The man. The myth. The Boss. Bruce Springsteen is one of those artists who is always listed as someone’s top five or even three. And if he’s your number 1, then you know how great this guy really is. The Boss has been making his mark in music history since the ‘70s, and he shows no signs of slowing down. From the anthem “Born to Run” to his more introspective “Streets of Philadelphia,” Springsteen has graced us with so many classics that it’s hard to even list his best hits.
But, despite his hero status, his personal life is less known. The man who tends to wear his heart on his musical sleeve has his own skeletons in the closet. There’s a lot to be known about his personal life, including the strained relationship with his father and his own depression. This piece is not only about his road to becoming a musical legend, but a look into the moments that made him who he is today.
Welcome to the untold truth of Bruce Springsteen.
Bruce Springsteen was born in Freehold, New Jersey, on September 23rd, 1949, to Dutch-Irish-Italian parents, Douglas and Adele Springsteen. The city of Freehold would end up being a significant symbol of his musical work during his whole career, as he wrote about everyday life and ordinary people from his hometown.
He spent his childhood there and lived on South Street. His father worked as a bus driver mainly and held other jobs. Douglas Springsteen had suffered from mental health issues his whole life, which worsened in his later years. Springsteen’s mother was a legal secretary and the primary breadwinner in the family. Bruce has two younger sisters, Virginia and Pamela. Bruce’s Italian maternal grandfather impressed the young boy who always saw him as being larger than life.
Bruce was raised Catholic and attended St. Rose of Lima Catholic school, where he found himself at odds with the nuns and rejected all the limitations imposed on him. Funnily enough, his religious upbringing had a significant influence on his music. In a 2012 interview, Springsteen explained that it was actually his Catholic upbringing rather than any political ideology that influenced his music the most.
He noted that his faith had given him a “very active spiritual life.” However, he still joked about how it “made it very difficult sexually,” adding, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” Bruce grew up hearing fellow New Jersey singer Frank Sinatra on the radio. But there was another musician that made Bruce realize that he wants to become a musician himself.
It was in 1956 and 1957 when Bruce was seven that he saw Elvis Presley on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’ Soon after that, his mother rented him a guitar from Freehold’s store called Mike Diehl’s Music for $6 a week. But for some reason, it failed to provide the young boy with the instant gratification he wanted. He was 13 by the time he bought his first guitar at the Western Auto Appliance Store for $18.95.
While Elvis gave him that initial spark, it was The Beatles who had Bruce obsessed with learning how to play the guitar. After he saw them performing on Ed Sullivan, he locked himself up in his room for months, trying to learn how to play. Springsteen went to Freehold High School but didn’t seem to fit in there. Teachers said he was a “loner who wanted nothing more than to play his guitar.”
In 1965, the young and guitar-obsessed teenager went to the House of Tex and Marion Vinyard, who at the time was sponsoring young bands in town. They helped Bruce become a lead guitarist in a group called The Rogues, getting his first paid gigs. He later joined The Beatles-influenced group called The Castiles and began playing gigs in New Jersey and New York.
They played all kinds of venues, including Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village. The group recorded two original songs at a public recording studio in Brick Township. Marion Vinyard said how at the time, she believed the young Springsteen when he promised her that one day he would make it big.
But then the Vietnam War happened…
Bruce graduated in 1967 but felt like such an outsider that he didn’t even go to the graduation ceremony. He briefly went to Ocean County College but dropped out soon after he started. By the time that he was 18, he was called for conscription to the US Army to serve in the Vietnam War. But he didn’t pass the physical examination.
Why? Because a year earlier, when he was 17, he suffered a concussion in a motorcycle accident. So that, together with his “crazy” behavior at the induction, made him unacceptable for service. He was given a classification of 4F (unfit for military service). But his accident and conduct wasn’t going to get in the way of his music. Springsteen knew that making music was his calling.
In the later ‘60s, Springsteen was part of a group called Earth, which was a Cream-style power trio. During Bruce’s short stint in college, he formed the band Child (later called Steel Mill) with some local musicians, including drummer Vini’ Mad Dog’ Lopez and keyboardist Danny Federici. The band was later joined by guitarist Steve Van Zandt. They mainly played in clubs in New Jersey.
But, Springsteen disbanded Steel Mill in 1971. In 1972, Springsteen formed a new band to record his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. That band eventually came to be known as the infamous E Street Band, although that name wasn’t used until 1974. It was during this period that Springsteen acquired the nickname “The Boss.”
Bruce got his famous nickname The Boss during his early days as the frontman of the E Street Band because he took on the task of collecting their nightly pay and distributing it amongst the bandmates. Word on the street has it that the nickname also stems from the games of Monopoly that Springsteen would like to play with other Jersey Shore musicians.
Springsteen started playing solo shows in New York City in the early ‘70s. That’s when he met his first manager, Mike Appel, who got Bruce an audition for Columbia Records’ talent scout, John Hammond. Hammond was the guy who signed Bob Dylan to Columbia. When Hammond auditioned Springsteen in 1972, listening to some original songs done only on a guitar and piano, his response was simply: “You’ve got to be on Columbia Records.”
Like Dylan, Springsteen is still with Columbia Records to this day. Springsteen’s debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., was released in 1973, and it was well-received, yet its sales were disappointing (selling only 25,000 copies). In the same year, Springsteen’s second album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, was released.
Again, the album was well-received, but it was the commercial aspect that failed to make a splash. His songs were greater in form and scope, with a less folksy and more R&B vibe. The lyrics often romanticized teenaged street life. The songs “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and “Incident on 57th Street” became fan favorites. But it was his next album that became his breakthrough work.
Born to Run, Springsteen’s third album, was his make or break album. He was given an enormous budget in the record company’s last-ditch effort to make a commercially practical record. And so the pressure was on. The album took over 14 months to record, with six of those months spent on the song “Born to Run” alone.
Springsteen became fixated on trying to gain a Phil Spector-type “Wall of Sound” production. He was overcome with anger and frustration over the making of this album, saying later how he heard “sounds in [his] head” that he just couldn’t explain to the others in the studio. The album was finally completed on July 25th, 1975. But Springsteen was not satisfied.
When he first heard the finished album, he threw it into the alley. Someone in the band said how they saw Bruce fling it out of his hotel room window and into a river. He told Appel that he wanted to scrap half of it and substitute live recordings from upcoming concerts at The Bottom Line in New York (where he often played).
The album was released in August of 1975, and advance sales put it on the chart a week before it was even released. It quickly made the Top Ten, going gold in a matter of weeks. Their hard work – and frustration – paid off. Springsteen’s success was cemented for many years ahead. The album gave Springsteen his first hit single.
The Wall of Sound that could be heard on almost every song on Born to Run held a sort of mythical image of the rock ‘n’ roll era. Springsteen said once that he wanted that album to sound like “Roy Orbison singing Bob Dylan, produced by Spector.” Bruce’s friend and the guitarist, Steve Van Zandt, now laughs at the thought of it.
“Anytime you spend six months on a song, there’s something not exactly going right. A song should take about three hours.” The man’s got a point. But when it comes to perfectionism, there’s always room for improvement. In the 2005 documentary ‘Wings for Wheels,’ Springsteen called Van Zandt’s input on the track “arguably Steve’s greatest contribution to my music.”
With his first royalty cheque from ‘Born to Run,’ Springsteen bought himself a 1950 Corvette. It was actually the first car he ever owned, and it now resides in a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame exhibition. But despite this major breakthrough, he wasn’t able to follow up on his epic third album due to legal disputes with his former manager, Appel.
He brought in a new manager, rock critic Jon Landau. But the problem was that he couldn’t record new material until the dispute with Appel was settled. It was during this period, which lasted about a year that Springsteen wrote ‘Because the Night’ with Patti Smith. Springsteen and Appel finally reached a settlement in 1977, and Springsteen returned to the studio.
Bruce Springsteen’s return came in 1978 with the album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. It was a musical turning point in Springsteen’s career. The raw, rapid-fire lyrics and long musical compositions were gone. The songs were more carefully drawn and started to reflect Springsteen’s new intellectual and political awareness.
In 1979, Springsteen went to a Ramones show in New Jersey and met Joey Ramone. Ramone asked him to write a song for them. Springsteen then composed ‘Hungry Heart’ that very night. But on the advice of his producer and manager, Jon Landau, he decided to keep the track for himself. ‘Hungry Heart’ eventually was released and gave Springsteen his first Top Ten hit. The song was used in the Tom Cruise film, ‘Risky Business,’ which marked the first time a Springsteen song was used in a movie.
Springsteen has more recently spoken openly and honestly about his struggles with depression, which he started to face in his 30s. Around that time, he was frustrated with being an underweight “fast-food junkie” who sometimes had to be helped off stage after a show. He took his health more seriously and began running six miles on a treadmill and lifting weights three times a week.
In a September 2019 article celebrating his 70th birthday, Springsteen revealed that he’d maintained that same workout routine ever since. He also reportedly follows a mostly vegetarian diet that he’s kept since around the same time. Also important to note – and celebrate – that Springsteen has maintained a lifelong avoidance of hard drugs.
Springsteen dated actress Joyce Hyser for a number of years in the early ‘80s. Before her, he dated photographer Lynn Goldsmith and model Karen Darvin. It was also in the ‘80s that Bruce met Patti Scialfa at The Stone Pony bar in New Jersey. It was during the evening she performed alongside his friend Bobby Bandiera.
Springsteen watched her perform and liked her voice, and after the show, he introduced himself to her. They soon started hanging out together, and in 1984, he asked her to join the E Street Band for their upcoming Born in the USA. Tour. According to Dave Marsh’s book, Bruce Springsteen on Tour 1969–2005, the two seemed like they were on the verge of being a real couple.
But before anything romantic could really start with Patti Scialfa, actor Barry Bell came around and introduced Springsteen to actress and model, Julianne Phillips. It didn’t take long for the two to fall in love. They got married shortly after midnight on May 13th, 1985, at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church in Lake Oswego, Oregon.
The two were major opposites, though. There was an age gap of 11 years, and Springsteen’s traveling schedule was taking a toll on their relationship. Many of the songs on the album Tunnel of Love actually describe the unhappiness he was feeling at the time in his relationship with Phillips. Their marriage quickly fell apart, and Springsteen started to look elsewhere… towards a familiar face.
As he accepted the fact that his marriage to Phillips was at the point of no return, he began an affair with Patti Scialfa, who was by then the E Street Band backup singer. Springsteen had actually convinced Scialfa to rejoin the tour. She was reluctant at first because what she really wanted was to start recording her own solo album.
But when he told her the tour would be short, Scialfa agreed to postpone her solo record and join the tour. The two fell in love during the Tunnel of Love Express Tour. Unlike Phillips, Scialfa shared his working-class New Jersey background, and the two had much more in common. His divorce to Phillips came in 1989, and Springsteen moved in with Scialfa.
Springsteen’s separation wasn’t made public, and so he received his share of criticism for the haste in which he and Scialfa started their new relationship. In a 1995 interview with The Advocate, Springsteen said, “It’s a strange society that assumes it has the right to tell people whom they should love and whom they shouldn’t… all I know is, this feels real, and maybe I have got a mess going here in some fashion, but that’s life.”
Years later, Springsteen reflected on his divorce from Phillips. “I didn’t protect Julianne… some sort of public announcement would have been fair, but I felt overly concerned about my own privacy. I handled it badly, and I still feel badly about it. It was cruel for people to find out the way they did.”
Bruce and Patti lived in New Jersey before moving to Los Angeles, where they started a family. They had two children together before officially getting married in 1991. On June 8th, 1991, they wed at their Los Angeles home in a private ceremony, with only family and close friends. Their three kids are Evan James, Jessica Rae, and Samuel Ryan.
Now that Springsteen was a father, he started to worry about what kind of father he would be. Considering his strained relationship with his own father, who was riddled with mental illness, he didn’t have much of a role model to work with. He told Gayle King on CBS This Morning: “there were a lot of mistakes I didn’t want to make.”
“I believe behind every artist [he] has someone that told him that he wasn’t worth dirt, and someone that told him they were the second coming of baby Jesus, and they believed them both,” Springsteen said. And according to Bruce, “That is the fuel that starts the fire.” In his memoir, Born to Run, Springsteen revealed a lot about his relationship with his father.
In his own words: “He loved me, but couldn’t stand me.” Springsteen said that while he painted the picture of his father as a “domineering” and “frightening” character, it was actually more complicated than that. A decades-long icy relationship with his father thawed after the birth of his first son, Evan. His father, a freshly-made grandfather, just showed up at his door, and the two had a couple of beers in the morning.
Douglas Springsteen told his superstar son that he “wasn’t so good” to him, where Bruce replied with: “You did the best you could.” According to Bruce, that moment changed their relationship immediately. “It was a lovely gift. A lovely epilogue.” On his battle with depression, Bruce said that it lasted for a long time, but didn’t affect his playing.
“It sneaks up on you,” were his words. He made sure to credit his wife Patti for playing a significant role in helping him through it, telling him that everything was “going to be okay.” Patti also helped him become more secure in his doubts about being a good father to his children. When you think about it, it’s hard to imagine The Boss worrying about being a dad.
But the enormous undertaking was haunting the rock star. It got to the point that he would avoid being home too much. But Patti warned him he needed to be home more. He also told Entertainment Weekly, “a reminder that the one thing you can’t run away from is yourself.” Patti laid it down straight to her husband.
In effect, she said to him: “keep on with your musician’s hours, and you’re going to lose out on your kids’ early lives.” The woman was right. One day she came to him as he lay in bed around noon and said, “You’re gonna miss it.” He asked her what he’s going to miss. She told me that he’s missing out on the kids, the mornings.
Patti told her husband that “it’s the best time, it’s when they need you the most. They’re different in the morning than at any other time of day, and if you don’t get up to see it, well then…you’re gonna miss it.’” The next day, the rock star woke up at 7:00 am, groggy and not in a good mood, and made his way downstairs to where his children were waiting for their breakfast.
When he told his wife that he had no idea how to make pancakes, she simply told him to learn. He found a pancake recipe and, after some time, became something of a pancake-making pro. Springsteen later said how feeding your children is a “great act of intimacy.”
He spoke of how he received his rewards, like the sounds of forks clattering on plates and toast popping out of the toaster. And if he didn’t wake up to do it, he would have missed it. When their kids reached school age in the ‘90s, Bruce and Patti moved back to New Jersey to raise their family away from the paparazzi.
They live on a horse farm in Colts Neck Township, but they own a few homes; in Rumson, Los Angeles, and Wellington, Florida. I’m not sure how much the Springsteen kids appreciate that their father is a rock god. In 1999, their father was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Bono, which was a favor he returned in 2005.
Springsteen’s 19th studio album, Western Stars, came out last year, in 2019. He also did a film of the same name that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Springsteen co-directed it along with longtime collaborator Thom Zimny. The film shows Springsteen and his band performing the music from the Western Stars album live.
Springsteen made some comments in late 2019 about a potential new album as well as a tour with the E Street Band for 2020, but Steven Van Zandt cast some doubt. According to Van Zandt, “Let’s just say I thought I was going to be busier than I am. So at the moment, 2020 seems to have opened up.”
And now for some random but fun facts about The Boss…
Bruce Springsteen has fans in some high up places. Take Barack Obama, for example, who said once that there are “a handful of people who enter into your lives through their music and tell the American people’s story. Bruce Springsteen is one of those people.” Obama, with his loveable sense of humor, said that he ran for President only because he couldn’t be Bruce Springsteen.
Another major fan was the late Joe Strummer. Clash’s frontman was asked about Springsteen for a TV documentary from the mid-‘90s and responded with a quote that said, among other things, “Bruce is great. If you don’t agree with that, you’re a pretentious Martian from Venus,” and then “The DJ puts on ‘Racing in the Streets’ and life seems worth living again.”
Springsteen had a bit of a hard time in school, where even his teachers called him a loner. According to Springsteen himself, “In the third grade, a nun stuffed me in a garbage can under her desk because she said that’s where I belonged. Oh, and he was the only altar boy who got knocked down by a priest during mass.
But then again, he did have a bit of a following among his fellow students. Springsteen had his fans, too, of course. Some of the girls at his high school approached the administration with a signed petition, demanding that his band at the time, The Castiles, be given more respect and attention.
Yes, that sounds weird, I know. But apparently, Springsteen had a point to prove. Word has it that the musician was spotted one time in a movie theater watching Woody Allen’s ‘Stardust Memories’ (which has a lot to do with on artist/fan relations). Apparently, the fan who saw him challenged Springsteen to prove he didn’t regard his fans with contempt by proposing an idea.
He asked Springsteen to come home with him to meet his parents. And guess what – he did! “And for two hours I was in this kid’s house, talking with these people,” Springsteen remembered. “They were really nice. They cooked me up all this food, watermelon, and the guy gave me a ride back to my hotel a few hours later.”
In May 1977, Springsteen and Van Zandt attended an Elvis Presley concert in Philadelphia. A couple of days later, Bruce wrote the song “Fire” and sent a demo of the track to Presley himself, hoping he might cover it. It’s unclear whether the tape got sent or not, but Presley died that August. In the end, Springsteen gave “Fire” to Robert Gordon. Gordon’s version was then covered by the Pointer Sisters, who made it a hit in 1979.
Speaking of Elvis, Springsteen caused a security scare at Presley’s Graceland. After a concert in 1976 in Memphis, the reportedly drunk Springsteen went to Graceland at three a.m., jumped the wall, and ran to the front door. But security grabbed him before he made it to the door. It wouldn’t have done much good since Elvis was in Lake Tahoe at the time anyway.
According to Frank Stefanko, Springsteen’s friend and a photographer, Bruce is pretty talented at taking photos. “Riding in my car, he’ll notice unusual things — weird Jersey billboards, funny signs on the sides of diners — and it’s all registering,” Stefanko said. “A non-photographer will just walk by and never see it. Bruce travels all over the world, taking pictures — it’s quite a collection of work. Will he ever show it? I don’t know. He doesn’t make a fuss over it. But I know he has that artist’s eye — his eyes, his brain, they’re always working.”
Random fact: Did you know that The Boss has been heard in space? In December of 1999, the Space Shuttle Discovery crew was woken up with Springsteen’s “Rendezvous” on the day that they were scheduled to engage with the Hubble Space Telescope.
When Springsteen sings that “they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night” in his song “Atlantic City,” he’s referring to a man named Phil Testa. He was the underboss of Philadelphia’s crime family under Angelo Bruno. Bruno was murdered in 1980, and Testa succeeded him as the don of the family. The nickname Chicken Man came from his involvement in a poultry business.
His nine-month reign as a mob boss ended when conspirators in the family placed a bomb under his porch and detonated it as he walked out the front door.
Speaking of unwholesome business, here’s a fun fact: “Kitty’s Back” was inspired by a Jersey Shore strip club. The of “Kitty’s Back,” from The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle album, was inspired by a neon sign that Springsteen saw, promoting the return of popular stripper at a Jersey Shore club.
Yes, there’s an E Street, and it runs northeast through the New Jersey town of Belmar. Rumor has it that the band took its name from that street because their original keyboard player, David Sancious, whose mother lived there, allowed the group to jam in her house. The titular street of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” is also in Belmar.
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” was Steven Van Zandt’s debut with the band. Van Zandt actually came up with the idea for the horn intro and became the arranger when he sang the line for the horn section. If you’re wondering, Van Zandt always wears a bandana because of a car accident when he was younger. It left him with head scarring and patches on his head, making him prematurely bald.
Bruce first met the late Clarence “Big Man” Clemons when he was playing at a club in Asbury Park. “A rainy, windy night it was, and when I opened the door, the whole thing flew off its hinges and blew away down the street,” Clemons once recalled. “The band were onstage, but staring at me framed in the doorway. Bruce and I looked at each other and didn’t say anything, we just knew.
“We knew we were the missing links in each other’s lives. He was what I’d been searching for.” He passed away in 2011. Springsteen would tell this story as proof that Clemons, the E Street Band’s personal Paul Bunyan, blew the doors off any room he was in.
There is another late musician who was close to and collaborated with Springsteen. The late Warren Zevon was Springsteen’s friend, fan, and collaborator. Zevon was diagnosed with mesothelioma, and so he refused any treatment he thought would essentially incapacitate him. He headed to the studio instead.
He went there with plenty of friends to record his final album, The Wind. Springsteen did background vocals and electric guitar for two of the album’s songs, one of which won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With a Vocal. Springsteen was later involved in a tribute album to Zevon, where he performed his famous song, “My Ride’s Here.” Warren Zevon’s most famous compositions included: “Werewolves of London,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”
One might consider October 19th, 1984, to be “the night Rosalita died.” Ever since the song was written, almost every set at a Springsteen concert was closed off with an extended version of “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” But then one night in Tacoma, Washington, the song was dropped from the setlist. Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh explained why.
Marsh wrote that taking the song out of the playlist was done to “disrupt the ritual expectations of the fanatic fans, establishing through a burst of creativity just who was boss. He’d liberated the show from an albatross, a song that was too long and had long since stopped breathing.” And that is why October 19th is the night Rosalita died.
New Jersey’s Monmouth University is now home to The Bruce Springsteen Archives and Center for American Music. According to their website, it “serves as the official archival repository for Bruce Springsteen’s written works, photographs, periodicals, and artifacts.” Care to check it out? There are more than 35,000 pieces there. But apparently, you have to make an appointment.
Speaking of artifacts, someone may have paid a heck of a lot of money for Springsteen’s screen door. Local legend has it that a fan bought the screen door of a house at 68 South Street in Freehold, New Jersey. That house was once lived in by Bruce. The fan bought the screen door in the early ’80s, thinking it was the door mentioned in “Thunder Road.”
He turned Asbury Park’s Stone Pony into a tourist attraction. Thanks to Bruce, the Stone Pony in Asbury Park in New Jersey became one of the most famous music venues in the world. The place is so closely associated with Springsteen that you would think he got his start there, but the club opened in 1974 when Springsteen already had two albums.
Fun fact: the fortune teller in “4th of July, Asbury Park is real. Madam Marie, who is the fortune-teller in “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” is just as real as E Street is. Marie Castello would tell fortunes on the Asbury Park boardwalk from 1932 until she passed away in 2008 at the age of 93. The fortune-telling booth is still there, too, and is now run by Madam Marie’s family.
Springsteen played a concert in the gymnasium of his former school. In November 1996, he played a benefit concert in the gym of his former grade school, St. Rose of Lima School in Freehold. Only Freehold residents were allowed to buy tickets to the show. Bruce is clearly a fan of New Jersey and always likes to take an opportunity to give back to his home town.
On the subject of school, Springsteen has been the subject of a symposium for musicologists and educators. In September of 2005, and in 2009, “Glory Days: A Bruce Springsteen Symposium” attracted a crowd of 330 educators, journalists, historians, musicologists, and fans alike to see more than 100 presentations on a Springsteen scholarship.
If you read Stephen King’s The Stand, then you probably can’t help but picture Bruce Springsteen as the character Larry Underwood. Apparently, the author felt the same way, saying in the foreword that Springsteen, based on his music videos alone, would’ve been the perfect choice for an adaptation of the book.
Random fact: Ernest “Boom” Carter doesn’t get the same name recognition that the other E Streeters get, but even if you’re just a casual Springsteen fan, you’ve heard his music. Carter’s only gig with Springsteen was his drum track on “Born to Run.” After Carter was Max Weinberg, who has said that he could never reproduce Carter’s drumming in concert and eventually just stopped trying.