What was Bruce Springsteen doing on the day he announced his new record Letter To You? Reading another letter of sorts, this one containing sage advice spoken from years of experience, as part of an online convocation to the incoming freshmen class at Boston College.
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Springsteen was originally scheduled to speak to the students in person but the event was moved to a virtual setting and open to all to watch. Springsteen’s son Evan attended Boston College, graduating in 2012.
Springsteen began the 26-minute address by wryly noting that he does not possess a college degree, graduating instead from the ‘school of hard knocks… I regret missing out on college. It’s going to be unforgettable and the time of your life.”
The bulk of his convocation touched on living up to one’s potential, learning ‘how to love and let yourself be loved,’ pursuing ‘satisfying work’ and “studying something that inspires you and that you love” and becoming an active, informed citizen who takes the right to vote seriously. By voting, he said, “you can change the course of history.”
You can read the full transcript of Springsteen’s convocation at Jay Lustig’s NJ Arts website here.
He then followed up with a direct Q&A from students. The questions posted by the students were as insightful and on point as the responses Springsteen provided.
When asked about the role faith has played as a source of inspiration for his music, Springsteen chuckled at first about his constant battle with religion before turning philosophical.
“I have an ambivalent relationship with my faith. I would call myself a lapsed Catholic. I went to Catholic school for eight years and it almost cured me of Catholicism permanently (laughs).”
“My faith was something I thought I could walk away from… but I was wrong. I could walk away from my religion but not my faith. My faith remained with me, informing my writing, affecting the language that I wrote in and the themes I wrote about.”
“I often wrote incorporating biblical language. I consider myself primarily a spiritual songwriter. I make music that ultimately wants to address your soul. I made my peace with my Catholic upbringing for better or for worse. And I have had to nod to the fact that I wouldn’t be who I am without it.”
Springsteen framed the current Black Lives Matter movement and how racial injustice still permeates our culture through a discussion of his controversial song “American Skin.” Written in 2000 about the shooting of an unarmed black man, Amadou Diallo, in New York City, the song presents the points of view of both the victim and police officer, but was perceived by some as being anti-police.
“I’m sad that it remains relevant. But I’m not completely surprised. Because we as a country haven’t done the work necessary to address the systemic racism that pervades every corner of our society.”
He went on to point out that we are living in a moment of critical mass due to technology, with cell phones being important to capturing crimes committed against people of color.
He also gave fatherly words of wisdom about taking risks, the importance of friendships and the commitment and dedication needed to succeed.
Acknowledging the follies of his youth and not understanding the intricacies of the music business and making mistakes by signing “‘terrible contracts,” he warned: “be aware of who you’re involved with.”
“I was young, and I had nothing. I didn’t have a lot to lose. Life is risk.” He then brought it back to the joy of doing what you love. “If you’re making music for a living, it’s a blessed occupation. I’ve done it for 50 years and I’ve been the luckiest guy on earth.”
He approached the idea of commitment to your chosen profession, humorously noting he had no other skills. “Quit and do what!? Nothing increases commitment like your back against the wall with nowhere else to go. I would have either been at Madison Square Garden or the little bar in Asbury Park. But I would have been strumming that guitar, no matter what.”
He concluded with the importance of friendship, noting the members of the E Street Band have been his friends for 45 years, friendships he values immensely. “I wouldn’t be the same person if it weren’t for the friendships I cultivated. My friends are an inextractable part of any success I had…. My band and I, we held the value of our friendship higher than any of our personal grievances or disputes… So, 45 years in now, we receive the grace and benediction that lifelong friendships can bestow upon you. And I wish all of you sitting out there tonight may be so lucky.”