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Even rock stars get the blues: Bruce Springsteen talks depression

July 25, 2012|By Todd Martens
  • Bruce Springsteen, center, with Steven Van Zandt and drummer Max Weinberg.
Bruce Springsteen, center, with Steven Van Zandt and drummer Max Weinberg. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Bruce Springsteen doesn't mince words when discussing his artistic drive. In a lengthy, tantalizing profile in the New Yorker, Springsteen says his ambitions have been driven by three separate but connected emotions: "pure fear and self-loathing and self-hatred."

It's a rare look at vulnerability from a rock star, especially one at the arena and stadium level. Though issues of self-doubt appear to have plagued Springsteen for much of his career, the artist speaks of conquering his demons in nearly romanticized terms. Rather than having a polarizing effect on his creativity, Springsteen's emotional headaches forced him to the stage, he tells the New Yorker. 

Says Springsteen, "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.”

Things got so bad, says Springsteen's biographer and friend Dave Marsh, that the artist in 1982 even contemplated suicide. "The depression wasn’t shocking, per se. He was on a rocket ride, from nothing to something," Marsh said, of the period surrounding Springsteen's career-defining stark, acoustic effort "Nebraska."

The Boss's emotional turmoil wasn't a complete surprise, the New Yorker writes. After all, Springsteen openly discussed the inspiration behind the song "My Father's House" (from "Nebraska") onstage, revealing to his fans that the song developed through conversations with his psychotherapist.

In the New Yorker's approximately 15,000-word piece on Springsteen, the emotional drama isn't the centerpiece, but it is an undercurrent throughout. Springsteen cops to being a work in progress, and he speaks freely of his good fortune, especially the stress that success can play on one's belief in the ability to be important.

Said Springsteen, "If you are extremely pleased with yourself, nobody would be ... doing it! Brando would not have acted. Dylan wouldn’t have written ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ James Brown wouldn’t have gone ‘Unh!’ He wouldn’t have searched that one-beat down that was so hard. That’s a motivation, that element of ‘I need to remake myself, my town, my audience’ -- the desire for renewal."

The tormented artist is a poweful myth that continues to endure, and one that can sometimes be self-fulfilling. Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy spoke to The Times in 2011 about how he put off seeking help due to his own distaste for the "concept of the tortured artist."

It's a piece of rock 'n' roll lore, said Tweedy, that can be as damaging to the stable and the unstable.

"The artists that have created without having any physical flaws and psychological damage don’t get any ink," Tweedy said. "And if it doesn’t exist, people find it. 'Well, he writes like that because his mother died when he was 42.' I’m endlessly fascinated by the durability of that myth, and the length that people go who don’t write, or don’t create, to defend it. It’s a built-in kind of excuse, like, ‘I could write like that, but I have a life.' "

Tweedy's comments illustrate that self-doubt and self-criticism are pervasive among artists, and that each finds his or her own rationale and comfort level in discussing them with the public. The fact that Springsteen has hardly touched on these feelings in public all these years also shows that it's a sensitive subject, and no one wants their work misinterpreted.

Or maybe the Boss is just beyond that now. The New Yorker piece touches on numerous facets of his work, not just depression, but his candor demonstrates that the process of making that work keeps unfolding.

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