I thought that tilting my head back would force the tear bubbling up in the corner of my right eye to stay put. But I didn’t trust it, so I pretended that my pinky was a Kleenex as I held a steady side eye on my dad to make sure he wasn’t looking. He wasn’t, and he never did. He couldn’t take his eyes off of Bruce Springsteen.
Bruce Springsteen used to be a lullaby. I remember lying under my pink ballerina comforter falling asleep to my dad playing “Atlantic City” on his acoustic guitar. I thought my dad wrote that song until I was ten. My mom told me once that she thought my dad’s singing voice was built of one part Steve Forbert, one part Bruce Springsteen.
He would sit in the living room on our green leather couch at night, with all the lights off, playing “The River,” starting over each time he missed a lyric or messed up a chord. That will forever be his song. From my room, I’d mentally add in the harmonica—it was hollow but somehow it also stretched, thick like taffy. I would picture the narrator standing in the courthouse in a long white tailcoat. “But I remember us riding in my brother’s car/Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir”—man, those lyrics are going to be stuck with me forever, burned in, glued on. I’ve sworn for years that I’ll play this song at my dad’s funeral. But maybe that’s selfish because I’ll be playing it more for me than for him.
When I first heard “Spirit in the Night” live, I thought Bruce was playing it wrong. Turns out I just liked my dad’s version better.
In the car on the way to Florida, I put on Bruce songs when I want to hear my dad sing. When we listen to “Backstreets,” my dad counts the number of times Bruce says the word “backstreets.” It’s thirty-six times. And there’s a poster of him in the downstairs bathroom of my dad’s house, right above the toilet.
My family is on a first-name basis with Bruce. We talk about him as if we know him. “I saw Bruce last night.” “Oh yeah, how was he?” We’re not mystified. It’s not a crush. We’re long in love by now.
I read somewhere that Bruce wasn’t the best dad. That logistically makes sense, considering he’s a rock star and has probably been on and off the road his kids’ whole lives. But emotionally it just doesn’t fit. I mean look at him. He’s a dad. I bet he gives a hug like molasses and tells one hell of a poetically nostalgic story. He’s the kind of dad that coaches the team instead of sitting in the bleachers. He’s the kind of dad that sits on the edge of your bed, playing a lullaby to get you to fall asleep. He’s the kind of dad that would absolutely love Bruce Springsteen.
Bruce will always belong to my dad. He loaned him out to me for a little while. I’m just borrowing him.
Besides that one time I heard “Blinded by the Light” while eating a turkey sandwich in the Jersey Mike’s by PetSmart, I started listening to Bruce alone when I cleaned my room. I’d put his first album Greetings onto my black and yellow record player that my dad had bought me for my sixteenth birthday and let it play all the way through.
The fifth song “Lost in the Flood” used to make me shudder. The atmosphere of the song is cold and dark, as if the clouds in the sky could look navy blue. The piano sounds like drops of rain. And then, “Nuns run bald through Vatican halls, pregnant, pleadin’ immaculate conception.” The forbidden chaos of that statement and the word “pregnant” scared me. When I listen now, I can hear my dad singing the word “bald,” throwing it into the air and letting it vanish the same way Bruce does.
When I was seventeen, my dad and I drove three hours to Louisville to see Bruce at the KFC Yum! Center. He spent the way there preparing me to see him live for the first time, “Bruce is the hardest working guy in show business.” I took a picture of Bruce crowd surfing, and we listened to “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” the whole way home. I now knew who the “big man” was. I learned his song “Wrecking Ball” on the banjo a few days later, trying my best to imitate his hardy drawl.
I made a mix tape for my best friend in high school, and I remember putting “The River” on it—the live version from Bruce’s 1975-85 box set. In black sharpie, under the title, I wrote “the 11 minute song that makes me cry.” The first five minutes are just of Bruce talking about his dad, his guitar melodically shimmering underneath his words. After a while, I started skipping to 5:30, one second before the opening twang of the harmonica comes in. I would listen to it to fall asleep.
I remember driving out to Bellevue to pick up my little brother from his first girlfriend’s house. We took the long way home, driving through the empty green fields and the overwhelming beige of identical suburban neighborhoods. I put on “Dancing In the Dark” and during the line “Wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face” my brother held up his fist, full of rebellion, nodding his head along. Last year when I was home for Christmas, he came into my room and put on “Incident on 57th Street.” “Just listen to the beginning,” he said. He thought it would be perfect for a skateboarding video, but only the first fifteen seconds, right before it builds. He would stand there and rewind it again and again. “Can’t you picture a skateboard riding along?” I thought the whole twenty-seven second intro would have sounded better.
When I graduated from high school, my dad and I went on a three-week road trip to all of the national parks out west. In South Dakota, we drove through the Badlands and listened to “Badlands” with all the windows down. In Texas, we drove past a line of brightly painted cars each stuck halfway into the ground right off the side of the highway. I remember the only thing I’d eaten that day was a pack of gummy orange slices, like the ones you stick onto gingerbread houses. I took a picture of my dad standing in front of the Cadillacs, and when we got back in the car, he put on “Cadillac Ranch” and sang every word.
Sophomore year of college I walked to class for months with Born in the U.S.A coming out of my seven dollar Duane Reade ear buds. I loved how my voice sounded on the chorus of “I’m Goin’ Down,” the word “down” repeated, elongated, marbled, until it rolled off my tongue, dropped out of my mouth and onto the street. I liked listening to “I’m on Fire” in the snow.
That January, I saw Bruce alone at Madison Square Garden on “The River Tour” celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of his album of the same name. My dad had bought me an aisle seat next to a touchy couple in their thirties. Bruce’s plan was to play every song on the double album in order. I knew “The River” was the eleventh one, and to no avail I tried to mentally prepare. I cried on cue, wiping my nose and my eyes with the sleeve of my cropped gray sweater. It was weird to cry alone surrounded by thousands of people.
I waited for my dad to pick up the phone on the escalator ride down. He thought the show was supposed to be the next night, and we talked about how Billy Joel has a monthly residency at MSG. I stood in the cold below the half green globe of the subway station, describing the set’s extra songs before losing service.
Last year on the drive to the funeral of my dad’s older sister, my brother put on “Drive All Night.” He’d been listening to it a lot since it had happened. We listened to it again on the way to the reception. That song is now hers.
This October my dad came to New York to take me to Springsteen on Broadway for my twenty-second birthday. I was anxious before the show started, mostly from claustrophobia but also because the balcony was built at such a steep angle that I kept experiencing a phantom but dizzying feeling of falling. When Bruce walked out, my uneasiness melted away. My eyes filled with tears, and my dad bellowed out “Bruuuuuuuuuuuce.”
I knew I wasn’t only crying because it was Bruce—well, at least not fully. Sitting next to my dad, unable to look away from Bruce, I was crying because Bruce Springsteen is my dad, because he’ll always be my dad, because they’re too entwined to ever think about separating the two.
I’ve never thought about the fact that inevitably, Bruce will die. I hope I’m with my dad that day.