There’s a segment early in Bruce Springsteen’s ongoing Broadway residency show where he discusses the kind of man his father was. A mill worker, then a soldier, then a married man who spent long nights at local bars in between shifts at the Ford Motor plant in New Brunswick and other various factory jobs, Douglas ‘Dutch’ Springsteen was like a large number of blue-collar New Jerseyans.
While Bruce lovingly remembers his mother as both a joyous pillar of comfort and the institutor of the law in his household, Dutch is a more fleeting and difficult presence. His father was a heavy drinker, someone who suffered from mental health problems and the lack of appropriate care or understanding as only a blue collar Irish New Jerseyan in the 1950s and 1960s could know. He was a man who did not easily provide love, appreciation, or even acknowledgment to his children, and the lasting emotional impact that it had on Bruce would later manifest in his songs, especially those that yearned for escape.
Springsteen’s relationship with his father isn’t explicitly dramatised in ‘Independence Day’, the father-son lament that concludes side one of The River, but it’s easy to see where inspiration could be dug up from. “My father was me hero, and my greatest foe,” Springsteen says in Springsteen on Broadway. “When I was a young man looking for a voice to meld with mine, to sing my songs and tell my stories, I chose my father’s voice.”
Springsteen on Broadway takes us into a real-life repeated occurrence where Bruce was tasked with entering his father’s favourite bar and instructing him to come home to his family. In a similar vein, the narrator of ‘Independence Day’ places the burden of responsibility on himself, except instead of cajoling the father to come home, the narrator is instead explaining why he must leave. “‘Cause the darkness of this house has got the best of us/There’s a darkness in this town that’s got us too/But they can’t touch me now and you can’t touch me now/They ain’t gonna do to me what I watched them do to you.”
Tellingly, the song Springsteen performs to illustrate his own father’s essence during Springsteen on Broadway is ‘My Father’s House’ from Nebraska, a tale of innocent dreams and idealised imagery that doesn’t quite line up with reality, and not ‘Independence Day’, a fiercely defiant and embittered role reversal of father and son. Its place within the show’s narrative makes it clear that, despite their fraught relationship, Bruce still wants to imagine his father with hints of pride and reconciliation: “I imagined the hard things that pulled us apart/Will never again, sir, tear us from each other’s hearts”.
Springsteen concludes the segment by detailing a dream he had after his father’s passing where Bruce is on stage and sees his father, back from the dead, in the audience. Bruce the man comes down while Bruce the performer continues to burn up the crowd. In a moment of unfilled bonding and understanding, Bruce tells Dutch that the man on stage is the way that Bruce always saw his father, even in spite of his faults.
The characters in ‘Independence Day’ never reach this moment of shared communion or even get close to it. Their’s is a relationship that is splitting in real time, a fresh wound that requires time and patience to heal, with a strong possibility that it never will. Springsteen didn’t get the ability to reconcile with his father, but he still keeps it as a possibility in his hopes and dreams.
While ‘My Father’s House’ is the matured and time-informed view of a broken relationship, ‘Independence Day’ is the hardened and stoic immediate reality that finalises the break. There’s no celebration or triumph or even relief, just understanding that separation is necessary for survival. ‘Independence Day’ might not be autobiographical, but its roots can certainly be found in the real-life relationship between Bruce and Dutch Springsteen.