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And Now, a Few Words from Bruce Springsteen

In September, The Boss delivered the First Year Academic Convocation address. Deputy Editor Courtney Hollands delves into his speech.

"Greetings, Boston College incoming class of 2024. If you completed your assignment and read my book [1], 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. All right. 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 [2], 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 from the school of hard knocks. That’s your degree.

[1] Last summer, all first-year BC students received a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s deeply personal 2016 memoir, Born to Run, along with a reflection guide exploring the book’s themes, including family dynamics, personal relationships, addressing adversity, and chasing aspirations. The singer later adapted the book into the sold-out show Springsteen on Broadway.

Though Springsteen received his diploma from New Jersey’s Freehold High, he skipped his graduation ceremony. The principal had suggested he cut his hair or stay home, he wrote in his memoir, so “I spent my graduation day wandering around Greenwich Village, eating pizza, hanging in Washington Square Park, stopping in at the Wha?, and meeting a new girlfriend.”

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 [3], 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 [4], 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 had.

[3] Springsteen’s eldest son, Evan James Springsteen, graduated from Boston College in 2012.

Springsteen, a one-time altar boy who went to Catholic school, wrote in Born to Run that he “came to ruefully and bemusedly understand that once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic. I don’t often participate in my religion but I know somewhere…deep inside…I’m still on the team.”

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 [5] and to be engaged in the life of this school is a great, great privilege.

[5] The Boss and Boston go way back. Reviewing Springsteen’s opening set for Bonnie Raitt at the Harvard Square Theatre in May 1974 for the Boston alt-weekly The Real Paper, the influential critic Jon Landau declared: “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” (Landau went on to become Springsteen’s longtime manager and producer.) Years later, when his son was attending BC, Springsteen was spotted busking on Boston Common.

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 [6]? 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 fifteen bucks a night playing a little bar in Asbury Park [7] and I loved every minute of it because I loved what I was doing.

[6] Springsteen has been helping his fans get through the pandemic by posting old concerts on YouTube and Apple Music, sharing favorite songs on his Sirius XM show, and releasing his 20th album, A Letter to You, in late October.

In his book, Springsteen wrote that, early in his career, he and his band’s longtime guitarist Steve “Little Steven” Van Zandt “were the best lead guitarists and front men in the area, and our presence in the club led to the gestation and formation of many bands that became the center of the Asbury Park music scene.” He would later memorialize this seaside blue-collar resort in the title of his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.

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 [8], because you’re going to always get more than you give. 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 [9]. Find your place in their lives and find out how to thrive there.

[8] Springsteen has a long history of activism and has supported numerous causes from veterans’ groups to Amnesty International—he’s even played shows to benefit BC at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park.

In Born to Run, Springsteen wrote about his wife of thirty years, the singer and songwriter Patti Scialfa: “The night I fell in love with Patti’s voice at the Stone Pony, the first line she sang was ‘I know something about love.’ She does.”

Find out who you are. As Socrates supposedly said, “The unexamined life is not worth living." [10] 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 [11] living up to your and its ideals. Listen to the voices calling you from our founding documents and keep faith with them.

[10] The Boss should know. In 2014, he was photographed poring over James Miller’s book Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche in the Netherlands, where his daughter, Jessica Rae Springsteen, an accomplished equestrian, was competing in the International Dressage Grand Prix Special.

Though often mistaken for a patriotic rallying cry, Springsteen’s 1984 hit “Born in the U.S.A.” is actually about a Vietnam vet who is let down by his country. When Ronald Reagan began referencing the song in his stump speeches—after Springsteen denied him permission to play it at campaign events—the rocker balked, later telling Rolling Stone, “I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in. But what’s happening, I think, is that that need—which is a good thing—is getting manipulated and exploited.”

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 [12]. 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.

[12] “In the 1960s the first version of my country that struck me as truthful and unfiltered was the one I heard in songs by artists like Bob Dylan, the Kingsmen, James Brown, and Curtis Mayfield,” Springsteen wrote in his memoir.  

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 USA. 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 [13].”

[13] “One of the points I’m making in the book is that, whoever you’ve been and wherever you’ve been, it never leaves you,” Springsteen told Vanity Fair in 2016. “I always picture it as a car. All your selves are in it. And a new self can get in, but the old selves can’t ever get out. The important thing is, who’s got their hands on the wheel at any given moment?”