When 23-year-old Rick Springfield’s debut solo single “Speak to the Sky” was climbing the Australian pop charts in 1972, few realized the young singer/songwriter had been suffering since his teen years from debilitating depression — including a suicide attempt 6 years earlier.
Four decades later, he publicly discussed his battle in the best-selling 2011 memoir “Late, Late at Night.” For raising awareness about suicide and mental health issues, the 68-year-old Springfield was honored by Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services , which has been helping people deal with mental health and substance abuse issues since 1942. Springfield received its 2018 Beatrice Stern Media Award last month at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills.
“It’s not something I sought,” said Springfield, about the honor, from Los Angeles. “In the music business, accolades provide milestones and markers along the way to gauge one’s career. But this type of award draws attention to serious issues like depression. When I’m down, it inspires me to read about other people who have dealt with it and survived. So if I can provide that for someone else, I’m glad to talk about it.”
Battling a dark side
Springfield says his depression first arose after puberty.
“I began to feel uncomfortable in my own skin and would stay away from school. It got worse – so bad I tried to hang myself. Obviously, I didn’t succeed but have battled this dark side all my life.”
After moving to the U.S., he scored one of the biggest pop hits of 1981 with “Jessie’s Girl,” won a Grammy, and became a daytime TV heartthrob on “General Hospital.” Yet despite his accomplishments, he never eluded the shadow of depression that has stubbornly hung over him. And he says he “gets it” that some may wonder how anyone with money, fame, talent, and a legion of adoring fans could be depressed with their life.
“I thought success would make me better but it didn’t change anything inside me,” he explained. “There are times when I have no idea why I’m down and wake up dark – it’s just something in me. I certainly get the greatest pleasure when I’m on stage playing live to thousands of screaming and dancing fans. It’s a great high, but then you come off stage and it’s just you alone in a hotel room looking at yourself in the mirror.”
Springfield’s latest CD, “The Snake King” released earlier this year, infuses rock ‘n roll with a twist of blues – both musically and personally.
“It’s got a lot of attention because it’s so different I think,” he said. “I was in a particularly bad place last year so it’s a darker album.”
Branched into acting
With over three dozen studio, live, and compilation albums to his credit, hit singles, as well as numerous film and TV roles, it’s perhaps surprising Springfield didn’t originally plan a singing or acting career.
“I love writing and really started singing because no one else would sing my songs,” he said. “Then I only began acting to make some money between record deals. But I soon began to love the idea of branching out into other entertainment genres like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra who did it so well.”
Even his biggest hit wasn’t planned. “‘Jessie’s Girl’ wasn’t originally released as a single, but the radio DJs loved it and started playing it from the album (‘Working Class Dog’).”
Its success, he says, was a surprise.
“I thought there were better songs on the album but people just identified with it and still do. I must have sung it thousands of times over the years.”
One of those performances still stands out.
“It was the first time I played it live, just after it became a hit, at The Beach Boys July 4th show at Long Beach by the Queen Mary. They put me on the bill because they wanted a new artist with a hit record. I still remember how the audience cheered when they recognized it. That was pretty big for me because I had been in the audience, so it was really powerful to see their response from a song I wrote.”
He still performs the song during concerts but says he tries to keep them fresh. “I’m always writing new stuff so the shows aren’t just a collection of oldies.”
And occasionally, he even performs his first hit, “Speak to the Sky,” with its upbeat melody and introspective lyrics reflecting his father’s hospitalization in the early ’70s. Sadly, his dad passed away in 1981 just as “Jessie’s Girl” was climbing the U.S. charts.
“That’s when I realized the yin and yang of life – nothing’s all good or all bad, but always both. I had sent my dad an early copy of the record, so he did get to hear it. He wasn’t well at the time and my mum said he would sit in the living room listening to it saying ‘Yeah, this one’s going to do it!” I don’t know if he really understood my music because he came from a different era, but he was always my champion, always believed in me, and kept me going when things got hard.”
Today, Springfield is still thankful for family, close friends, and fans who likewise continue to support him, while he hopes his own words and music will provide comfort to others similarly struggling.
“I don’t want to be the depression poster boy, but if people can see I’m managing my life and have had success despite living with this in my system, it offers them hope,” he says. “I meditate and got therapy, so you can learn to work with it. My advice is to talk to people who understand it. I look forward to doing a lot more and pushing my own envelope.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala, and has written features, columns and interviews for over 700 newspapers and magazines. See tinseltowntalks.com.