The Boss’s Wife

I am from that generation of people who listened to Bruce Springsteen really, really loud — on a record player — with the speakers precariously perched on the window sill of their dorm room so everybody else could hear the news that they were tramps like us, born to run. It was a time — the late seventies and early eighties — when he occasionally played in little clubs, like Toad’s Place in New Haven, and if you were smart, you went to hear him. (Not me, though. I stayed home and studied because, and let’s not mince words here, I was an idiot.)  I am still a big fan. I like plots in my music, and characters, and the struggle to live a decent life. And I like it that he’s not afraid to talk about politics.

But if I ever thought about his wife, it was only to wonder why he’d marry a back-up singer (actually, I also wondered why he married that other woman, the one who was a not very good television actor, but then I decided it was a youthful infatuation with the dream girl, one he seemed to get over pretty fast.) For some reason, the other day, I saw somewhere that Bruce Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa (which is pronounced “SKAL fah”) has a new album out, a solo album called Play it As it Lays. I listened to some of it, and then I bought it. And I listened to it for a few more days, and then I bought the other two albums, Rumble Doll and 23rd Street Lullaby.

All three are really, really wonderful, although 23rd Street Lullaby is my current favorite, because it so intelligently and beautifully looks back on what it was like to be a young woman coming to New York City to make music. It’s A Portrait of an Artist From Jersey, written and sung by a woman who sounds a little like Rickie Lee Jones, but you know she’s not doing a lot of heroin, and the songs, which are very simple, are emotionally smart, and honest, and make you feel like she knows all about you. The three albums, listened to together, chart a woman’s life from her thirties to her fifties, a time period that’s not much written about, a time when women are supposed to quietly disappear, be the back-up woman, wear good clothes, furnish the house, and have nothing to say about sex, or love, or loss.

What’s wonderful about these albums is that it turns out that she has plenty to say about sex, love and loss: all of it really interesting and moving. There are big gaps between the three albums, because she has three children, who are teenagers now. The trajectory of her career is not so different from that of a lot of women I know, except Scialfa is a little ahead of us — about five years or so. When you have children, you might still work at the thing you love, but you also go underground some, and you might not have time to put into that passion. But it doesn’t die, that’s the good news. Because for some people, the most creative and fruitful time is just later — after your children are more independent and you have more time. We don’t hear a lot about this, but I think we should, because stories like Scialfa’s are a lifeline for women who’re younger, and think they’ve lost themselves a little — or a lot — when they choose to have a family and step off the track and maybe stop doing the thing that’s their passion, or do it a lot less. That this need not happen forever, and that you come back into that part of your life much wiser, and with the kind of devotion and energy you can only feel when you’ve had to put that stuff to one side for a while, is news we all need to hear. But it’s all too often buried under other news about women as they age, the sort of news that’s just louder than this story because it’s more destructive, and nastier — the news that women, as they age, are back-ups, invisible, somebody’s wife, not somebody. The message here for me is that I need to listen harder for what’s underneath THAT tale, the one that diminishes all of us.

I leave you with this, her explanation of her musical choices on Play it As it Lays, because I just like the way she sounds: “I think the reason I went more into the soul music genre this time around is because women have traditionally allowed more freedom of expression in rhythm and blues,” Scialfa explains. “Those were very adult records. That’s why Aretha was singing ‘You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman.’ That’s one reason the blues and soul music are so wonderful. Those women always had a long list of complaints and they could belt them all out in a very beautiful and powerful way. Now that I’m 53, I had to find a way to write inside my skin and have it feel timely to me, so moving more into the R&B direction felt like the right place to go.”

That’s it then, I want to be HER when I’m 53. (Although I don’t so much care about the husband, the one I have being pretty wonderful himself, and, it turns out, just right for me.)

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17 thoughts on “The Boss’s Wife

  1. That’s certainly news I’m happy to hear. I remain inspired by my mother-in-law, who started a business at 50 (after raising her kids) and still goes into the office – because it’s fun – in her seventies. I know without a shadow of a doubt that my most creative time is yet to come – and it will come – and I feel lucky that there are women like Patti, like my MIL and like you, BlogLily, foreshadowing that for me. Seems like I need to get my hands on that music.

  2. Charlotte, she sounds like a terrific woman — it’s good to follow the fun, don’t you think? And if you do have a listen, let me know what you think.

    Tiv — Thank you. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts. What disturbs me most is the idea that we’re not supposed to be sexual, or sexy, or alive anymore. Bah to that.

  3. My best friend and I had huge crushes on Bruce in our 20s (early 1990s) and used to wonder what he saw in Patti. There was one Bruce special – before they got together – where she is interviewed and it was SO incredibly obvious, to us anyway, that she was besotted with him. We found it rather touching, yet pathetic, and couldn’t believe he married her soon afterwards. I mean, all she did was sing a bit of back up and wave a tambourine around.
    Fast forward to last night, and I saw her new CD advertised on the Country Music station and I was blown away. Who knew? Thanks so much for the review, I’m going to have to get all three too!

  4. Exactly LC, that’s all you saw, the tambourine and the backup. And you never guessed that she was spending years and years writing songs when she had time. I like her story a lot. It’s making me very happy this week.

  5. Well, I will have to see if I can’t get a couple of those albums. I loved the little excerpt you linked to.

    Speaking as one of those women who are there already, I can tell you that by gum we are TOO sexual, and sexy and very much alive. At least I am. I am 54 now, and back when I was thirty it never occurred to me to even think about what it was going to be like in another quarter of a century.

    Empty nest? It isn’t empty, just more peaceful with more time for what I want to do. Hot flashes? I had one yesterday, courtesy of my wonderful husband. . . botox? Why would I inject a deadly poison into my face to keep my character and emotions from showing?

    I’m sexier now than I was when I was 25, even if my breasts aren’t as perky as they were then. Why is that? Perhaps it is partly because now that I am past menopause I can do whatever I like whenever I like whereever I want and I don’t have to worry about getting pregnant and I don’t really give a rip what anybody else thinks about it.

  6. Great review, BL. I first heard Spanish Dancer on a compilation of music that EmmyLou Harris loves– I started hitting the replay button compulsively, and got Rumble Doll, then 33d St. Lullaby. I will run right out tomorrow for the new one. You always inspire– hope to see you soon.

  7. I love “Rumble Doll” but haven’t kept up with the albums (see, I’m showing my age, I still think of them as albums!) that have come out since. You’ve prompted me to seek them out.

    You’ve beautifully highlighted what an inspiration Scialfa is too. I saw a profile of her on “Sunday Morning” once and she was marvelously articulate about music-making and mothering and the relationship, for her, between the two.

    My own inspiration has long been my mother. She started university the same year that I started high school (her teachers’ college credentials from Scotland weren’t recognized in Canada), and I vividly remember taking an afternoon off school in my senior year to attend her university graduation. It was an excellent moment in time for me to see my mother being more than my mother, pursing her own dreams, continuing to learn and grow at an age when so much popular perception would consign her to the sideline.

  8. I feel like I’ve lost all my creativity at the moment, so any one who tells me it will come back better is excellent news to me. I don’t know her music, but from your account, dear BL, I really like her style.

  9. I’ll have to check them out – Someone else mentioned Emmylou Harris – Lucinda Williams probably falls into this genre, though I think I’d pass on that particular lifestyle. Then there’s the album Lorretta Lynn (sp?) did with Jack White of the White Stripes – Van Lear Rose. Country and country influenced music might not be as supportive of freedom of expression for women as r’n’b (actually, I’d quibble about this but that’s another story) but country inflected music seems to be full of women who’ve carved an individual path for themselves regardless.

  10. I love Rumbledoll and wonder how it would have fared if Scialfa didn’t have the Springsteen connection. The songs fit into a number of radio formats. Easy enough to segue “Lucky Girl” into Tom Petty’s “Kings Highway” or “Into the Great Wide Open”. Back in ’93 an artist had a better chance of record label support (than artists around today). Rumbledoll was a wonderful collection of songs, just as good (or better) than, say, Sheryl Crowe’s “Tuesday Night Music Club” or Sara McLachlan’s “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” or any one of a 100+ releases that came around before or since. She was dismissed as a wannabe and overlooked as a talent. Too bad.

  11. Hello Abby and welcome — This is such a wonderful comment — especially since I really like Tom Petty and you’ve given me a whole new way to think about him.

    U-Dad, Right — country-inflected women who write about life. I didn’t know about the Loretta Lynn/Jack White album. That I will have to check out.

    I’m with you litlove, it’s good to hear news like this. I’m not quite there, but I can see it coming.

    Dear Kate, Your mom sounds so great! My own went to college for the first time when I was a teenager, and would come home and talk about “women’s lib.” And then she changed jobs from being a bookkeeper to selling lumber to tobacco spitting guys, and then to selling software for Microsoft. What women they are, our mothers!

    Hey Mary, Oh you should. And let me know how you like the others. xo

    No mistaking where you are HMH! It’s good to know things get so, well, good.

  12. This is a great post — I’m looking forward to hearing more of what Ms. Scialfa has to say.

    I’ve come about it from the opposite side — am thirty-seven and struggled for years to have a child, but once I lost my tubes in surgery and didn’t have to worry anymore (in the opposite way of most young women) about pregnancy, children, the future, my creative world opened up for me in ways that it never had before. And certainly in ways that I never expected.

    I hope we all find that time in our lives (in our 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and on) when we don’t have to worry any more about all the what-ifs and what-wills and just live now. What a gift.

    Oh, and one more thing! Regarding what healingmagichands said, I’m going through premature menopause and I can tell you that while hot flashes are awful, but my body feels more alive now than it did in my late twenties or early thirties.

    We continue to be vital, even if society at large tells us we don’t.

    Beautiful post, Lily — thank you for sharing it with all of us.

  13. Oh, bloglily–thank you for this review! I went right over to itunes and listened to excerpts, and the one that really spoke to me was the 23rd Street Lullaby Cd, so I downloaded it, and now I’ve listened to it non-stop about a billion times. It’s so wonderful to find some completely new voice to listen to! My kids are always turning me on to modern types like Regina Spektor and Feist, and they are good, too…but Patti has such a soulful longing, and you’re right: she does remind me of Rikki Lee Jones, but without the heroin!

    Also, as somebody for whom good things are happening in my 50s (my first novel was accepted when I turned 50)–I’ve alway felt like a slow starter, but maybe these things happen when they’re meant to. I’m certainly less frazzled and freaked out than I was in my 30s and 40s. It’s a good feeling not to have to live through all that spinning-around again.

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