Born to Run (2016)
Our life in Los Angeles had settled into a comfortable rhythm when on January 5, 1994, Sam Ryan Springsteen was born. Long seconds passed as I watched him slide into the doctor’s hands, umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, trailing his fleshy tether behind him.
Sam came forth a little hard-faced character with a moon-round kisser, Irish to the bone. As he grew, with his hair slicked back off his forehead, he looked like a Joycean urchin off the streets of Dublin. Twelve days after Sam clocked in at seven pounds, fifteen ounces, the 6.7-magnitude Northridge earthquake shook Southern California. Northridge was just over the hill from our California home. At 4:31 a.m., I woke to hear what I thought was our two dogs in a hell of a fight directly under our bed. The night had been broken by their “early alarm” howling and the mattress beneath us quaking like somewhere under there, two pit bulls were fucking a porcupine. I swung my head over the side of the bed, peered under and saw … nothing, empty floor. Then seconds later, the freight train rumble and room-shattering shake of the biggest quake I’d ever experienced hit us.
I’d been in earthquakes plenty of times: in a high-rise hotel in Japan, in the studio in LA, at my Hollywood Hills house, in the early morning after filming Roy Orbison’s Black and White Night. On that occasion, right around dawn, the house started rocking and I was greeted by the vision of a hysterical Matt Delia at the foot of my bed, naked but for one pillow over his privates and one over his ass. He wanted to run into the street but the quake ceased before Matt’s gnarly physique had a chance to damage the psyches of my LA neighbors. Despite these experiences, the Northridge quake was something else. It seemed to last a long time, long enough for me to make my way to the kids’ room, where three-year-old Evan was up in the middle of the floor, arms outstretched, balancing himself like he was surfing a wave. He didn’t appear frightened, just in wonder, mystified. I snatched him up, then grabbed Jessie, who was standing, awake and crying, in her crib as Patti held Sam, who so far had been managing to sleep through the whole thing. Then we did it all wrong, running down the shaking stairs out of the house and into the yard before it ceased. There, for most of the morning, we camped, as one aftershock after another rolled through, rattling our nerves every twenty minutes or so. Over the next few days, there were hundreds, big and small, and we kept Sam in the kitchen, in a basket, below a solid oak coffee table, near the yard.
We were visited by friends, some of whom were truly in shock. We heard horror stories from those we knew at the beach, where the sand beneath their homes liquefied to jelly, turning large pieces of furniture into deadly projectiles tumbling and shooting around the room. Our chimney cracked straight through the center of the house and took months to repair. The aftershocks continued night and day. At first we had no television service and so little information we had to phone friends back east to get news about what was going on where we lived. Finally, after three days of shake, rattle and roll, Patti, recuperating from her pregnancy, barely two weeks out of the hospital, mother of a newborn child and two more still in diapers, looked at me and said, “Get us out of here.” I said, “Aw, honey, we can tough it out.” She said, “You tough it out, I’ve got three children to consider.”
The city was on edge; there had been reports that the Northridge quake could be just a preliminary to something bigger to come! That thought was disconcerting. I did not want my new family to end up the first citizens of the new Atlantis. I pulled the emergency cord. I called Mr. Tommy Mottola, then president of Sony Records, and three hours later, a Sony jet pulled up in Burbank to pick up a valuable rock star and his brood. Patti and I, fortunate and responsible parents, headed back to the Garden State. Adios, Estado Dorado. New Jersey may have the Mafia, street gangs, insane property taxes, belching industrial areas and crazy, crooked politicians galore, but the land beneath all this insanity is relatively stable. That can make up for a wide variety of shortcomings, so with the newly christened “Earthquake Sam” riding the jet stream Nile like the baby Moses in his basket, we flew back to the land of his blood brethren and relief.
I’d ridden out plenty of earthquakes before with no noticeable aftereffects, but once we were ensconced again in our Rumson home, I noticed a strange trace from our experience. If Patti’s leg moved in the bed at night, if the furnace in the basement turned on with a low house-shaking rumble, my heart rate would spike, and I’d jolt to consciousness, veins filled with adrenaline in a fight-or-flight response to the slightest stimulus. Soon I realized I’d contracted a very mild form of post-traumatic stress. It took me the better part of six months to completely calm.
Sam developed into a pug-faced little bruiser. Upon becoming frustrated with his older brother’s systematic tortures, he could build up enough steam to let a gut punch go into his intimidating sibling’s solar plexus. Evan, ever the sophisticated sadist, played the affronted gentleman perfectly. Rather than whomping on his overmatched little bro’s head, he would drolly report, “Dad, Sam’s hitting me,” and leave it to the authorities. He could be emotionally rough, but physically he cut his little brother quite a bit of slack. Sam is a good, intelligent soul and as a young child he impressed upon me a great lesson. Initially, Sam was the only child I could not get to respect me or my requests. When it came time to give dad his “props,” he resisted. This angered and frustrated the old-school part of me terribly. Children should respect their parents! It seemed he would not give me my tribute. He would ignore me, disobey me and generally look upon me as a bossy, annoying stranger who held little influence over his young developing soul. Patti interceded. I was behind with Sam, and that’s what he was telling me. He was schooling me on what it would take to be his dad. I wasn’t showing my respect for him and so he was reciprocating. To children, respect is shown through love and caring over the smallest elements in their lives. That’s how they feel honored. I wasn’t honoring my son so he wasn’t honoring me. This worried me deeply.
Long ago, I’d promised myself that I would never lose my children in the way my father had lost me. It would’ve been a devastating personal failure, one for which I would have had no excuse, and I would not have been able to forgive myself. We began having our children late—I was forty, Patti thirty-six—and that was a wise decision. I knew enough about myself to understand that I was neither mature nor stable enough to parent well at any earlier point in my life. Once they were here, Patti and I knew our children would be our first priority. All of our tours would be booked around school schedules, children’s events, birthdays, and because of Patti’s insistence, planning and dedication, we made it work. I worked hard not to be an absentee dad, but in my business, that’s not always possible and Patti picked up the slack. She also guided me when she thought I was falling short. For years, I’d kept musician’s hours, a midnight rambler; I’d rarely get to bed before four a.m. and often sleep to noon or beyond. In the early days, when the children were up at night, I found it easy to do my part in taking care of them. After dawn, Patti was on duty. Once they got older, the night shift became unnecessary and the burden tilted unfairly toward the morning hours.
Finally, one day she came to me as I lay in bed around noon and simply said, “You’re gonna miss it.”
I answered, “Miss what?”
She said, “The kids, the morning, 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 the day and if you don’t get up to see it, well then … you’re gonna miss it.”
The next morning, mumbling, grumbling, stolid faced, I rolled out of bed at seven a.m. and found my way downstairs. “What do I do?”
She looked at me and said, “Make the pancakes.”
Make the pancakes? I’d never made anything but music my entire life. I … I … I … don’t know how!
That evening, I queried the gentleman who was cooking for us at the time for his recipe for pancakes and I posted it on the side of the refrigerator. After some early cementlike results, I dialed it in, expanded my menu and am now proud to say that should the whole music thing go south, I will be able to hold down a job between the hours of five and eleven a.m. at any diner in America. Feeding your children is an act of great intimacy and I received my rewards, the sounds of forks clattering on breakfast plates, toast popping out of the toaster, and the silent approval of morning ritual. If I hadn’t gotten up, I would’ve missed it.
Rule: when you’re on tour, you’re king, and when you’re home, you’re not. This takes some adjustment or your “royalness” will ruin everything. The longer I was gone, the more I returned home a drifter and the harder it would be to move myself into the family upon my return. It is my nature to “dissemble” (a.k.a. fuck up), then bring roses, blow kisses and do backward somersaults in a manic frenzy trying to charm my way out of the hole I’ve dug. That’s no good with kids (or a wife either). Patti had counseled me to “do one consistent thing a day with Sam.” I knew he had a habit of waking in the night, wanting a bottle and then coming into our bed, so I started to make these nightly forays with him. Down into the kitchen we’d go, getting the milk, then it was back to his bedroom, where I’d tell him a story and he’d slip peacefully back off to sleep. The whole thing would take about forty-five minutes, but in less than a week, he began to respond, looking for me in the late hour, depending on me. My commitment had been all he was really looking for. Luckily for parents, children have great resilience and a generous ability to forgive. My wife guided me in this and my son taught me.
✵ ✵ ✵
With my eldest son our relationship held its own complications. Over the years, I’d subtly sent signals of my unavailability, of my internal resistance to incursions upon my time by family members. As a young child he astutely picked these up and to “release” me he learned to say, “Thanks, Dad, but I’m busy right now, maybe later, tomorrow.” I’d often breathe a sigh of relief and run back to my fortress of solitude, where as usual I felt at home, safe, until, like a bear in need of blood and meat, I’d wake from my hibernation and travel through the house for my drink from the cup of human love and companionship. But I always felt I needed to be able to shut it all off like a spigot. Patti saw all this and called me on it. For a long time I’d felt the greatest sin a family member could commit was interrupting me while I was working on a song. I felt music was fleeting and once you let it slip through your hands, it was gone. Through Patti, I learned that their requests came first and how to stop what I was doing and listen to them. I came to understand that music, a song, will always be there for me. But your children are here and gone.
While I may never lay claim to the title “father of the year,” I worked hard to get straight with those who depended on my nearness to nurture and guide them. Patti made sure I had good strong relationships with our kids, free of much of the turmoil I experienced as a child.
Cool Rockin’ Daddy
I was always afraid my kids might steer away from music due to the fact that it was the family business. So I was pleased one day when I poked my head into Evan’s room and saw him entranced in front of his computer, ears locked on some vicious-sounding punk music. He invited me in and played me some Against Me! The band sounded hard and soulful. He said they’d soon be coming to a local club, the Starland Ballroom, and asked if I would like to attend the show with him. I accepted immediately. The night came and we drove up Route 9 to Sayreville and the Starland. We were going to hear his heroes.
We parked in the lot and headed in to find the floor in front of the bandstand awash with teenagers. Evan and a pal headed into the swirl of bodies as I took my place at the side bar with a scattering of parents.
Two fine bands opened the show, Fake Problems and the Riverboat Gamblers. Then during the break a young man with a yellow Mohawk who was standing to my left said, “The bass player in Against Me! is a big fan of yours.” I said, “Really?” I was shortly introduced to Andrew Seward, a sturdily built, bearded, auburn-haired young man who warmly greeted me and invited us backstage after the show to meet the band. Home run!
Against Me! took the stage and played a ferocious set, turning the crowd into a sweating soup of flailing bodies. Every word of every song was shouted back to the band at full volume. After an hour and with the roof firmly raised, Evan and his friend returned from the mosh pit soaked and spent. Would they like to meet the band?
We made our way up some back stairs into the kind of cramped club dressing room I’d spent a good part of my young life in and we said hello to four wrung-out young musicians. Some small talk was made, photos were taken, and as we were about to leave the bass player stepped forward to my son, rolled up his sleeve and showed Evan a verse of “Badlands” he had tattooed on his forearm. Pointing to it, he said, “Look, it’s your dad.” Evan just stared. When our kids were young, we never pushed our music at home. With the exception of some guitars and a piano, our house was free of gold albums, Grammys or any other musical mementos. My kids didn’t know “Badlands” from matzoh ball soup. When they were children, when I was approached on the street for autographs, I’d explain to them that in my job I was Barney (the then-famous purple dinosaur) for adults.
That night, moments before we left, the bass player rolled up another sleeve to show us a tat of myself stretching from shoulder to elbow. For one brief moment I took a silent pride in seeing my influence passed on and feeling like the coolest dad in the room.
After I promptly promised E Street tickets to all in sight for life, we said our good-byes and left. On the way home, Ev said, “Dad, that guy has you tattooed on his arm.”
I said, “Yeah, what do you think?”
Toward the end of that week I stopped in his bedroom and probed a little more. “Did you have fun the other night?” Without turning away from his computer or even looking at me, he responded, “Greatest night of my life.”
With my son Sam, it was classic rock: Dylan, Bob Marley and Creedence Clearwater, whom he picked up from his “Battlefield Vietnam” video game. He wandered into our bedroom one night and saw Dylan at Newport on our TV. “Who’s that guy?” He was interested, so I bought him some of the early Dylan folk albums. Sam was in middle school and probably only ten or eleven when I entered his bedroom to hear “Chimes of Freedom” from Dylan’s Another Side of Bob Dylan album playing on vinyl in a dimly lit distant corner. As he lay in bed, he reminded me of the many nights I lay in darkness with Spector, Orbison and Dylan playing at my bedside. I sat on the edge of his bed and I asked him what he thought of the young Bob. Out of the dark, his voice still containing the rising sweetness of a child …
Jessie is the keeper of the keys to all things Top 40, blasting out hip-hop and pop at full volume, taking me to see Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake and singing at the top of her lungs in the car with her girlfriends. She is my guide to and interpreter of what’s happening now over the airwaves. In the past I have spent many a holiday evening at Z100’s Jingle Ball, meeting Shakira, Rihanna, Fall Out Boy and Paramore, along with many other hit makers. In Madison Square Garden, at peace, I’d sit surrounded by squealing teens and stout-hearted parents. I once sat next to a lovely woman who pointed to Jess and asked, “Is that your daughter?” I said, “Yes.” She then pointed to the stage, where an on-the-cusp-of-fame Lady Gaga, dressed in a white tutu, was singing her first hit and said, “That’s mine.”
When my kids first came to our shows, they were small. And after some early shock and awe, they usually fell promptly asleep or drifted back to their video games, happy to leave Mom and Pop to do their work and come home. At the end of the day, as parents, you are their audience. They are not meant to be yours. I always figured young kids wouldn’t mind seeing fifty thousand people boo their parents, but what kid wants to see fifty thousand people cheer their folks? None.
When they got older, things changed somewhat and the knowledge of Mom and Dad’s work life slowly seeped into our home. I enjoy hearing my kids critique my records and seeing them have fun at our shows. But I’m happy in the knowledge they were baptized in the holy river of rock and pop by their own heroes, in their own way, at their own time.