As has been widely reported, Bruce Springsteen writes candidly about his battle with clinical depression in his upcoming autobiography, “Born to Run.” The really shouldn’t be news to anyone: The subject of depression has come up before, most notably, perhaps, in Peter Ames Carlin’s 2012 biography, “Bruce,” and David Remnick’s long magazine profile, “We Are Alive,” published in The New Yorker the same year.
It’s in his songs, too, though not always in an obvious way. But I do feel it is there enough to qualify as a recurring theme, throughout his career.
Here are 10 examples of songs that either touch on the subject, or delve into it quite a bit. They’re listed in chronological order.
There isn’t much question, in my mind at least, that there are many other Springsteen songs that address depression, as well. I didn’t even include anything from the Nebraska album!
“Born to Run” (from Born to Run, 1975)
Yes, this is a rock anthem. But it’s a song about escaping a “death trap” of a town — a good metaphor for depression — and the singer admits to being a “scared and lonely rider.” Crucially, he tells his girlfriend, Wendy, “we can live with the sadness,” meaning he recognizes that sadness is an eternal part of him, and he can never totally get away from it, no matter how hard he runs.
“Night“ (from Born to Run, 1975)
This is similar in theme to “Born to Run,” with drudgery (“You get up every morning at the sound of the bell/You get to work late and the boss man’s giving you hell”) and transcendence. The key line this time is “Somewhere tonight, you run sad and free/Until all you can see is the night.” Springsteen easily could have written “wild and free” (and actually did, in an early draft). But he opted for “sad and free,” acknowledging that even if you manage to be free, you will still be sad. It’s just something you have to live with.
“Racing in the Street” (from Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)
It isn’t the narrator as much as the song’s other characters who really personify depression. “Some guys they just give up living/And start dying little by little, piece by piece,” Springsteen sings. And his girlfriend “sits on the porch of her daddy’s house/But all her pretty dreams are torn/She stares off alone into the night/With the eyes of one who hates for just being born.”
“Factory” (from Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)
This song’s slow pace and Springsteen’s weary vocal tone make it clear that a factory can be a breeding ground for depression. Also, lines like “Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes.”
“Wreck on the Highway” (from The River, 1980)
One aspect of depression is thinking dark thoughts, obsessively — i.e., not being able to stop them. In the last verse of this song, the narrator, having witnessed a horrific car crash, sings: “Sometimes I sit up in the darkness/And I watch my baby as she sleeps/Then I climb in bed and I hold her tight/I just lay there awake in the middle of the night/Thinking ’bout the wreck on the highway.”
“Dancing in the Dark” (from Born in the USA, 1984)
Despite it’s energized beat, this song — about being stuck in a rut, and wanting to get out of it — has, perhaps, the best four-line description of depression ever: “I get up in the evening/And I ain’t got nothing to say/I come home in the morning/I go to bed feeling the same way.”
“Real World” (from Human Touch, 1992)
This is a love song, but Springsteen sings, with soul-stirring anguish, about what he’s been through in the past, and it’s isn’t pretty (e.g., “Mister Trouble come walkin’ this way/Year gone by, feels like one long day,” “I feel my soul waist deep and sinkin’/Into this black river of doubt,” “I wanna find some answers, I wanna ask for some help/I’m tired of running scared”).
“Sad Eyes” (from Tracks, 1998)
He tells the girl with the sad eyes, “Don’t you know that I’ve been there?”
“Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” (from The Rising, 2002)
Springsteen is asking for love in this song, to lift him up from something that sounds like depression. “I need you to chase the blues away,” he sings. And, later, he acknowledges, even in this sunniest of songs: “Hard times, baby, well they come to tell us all/Sure as the tickin’ of the clock on the wall/Sure as the turnin’ of the night into day.”
“This Depression” (from Wrecking Ball, 2012)
Rock bottom: “Baby, I’ve been down, but never this down/I’ve been lost, but never this lost.”
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.