The young Bruce Springsteen rarely treated the women in his life well. Even his relationship with Patti Scialfa, his wife of three decades, appeared short-lived from the start. But the man who was Born To Run learned to tame his “merry psychosexual” tendencies by facing his biggest enemy: himself. And his 2016 memoir revealed secrets about his marriage the world had never heard before.
“Sha la la la I’m in love with a Jersey Girl,” Springsteen sang in 1984. The track may have been written by Tom Waits, but it’s one the singer made his own on that year’s Born In The U.S.A. tour. What’s more, the lyrics mirrored the blossoming romance between Springsteen and new E Street Band mate, Jersey girl Scialfa; much to the heartbreak of his then-wife Julianne Phillips.
The path to true love rarely runs smooth. And the road Scialfa and Springsteen had chosen to navigate together was littered with obstacles and personal demons. Among them was The Boss’ relationships with women. As one of the biggest rock stars on the planet, he’d scored a ticket to a sexual Disneyland.
What’s more, Springsteen was hiding his true self from his new bride. Phillips was blissfully unaware of her husband’s deliberately destructive approach to relationships. And he wanted to keep it that way; she was young, and perhaps naive to the ways of touring musicians. Scialfa, Springsteen began to realize, was different.
Scialfa was a musician, like Springsteen. They were a similar age, grew 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. More pertinently, she proved herself as the only woman strong enough to confront Springsteen’s demons.
Springsteen and Scialfa’s marriage has endured for 29 years, with the couple due to celebrate their 30th anniversary on June 8, 2021. Their story, however, dates back four decades, 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’s history.
The first time Springsteen saw Scialfa sing is a memory still lodged in his mind. As he recalled to the New York Times in October 2018, “She 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.”
You see, Scialfa had been busy carving out her own career throughout the 1970s. It was a life she’d dreamed of for as long as she could remember. As the singer once noted, when she was three or four years old she would sit at a piano with her grandfather, who used to be songwriter on London’s vaudeville scene.
While Scialfa started writing songs of her own in high school, it was her voice that really got people’s attention. And once she realized her own vocal talents, the then-teenager was determined to find a band to sing with. Moreover, music became a pastime that drew the young Scialfa 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 of the affluent borough of Deal, New Jersey, their daughter opted for the music scene of Asbury Park. But the young men who ran in the same circles 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. He recalled to lifestyle magazine People in October 1988, “All the hardcore jazz guys loved her and wanted her to sing with them.” But they were attracted to more than her voice. He said, “She was definitely good-looking. Everybody always dug her, but she was the girlfriend of [keyboard player] Cliff Carter.”
Scialfa seemed to prefer the company of men. As Metheny described, “[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.” When she returned to New Jersey in the late 1970s after earning her degree, the aspiring singer joined a local band, Southside Johnny And The Asbury Dukes.
Bobby Bandiera, a later member of the Asbury Dukes recalled Scialfa from the time. As he described, “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.” Nevertheless, there was a regular at the Stone Pony who had caught the redhead’s eye: Springsteen.
Moreover, Scialfa’s desire for Springsteen was no secret. It’s something Curtis K. Smith, her art teacher, noticed in high school. He recalled, “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, however, the romance was yet to blossom.
Scialfa needed a way in. Now, as the Asbury Park grapevine has it, the aspiring musician first tried out for Springsteen’s E Street Band around 1978. The Boss, however, deemed her “too young.” Dejected but not defeated, Scialfa continued scratching out her own musical career. Springsteen, meanwhile, was destined for bigger things.
Springsteen’s career had been on a steady trajectory throughout the early 1980s. Then, with 1984’s Born In The U.S.A. album, the E Street Band experienced levels of success they only ever dreamed of before. And for the accompanying tour, The Boss wanted a female voice in the line-up. So he invited Scialfa, who had affected him several years earlier.
In his 2016 memoir, Born To Run, Springsteen described life on the road as being a “merry psychosexual carnage.” Indeed, some of his early dalliances are referenced in his music. “Rosalita,” for example, from the 1973 album The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, was written about the woman the teenage Springsteen awkwardly lost his virginity to.
All the trimmings of life on the road suited Springsteen. He tells a story of a Jersey girl he lusted after, but who rejected him because he wasn’t yet 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. But there was a darker side to his dalliances, too.
As Springsteen recalled, “There was a part of me, a significant part, that was capable of great carelessness and emotional cruelty. That wanted to wound and hurt and make sure those who loved me paid for it.” And while that side of Springsteen remained largely 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.
Springsteen experienced his first breakdown when he was 32. On a road trip from New Jersey to Los Angeles with a friend, they stopped at a fairground in an outlying part of Texas. He watched from the car as couples shared intimate moments and children played — life, happiness and love surrounded him. But Springsteen 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 often crops up in his music. His dad, Douglas, struggled to hold down a series of jobs and instead ruled his kingdom from the kitchen table. He was often drunk and usually suppressed a seething rage.
As Springsteen described, “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.
Moreover, for all the riches global success had brought him, fame wasn’t a cure for his personal demons. The man who could fill stadiums around the world on the Born In The U.S.A. tour was incapable of finding, or accepting, true love. It was a position the rock star was seemingly unable to reconcile — even in marriage.
Soon after the Born In The U.S.A. tour kicked off, Springsteen met Julianne Phillips. 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, “Twenty-four, tall, blond, educated, talented, a beautiful and charming young woman.” Enough to enchant anyone.
The couple married on May 13, 1985 as the clock struck midnight. But as soon as the chimes faded, Springsteen’s demons took over. Fear of commitment manifested itself as anxiety attacks. His new bride was blissfully unaware of 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. But it was no use. As he described, “I was scared, but I did not want to scare the wits out of my young bride.” Phillips would often watch him perform from the sidelines on tour. But there was one thing she didn’t see coming: a blossoming romance between her husband and his backing singer.
In fact, Phillips was friendly with Scialfa, oblivious to the feelings the singer had long held for her husband. What’s more, the actress sympathized with her being the only female in the group; a situation she perceived as difficult for Scialfa. Phillips, perhaps naively, actively encouraged Springsteen to support her new love rival.
However, Phillips couldn’t see what the rest of the world did. Scialfa – who, incidentally, briefly dated then-rising actor Tom Cruise in 1985 – could more than hold her own among men. Moreover, the chemistry on stage between her and Springsteen was electrifying. Some believed it spilled over off the stage. Either way, it appeared Springsteen’s marriage was doomed.
The first clue fans had that something was wrong was 1987’s Tunnel Of Love album. Its lyrics were those of a man wrestling with his struggle with commitment and issues with trust and fidelity. 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.
However, 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. Then, by the summer of 1988 they were no longer hiding it. Springsteen and Phillips were divorced a year later. However, his romance with his new love was far from rosy.
“I dealt with Julie’s and my separation abysmally,” Springsteen admitted in his memoir. “I made a tough thing more heartbreaking than necessary.” What’s more, he and Scialfa often fought. It was as if his destructive approach to relationships was a badge of honor. But the redhead’s love and strength were enough 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.” A woman and musician cut from the same cloth, then, who “did not live to make you feel safe.” Something deep inside The Boss had changed: he was in love. And this time it was real.
Springsteen and Scialfa moved to L.A. in 1990 and welcomed their first son, Evan James, that July. It marked a pivotal point in the rock star’s life, and not just because he became a father. Days before Scialfa was due to give birth they had a visitor. It was Springsteen’s father, Douglas. What followed was a reconciliation.
“‘You’ve been very good to us,’” Springsteen recalled his father saying in his Broadway show. Lost for words, the musician nodded. “‘And I wasn’t very good to you…’ 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, identified his failings and warned his son not to make the same mistakes.
However, there were still rough times ahead for Springsteen and Scialfa. They married in June 1991 and daughter Jessica Rae arrived in December that year. After their second son, Samuel Ryan, was born in 1994, the couple returned to New Jersey to raise their children. They wanted their kids to grow up around a large family. But Springsteen’s mental health issues were still a problem.
Fame, fortune, and even family couldn’t lift the overbearing weight of Springsteen’s depression. Indeed, 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.’”
It was Scialfa who carried him 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.” What’s more, Scialfa showed her husband, a notoriously nocturnal being, what it really means to be a family.
Springsteen recalled a time when his children were young. He remembered Scialfa saying, “You’re going to miss it.” Miss what, he wondered. “The kids, the morning… it’s the best time. It’s when they need you the most.” The Boss reinvented himself as the 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.”
Scialfa redefined the kitchen, a place of fear for Springsteen in his youth, as a place of love. And she stood by him amid allegations of an affair in 2005. The visibly-in-love couple still perform together, their heartfelt duets thrilling crowds worldwide. “We have been together a long time,” Springsteen noted in his most recent work, 2019’s Western Stars. “So when we gather around that microphone, oh, there’s a lot of living there!”
Springsteen described the Western Stars movie and accompanying album as a “love letter” to Scialfa. In its narration he said, “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.”