Joy and despair, vitality and darkness course through Bruce Springsteen’s songs. The joy, he told the world, came from his mother, Adele Springsteen, who died on Wednesday at 98.
When he accepted the Ellis Island Family Heritage award in 2010, Springsteen brought his mother onstage with her sisters, Dora and Eda, and declared, “They put the rock ’n’ roll in me.”
Adele, born Adele Zerilli in 1925, was constantly listening to Top 40 radio when Springsteen was growing up, getting her son on his feet to dance with her. She scrimped to buy him his first electric guitar and she encouraged him to be a musician.
She worked for decades as a legal secretary, an example that taught her son the dignity and camaraderie of holding a job. “It’s a sight that I’ve never forgotten, my mother walking home from work,” he said during “Springsteen on Broadway,” his autobiographical stage show. “My mom was truthfulness, consistency, good humor, professionalism, grace, kindness, optimism, civility, fairness, pride in yourself, responsibility, love, faith in your family, commitment, joy in your work and a never-say-die thirst for living — for living and for life. And most importantly, for dancing.”
She also protected him from his father, who had a lifelong struggle with depression — and whose grimmer view of humanity is the counterweight that runs through Springsteen’s songs. “She was a parent,” he wrote in his memoir, “Born to Run,” and that’s what I needed as my world was about to explode.”
As his career took off, she kept detailed scrapbooks of every small milestone. And she danced in the spotlight at her son’s concerts when she was well into her 90s, even when her Alzheimer’s disease had taken its toll and music was an instinctive consolation.
“Through my mother’s spirit, love and affection, she imparted to me an enthusiasm for life’s complexities, an insistence on joy and good times, and the perseverance to see the hard times through,” the musician wrote in his memoir. That’s the measured, grown-up Springsteen, striking his balance. But a key moment in “Springsteen on Broadway” was “The Wish,” a song to his mother that glows with pure fondness.
In it, he looks back to getting a guitar as a Christmas present, and he reminisces about “me in my Beatle boots, you in pink curlers and matador pants/Pullin’ me up on the couch to do the Twist for my uncles and aunts.” He also considers “all the things that guitar brought us” and offers to play his mother a request, but with one proviso: “If you’re looking for a sad song, well I ain’t gonna play it.”
Art is never just autobiography, and children grow up to be far more than the sum of their parents. But anyone who’s ever shouted along on a chorus with an arena full of Springsteen fans — those choruses that often break through the darker thoughts in the verses — clearly owes Adele Springsteen some thanks.