Rick Springfield reflects on bittersweet, whirlwind 'Jessie's Girl' success, 40 years later: 'I thought it would heal me'

Lyndsey Parker
·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·9 min read

Forty years ago, Rick Springfield’s life entirely changed, within just a few months. After his first four albums had failed to generate much attention in the U.S., the former teen idol, at age 31, was about to give up on music for good.

“I'd been to enough restaurants that I could wait tables. I made little clay figures that I sold at the Rose Bowl with my then-girlfriend for about $1.50. So I figured with all that put together, I could probably afford a small apartment somewhere. That was pretty much my game plan, if the music didn't work,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment while promoting his “Orchestrating My Life” live-stream concert, which will take place on Feb. 14, the 40th anniversary of his breakthrough album Working Class Dog.

But then Springfield met his next girlfriend (and future wife), Barbara Cooper, while recording his fifth (and possibly last) album at L.A.’s Sound City studio, where Barbara was working as the receptionist. Springfield wasn’t even signed to a label at the time, but soon RCA Records offered him a deal. Around that time, he also met the other love of his life, his famous pooch Ronnie, who became the cover model for Working Class Dog — an album that eventually went triple-platinum on the strength of the monster hit “Jessie’s Girl” and earned Springfield a Grammy Award. “And then I got called up for this part on General Hospital that I didn't think I'd get — and I got that!” says the artist formerly known as Dr. Noah Drake.

Finally, after one last grab for the showbiz brass ring, everything seemed to be coming together for Springfield. But his sudden success, both personally and professionally, was not the easy cure for his depression — or his impostor syndrome — that he’d assumed it would be. “It's really weird when you get on a rocket ride like that," he muses. “I think I was prepared for it, because I’d thought about it so much; I'd had so much time to think what I would do, how I would react. I would've been in America for nine years chasing the same dream. So I was kind of prepared for it, although it's never what you imagine. I have self-worth issues, and it actually turned against me at some point, where I'm [thinking], ‘They're going to find out I'm a fake.’

“I thought it would heal me. You know, we always think, ‘OK, if I just get that girl or get that car or get that job or make this much money, all my bad feelings will go away.’ And they did, for like the first year,” the singer/actor continues. “But then eventually you’ve got to get up that morning and look in the mirror and go, ‘Well, I'm still me.’ The insecurities are there. They're inside. It's not necessarily insecure about the way I look, it's insecurity about my spirit and about who I am and about what I do with my life. And there's also a chemical element in there. I remember walking around this big house in Malibu and feeling more depressed than I’d ever felt. It was really shocking to me that I thought, ‘Wow, I really thought this would heal me, this house and this beautiful wife and a beautiful new kid and fame and money and stuff.’ And it didn't. It was not the magic bullet that I thought it would be.”

Rick Springfield attends the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services' 2018 Erasing the Stigma Leadership Awards. (Photo: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)

Rick Springfield attends the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services' 2018 Erasing the Stigma Leadership Awards. (Photo: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)

Springfield says it was the birth of his first child that really brought those feelings of inadequacy to the forefront. “Becoming a father, since I lost my dad so early, I started to think, ‘Oh, OK, I'm not a kid anymore. This is not really how I thought I would be feeling.’ I thought I'd have it much more together by the time I had my first son, my first kid. So that was really the instigator of me pulling the plug and just becoming a house husband, and then also starting therapy. I started therapy in 1985, for next five years trying to figure out what demons were chasing me. And you figure it out — but it doesn't cure anything. So yeah, it was becoming a dad, my first son, and then my second one came along three years later, so it was a double-whammy.”

Springfield’s father died of cancer during that whirlwind of ‘81 — only two months after release of Working Class Dog — so the elder Springfield never got to witness his Rick's success. (“Jessie’s Girl” took 19 weeks to finally hit No. 1 in August of that year, one of the slowest climbs in Billboard chart history.) “Yeah, it was pretty awful. I mean, I realized yin/yang… that life is never all good or all bad. It's a combination of both,” says Rick. “My dad was my champion. I'd actually sent him an early copy of Working Class Dog, and he didn't really understand the music. He was a singer himself, but it was more the Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra kind of stuff; my dad used to sing showtunes. But my mom said he was sitting in his chair, listening to the record, and going, ‘Yeah, this one's going to do it. This one's going to do it!’ And he didn't live to see that happen. But I think he was rooting for me.”

Springfield recalls quietly weeping in the corner on the set of General Hospital and trying to power through his soap opera scenes — staying true to the work ethic actually instilled in him by his father — before jetting home to his native Australia to attend his dad’s funeral service and then hopping on a plane and heading right back to Los Angeles. “I remember lying on the floor of the plane on the way back, my stomach just in knots. I couldn't get up into the seat. I just lay on the floor in front of the seat,” he says.

Springfield “stuffed it down to get on with my life,” but three years later he fully faced his grief by writing a song called “My Father's Chair,” an “epitaph” to his dad. “I wrote it in a day, basically,” he says. “I'd been resisting writing it, because I knew it was going to be painful. So I sat down at the piano one day with my notes and… kind of cried my way through it. And I felt really a lot of relief after I had, because it let that ball pain surface and fly away to a degree.”

Eventually, however, Springfield took a hiatus from his hectic career, when he “got so depressed that it wasn't doing what I thought it would do for me”; he ended up not releasing any official albums under his own name between 1988 and 1999. He’s since returned to music with a steady string of critically acclaimed records, and his openness about his mental health struggles — including a confession in his candid autobiography, Late Late at Night, that he’d attempted suicide as a teenager — earned him an accolade as important as any Grammy, the Beatrice Stern Media Award for his advocacy. “I make a joke that I got an ‘award for being depressed,’” quips Springfield. “But I'm not ashamed of [my depression]. I would never be ashamed of it; I just kind of hated it. I call it ‘Mr. D’ — I made [depression] a third character, a third person, in my autobiography, just to try and help me understand and to see that it's not necessarily me. It's something pushing me, or inside me.”

It’s a tired old cliché that the greatest art comes from darkness, but Springfield says that’s true in his case, and that even his biggest powerpop hits aren’t as happy as they seem. “Most of my songs are from the darker side, even like ‘Jessie's Girl’ and ‘Don't Talk to Strangers.’ I mean, they're all [about] paranoia, and then self-doubt. I think I've written maybe three ‘Oh, let's party!’ songs in my life,” he explains. “I think the dark side of an artist is important, because I think certainly when I was 16 and I was incredibly depressed and tried to hang myself, I was looking inward a lot earlier than most kids at 16. I was trying to figure out, ‘Why am I like this?’ And introspection is necessary in art.”

As for whether he’d become creatively stagnant if he were happy all the time, Springfield answers flatly, “I will never be happy all the time, ever. That's not possible. If I meditated 24 hours a day, maybe. That's not an issue with me. I'm happily married, I meditate, but I still have 70 years of pain behind me. So I don't think I'm going to run out of angst.” He also reveals that an “anonymous thing” he’s been working on, possibly a “really good new band called the Red Locusts” out in November, is “some of the darkest stuff I've ever written. … It’s super-dark, but also celebratory in a way.”

In the meantime, Springfield just released his second sci-fi novel, World on Fire, which is every but as compeling as Late Late at Night, and he will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of Working Class Dog this Sunday with his “Orchestrating My Life” live stream, featuring 12 of his compositions accompanied by the Santa Monica High School Symphony Orchestra and conductor Wolf Kerschek. And it will surely the live steam a full-circle moment that will make his late crooner father proud. “It's a way to do the songs in a new way,” says Springfield, “and pretend I'm Frank Sinatra.”

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.

Video produced by Jon San, edited by Jason Fitzpatrick.

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