This essay originally appeared as part of Helena Fitzgerald's Tinyletter “Grief Bacon.”
No one should be able to do anything for five hours straight except sleep, but no one told Bruce Springsteen that. It’s eleven o’clock at night and I am sitting up at a blue-painted metal table on the food court level of the baseball stadium because my feet can’t take it anymore. We’ve been here for three hours and it’s only just getting started. Below me, the stadium rattles with noise, cheers that rise like a wave breaking and then return to a reverent, humming almost-silence. The music starts up like a car, not like that’s a metaphor but rather that the music has been practiced and tested to make sure that it sounds exactly like a car when it starts up. If I sit up straighter than I want to on the blue plastic bench at the picnic table, I can watch an undulating field of faces washed with pink-red light, moving as one, driven by the figure on stage.
Down there somewhere in that massive sea of faces is my dad, who is the one who wanted to come to the Bruce Springsteen concert. He will emerge another hour and change from now, when it still isn’t over, grinning like an overjoyed surfer emerging from a day in gigantic waves, at sixty-six with more energy than I can imagine summoning for just about anything. If it wasn’t for me, we would stay until one in the morning, until the end of all the encores and then lingering at the side of the venue, my dad making friends with other radiant dads in their white-and-grey gym sneakers and their T-shirts with their adult kids’ alma maters’ names on them. “Bruce” they all say, giving the word six or seven or twenty-five syllables.
Everyone refers to Bruce by his first name. Bruce is someone we know. Bruce would be your friend and come hang out and grill with you in the backyard on a Sunday afternoon if Bruce weren’t so busy, but Bruce wants to be there and he wants to know you because Bruce is, essentially, just like you. Bruce doesn’t think your problems are small because for all his fame, Bruce’s life is just like yours. Bruce has never met your kids but Bruce wants to know how your kids are doing and he cares about the answer. The dads are here for Bruce; the dads hold these truths about Bruce to be self-evident.
Bruce is a first name celebrity to dads, the ultimate dad, the dad who represents what every actual dad aspires to and falls short of. Bruce has kids and he seems to be great with them, but actual parenting isn’t the point of being a dad. Being a dad and being a parent are two disconnected things. The identity of dad is separate from the work of family, from errands and reminders and obligations, while the identity of mom is defined by these things. Dads symbolize escape and adventure; moms exemplify home and obligation. I have never wanted kids, but I have always wanted to be a dad. Dads are loved for their bad jokes and unfashionable clothes, while moms have to hold the world together with two hands. Being a dad is the ultimate success and the best con in the world. Even in those rare families with a loving, present mom and a dad, this often makes for built-up resentments. Even the best dad is living up to a far less stringent and rigged standard than the best mom. All a dad has to do to be a hero is show up.
Bruce’s five-hundred-plus-page autobiography was published this past September. About two weeks before its release, when Thomas and I went to see him with my dad, he started the song “Growing Up” with a monologue, as he usually does. “Before I wrote my autobiography,” he said—and I can’t be sure, but I think giant pictures of his book flashed on the enormous screens beside the stage when he said this, but maybe I am making that up, maybe it just felt that way—“This was my autobiography.” And then he started playing a quiet (as much as anything can be quiet in a Major League Baseball stadium filled to capacity) guitar riff and over it told a fifteen-minute story about buying a used guitar with his money from raking leaves out of gutters or something like that, and how he skipped work when he saw that guitar in the window, and how he bought the guitar and never went to work again. It’s an old and attractive myth, the one in which being an artist is at once a working-class dream of success with dirt under its fingernails and a rocket ship ticket out of the whole world of work and jobs. Rock music as the hero’s journey, as the fantasy of a kind and gentle meritocracy—Bruce’s vision of success is as beautiful and as useless as your parents telling you over the phone how easy it should be to just get a good job right out of college.
Most dads are imaginary. The concept of dad is an American fiction, a secular version of the simple, spectacular answers that old-fashioned religion offers. Dad is something large and unambiguous in which to believe, and America loves nothing more than the promise of a hero coming to save us all. Our country’s mythology is built on a system that puts dads in the place of God. Dads are a fiction invented by the comfort foods of twentieth-century media, half-hour TV shows about families in comfortable houses resolving their problems, and large, brick-solid novels spanning generations in which every loss leads to redemption. Nick Hornby wrote in an essay about “Thunder Road” that Bruce is perhaps the only writer who proves wrong the accepted wisdom that if you want to write about redemption, it’s probably not a good idea to use the word “redemption.” That’s who Bruce is, and who he’s patron saint to—dads want to talk about redemption and they want to believe in it, too.
The main thing I have inherited from my dad is the desire to locate a spiritual experience of the world outside of religion. My dad is a lapsed Catholic, a fact about himself he finds so unglamorous and mentions so rarely that I assume the real story must be heartbreaking—I know his first marriage was a large, traditional church wedding and that my mom not being Catholic mattered in a way that seems remote and inaccessible to me. I know he went to Catholic school and played wildly sacrilegious pranks during Mass, and I know he was taught by evil nuns who would sometimes empty trash cans on students’ heads in middle school. I know he was raised in a gigantic Irish family who said grace over food before each meal; when we would visit them for holidays before my grandmother died, he would say an awkward, embarrassed grace before we ate, as someone who knows how to do something but is long out of practice and resents the skill being recalled into the present. But I have no idea if he at one time or another had a legitimate experience of faith, a relationship with God as large as a house with the windows thrown open, some belief that transported him beyond the dullness of the everyday and raised the world up into the register of devotion.
What I do know is that he has always had a replacement for it. My dad is not a congregant but he is a fanboy. He is fundamentally uninterested in anything that requires quiet dignity. This is part of being a dad, too, this reaching toward the bombastic, this insistence that the world function like a rock and roll song about a car. When I was growing up he taught English literature, specifically modern British poetry and the American Romantics, writing that wants to live where God might once have rooted in the readers’ hearts. Before I was born, it was the New York City Ballet, back when he lived in Manhattan in the ’70s and ’80s and George Balanchine was still alive. Because his enthusiasms for the things he likes can exist only on the level of religion, for a while my dad threw himself into ballet fandom with all the fervor of a believer and became what can only really be described as a groupie; eventually he met my mom and stopped hanging around backstage and going on weird double dates with Peter Martins. The fact that he wasn’t a dancer himself and had never wanted to be was fundamental to the religious sense of fandom.
My dad loves sports but has never had the same secular-religion relationship to sports because he got too close to it—he played varsity basketball at a Division I school and coached high school basketball for years after. The way he loves sports is mitigated by having been offered a legitimate way into sports. You can’t play a pickup game with God; it undoes the purpose of devotion, the buoyant sense of grasping at something ever beyond reach. We want this from the things in which we seek the spiritual—we don’t them to be our friends, necessarily. We want them to be too large to acknowledge us. We want to stand outside the huge doors and gaze up at a beauty that refuses to include us.
Thomas and I are standing a few rows behind my dad on the floor at the Springsteen show. Originally, we were all standing together, but then my dad made friends with other Bruce-dads and now he and his new best friends are a few feet closer to the stage than we are, lost in a sea of men exactly like themselves. Thomas grew up in the church and probably would have gone to seminary and gotten ordained if he hadn’t discovered the internet instead. In and after college he lead youth group retreats and preached sermons to teenagers trying to negotiate their relationship with the divine up out of Sunday school obligation and into the adult choices that prop up a community. At the Bruce Springsteen show, he gets a look of recognition on his face. The stadium lights wash over the upturned longing of thousands of dads in comfortable shoes and parkas, sweatshirts knotted around their waists. Bruce is red-faced and larger than life and everyone around us follows his every move.
“It’s church?” I ask Thomas.
“Yeah,” he says, “It’s church.”
My dad loves Bruce with a pure and large devotion that asks no questions of the thing it loves. Dads are all looking for the world to be simpler than it is. Dad is as indefensible a concept as America, which makes sense since the two are often interchangeable or co-symbolic. Dad is the idea that the things that are good might also be just, that everything might be exactly what it looks like, that what you love might not be the thing most likely to hurt you. Living in this particular moment in history it is hard not to mistrust anyone who promises anything good; we are wary of the grand stories, of the big triumphant block letters, anything that is certain of its own rightness must also be untrustworthy and a guilty pleasure. America has never been a secular nation anyway, but much more than it is a Christian country, it is a nation whose religion is a belief in itself. Bruce is its poet, its preacher and designated hitter, a dad to the dads, a messiah for all the people seeking the religious in the secular.
Bruce doesn’t play “Thunder Road” until it’s almost midnight. “Thunder Road” is a perfect song, a thing in which one small stupid experience expands out to contain all the loud inarticulate things that make us human to one another. As sound, it is irresistible; I want to grow up to be the part on “Thunder Road” where the whole thing kicks in at 1:13. A few thousand dads turn their faces to the light and roar about a nighttime drive a teenager in New Jersey once took with a girl named—of course—Mary. My feet hurt and I want to go home, but I’m swept along in it, in the sense that faith might not be a fiction, the sense that we can all for a few moments be dads, and that the big, simple, obvious things might also be the things that are good.