Rock star, philanthropist, fierce advocate for the working man: Bruce Springsteen has plenty of strings to his bow. And when he’s not pounding out an anthem on stage, he’s also a husband and a father. But despite his fame and fortune, The Boss deals with a lot of the same issues we do. That includes keeping his marriage alive – which, as he’s candidly revealed, hasn’t always been easy.
Yep, Springsteen and Patty Scialfa may have been married for nearly three decades now, but not every moment has been bliss. A lot of us can probably relate! For starters, the two fell in love when Springsteen was already with someone else. He’d tied the knot with Julianne Phillips back in 1985.
But while the path to true love rarely runs smooth, the road Scialfa and Springsteen chose to navigate together was bumpier than most. It was littered with obstacles and personal demons – among them The Boss’ relationships with women. As one of the biggest rock stars on the planet, he was naturally not short of female attention.
And Springsteen hid his true self from his first wife. Phillips was blissfully unaware of her husband’s deliberately destructive approach to relationships. She was also young and perhaps naive to the ways of touring musicians. Scialfa, on the other hand, was different – as Springsteen began to realize.
Scialfa was a musician, like Springsteen. They were also a similar age, had grown up in the same area and hung out in the same New Jersey bars. And she could more than hold her own in his world of rock superstardom. But even with all that on her side, would she be strong enough to confront Springsteen’s demons?
So far, Scialfa has proved herself up to the challenge. She and Springsteen have been married for close to 30 years, anyway! But the couple’s story dates back even further than that to a chance meeting at the famous Stone Pony bar in Asbury Park. It’s a place synonymous with Springsteen and The E Street Band.
And the first time Springsteen saw Scialfa sing is still lodged in his mind. In 2018 he recalled to the New York Times, “[Scialfa] came out and played onstage with, it might have been Bobby Bandiera or, I forget which local band was playing. But she came out and played the Exciters’ hit ‘Tell Him,’ and she was very striking right from the beginning.”
Scialfa had plenty of chops, as she had been busy carving out her own career throughout the 1970s. And a life in music is one she’d dreamed of for as long as she could remember. When she had been three or four years old, she had sat at a piano with her grandfather, who had been a songwriter on London’s vaudeville scene.
But after Scialfa started writing songs of her own in high school, her voice really got people’s attention. Finally realizing that she had talent, the aspiring star then became determined to find a band to sing with. And, eventually, the young Scialfa was drawn into social circles very different from her own.
Like many teenagers, the adolescent Scialfa had a rebellious streak. While her businessman father and mother enjoyed the tennis clubs in the affluent borough of Deal, New Jersey, the up-and-coming musician was more at home in Asbury Park. And young men saw something in her that resonated with them.
Guitarist Pat Metheny shared a dorm with Scialfa at the University of Miami, where they both studied music. And in 1988 he spoke about her appeal to People, saying, “All the hardcore jazz guys loved her and wanted her to sing with them.” But they were attracted to more than her voice. Metheny added, “[Scialfa] was definitely good-looking. Everybody always dug her, but she was the girlfriend of [keyboard player] Cliff Carter.”
Still, Scialfa seemed to prefer the company of men. Metheny explained, “[She’d] hang out with the guys a lot. I can remember going to see midnight movies with her. Then we’d stay up all night and talk about music.” And after she returned to New Jersey in the late 1970s, the aspiring singer joined the local band Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.
Bobby Bandiera, a later member of the Jukes, recalled Scialfa from the time. He told People back in 1988, “She’s a beer-drinking buddy. If you’re in a bad mood about having a fight with your old lady, you can talk to her about it.” But there was a regular at the Stone Pony who had caught the redhead’s eye. And, yes, it was Springsteen.
Scialfa’s desire for Springsteen was no secret. Her art teacher Curtis K. Smith had even noticed it in high school. He said to People, “We’d always heard this and that about Patti and Bruce from [her brother] Michael. It wasn’t a big surprise around here when it finally came into the open.” In the 1970s, though, this romance was yet to blossom.
So, Scialfa needed a way in. As the Asbury Park grapevine has it, the aspiring musician first tried out for the E Street Band in around 1978 – but to no avail. Apparently, The Boss deemed her “too young.” Dejected but not defeated, Scialfa instead carried with her own musical career as the object of her affections continued on the up and up.
Then Springsteen became a worldwide phenomenon. Thanks to 1984’s iconic Born in the U.S.A. album, he and the E Street Band experienced levels of success they had only ever dreamed of before. And for the accompanying tour, The Boss wanted a female voice in the line-up. The obvious choice? Scialfa – the woman who had caught his attention on stage all those years ago.
Would the two finally become a couple? Well, there were other temptations along the way. In his 2016 memoir – also entitled Born To Run – Springsteen described life on the road as being a “merry psychosexual carnage.” And you can hear of some of his early dalliances in his music. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” from the 1973 album The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle was written about the woman to whom the teenage Springsteen awkwardly lost his virginity.
Back in the day, there had also been a Jersey girl Springsteen had lusted after. She had rejected him, however, because he hadn’t yet been famous enough. So, he sought to make her jealous by hooking up with her friend and giving his cherished, childhood rocking horse to her daughter. And as the star himself tells it, there was an even darker side to his personality at this point.
Springsteen recalled in his memoir, “There was a part of me – a significant part – that was capable of great carelessness and emotional cruelty. [I] wanted to wound and hurt and make sure those who loved me paid for it.” And while that aspect of Springsteen largely remained private, the sleeping beast occasionally made its presence felt. Allegedly, Springsteen once publicly ridiculed photographer and ex-girlfriend Lynn Goldsmith, who he had thrown out of a show in 1978.
The Boss was suffering himself, mind you. On a road trip from New Jersey to Los Angeles with a friend, he and his buddy had stopped at a fairground in an outlying part of Texas. Springsteen watched from the car as couples shared intimate moments and children played. Life, happiness and love surrounded him. But he felt a disconnect, and something inside him broke.
Mental illness is something that has long plagued Springsteen’s family. Many fans are aware of his troubled relationship with his father – a theme that occasionally rears its head in his music. His dad, Douglas, struggled to hold down a series of jobs and instead ruled his kingdom from the kitchen table. Douglas was often drunk and usually suppressed a seething rage.
Springsteen also talked about his father in his memoir, writing, “It was the silent, dormant volcano of the old man’s nightly kitchen vigil, the stillness covering a red misting rage. All of this sat on top of a sea of fear and depression so vast I hadn’t begun to contemplate it.” And as his own mental health issues began to emerge, Springsteen wondered if his own path had already been set for him.
Yes, for all the riches global success had brought Springsteen, fame wasn’t a cure for his personal demons. And the man who could fill stadiums around the world was lacking something plenty of folks took for granted: true love. Even in marriage, he couldn’t be happy – or so it seemed.
Back when Springsteen met Julianne Phillips, though, all looked good. She was an actress and model from the Pacific Northwest area, who caught The Boss’ attention in Los Angeles. In his memoir, he described her as “24, tall, blond, educated, talented [and] a beautiful and charming young woman.” She was enough to enchant anyone.
And the couple married as the clock struck midnight on May 13, 1985. As soon as the chimes faded, however, Springsteen’s demons took over. Fear of commitment manifested itself as anxiety attacks. Then there was his unfailing tendency to end relationships after around two or three years. The thing he wanted most was also the thing he couldn’t bear: love.
Springsteen tried to suppress his anxiety, although it was no use. He later wrote, “I was scared, but I did not want to scare the wits out of my young bride.” But while Phillips would often watch Springsteen perform from the sidelines on tour, there was one thing she didn’t see coming: a blossoming romance between her husband and his backing singer.
Phillips was friendly with Scialfa, oblivious to the feelings the singer had long held for her husband. The actress also sympathized with Scialfa being the only female in the group. And because of this, she – perhaps naively – actively encouraged Springsteen to support her new love rival.
But Phillips couldn’t see what the rest of the world did. Scialfa – who, incidentally, briefly dated Tom Cruise in 1985 – could more than hold her own among men. And the chemistry on stage between her and Springsteen was electrifying. Some believed it spilled off the stage. Either way, it appeared that Springsteen’s marriage was doomed.
The first clue fans may have had that something was wrong? The lyrics to 1987’s Tunnel of Love album. The songs told of a man wrestling with his struggle with commitment and issues with trust and fidelity. And on the accompanying tour, Scialfa often shared the spotlight with Springsteen, having been given more responsibility to fit in with the themes of the songs.
As Springsteen and Scialfa’s working relationship developed, so did The Boss’ feelings for the backing singer. Rumors of marriage trouble abounded as the pair’s impassioned live performances intensified. And come the summer of 1988, they were no longer hiding it. Springsteen and Phillips were divorced a year later.
“I dealt with Julie’s and my separation abysmally,” Springsteen admitted in his memoir. “I made a tough thing more heartbreaking than necessary.” And he and Scialfa often fought. It was as if his destructive approach to relationships was a badge of honor. Somehow, the redhead’s love and strength had to carry them both through.
“Patti had a part that carried a charged sexuality,” Springsteen described. “She could seduce, and she could stir you to jealousy.” She was a woman and musician cut from the same cloth as The Boss himself. And that may have changed something deep within Springsteen. In any case, he was in love – and this time it was real.
What happened next? Well, in 1990 Springsteen and Scialfa moved to LA in 1990. That year, they also welcomed their first son, Evan James. Then, just days before Scialfa was due to give birth, the couple had a visitor: Springsteen’s father, Douglas. And what followed was a touching, long-needed reconciliation.
“‘You’ve been very good to us,’” Springsteen recalled his father saying. “‘And I wasn’t very good to you.’ The star later looked back on this moment in his Broadway show, saying, “It was the greatest moment in my life, with my dad. And it was all that I needed.” His father, on medication for his mental health issues, then identified his failings and warned his son not to make the same mistakes.
Even with that advice ringing in Springsteen’s ears, there were still rough times ahead. On the surface, his relationship with Scialfa seemed to be going well. The couple married in June 1991 and had two more children. They also relocated to New Jersey, as they wanted their kids to grow up around a large family. But Springsteen’s mental health issues were still a problem.
Yes, fame, fortune and even family couldn’t lift the overbearing weight of Springsteen’s depression. In Born to Run, the rocker wrote of a particularly bad time, “I was crushed between 60 and 62, good for a year, and out again from 63 to 64. Not a good record. Patti will observe a freight train bearing down, loaded with nitroglycerin and running quickly out of track… She gets me to the doctors and says, ‘This man needs a pill.’”
But it was Scialfa who carried her husband through. Springsteen admitted, “By her intelligence and love, she showed me that our family was a sign of strength, that we were formidable and could take on and enjoy much of the world.” And Scialfa showed her husband – a notoriously nocturnal being – what it really means to be a family.
So, The Boss reinvented himself as a fully present, pancakes-and-waffles dad. He said, “Feeding your children is an act of great intimacy, and I received my rewards: the sounds of forks clattering on breakfast plates, toast popping out of the toaster.” Yep, the kitchen – often a source of fear for Springsteen in his youth – was now a place of love.
And the star and Scialfa still perform together, their heartfelt duets thrilling crowds worldwide. “We have been together a long time,” Springsteen told The Daily Telegraph in 2019. “So when we gather around that microphone, oh, there’s a lot of living there!”
Springsteen has even described his 2019 movie Western Stars as a “love letter” to Scialfa. It’s an unconventional one, mind you. In the film, the rock star says, “We all have our broken pieces – emotionally, spiritually. In this life, nobody gets away unhurt. Everybody is broken in some way. We are always trying to find somebody whose broken pieces fit with our broken pieces, and something whole emerges.” And it looks as though Springsteen has finally done just that.
Way before Springsteen found peace, though, he was riding high with his album Born in the U.S.A.. And at the time, the title track of that record was often misrepresented. No, it wasn’t an unabashed statement of patriotism but a protest song about the treatment of Vietnam vets. Springsteen himself was lending his support, even though he hadn’t served in the conflict for one surprising reason.
If you grew up listening to mainstream radio in the 1980s, it was hard to escape Springsteen. The musician was even held up as a poster boy for the American Dream by then-president Ronald Reagan as he ran for re-election. In truth, however, Springsteen’s output had ventured on an unexpectedly political course.
His earlier lyrical themes had reflected Springsteen’s own roots in New Jersey and a desire for something more than his hometown of Freehold had to offer. But on his sixth record, Nebraska, the singer explored themes of a more socially aware nature. And this would fuel the direction that its follow-up, Born in the U.S.A., later took.
Born in the U.S.A. went for a more pop-rock sound than its stripped-back and somewhat dark predecessor. It was certainly a style that resonated with 1980s America. But the album’s seemingly nationalistic themes and fist-pumping anthems veiled a deeper message – and it was one Reagan had gotten very wrong.
You see, Reagan had name-checked Springsteen and Born in the U.S.A.’s title track as a beacon of hope for America. However, in truth the song was written about the forgotten veterans who’d returned from Vietnam to a country that cared little about them. And it was a subject that resonated strongly with the musician.
Springsteen was born in September 1949. Watching Elvis on television as a young boy had a profound effect on him. “[Elvis] was as big as the whole country itself. As big as the whole dream,” Springsteen later said, according to Biography.com. “He just embodied the essence of it.”
When Springsteen turned 16, his mom Adele gave him a guitar. She needed to borrow money to pay for it, however, much to the chagrin of his father Doug. As the musician later recalled, “When I was growing up, there were two things that were unpopular in my house. One was me, and the other was my guitar.”
Nonetheless, the investment eventually paid off. Music gave the young Springsteen a focus that school never managed to instill in him. Moreover, at the end of his teens the budding musician was already performing in a number of groups around the New Jersey coastal city of Asbury Park. In the process, he encountered the players who would find fame with Springsteen as the E Street Band.
Springsteen subsequently put out his debut album Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. on Columbia Records in 1973. His musical style at the time was often likened to Bob Dylan. However, as reflected in the album’s title, its songs and themes very much mirrored his own personal experiences, whether it was the cocksure abandon of a wannabe superstar or something altogether more self-aware and introspective.
Sales of Springsteen’s first album and its follow-up The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, didn’t match his critical acclaim, though. But if the public were slow to catch on, respected Rolling Stone journalist Jon Landau certainly saw his potential. After catching the band live, Landau famously wrote, “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”
Landau eventually became Springsteen’s manager, in fact, and at the singer’s behest also accompanied The E Street Band in the studio. Then, after more than a year in the making, it was 1975’s Born To Run that finally connected with listeners across America. Springsteen had successfully committed to record the energy of the E Street Band’s live shows.
And it was in the live arena that the E Street Band perhaps excelled most. After Born To Run reached number three on the Billboard charts, the band were forced onto a prolonged tour due to lawsuits relating to Springsteen’s previous manager. It took them around the world and to success on a global scale.
Springsteen was a bona fide star. So much so, in fact, that he simultaneously appeared on the front of rival news publications Time and Newsweek. Fame, however, didn’t necessarily sit well with the man known as “The Boss.” Indeed, in an attempt to maintain his bearings, he needed to take a different approach to his next album.
The result was 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, a more self-reflective affair than its predecessor. And this was the period during which the E Street Band’s live performances became legendary. For instance, it wasn’t unusual for a show to last more than three hours. It was around the same time, too, that Springsteen became an avid reader, a pastime that greatly influenced his writing.
Springsteen was particularly struck by a book in 1978 called Born On The Fourth Of July. It was written by Ron Kovic, a Vietnam War survivor whose life changed forever in combat when his unit came under fire. A bullet damaged his spinal cord, paralyzing the lower parts of the soldier’s body. On his return home, the author became a prevalent anti-war campaigner.
As it happened, Vietnam was a subject that resonated strongly with Springsteen. Now, as mentioned earlier, The Boss and his father didn’t get along. Indeed, as you may recall, it was his mother who’d bought him a guitar as a teenager. His father, meanwhile, wasn’t at all happy about her actions.
Moreover, Springsteen’s mom was the main breadwinner in the family. She worked for an insurance firm in their hometown of Freehold. In contrast, his father struggled to stay in any job for too long, variously finding employment as a prison guard, bus driver and a millworker. Later the musician drew inspiration from his dad’s struggles, as well as their relationship, in his music.
You see, one of the reasons Springsteen’s relationship with his father was so difficult was due to his dad’s mental health issues. “[I had] a gentleness, a timidity, shyness and a dreamy insecurity,” The Boss told Esquire in November 2018. “These were all the things I wore on the outside, and the reflection of these qualities in his boy repelled [my father]. It made him angry.”
“My father looked at all those things as weaknesses,” Springsteen explained. “He was very dismissive of primarily who I was.” The star described his dad’s disappointment that his son was a tender soul much like his mother. But his father’s domineering presence hid something darker.
You see, Springsteen’s father had fought in World War Two. And when he’d returned to the U.S., he suffered from spells of paranoia and depression. Nonetheless, his dad would tell Springsteen that military service would do his son good.
In an opening monologue to a live version of “The River” on the album …Live 1975-85, Springsteen recalled a confrontation with his father in the late 1960s. “When I was growing up, me and my dad used to go at it all the time over almost anything,” he said. The singer also recounted how his father had hated his son’s long hair.
Indeed, tensions ran so high between father and son that the teenaged Springsteen spent a lot of time out of the house. And yet, when he eventually returned home, his father’s looming presence always seemed to be waiting for him in the kitchen.
“I’d tuck my hair down into my collar, and I’d walk in,” Springsteen recalled. “He’d call me back to sit down with him. And the first thing he’d always ask me was what did I think I was doing with myself. The worst part about it was I could never explain it to him.”
“I remember I got in a motorcycle accident once. I was laid up in bed, and he had a barber come in and cut my hair,” Springsteen continued. “Man, I can remember telling him I hated him and that I would never forget it.” His father had a stern response.
“He used to tell me, ‘I can’t wait till the Army gets you. When the Army gets you, they’re going to make a man out of you,” Springsteen added. “They’re gonna cut all that hair off, and they’ll make a man out of you.’” Then, as fate would have it, the musician was indeed drafted for the Vietnam War.
Springsteen was already aware of many local men being drafted to fight in South-East Asia. Some were even friends he played with in groups. “I remember the drummer in my first band coming round my house with his Marine uniform on and saying that he was going and he didn’t know where it was,” Springsteen recalled.
That drummer’s name was Bart Haynes. And he, as well as Walter Cichon, a local musician Springsteen worshipped, never returned from Vietnam. They were among more than 58,000 U.S. servicemen who lost their lives in the conflict. Those who did make it home alive, the musician noted, were changed forever. It was unsurprising, then, that the prospect of being drafted terrified him.
“I remember the day I got my draft notice – I hid it from my folks,” Springsteen said. “Three days before my physical, me and my friends went out and stayed up all night. And [when] we got on the bus that morning, man, we were all so scared.” Perhaps understandably, the musician desperately wanted to get out of being enlisted.
Springsteen was drafted at exactly the same time as a couple of band-mates, in fact. They traveled together to the Selective Service station, sure they would never return home. However, the musician had a plan. Later, in a 2017 conversation with Tom Hanks at the Tribeca Film Festival reported by Rolling Stone, he described it as “everything in the draft-dodger’s text book.”
Springsteen went to great lengths to convince the Selective Service board he wasn’t fit for combat. This included telling the officials that he was homosexual and pretending to be high on LSD. As it happened, though, all three friends were turned away. And for The Boss, his false claims proved to be unnecessary.
You see, Springsteen simply didn’t pass his physical. And it was due to the aforementioned motorbike crash that he’d been involved in. The accident had left him with a nasty concussion. It had been severe enough, in fact, to make him unfit for service. The musician was sent home as a result. Nevertheless, the Vietnam War continued to resonate through his music.
“I had friends who went,” Springsteen explained to Hanks. “I had friends who went and died. I had friends later on who were seriously hurt… And, so, it was something that I felt I had to come to terms with myself and I needed to sing about.”
Fate, it seems, had a different path for Springsteen. Indeed, shortly after he picked up Ron Kovic’s book, he randomly encountered the author at L.A.’s Sunset Marquis hotel. The pair hit it off, and through Kovic, Springsteen met Bobby Muller, who ran the Vietnam Veterans of America organization.
Muller’s charity was in a bad way financially. However, its fortunes turned around when Springsteen and The E Street Band played a fund-raising show in its honor during the summer of 1981. And while he made sure that the veterans in the audience had a first-class view of The Boss, Springsteen in turn shone a spotlight on those ex-servicemen.
Indeed, Muller credits Springsteen with spurring unprecedented interest in the welfare of U.S. veterans. “Without [Springsteen], we would have folded,” he told Time in June 2019. “We would never have had a coherent Vietnam movement in this country.” Moreover, around this time the song “Born in the U.S.A.” started to take shape.
“Born in the U.S.A.” is littered with references to the Vietnam War. Indeed, even the song’s structure and production qualities were designed to emulate the chaos, confusion and battery of conflict. Springsteen sang of a man who returned home to a country that turned its back on him. The narrator’s experience was the antithesis of the American Dream.
“Born in the U.S.A.” was the third single from the album of the same name. And not only did Springsteen change the lives of many veterans, the record changed life for The Boss as well. In addressing his survivor’s guilt, the anthem helped propel the record to become one of the biggest-selling in history at 30 million copies. Springsteen was a global phenomenon – but he never forgot his past.
Veterans’ struggles continued to feature in Springsteen’s music into the new century. Indeed, references to the ravages of war echo on his latest album, 2019’s Western Stars. Furthermore, The Boss is a regular at the annual Stand Up For Heroes benefit concert, having topped the bill more than 10 times, which has helped to bring in tens of millions of dollars to support veterans.
Going back to Springsteen’s own experience of the draft, his father expressed relief when his son returned home from his physical after being rejected by the Army. Moreover, the pair reconciled in 1990, days before the musician became a father himself. Doug passed away in 1998. Springsteen has three kids with his wife, E Street Band member Patti Scialfa. They live in Colts Neck, New Jersey, close to where Springsteen grew up.
Politics became more pronounced for Springsteen throughout the 2000s. For example, in 2008 he openly backed Democratic candidate Barack Obama and early the following year was the opening act at the newly elected president’s Lincoln Memorial concert. Later in 2009 Obama said of the singer, “I may be the president, but he is The Boss.” Obama subsequently granted Springsteen the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
Springsteen still thinks about the friends he lost in Vietnam. In October 2017 he embarked on a Broadway residency that lasted more than a year. In the show, he recalled visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. “All those lost years. Somebody’s life. Those missing years,” he said, according to The Washington Post. “Years that should have been lived, lived out. Remains infuriating. To this day I do sometimes wonder who went in my place. Because somebody did.”