What Bruce Springsteen taught me about being a good man

The Tao of Bruce

Bruce Springsteen.
(Image credit: Kevin Mazur)

Men must change.

This is one of the clearest lessons in our long-overdue reckoning over bad male behavior. But it isn't particularly easy for men to reconstruct their sense of themselves as they're forced to change entrenched patterns of behavior and ways of comporting themselves in the world.

The issue is bigger than workplace sex, consent, power, and entitlement. It touches on the way men have long understood and inhabited their various roles in life — as sons, as fathers, as husbands, as friends, as lovers, as providers, as protectors. Assumptions surrounding each role have been destabilized over the past half-century, driven by economic imperatives as well as by demands for gender equality, and the changes show no sign of halting or slowing down, let alone reversing themselves.

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In trying to figure out what masculinity has meant for so many American men and what it should mean for myself and my own teenaged son, I've gained insight from a surprising source: Bruce Springsteen. Not the Bruce of Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A. or the Bruce who's led raucous rock sing-alongs for three or four hours at a time in hockey arenas and footballs stadiums since I was in grade school. I love a lot of that music and have enjoyed a few of those shows, but I never gleaned much of a message about manhood from any of it.

I'm talking, instead, about the Bruce revealed in his Broadway show (captured in a just-released Netflix special), in a recent Esquire interview, and most of all in his stunning memoir from a few years back, Born to Run. Springsteen goes on at length in all three about his late father — a deeply depressed man who rarely spoke to his son, who self-medicated away his anger and misery with alcohol, and who ended up diagnosed late in life with schizophrenia.

Douglas Springsteen may have been taciturn, but he managed to convey to his son that he didn't approve of the latter's softness, his tendency at a young age to display "a gentleness, a timidity, shyness, and a dreamy insecurity." Bruce's father saw these traits as signs of weakness, and detecting them in his son made him angry.

That tension between father and son runs through Springsteen's memoir, just as it has run through his life, and it frames the most moving moments in the Broadway show. "My father was my hero, and my greatest foe," he tells us, and since "all we know about manhood is what we have learned from our fathers," Springsteen has struggled for much of his life to come to terms with the question of how to be a good man, or how even to define one.

The struggle culminates in the most powerful passage in the autobiography — an extended paragraph that recounts his father's death in 1998 and how in subsequent years he's come to understand the parts of himself that are his paternal inheritance. Some of this legacy (like a predisposition to depression) may be genetic. But other aspects are cultural and habitual, rooted in the distinctive character of mid-20th-century American manhood and its interpersonal consequences, and they are ugly — the lived misery, inhabited from the inside, of what conservative cultural critics too often lazily valorize and what feminists now harshly denigrate as "toxic masculinity."

The paragraph, beautiful as writing and extraordinarily insightful as psychological and sociological analysis, is worth quoting at length.

I learned many a rough lesson from my father. The rigidity and the blue-collar narcissism of "manhood" 1950s-style. An inner yearning for isolation, for the world on your terms or not at all. A deep attraction to silence, secrets, and secretiveness. You always withhold something, you do not lower your mask. The distorted idea that the beautiful things in your life, the love itself you struggled to win, to create, will turn and possess you, robbing you of your imagined long-fought-for freedoms. The hard blues of constant disaffection. The rituals of the barroom. A misogyny grown from the fear of all the dangerous, beautiful, strong women in our lives crossed with the carrying of an underlying physical threat, a psychological bullying that is meant to frighten and communicate that the dark thing in you is barely restrained. You use it to intimidate those you love. And of course … the disappearing act: You're there but not there, not really present; inaccessibility, its pleasures and its discontents. All leading ultimately to the black seductive fantasy of a wreck of a life, the maddening boil lanced, the masks dropped and the long endless free fall into the chasm that at certain moments can smell so sweet from a distance. [Born to Run]

This wrenching account is a remarkably apt description of what it feels like, at least on bad days, to be an American man. These are my demons, too. My temptations. My struggles. Springsteen goes on to talk about how with a lot of therapy and a loving spouse, he's overcome much of it. As have I. But the struggle never ends.

At least for us. For our sons, there may be greater hope for happiness and decency.

In the Esquire interview, Springsteen speaks a few lines that serve as a kind of hopeful sequel to this pitch-black passage from his memoir. Asked by interviewer Michael Hainey if he has any advice for raising sons today, Springsteen offers this: "Be present. Be there. If I have any advice to give, that is it. I mean you have to be fully present in mind, spirit, and body."

Which leads Hainey to ask Springsteen to define "the qualities that make up a good man today." That, too, is worth quoting. Speaking of his own sons, he says,

I do have two good men. And I would say their qualities are, they're sensitive. They're respectful of others. They are not locked into a 1950s sensibility of manhood, which I had to contend with. Consequently, their attitudes toward women and the world are free of those archetypes, and that frees them to be who they are and have deeper and more meaningful relationships. They know themselves pretty well, which is something I can't say for myself when I was that age. They know — and can show — love. And they know how to receive love. They know what to do with their problems. I think they have a sense of process as to how to work on themselves, which is something that I certainly didn't have at 25. These are the things that I'm proud of my boys for. They are quite different from my generation. [Springsteen, via Esquire]

They know how to love, how to show love, and how to receive love, and they know how to handle their problems. It really is that simple. And that impossible.

I have a hard time thinking of a better ideal of masculinity to strive for than that.

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