Rick Springfield on God, Sex and Stardom: 'I've Been Depressed Since Puberty' (Q&A)
In a revealing interview, the singer-actor talks to THR about embracing his latest role: novelist.
When Rick Springfield arrives just before 4 p.m. for a soundcheck at the Barnes and Noble in Manhattan’s Union Square -- the location for a 7 o’clock acoustic performance and the first signing for his new book, Magnificent Vibration -- there are already several dozen fans in line. A good number of them arrived more than six hours earlier to claim their spot at the front of the queue.
In addition to their idol’s latest title -- a required purchase for those who want Springfield’s signature -- several fans are clutching the singer-actor’s New York Times best-selling memoir, 2010’s Late, Late at Night; a few are armed with vinyl albums, like 1981’s Working Class Dog (which features the Grammy-winning single, “Jessie’s Girl”); and a couple are wearing T-shirts advertising General Hospital, the soap that made him a star.
Despite this show of support, the first-time fiction writer is a ball of nerves in a back room. Even as he’s realizing a lifelong dream of publishing a novel, Springfield is being paid an unwelcome visit by the antagonist from his autobiography: Mr. D, or his persistent depression.
“I’ve been depressed since puberty,” says Springfield, wearing rectangular spectacles and black low-top Converse. “A lot of artists I know are depressed. That’s one thing that writing [Late, Late at Night] showed me, that the good side of being depressed and having all these dark issues is that that’s really where the songs come from -- where anything I write comes from.”
Springfield is also nervous about how his novel will be received, explains Stacy Creamer, the former Touchstone publisher who bought and edited both of his books. (Creamer was let go by Touchstone last fall but begins her new job as vp, executive editor of Hachette Books in June.) Unlike most celebrities, Springfield penned both titles himself, without the help of a ghost writer.
“We did the memoir and it did well,” says Creamer, one of the few editors who bid on Late, Late at Night, which now ranks among Rolling Stone’s 25 Greatest Rock Memoirs of All Time. “So I encouraged him: ‘You might think about writing fiction, because I really think you could write a novel.’”
Those words were music to Springfield’s ears. “I’ve always wanted to,” he says. “I wrote stories as a kid. The only decent grades I got at school was for my essays. I thought that would be my focus, but then I picked up the guitar, and music took over. I channeled it into songwriting.”
Usually writers and editors work together on the shaping of a novel, so imagine Creamer’s surprise when, one day in April of 2013, she received an email from Springfield out of the blue containing a finished manuscript. “I thought, In what world does this happen?” she recalls. “I thought we’d talk about it: What it’d be about, how he would structure it, then he’d write an outline. Rick had written the whole thing on his own in five months!”
Creamer read it overnight and says she “bought it right away.”
“I was able to make the case at the [publishing] house: “The memoir sold well, he’s got a great social media platform,” she says. “But the main thing is, I love the novel. I would have wanted to publish if it hadn’t been by Rick Springfield.”
Indeed, Magnificent Vibration is an ambitious, cinematic, darkly humorous first work that vaults backwards and forwards in time and is set in multiple locations. Centered around the main character’s cellphone conversations with God -- or, as Springfield calls him/her, the Omnipotent Supreme Being (OSB, for short) -- it covers subjects as disparate as religion, masturbation, statutory rape, climate change and the Loch Ness monster, to name only a few.
Early reviews from book-industry insiders have been quite positive. Likening it to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Booklist compares Springfield’s writing style to “the clever, self-deprecating wit of Augusten Burroughs and Max Barry” and calls Magnificent Vibration “captivating, poignant and hilarious.”
Still, Springfield seems quite out of sorts, even as he prepares to face a friendly crowd of faces that obviously see him as nothing less than a conquering hero.
“There’s good stuff about [glowing reviews],” he says, “like, ‘That means I’m better than I thought I was.’ Then it’s ‘No, wait. I’m not, really. It’s just them talking.’ Which is part of my drive, honestly. It’s part of why I’m still doing what I’m doing. Somewhere in me I’m still searching for that golden moment that will suddenly make everything wonderful.”
Springfield sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about keeping his depression in check, his personal concept of God and spirituality and getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Magnificent Vibration is a pretty complex first novel. How did the plot line of a cellphone conversation with God come to you?
I started with the idea of God talking to me -- like, if I had a connection to God, if I could actually talk to him or her, what would I say? I’m a great dog lover, and I’m always aware that we’re the gods of the dogs. We feed them; we magically make food appear; we take care of them, and drive them around in these stunning things with wheels; we pet them and tell them they’re a good boy. Wouldn’t it be great if there were someone or something that could give us a pat on the head and tell us we’re doing good? It always bothered me, with the religion that I was raised in -- the Church of England -- that it’s all about faith. “You gotta believe.” It was very frustrating to me, because I wanted a connection. There’s a lot about my religious upbringing in the family [in the book].
What was the writing process like?
The first thing I did was write that first conversation between [the main character] Bobby and God. I worked on that for like a week until I started to see where it could go from there. I didn’t really have an arc; I just wrote it as I went. All of the different voices for all of the different sections came up out of nowhere, and I just went with it. I would just be writing and the different voices and ideas would come up -- like the Loch Ness stuff.
There’s a lot of questioning of the existence of God in pop culture at the moment. Look at the success of the very un-Hollywood movies like God’s Not Dead and Heaven is for Real.
There is a lot of spiritual searching. I think ideas are out there in the ether, and writers are open to them and they come based on what they’re open to and what they’re looking for.
Are you a believer?
My concept of God goes through changes daily. There is still a part of me who is very Christian, and that punishing God is still very much a part of my psyche. I was raised thinking God’s a punishing God, and he’ll kick your ass if you do wrong things, and if you do good things, then you gotta turn around and say, “Thank you, Father, appreciate it.” That used to f--- with me as a kid. And as a preteen I was very angry at God. I knew there was something wrong with the way I’d been taught. As I got older I learned from the Beatles about these other, eastern philosophies. That wasn’t an option when I was a kid. You know, you don’t deal with Buddhism -- that’s for the heathens. But through music I was opened up to different possibilities and I started to look elsewhere. I’m still very Christian; I have crosses all over my house. And it’s a weird obsession with me too, the iconography. I love that. But I also meditate. When I meditated for the first time I felt that I’d connected with a spiritual entity without asking for shit like you do with praying. You pray, “God, please protect the family. Can I have this? Help me do this.” You’re always asking for stuff. Meditation, it’s just being there. I have depression too, and the meditation has really helped with that.
In the book, God doesn’t seem overly concerned with our asks and thank you’s.
Yeah, he doesn’t really give that much of a shit about the day-to-day crap that we do. But, like he says, there is an end game, it’s just not necessarily what we think it is. And he says, “The best phrase that you humans have come up with is ‘Shit happens.’” Because it’s true -- stuff just happens. It’s not all God saying, “Give this 6-year-old kid cancer,” and “This football player, give him a billion of dollars -- and you better thank me when you get your reward.” That’s so bizarre to me, whenever somebody gets up and thanks God for all the great stuff that they’ve got. It’s so odd to me, because is there someone going, “Well, God’s giving him all this, but I’m getting f---ed here down here in poverty land.”
But I don’t want readers to get the idea that your book is like those earnest aforementioned movies. There’s quite a lot of masturbating and even a de-flowering at the hands of a preacher’s wife.
I’m probably going to get a lot of flack from Christians and Catholics and Mormons -- and everybody -- from this. But you just have to write what you’re going to write. I found that with my autobiography. I enjoyed writing it, but when it was done, I didn’t want it released. I called up the publisher and said, “You can’t release this book -- I don’t want it out there.” Because I was embarrassed and I thought people would think I was a d---. With this one, it’s fiction, so I can just throw it out there. Although I’m sure people will think that that seduction scene happened to me.
You’re an only child, but one of the sweetest things about the book is Bobby’s relationship with his depressed and then disabled sister.
I wish I’d had a sister. I would be a better man if I’d had a sister. A lot of guys I know with sisters are great with women, and even as human beings, whereas for the first 25 years I had the Madonna/whore complex. My mom was real strict. Sex was taboo; talking about sex was taboo. My sons grew up very different from the way I grew up, because I was very open about all of that stuff.
Do you identify with the teenage Bobby character?
Very much so. I was very uncomfortable in my own skin at that age. I didn’t think I was attractive and didn’t get laid as much as I wanted to. I was already in bands, but I was the super shy one. It took me a while to start to feel confident. I was always in bands with older guys who made fun of me. I was the virgin.
You’ve said that a movie version would be too expensive to make, but it does beg to be turned into a film.
I’m working on the sequel now, which takes it even further out. So maybe we could combine the two and make it into one a really super-expensive movie.
You still tour 300 days out of the year. How did you find the time to write a novel?
I’m in planes a lot, which is where I write. I can’t sit still, and in a plane I absolutely have to, so I was able to focus -- hyperfocus. God bless laptops.
You’re about to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Does that make you reflect on how far you’ve come?
It does, actually. I think of 1971, ‘72, when I moved to Hollywood, and I lived just off of Hollywood Boulevard. I lived just up from La Brea, and I’d go walking down Hollywood Boulevard, and I’d look for the Aussies, like Rod Taylor, Errol Flynn, Joan Sutherland. I used to do that a lot -- I had a lot of spare time. [Laughs] That’s the first thing I thought of when I heard I was getting [a star]. It’s going to be out front of the Live Nation building. I was hoping for it to be in front of a porno store -- I thought that’d be more appropriate.