthcoming from Catapult, Autostraddle, and Barrelhouse.