Bruce Springsteen is just 69 years old, a relative pup compared to Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Brian Wilson—but his life spans the history of rock ‘n’ roll. He was seven years old when he was knocked out by Elvis Presley’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.

As such, he has experienced America’s most impactful art form from every chronological vantage point: the wide-eyed little kid who begged his parents for a guitar; the garage band teen who gave his life over to rock ‘n’ roll; the international superstar who truly found out what it felt like to be Elvis; and an elder statesman of a movement that might be slowing down but remains a long way from being finished.

In 2016, Springsteen felt compelled to put down these experiences in an autobiography entitled Born To Run, which in turn spawned Springsteen on Broadway, the one-man show—with acoustic guitar and piano—that will conclude its run of 236 performances at the 975-seat Walter Kerr Theater in New York City on Saturday night.

 A July recording of that show will debut Sunday on Netflix. It becomes clear watching that performance that an older, wiser Springsteen at last believes he has begun to make some sense of the forces that transformed him from a punk kid in Freehold, New Jersey, to a poet with a guitar—an American legend to whom millions look to not just for excitement, but for answers.

 A July recording of that show will debut Sunday on Netflix. It becomes clear watching that performance that an older, wiser Springsteen at last believes he has begun to make some sense of the forces that transformed him from a punk kid in Freehold, New Jersey, to a poet with a guitar—an American legend to whom millions look to not just for excitement, but for answers.

What answers he may have took him a lifetime to accumulate. 

His young promise

“I always thought I was a typical American,” he tells the audience near the end of the show. “I wanted to know my story, your story, I felt like I need to understand as much as I could in order to understand myself … most of all, I wanted to be able to tell that story well to you.”

“That was my young promise to myself, and this was my young promise to you,” he continues. “From when I was a very young man, I took my fun very seriously.”

“From when I was a young man, I took my fun very seriously.”
Bruce Springsteen

This is what I presented to you all these years,” he says, “as my long and noisy prayer, as my magic trick.You’ve provided me with purpose, with meaning, and a great amount of joy. I hope I’ve done that for you, and that I’ve been a good traveling companion.” 

Now, much nearer the end than the beginning, Springsteen uses these two-and-a-half hour confessionals to look back on life in a small Jersey seaside town, growing up with a sullen, uncommunicative father and a cheerful, life-affirming mother.

His persona

There is much to learn about this complex man as he seems to continue the task of learning about himself.

Thanks to intimate camera work, you can study in great detail how the years have treated this rock ‘n’ roll icon: the twin earrings, the receding hairline, the relatively wrinkle-free face that seems to have been exposed to far more spotlights than sunlight, and a smile that barely escapes being a scowl, given his distinctive underbite.His craggy voice makes him sound quite a bit older than he looks.

Since the early 1980s, Springsteen has been an extraordinarily wealthy entertainer who has perfected the persona of a lower-middle-class working man.He almost immediately deals head-on with the issue, admitting that the act is a fraud.

“I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about,” he tells the audience. “A man who’s become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something which he has had absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up. That’s how good I am.”

Yet this show demonstrates that Springsteen is damaged in ways at which his music only begins to hint. He is convincing when he describes the motivation to write from the perspective of an oppressed—and depressed— working stiff: That’s exactly who his father was.

His war

He eases into the great tragedy of his generation of young men—the Vietnam War—by telling a funny anecdote about his first drummer, Bart, who couldn’t play Wipe Out, which was practically a requirement of all drummers in the 1960s.

“I wonder who went in my place, because somebody did.”
Bruce Springsteen

Then the story stops being funny. Bart gave up drumming, joined the Marines and was killed in Vietnam, along with another rocker from Jersey that Springsteen greatly admired.

Springsteen and two of his best friends were drafted on same day in 1969, but “We did everything we could not to go, and we succeeded.”

Now, when he goes to Washington, he looks at his friends’ names on the memorial wall. “I wonder who went in my place, because somebody did.”

His hometown

He is totally honest about his own sentimentality and the nostalgia he feels for his past.

Sitting at the piano, he says: “Everybody has a love-hate relationship with their hometown. It’s built into the equation. If you take me, I’m Mr. Born to Run. Mr. Thunder fucking Road. I was born to run, not to stay. My home, New Jersey? “

Then he quotes the lyrics from Born to Run: “‘It’s a death trap. It’s a suicide rap’–listen to the lyrics, all right? I gotta get out, I gotta hit the highway … I’m going to run, run, run and I’m never come back.”

There’s a pause and then he says  “I currently live ten minutes from my hometown. But, uh, Born to Come Back? Who’d have bought that shit? Nobody.” 

His father

Springsteen reveals himself to be highly spiritual, returning to his hometown to sit where a giant beech tree once stood and welcome the ghosts of his past.

“My father, on that day, was petitioning me for an ancestral role in my life after being a ghost for a long, long time.”
Bruce Springsteen

“We live amongst ghosts, always trying to reach us from that shadow world,” he says. “They’re with us every step of the way. My dead father is with me … I wish he could have been here to see this”

His rocky relationship with his father is the thread that runs through this show—and his life—and only age and experience allows Springsteen the wisdom to treat his father as compassionately as he does.

The show’s emotional payoff comes late when Springsteen describes the time when he and his wife were expecting their first child, and his father paid an unexpected visit.

“You’ve been very good to us,” he said. “I wasn’t very good to you.”

“My father, on that day, was petitioning me for an ancestral role in my life after being a ghost for a long, long time,” Springsteen says. “He wanted to write a new end to our relationship, and he wanted me to be ready for the new beginning that I was about to experience. It was the greatest moment in my life with my dad, and it was all I needed.”

His mother

Springsteen’s mother, on the other hand, was a constant source of joy and comfort in his life. Now suffering from Alzheimer’s at age 93, she continues to enjoy dancing.

In one of the show’s most poignant moments, Springsteen sings The Wish, in which he tells his mother that he does not want to give her flowers, a card or a house on a hill, but rather a trip to a little rock ‘n’ roll bar where they can dance.

Future generations should be immensely grateful to have this document. The best legacy that could evolve from Springsteen on Broadway would be for other historically significant musicians to do likewise—to look back on their careers and their lives both proudly and candidly.

We don’t need a parade of aging rockers taking to the Broadway stage, but we ought to hope this isn’t the last time it happens. And we ought to thank Bruce Springsteen for being the first.

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