I wrote this on Father's Day, but i didn't like it enough to post. I still don't think it's very good, but it's been gnawing at me to share it.
I was motherless at 16, but I had been fatherless all my life. The last true memory I have of my father is the last time I ever saw him. I was four years old, sitting on his lap in the kitchen of the apartment where my family lived without him. He had moved out on us two years earlier, but he still came around for brief visits or to drop off a little money for my mom. It was November of 1970 and I clearly remember his big hands around my waist, bouncing on his knee, him asking me what I wanted for Christmas and me telling him I wanted a toy barn with all the farm animals. I got that barn on Christmas morning, a big Fisher-Price playset with more farm animals than I had hoped for and not just a farmer, but an entire farm family of four and a tractor, too. My father never came around again, my mother never saw another dime from him and years later, when I was a teenager, I realized that it had been my mother who got me the toy farm, not Santa Claus and not my father.
I have said before, more than once, that Bruce Springsteen raised me. Of course, that idea is, at best, a leftover teenage fantasy and, at worst, an insult to my mother. Mom raised me and my brothers and there is plenty written, and much yet to be told, about that, but this isn’t about her. This is about my father, the black hole in my childhood created by his absence and how I tried to fill that void with the loving struggles between father and son that Bruce Springsteen sang about in his songs and spoke about from the stage.
When I was a very young boy, I didn’t feel my father’s absence deeply, the way I would as I grew older. The neighborhood I grew up in was almost devoid of fathers. Most of my friends lived with their mothers and saw their fathers rarely, if ever. Broken homes seemed as natural in our neighborhood as the two-parent households across the river, and my own mother had a personality and presence so large and overwhelming that she more than filled the parental landscape of my childhood. While some kids lived under the threat of “wait ‘til your father gets home,” my brothers and I knew only the promise that our mother was all we had…and all we needed.
The first time I felt resentment toward my father for leaving us, and toward my mother for not being able to fill his role completely, came on a perfect summer day when a broken bicycle chain brought me home early, near tears. The chain hadn’t just slipped off the sprocket. One of the links had broken completely and I pushed my bike home, the broken chain trailing behind me like a dead metal snake. Mom had always helped me get my broke-down bikes back out on the sidewalk. She patched flat inner tubes, tightened loose handlebars and adjusted seat heights as I grew, but she had no idea how to mend that broken chain. I was surprised, and a bit disappointed, to learn that my mother was anything less than a master bicycle mechanic.
Mom sent me down the block to see John, the local shade tree mechanic, and he fixed the chain for the cost of a new link from the bike shop downtown. I hunkered down next to him and watched him remove and replace the broken link.
If my dad were around, he could fix my bike.
As I got older, I realized more and more how much I needed a man who was never, ever going to come around. When I was bullied and wanted to learn to fight, I had no father to turn to. I learned to defend myself at the hands of the bullies themselves. When I was jealous of my older brother’s baseball uniform, I had no dad to teach me how to throw and catch and I remained a miserable failure on the ball field. When I wondered about girls, didn’t know how to shave my face, couldn’t knot a tie and had to learn to drive, I hated him more and more for not being there to help me. Most of all, though, I began to hate him for the anger and pain he caused my mother and the way she took it out on me.
I was twelve years old when I heard Springsteen’s Adam Raised A Cain and it brought out in me emotions as fiery as the searing guitar that burned throughout the song.
In the Bible, momma, Cain slew Abel and East of Eden, momma, he was cast
You’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past
Even as a child, I understood how my mother’s hatred for my father helped fuel the emotional and physical abuse she handed down to me. I knew that a part of her loathed me for having his name, though it had been her who named me. I knew that she couldn’t look into my eyes, the same blue as my father’s eyes, without seeing him there. In the song, it’s Bruce’s father who walks the empty rooms looking for something to blame, but it was my mother who stalked our small apartment in anger and it was me she found to blame. I knew exactly what it meant to inherit the sins, to inherit the flames.
With each new record Springsteen released, I drew closer to his music, deeper into the half-imagined reality of the world his songs brought to life. The songs he wrote about fathers and sons always hit me hard. His ramblings about his father from the stage, a sort of self-therapy in real time, hit me even harder. I developed an imaginary relationship with my father based on the relationship Springsteen sang about.
I longed for the kitchen-table confrontation of Independence Day, but I knew I would never have it. For years, I couldn’t listen to My Father’s House without weeping at the realization that I would never stand on his porch because I didn’t even know where he lived. Even now, that song breaks my fucking heart and my thoughts about my father always leave me feeling like I’m staring at a stranger through a dusty screen door. It was through those songs about fathers and sons that I came to realize that there was something more to Springsteen’s music, at least for me. It wasn’t just rock and roll to dance to, to rebel with, to blow out the speakers on my bedroom stereo. The music had something I absolutely needed.
Not only did the fathers in Springsteen’s songs stand in for an imagined version of my own father, but the music itself became a sort of surrogate. The sense of community and family Springsteen sang about filled the holes in my own family and informed my interpretation of what life was all about on our little welfare street. Without a father to guide me, much of my morals and beliefs were influenced by the characters and situations that played out across Bruce Springsteen’s albums. The things I learned young about love and work and hope and redemption, I learned from Bruce Springsteen, and other songwriters he led me to, and this is what I mean when I say that Springsteen sort of raised me.
Of course, it would be an unhealthy discovery to learn that my entire personality, the code I’ve lived my life by are merely the result of listening to too much Bruce Springsteen. I’m of an age and I’ve seen enough of this world to understand that Springsteen’s influence on who I am isn’t singular. I’ve been shaped by my surroundings, things I’ve experienced and people I’ve known, but there’s a big enough part of me shaped by his music, established when I was very young, that sometimes I wonder how much of me is nothing more than a caricature of the men who influenced me the most growing up; the men who only live in songs by Bruce Springsteen.
Life is often circular and it turns out that I have been an absent father, just like my own old man was. I hope that my daughter, growing up without me, had something like Springsteen’s music to inform her heart. I also hope that I haven’t come into her life too late to help her see that there is more, so much more to life than rock and roll.