As a young man living in New Jersey in the early ’80s, I became a Bruce Springsteen fan. The Boss’s music was everywhere, and the local imagery of his songs was as familiar to me as a well-worn jacket: dusty beach roads, boardwalks full of shady characters, muscle cars, freeways, factories, loading docks, and backstreets. The rough, taciturn world he described was the one I lived in, filled with people working hard to get by, clinging to their hopes while letting their deepest longings remain unexpressed or even unacknowledged.
The Springsteen story that touched me the deepest, however, wasn’t in a song, but in an introduction he delivered at a concert before he sang “The River,” a haunting, dirgelike melody about how one generation’s struggles can be handed down to the next. In his introduction, he described the spiral of hostility and misunderstanding between himself and his father during his teenage years. After their arguments, his father often angrily muttered, “I can’t wait till the army gets you.” It was 1968, and many young men in the neighborhood were being drafted and sent to Vietnam. Some of these men, Springsteen remembered, never came back. The ones who did were never the same.
When he got his draft notice, Springsteen expected the worst. It looked like his father had gotten his wish. He hopped a bus and disappeared for three days. When he showed up back at the house, his father was waiting. “Where you been?” he asked.
“Got my draft papers.…