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Prodigal Sons and Fathers in the Music of Springsteen

“My Father’s House” is the ninth track on Springsteen’s classic lo-fi album Nebraska, and the last song he wrote for the album. In his autobiography Born To Run, Bruce has this to say about the creation of the album:

Nebraska began as an unknown meditation on my childhood and its mysteries. I had no conscious political agenda or social theme. I was after a feeling, a tone that felt like the world I’d known and still carried inside me. The remnants of that world were still only ten minutes and ten miles from where I was living. The ghosts of Nebraska were drawn from my many sojourns into the small-town streets I’d grown up on. My family, [Bob] Dylan, Woody [Guthrie], Hank [Williams], the American gothic short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the noir novels of James M. Cain, the quiet violence of the films of Terrence Malick, and the decayed fable of director Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter all guided my imagination.

I am a fan of Springsteen’s classic hits: “Born To Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Hungry Heart,” etc. But Nebraska has always haunted me in a way other Springsteen albums do not, and of all the songs on Nebraska, “My Father’s House” has always haunted me the most. And, having growing up in Christianity, you can understand why it would—it’s a prodigal son story. But it’s not the prodigal son story, because this song does not have a redemptive ending. The last verse of the song says:

My father’s house shines hard and bright It stands like a beacon calling me in the night Calling and calling so cold and alone Shining ‘cross this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned

I think the reason the song has no happy ending is that it reflects the real relationship of Bruce and his father at the time, a man who struggled with undiagnosed mental illness and alcoholism. Bruce writes about his early relationship with his dad:

I was not my father’s favorite citizen. As a boy I figured it was just the way men were, distant, uncommunicative, busy within the currents of the grown-up world. As a child you don’t question your parents’ choices. You accept them. They are justified by the godlike status of parenthood. If you aren’t spoken to, you’re not worth the time. If you’re not greeted with love and affection, you haven’t earned it. If you’re ignored, you don’t exist. Control over your own behavior is the only card you have to play in the hope of modifying theirs. Maybe you have to be tougher, stronger, more athletic, smarter, in some way better…who knows? One evening, my father was giving me a few boxing lessons in the living room. I was flattered, excited by his attention and eager to learn. Things were going well. And then he threw a few open-palmed punches to my face that landed just a little too hard. It stung; I wasn’t hurt, but a line had been crossed. I knew something was being communicated. We had slipped into the dark nether land beyond father and son. I sensed what was being said: I was an intruder, a stranger, a competitor in our home and a fearful disappointment. My heart broke and I crumpled. He walked away in disgust… Unfortunately, my dad’s desire to engage with me almost always came after the nightly religious ritual of the ‘sacred six-pack.’ One beer after another in the pitch dark of our kitchen. It was always then that he wanted to see me and it was always the same. A few moments of feigned parental concern for my well-being followed by the real deal: the hostility and raw anger toward his son, the only other man in the house. It was a shame. He loved me but he couldn’t stand me. He felt we competed for my mother’s affections. We did. He also saw in me too much of his real self. My pop was built like a bull, always in work clothes; he was strong and physically formidable. Toward the end of his life, he fought back from death many times. Inside, however, beyond his rage, he harbored a gentleness, timidity, shyness, and a dreamy insecurity. These were the things I wore on the outside and the reflection of these qualities in his boy repelled him. It made him angry. It was “soft.” And he hated “soft.” Of course, he’d been brought up “soft.” A mama’s boy, just like me.

When Bruce was about seventeen, his father decided to pack it up and start again, so his father, his mom, and his younger sister Pam moved to California. Bruce decided to stay in New Jersey, so he was left to fend for himself. After that he didn’t really see his father much except for occasional trips to California.

Bruce would later express some of his rage and sorrow over this relationship in his searing song from Darkness on the Edge of Town, “Adam Raised a Cain.” He has said that songs like this are the way he talked to his father at the time, because they didn’t talk much. Perhaps the most resonant lyrics of the song are:

We were prisoners of love, a love in chains He was standin’ in the door, I was standin’ in the rain With the same hot blood burning in our veins Adam raised a Cain

Darkness on the Edge of Town came out in 1978, followed by The River in 1980, then Nebraska in 1982. By that point Bruce seems to have grown more reflective about his relationship with his father and the silence between them, so he penned the poignant and haunting “My Father’s House.” In a performance of the song posted on YouTube, he tells this story before playing the song:

I had this habit for a long time: I used to get in my car and I would drive back through my old neighborhood, a little town I grew up in. I would always drive past the little houses I used to live in. I got so I would do it really regularly, for years. And I eventually got to wondering, What the hell am I doing? So I went to see a psychiatrist—this is true!—I sat down and I said, “You know, doc, for years I’ve been getting in my car, and I drive back to my town and I pass my houses late at night—do you know what I’m doing?” And he said, “I want you to tell me what you think you’re doing.” So I go, “That’s what I’m paying you for.” So he says, “Well, something bad happened. You’re going back, thinking that you can make it right again. Something went wrong and you keep going back to see if you can fix it and somehow make it right.” And I sat there and I said, “That is what I’m doing.” And he said, “Well, you can’t.”

The thing Bruce couldn’t fix was the darkness of his childhood; the fatherly silence, the sudden rage, the alienation. We hear this irresolution in the ending of “My Father’s House,” where the the dark highway full of unatoned sins lies between the son and his father.

Bruce writes in Born To Run: “’My Father’s House’ is probably the best song I’ve written about my dad, but its conclusion wasn’t going to be enough for me.” Thankfully for him, it wasn’t the end of the story.

Bruce tells a story about how, right before he became a father for the first time, his dad drove five hundred miles to his house in L.A. just to “say hi.” Bruce writes:

I invited him in, and at eleven o’clock in a small sun-drenched dining area, we sat at the table nursing beers. My father, in his normal state, had little talent for small talk, so I did the best I could. Suddenly, he said, “Bruce, you’ve been very good to us.” I acknowledged that I had. Pause. His eyes drifted out over the Los Angeles haze. He continued, “…And I wasn’t very good to you.” A small silence caught us. “You did the best you could,” I said. That was it. It was all I needed, all that was necessary. I was blessed on that day and given something by my father I thought I’d never live to see…a brief recognition of the truth. It was why he’d come five hundred miles that morning. He’d come to tell me, on the eve of my fatherhood, that he loved me, and to warn me to be careful, to do better, to not make the same painful mistakes he’d made. I try to honor it.

Bruce goes on later in the book to talk about how, in the last ten years of his life, his father was finally diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was able to get some help. In those ten years they were able to reconnect and repair some of the damage that had been done.

“My Father’s House” starts with a dream:

Last night I dreamed that I was a child Out where the pines grow wild and tall I was trying to make it home through the forest Before the darkness falls

After his father died, Bruce describes having a dream. He says:

I’m onstage in full flight, the night is burning, and my dad, long dead, sits quietly in an aisle seat in the audience. Then…I’m kneeling next to him in the aisle, and for a moment, we both watch the man on fire onstage. I touch his forearm, and say to my dad, who for so many years sat paralyzed by depression, “Look, Dad, look…that guy onstage…that’s you…that’s how I see you.”

This essay is adapted from a session at Hutchmoot 2018.


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