“In this life you make your choices and you take your stand and you awaken from that youthful spell of immortality where it feels like the road’s gonna go on forever. And you walk alongside your chosen partner with the clock ticking, and you recognize that life is finite, that you’ve got just so much time, and so together, you name the things that’ll give your life in that time its meaning, its purpose, its fullness, its very reality. And this is what you build together, this is what your love consists of. This is your life. And these are things that you can hold onto when the storms come, as they will.” ~ ‘Springsteen on Broadway’
All any man who ever grew up in a small American town wants to do is get out. From a young age, when we first develop our own thoughts and feelings, our own fears and desires, our own hopes and dreams, we look around the familiar neighborhood that raised us, the streets we’ve come to know, the yards we’ve played in, the dinner tables we’ve eaten on, the beds we’ve slept on, and we want to leave it all behind.
For me, the aching to escape first hit me in adolescence, the brutal age when you’re old enough to comprehend the bitter truths about the world but too young to do anything about it. That’s the thing they don’t tell anyone about the American “dream” — what well-intentioned parents have missed for generations. You move your kids out into the middle of nowhere to provide them a better childhood, but by the time they reach adulthood, the barren beast that lurks in the shadows of the suburbs has sucked their souls dry.
When you’re a kid in the American suburbs, or “rural America,” which is just the suburbs with a little more woods and wild animals, you have the best childhood. It’s what most people imagine the idealized middle-class life to be, where you can go outside and play with your neighborhood friends and bond over wiffleball tournaments and games of hide and seek. What the oblivious children don’t know in these moments of bliss and are forced to confront once these moments inevitably pass, is that while they’re playing without a care in the world, their parents are falling apart.
Parents across America who struggle to pay the mortgage, who struggle to find happiness in the midst of mundane routines of commuting to work and school recitals and little league games, who struggle to look at their chosen partners with the same passion they had before the kids came, before the big move to Nowhere, before life’s obligations crushed them.
I left my hometown of Stratford, Connecticut right after college and haven’t looked back. My hometown, like every small town in America, has a Main Street and a local deli, a diner and a few restaurants. Most people who are born there don’t leave, and the ones who do never amount to much. It’s an ordinary town full of ordinary people who lead ordinary lives.
When I was a teenager, I became acutely aware of this. That’s also when I was introduced to Bruce Springsteen’s music. How could it be that a man who was older than my father seemed to understand me more, seemed to speak for me better than anyone else, including me?
When Springsteen sang “It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win” on “Thunder Road,” I swore he was talking about Stratford and the longing I had to escape.
For a long time, I’ve stayed clear of the memories of a pain that can only come from growing up in a place where dreams go to die. But over the years, as I’ve became older and more independent, I’m not as afraid to return. Lately, with each train ride back to visit, the fear becomes less daunting and the pain becomes more manageable.
Perhaps this comes from knowing that I’ve achieved what I’ve always wanted, namely, a life separate from my hometown. Perhaps this comes from knowing that when I visit, I don’t have to stay there permanently, that I’m successful enough and stable enough in New York, and a life in my hometown now remains an abstraction, as opposed to a real possibility.
The realization that I’ve escaped certainly helps me relax whenever I have to return to visit, but I think there’s something else, too, which brings me back to Springsteen, and “Springsteen on Broadway” in particular.
In the show, Springsteen weaves in passages of his memoir Born to Run with acoustic arrangements of his most memorable songs, all adding up to a life story that is at once personal and universal. Springsteen’s story, as told on “Springsteen on Broadway,” is the story of America, or at the very least, of every American man who’s tried to be happy in a harsh world.
“Springsteen on Broadway” is about young people who are filled with hope and grow up with big dreams, and old people who are filled with regret and forced to face having their dreams deferred by life’s harsh caprice. It’s about the desire to be free of the chains that tie us down, and the cold awakening that we’re always going to be chained, but sometimes if we’re lucky, we can choose what we chain ourselves to. It’s about finding meaning in noble ideals like fraternity, long-term partnership and the promise of one’s word.
This acceptance, more than anything, is what Springsteen teaches, and what he leaves us with after telling his life story on “Springsteen on Broadway.” It’s acceptance of the turbulent relationship he had with his father, and the depression that plagued his father and caused him to act so cruelly. It’s acceptance of his hometown Freehold, New Jersey, a place he once described as a “death trap” but has since come to appreciate, understanding that Freehold’s residents are just hardworking Americans trying to build something for themselves. It’s acceptance of his marriage with Patti, and his first failed marriage with Julianne, and all of the hard lessons learned. It’s acceptance of America, a country that for all its flaws is still full of beauty and promise. Most of all, it’s acceptance of himself, and all the demons that kept nudging at him until one day he gathered to courage to confront them.
With “Springsteen on Broadway,” a legend tells his story, and when all is said and done, it’s our story too.