Terence Blacker: Who needs happiness? Not the Boss

Springsteen says more about our problems than most blubbing celebrities

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At first glance, the news is enough to bring on a bout of depression. Bruce Springsteen, so rugged and manly, so reassuringly uncomplicated, has joined the ever-swelling ranks of celebrity depressives. Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax, Monty Don, Ben Stiller – and now The Boss: a BBC4 documentary exploring his secret, vulnerable side can only be a matter of time.

Springsteen, though, has never been a conventional celebrity, and there is more to these apparent confessions than the usual mock humility which is so often in evidence when the famous elect to share their pain. Talking to David Remnick, who has written a blockbusting 15,000-word profile in the latest New Yorker, Springsteen has revealed that he has been in therapy since 1982, having experienced throughout his adult life feelings of self-loathing and isolation, fears of mental instability and, above all, a sense of disconnection from his father, who died in 1998.

The songs he has written over the past few years – as spare as a Raymond Carver short story, as evocative as early Chuck Berry – are, it seems, directly connected to these psychological problems. His epic three-hour shows are not just a rock star giving his fans value for money; they are part of "a tremendous push towards self-obliteration".

In a week when the Office for National Statistics has published the Government's first wellbeing survey, Springsteen is making a worthwhile point. Happiness is not necessarily the nirvana that the self-help books claim. Often it is the need to resolve intimate and intractable issues from the past and present which drives us forward.

Being able to create and communicate helps, of course. The connection between a fractured psyche and performance is usually described from the sidelines by profile-writers or biographers, but Springsteen is characteristically clear-eyed about his own condition. All performers are driven by the same need to transform themselves in some way. "I do not know a single artist who does not run on that fuel. If you are extremely pleased with yourself, nobody would be doing it!"

Establishing the connection between inner restlessness and outer success, Springsteen is saying more about psychological problems than most of the blubbing celebrities who go public about their own fragility. Anxiety and dissatisfaction can feed upon themselves. Self-pity is corrosive. Trying to attain a government-approved level of wellbeing is pointless. Sometimes the best way to deal with demons is by looking ahead, and knowing that none of us have a right to happiness.

terblacker@aol.com

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