On Sep. 9, the musician and artist Bruce Springsteen addressed Boston College’s class of 2024 at the university’s annual First Year Academic Convocation. The incoming students read Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run, before arriving on campus and had the opportunity to ask the artist questions about his life and career after he offered them his reflections on this important historical moment.
Greetings, Boston College, incoming class of 2024. If you completed your assignment and read my book, you will know I got into rock and roll for the sex, the drugs, and the sex. Wait a minute, that’s the wrong speech. Only joking. Let’s start again. Alright. Hi, I wish we could have all been together tonight, but as you know, circumstances don’t allow. Now I, like you, have a high school diploma, but I am 70-years-old and I do not, and will never have, a college degree. I’ve grown up in the music business, which is filled with many odd and unusual creatures and one learns experientially, not from the book. In my business, you graduated, as the saying has it, from the school of hard knocks. That’s your degree.
‘Now I, like you, have a high school diploma, but I am 70-years-old and I do not, and will never have, a college degree.’
I lived that. It has its merits, but overall, I regret missing out on college. It’s going to be unforgettable and the ride of your life. My son, who graduated from this very institution, told me so. You will spend your next four years living in a place where the life of the mind is paramount. The life of the mind is a beautiful thing. Along with your spiritual life, it’s the apotheosis of human experience. Take pleasure in your body and your physical life in your youth. Don’t waste it because aches and pains are coming. But here, in this place, you will not neglect the life of your mind. I missed that my first time around and I had to do my best to make it up on my own. I had to seek my teachers and my mentors in libraries and on the street. Worked, but I was not able to immerse myself in a place entirely dedicated to learning and I wished that I’d had.
What you’re about to embark upon will be the greatest adventure of your young life. You can waste it, you can half-ass your way through it, or you can absorb every minute of what you’re experiencing and come out on the other end an individual of expanded vision, of intellectual vigor, of spiritual character and grace, fully prepared to meet the world on its own terms. To be young in this beautiful and accommodating city and to be engaged in the life of this school is a great, great privilege.
Now we are currently in the midst of an historic experience. On our watch, they shut down the United States of America and the world for the past half year. You are the first coronial generation. You are already wisened by this experience, to appreciate the underappreciated. Sporting events. Getting together with your friends. Concerts. Remember those? Well, we will soon look to you for answers for a safer and better world. So where do you start? Satisfying work. Spend your energy doing and studying something that inspires you and that you love. You will never regret it. At your age, I was making 15 bucks a night playing in a little bar in Asbury Park, and I loved every minute of it because I loved what I was doing.
Work that satisfies and inspires is one of the most important aspects of a fulfilling life. Money is great, but alone, it ain’t going to do it. Everybody wants to do well, but don’t just do well, as they say, do good. Choose something that makes you happy, that makes you want to get up and go to work in the morning and allows you to rest easy at night. Then find out where and how you can give back, because you’re going to always get more than you give.
Two. Relationships. You’ve got to learn how to love and how to let yourself be loved. This is essential to the health of your soul. That is how you will prove yourself of value to your community, your family, your partner. Find your place in their lives and find out how to thrive there. Find out who you are.
As Socrates supposedly said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Express your emotions, share your inner life and be emotionally generous with your friends and your partner. All of these things will make you a stronger presence in your community and will allow you to give more of yourself freely and lovingly. This will make you happy. Learn how to be an informed, active and engaged citizen. Your country needs you, your vision, your energy and your love. Yes, your love. Love your country, but never fail to be critical when it comes to your country’s living up to your and its ideals. Listen to the voices calling you from our founding documents and keep faith with them.
‘Express your emotions, share your inner life and be emotionally generous with your friends and your partner.’
And vote. Vote, vote, vote. Only half of all Americans vote. It’s a sin. Voting is an enormous privilege and one of our most sacred rights as citizens. You can change the course of history. The 2000 election was decided by 500 votes or less. We’ve recently seen how fragile our democracy can be. You stand sentry, you stand sentry at the door of a free nation. We need your judgment. We need your vigilance and your commitment to a greater America, the America that we carry in our hearts. The American experiment, just as you are today, is an unfulfilled promise. The distance between the American dream and our American reality remains greater than ever.
It will soon be in the hands of your generation to do your damnedest, to make up and heal that divide. That’s a lot to ask, but that’s what it means, if you will excuse me, to be born in the U.S.A. Last but not least, heal thyself. We all come into this world in trauma. The first thing that happens is we’re thrown out of our motherly home, and the first thing we do is cry. We don’t come out laughing. There will be plenty of laughter to come, and love. Love is all there is. Love your neighbors, love your friends, love your family, love your partner and love yourself. Good luck. Enjoy the ride.
Hello, I’m Sloke Jerry-Walla, a member of the class of 2024, and I’m from Cedar Grove, New Jersey. This question was submitted by Jared Speeback from Tuxedo, New York. How did your upbringing help you create the characters that come alive in your music?
Bruce Springsteen: Hello, my fellow New Jerseyan. Well, my dad was a factory worker. My mom was a legal secretary who graduated high school and worked for the next 50 years. I was brought up in a small blue collar neighborhood. I drew on what I knew for the setting and the details of all my stories. But to make your characters come alive, you’ve got to process their stories through your inner life. You’ve got to plumb the depths of your own emotional, spiritual and psychological experience to create, whether you’re writing in song or on paper, three dimensional beings whose lives will resonate with your listeners or your readers. You have got to process them through your own inner core.
‘I’ve tried to keep faith with the people I came from, the town I lived in, my neighbors, my friends, by writing about my and their experiences.’
So that’s what I drew on the most, really my upbringing, circumstances in my own life. And they say, if you’re a writer, you will have enough pain, sorrow, laughter, joy in the first 12 years of your life to write for the rest of your life on. I’ve found that to be true. I’ve tried to keep faith with the people I came from, the town I lived in, my neighbors, my friends, by writing about my and their experiences. Thanks.
Hello, I’m Katie Gilmore, a member of the class of 2024, and I’m from Memphis, Tennessee. This question is from Heather Lee from Weston, Massachusetts. In Born to Run, you described how you grew up during a tumultuous time in American history. On page 331, you wrote, “I was a child of Vietnam era America, of the Kennedy, King and Malcolm X assassinations. This country no longer felt like the innocent place it was said to be in the Eisenhower ’50s.” This sentence really struck me, as my own generation is also growing up in a time when the country no longer feels like the innocent place it was said to be. What advice do you have for us? What should we look forward to during these bleak times?
Bruce Springsteen: Well, to begin with, as I was saying, you were born in the U.S.A., and while we’re absolutely going through some of the toughest and flat-out weirdest times of even my lifetime, and I was your age all through the ’60s, America remains a land where if not all things are possible, certainly a great many things remain possible. It remains a land of unfulfilled promise and that’s your job. If you pass through this institution successfully, you’re going to have a good chance that you will be hampered only by your work ethic and your imagination as to how far your life can take you. The United States remains one of the best places on earth to be young and hardworking and creative. Now, that’s not a promise that yet extends to all of our citizens. So if you’re here tonight, consider yourself most fortunate, and use your privilege well. It’s good to be a realistic optimist. Go forth and prosper. Thanks.
‘America remains a land where if not all things are possible, certainly a great many things remain possible.’
Hello, I’m Sharon Foil, a member of the class of 2024 and I’m from Hyde Park, Massachusetts. This question was submitted by Danny Gointa from Reading, Massachusetts. When you emerged on the scene, your sound was very distinct and different from the popular music of the day. Did you feel any pressure to conform? How did you maintain your confidence in your style and direction?
Bruce Springsteen: How did I maintain my confidence? I am a rambling mess of towering insecurities, even to this day. But I had shaped a creative identity that I had confidence in through a decade of working before I even signed a recording contract. That’s probably unheard of these days. But I performed in front of thousands of people, hundreds of nights, in bars, union halls, firehouses, fairs, weddings, high school dances, bar mitzvahs. So I was pretty secure, by the time I got into the music business, in who I was. Now, if you apply yourself properly, this school will help shape who you are. Your four years here is a time of tremendous personal transformation. You will emerge a fuller, more realized human being, more sure of your direction and confident in who you are becoming. Those qualities are of great value and will serve you well. That’s what you want to take away from here tonight, if you are so blessed. Thank you.
Hello, I’m Javier Pardo, a member of the class of 2024, and I’m from Coral Gables, Florida. This question was submitted by Nick Lopez-Vila from Woodbridge, Connecticut. Many of your songs include references to faith, and you touch on growing up Catholic in the book. What role has faith played as a source of inspiration for your music?
Bruce Springsteen: Well, I have an ambivalent relationship with my faith, I guess. I would call myself a lapsed Catholic. I went to Catholic school for eight years, and it almost cured me of Catholicism permanently. But my faith was something I thought I could walk away from after those eight formative years in Catholic school, but I was wrong. I really couldn’t. 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 song writer. I make music that ultimately wants to address your soul. I made my peace with my Catholic upbringing for better, for worse and I have had to nod to the fact that I wouldn’t exactly be who I am without it. Thanks.
This question is from Neo Bolt, from Reading, Massachusetts. In your memoir, you describe the power of elusive moments of creativity that transcend the experiences of everyday life, saying, “When life feels fullest, one and one equals three.” But you also mentioned that these moments are hard to hold on to and easy to forget. Do you have any advice for those of us searching for more of that one plus one equals three magic in our own lives?
‘Enrich your mind, address the health of your soul and spirit and you will set the circumstances for your most creative life.’
Bruce Springsteen: Alright. One plus one equals three, those are the moments you search for when there is an X factor, when something enters your life that you could not have predicted. Those moments come from a confluence of events. You can’t call those moments up. If you could, I’d release an album every year, instead of every several or three or four. You can work to set the conditions, so that those moments can favorably occur. The bottom line is that’s why you’re here and it’s a big part of what this institution can help you achieve. Enrich your mind, address the health of your soul and spirit and you will set the circumstances for your most creative life, for one and one to equal three. Those things can happen, that’s what you want to do with your time here. Thanks.
This next question was submitted by Molly McGrane from Aurora, Illinois. Now more than ever, your song “American Skin,” written over 20 years ago, has a message that needs to be heard and understood. You wrote that, “I worked hard for a balanced voice. I knew a diatribe would do no good. I just wanted to help people see the other guy’s point of view. The idea that was here is what systematic racial injustice, fear and paranoia do to our children, our loved ones, ourselves. Here’s the price in blood.” You played that song during your revival tour in 1999.Are you surprised or saddened “American Skin” is so relevant today? And in hindsight, do you feel the song did a good job expressing both viewpoints?
Bruce Springsteen: Well, for those of you who are unfamiliar, “American Skin” is a song I wrote about the shooting of Amadou Diallo, in New York City. When he was reaching in for his wallet, it was mistaken for a gun, and he was shot four 41 times. 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. But we are living right now at a moment of critical mass, due to the technology of a cell phone, which has allowed us to provide a record and to give witness to the crimes perpetrated against people of color and the Black Lives Matter movement, which has put those issues front and center. As never before, we’re living in a moment of possibility.
‘I believe history is dictating that we move forward, but it will take every bit of conviction and action that we can muster as a people to create real change.’
If you look around, though, you can see that the reaction to the social justice movement is extreme and that nothing’s guaranteed. Now, personally, I believe history is dictating that we move forward, but it will take every bit of conviction and action that we can muster as a people to create real change. It’s an existential issue for the United States and one that’s going to need the deep engagement of all you folks here tonight and all of your elders. Along with this pandemic, it’s the issue of our times, and we will be judged as a country as to how well we hold up our promise that all men are created equal. Your generation will be essential in this decision. Thanks.
This next question was submitted by Ben Austin from Arlington, Massachusetts. Throughout your book, you took many risks and on some occasions, you bet everything on you, your music and your band. Did these seem like big risks back then and if they did, how did you know whether to take that risk or not? And how could that advice apply to other aspiring musicians?
Bruce Springsteen: Alright. This is for the aspiring musicians, I guess. Well, the music business is an undependable and inherently risky place. When I was 22, I would have signed my name to your underwear to be able to make a record. I would have signed, and I did sign, anything. And I signed terrible contracts, which later cost me time, friendships and large amounts of money to extract myself from. I gave up my rights to my songs, the creations that I held dearest. I lasted, thank God, and it worked out, but it wasn’t the way to do it. So before you take that leap, be aware, and be aware of who you’re involved with and your agreements.
‘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.’
Now, as far as taking risks, I was young and I had nothing, so I didn’t have a lot to lose, and life is risk. Betting on yourself, you could do worse. That way, you know who to blame for your failures and who to credit for your successes. All that being said, 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. So it’s nice.
This next question was submitted by Heidi Yoon from Ridgefield, New Jersey. What does friendship mean to you, and how did it help you to get where you are now?
Bruce Springsteen: Friendship, alright, friendship. I’ll tell you a little something about friendship. Imagine this, the people you’re going to school with right now, 45 years later, you’re working with those exact same people. That’s what happens in a rock and roll band. 45 years later, the same people are still with you. I think it’s the only job in the world where that happens. But needless to say, sustaining those friendships so that they’re alive and vital 45 years later is a fine art. I wouldn’t be the same person sitting in front of you tonight if it weren’t for the friendships I cultivated and then nurtured in my band and amongst the people that I work with. My friends are an inextractable part of any success that I’ve had.
And more than that, they’ve enriched my life in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. In any friendship, you’re going to fight, you’re going to love, you’re going to argue, you’re going to hate this about the other guy, he’s going to hate this about you. But my band and I, we held the value of our friendship higher than of our personal grievances or disputes. So 45 years in, now we receive the grace and the benediction that lifelong friendships can bestow upon you. And I wish that all of you sitting out there tonight may be so lucky. Thanks.
This next question was submitted by Emily Foreign from Bethlehem, New York. Was there any point where you were really struggling and contemplated quitting? If so, how did you overcome this feeling and push through to become the successful person you are today?
Bruce Springsteen: I could not consider quitting because I had absolutely no other skills. Quit and do what? I would’ve been incapable of doing anything else. Nothing increases commitment like your back against the wall, with nowhere else to go. Most of the musicians that I know that could quit—they did. It’s not a profession for those with an abundant amount of choices in life. It’s too uncertain. So I’d either been at Madison Square Garden or a little bar in Asbury Park, but I’d have been strumming that guitar no matter what. Thanks.
This final question was submitted by transfer student Danny O’Connor from Saddle River, New Jersey. Besides your children, what are you the most proud of?
Bruce Springsteen: What am I the most proud of? Well, besides my children, I am most proud of the 30-plus-year relationship I have with my wife. Nothing will expand your horizons or make you grow individually more than the partnership that you commit yourself to and the person you choose to share your life with. More than my work, more than whatever success you might achieve, nothing altered or enriched who I would become as a man, more than my relationship with my wife, Patti. Everything else stands behind that. The work, the success all stands behind me and my gal. Thanks.