This is probably the best interview I ever did with anybody, and one of the very few that I published in a Q/A format. It’s been quoted in pieces a lot of places, but other than Rock’sBackPages.com — to which everyone who wants to read about rock& soul, especially rock & soul history, ought to have a subscription—it has not been seen as a whole much. Yet it feels very whole to me, even yet. Give your work a headstart of 30 years and mostly you’ll duck and cringe. Not this time.
Anyway, this is the propitious moment to reclaim the interview, intro and all, especially since The Ties That Bind, the box set based on The River, includes a lot of film footage from the Tempe show.
Just remember, “the idea is to sound spontaneous not to be spontaneous.”
A YEAR AGO, taking a respite from recording to play two nights of the M.U.S.E. anti-nuke concerts, Bruce Springsteen pared his normal three hour show down to a more everyday 90 minutes. The result was pandemonium just this side of Beatle-mania.
Following the biggest stars in American soft rock to the Madison Square Garden stage. Springsteen and the E Street Band upstaged everyone, including the issue itself. The air in the hall that night was one of fanaticism and conversion as though Springsteen were a rock ‘n’ roll evangelist and the Garden his tabernacle.
It’s easy to imagine that Springsteen was just a pro rising to an occasion which included a camera crew and a recording truck, not to mention a backstage full of peers. What’s harder to explain, unless you’ve seen him onstage before a crowd that might not include so much as a weekly newspaper reviewer, is that the M.U.S.E. shows were just a fragment of what he usually does. “After those shows went over so great. I just figured that that’s what we’d be doing on this tour,” remembers E Street guitarist Steve Van Zandt. “Just 90 minutes, a couple of ballads, and make people as crazy as you can like the old days. We can do that. But not Bruce. What we ended up doing was just adding that 90 minutes to the show we always did.”
By late October, when the E Streeters hit LA for four shows at the 15,000 seat Sports Arena, they were playing four and one half hour shows, five nights a week. Going on at 8.30, they’d break at 10 and return a half hour later to play until 12:45 – or 1:00 or 1:15. And they weren’t playing the ebb-and-flow show offered by most bands who play so long. We’re talking about four hours of ensemble rock and roll here in which even the ballads are attacked more strenuously than most modal jams. Yet Jon Landau, his manager, said one night, “I think Bruce might actually play longer, except that the band just gets worn out.” True enough, drummer Max Weinberg often spends intermission taping bleeding fingers, and the others are spared such medicaments only because their instruments are less physically demanding.
Generally, Springsteen did 32 or 33 songs, including 17 or 18 from The River, a half dozen from Darkness on the Edge of Town, five from Born to Run, the perennial setcloser ‘Rosalita’ from The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, plus ‘Fire’ and ‘Because the Night’ from his seemingly bottom less supply of unrecorded hits. And, of course, the Mitch Ryder medley which was the highlight of the No Nukes LP.
But the show has that shape only on nights when Springsteen hasn’t declared a special occasion, which is a rare night in itself. On Halloween, the second night in L.A., he cooked up a version of ‘Haunted House’, the old Jumpin’ Gene Simmons hit, at sound-check, and opened the set with it – after appearing from a coffin, and being chased around the stage by ghoul-robed roadies during the guitar break.
On Saturday, Bruce added an acoustic guitar and accordion version of ‘The Price You Pay’, and debuted ‘Fade Away’, the one song from The River he’d avoided. On Monday night, with Bob Dylan in the house for a second night (he’d come with Jim Keltner on Thursday, and been impressed), Springsteen put ‘The Price You Pay’ back in and dedicated it to his “inspiration.” Plus a lengthy version of ‘Growing Up’, from his first album. On both nights, he ended the encores with Jackson Browne, dueling on ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’. On neither night did the inclusion of the additional songs mean the removal of any of the others.
“Yeah, but you really missed it in St. Paul,” said Van Zandt. “He turned around and called ‘Midnight Hour’, and we all just about fainted. Funky (bassist Garry Tallent) didn’t even believe we were doing it until about the second chorus.” The band had not rehearsed the song, and it’s unlikely that the E Street Band’s present lineup had ever played it before in its five years together. But even the musicians thought that it sounded great.
The expansiveness and elasticity of Springsteen’s show is a conundrum, because arena rock is in all other hands the surest route to formula. One of the most miserable summers of my existence was spent watching 15 Rolling Stones shows in 1975. By the fifth, I was fighting to stay awake; by the tenth I’d stopped fighting, a circumstance I ascribed to the band’s senility until it occurred to me that no one was meant to look at more than one or maybe two of their damn fiestas.
That’s rock and roll for tourists. Springsteen plays for the natives. Although he would probably put it more idealistically, he’s really just never lost the consciousness of a bar band musician, who knows that a good part of the house may be seeing all three sets. And like a bar band veteran, he refuses to resort to gimmicks. Mark Brickman’s lighting is the best in rock, but it’s based on relatively simple theatrical gels and an authoritative sense of timing with follow spots; any funk band in the Midwest might have a more elaborate concept, but nobody with lasers achieves such an effective result. (Brickman has a computer along on this tour, but only, he told me, because “if you can figure out a way to program Bruce’s show, you can figure a way to make it work for anything.” Most nights, Brickman and soundman Bruce Jackson might as well throw their set lists away.)
But what reveals Springsteen bar band roots more than anything is his sense of intimacy with the crowd. One night during this tour, someone told me, he actually announced from the stage, “If the guy I met at the airport yesterday is here, please come to the stage at the break. I’ve got something for you,” which is about as close to sock hop mentality as you could ask. At his show in Phoenix, during ‘Rosalita’, Bruce made one of his patented leaps to the speakers at the side of the stage. But this time he missed.
The crowd just kept on cheering, but back at the sound-board where Jackson and I were sitting, the tension was thick. Bruce might do anything, but this was weird; the band was holding the chord, and the chords of ‘Rosalita’ are not meant to be held for five seconds, much less fifteen.
It’s a good long drop from the speakers, two feet high, to the floor, a good eight or nine feet away. All there was between Bruce and the hard concrete floor was the band’s monitor mixing board, but as he tumbled down, roadie Bob Werner reached out and broke the fall. (He sprained his wrist in the process.)
Neither the band nor the crowd could see any of this. The next thing any of us knew, the guitar appeared, tossed atop the speakers. Then a pair of hands and at last, Springsteen’s head, with his silly-faced-little-boy grin. He shook his head, pulled himself the rest of the way up, and strapped on his guitar, went back into action as if nothing had occurred.
This moment is presumably on film – there was a crew shooting a commercial that night – though from what angle I cannot say. But what that incident proclaims, more than anything, even Bruce’s sense of spontaneity, is his sense of event. The cardinal rule of his shows is that something always happens. It’s not only, as he says in the interview below, that he’s prepared for whatever happens. Somehow, he always makes sure that something does occur. I’ve seen at least 100 shows in the past six or seven years. The worst of them was fascinating, but maybe the most awesome have been the times when, after four or five nights of hell raising action, he manages to make it different again. This guy does not know the meaning of anticlimax.
But there’s the bright side. There are darker ones. In Los Angeles, where ticket scalping is legal, front row seats for this extravaganza were going for $180, $200, $250. And fans wrote Bruce to complain, not just that tickets were being scalped, but that the best ones were. It’s an old story, and most bands would let it slide, but Bruce took a stand. Each night in LA., he gave the crowd the name of a state legislator, and a radio station, who’d agreed to campaign to change the scalping law in California. This might qualify as a gesture – although the night after Landau got a pre-show phone call from a “ticket agent” suggesting that Bruce “do what he does, and I’ll do what I do, so why don’t he just lay off,” he made the announcement three times – but he’s also hired investigators to get to the bottom of the mess, with intentions of turning the information over to the proper authorities, if any hard evidence can be turned up.
And this reflects the spirit in which Springsteen played M.U.S.E. Although he was one of only two musicians at the benefit who did not make a political statement in the concert program (the other was Tom Petty), Springsteen upstaged the issue only accidentally. He felt that particular problem to his marrow; ‘Roulette’, the song he wrote right after Three Mile Island, is the scariest piece of music he’s ever done, for my money more frightening that even the last lines of ‘Stolen Car’, and unmistakably based on the event. (Not to mention Del Shannon’s paranoic ‘Stranger in Town’.) There is more to come.
The River itself feels like a farewell to innocence. As Springsteen notes in the interview below, the innocent characters on this album are anachronisms. Their time is gone. That guy lying by the side of the road in ‘Wreck on the Highway’ is not only the guy in ‘Cadillac Ranch’ and ‘Ramrod’, he is also Spanish Johnny, the original man-child hero of The Wild, the Innocent and The E Street Shuffle.
The River is, I think, Bruce Springsteen’s best album for this very reason. It sums up seven years of work, and it does not shy away from the errors of his career thus far, nor does it disown them. He remains a romantic and a bit of a juvenile, after all this, for who but a romantic juvenile could conceive of a purposeless car thief as a genuine figure of tragedy? But he is also capable now of tying together his hopes and fears – the most joyous of songs are awash with brutal undercurrents
The River wasn’t the record anyone would have predicted Bruce Springsteen would make. Epics aren’t anticipated (although they might be the subject of certain fervent hopes.) But if The River was unpredictable, the album that will follow it is almost unimaginable. And not only because the society that shaped Springsteen’s most beloved characters and the musical tradition he cherishes is now crumbling.
Among other things, The River is a Number One record. ‘Hungry Heart’ looks likely to be his first Top Ten single. Things change when that happens, and we have not yet seen the rock and roller who is strong enough to withstand those changes. It would be naive to expect Bruce Springsteen to be any different.
Yet Bruce Springsteen’s career is all about naive faith. Who else could have survived The New Dylan, The Future of Rock and Roll, The Hype, The Boss? And emerged not only successful, but respected. It’s easy to play cynical rock journalist and suppose the worst – no one else has exactly cruised through success – but the fact is, Bruce Springsteen is the only human I have ever met who cannot sell out. He doesn’t have a price, because the things he wants are quite literally beyond price. You don’t have to believe me. Just wait and see. As Miami Steve says, “For the first time, I can really imagine rock and roll at 40.”
The interview below took place at the Fiesta Motel in Tempe, Arizona on Nov. 6th, from about 3:30 AM until dawn. (The time frame is typical.) Bruce had just completed a show at Arizona State University, and in a strange way, what I’ll remember about that night isn’t talking with him or even the fall off the speakers but the lines he sang just after the fall, that climactic verse of ‘Rosalita’:
Tell your daddy this is his last chance
If he wants his daughter to have some fun
Because my brand new record, Rosie
Just came in at Number one
He won’t forget, either.
Dave Marsh, Musician, February 1981
MUSICIAN: Here you are, The River is a Number One album, the single is a hit, you’re playing great shows in the biggest halls, and selling them out. In a sense, a lot of goals you must have had are now achieved. What goals are left?
SPRINGSTEEN: Doing it is the goal. It’s not to play some big place, or for a record to be Number One. Doing it is the end – not the means. That’s the point. So the point is: What’s next? Some more of this.
But bigness – that is no end. That as an end, is meaningless, essentially. It’s good, ’cause you can reach a lotta people, and that’s the idea. The idea was just to go out and to reach people. And after tonight, you go out and you reach more people, and then the night after that, you do that again.
MUSICIAN: One of the things that The River and also the show, its length and certain of the things you say between songs, are about is seeing more possibilities, more opportunities for things to do.
SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah. There’s an immense amount, and I’m just starting to get some idea about what I want to do. Because we’ve been in a situation, always, until recently, there’s been a lot of instability in everybody’s life. The band’s and mine. It dates back to the very beginning, from the bars on up to even after we were successful. Then there was the lawsuit.
And then there’s the way we work, which is: We’re slow. And in the studio, I’m slow. I take a long time. That means you spend a lotta money in the studio. Not only do you spend a lotta money, you don’t make any money, because you’re out of the stream of things. It’s like you can never get ahead, because as soon as you get ahead, you stop for two years and you go back to where you were.
MUSICIAN: Is that slowness as frustrating for you as it is for everybody else?
SPRINGSTEEN: I’m lucky, because I’m in there, I’m seeing it every step of the way. I would assume that if you didn’t know what was going on, and you cared about it, it would be frustrating. With me, it was not frustrating.
You know, we started to work [on the album] and I had a certain idea at the beginning. And at the end, that was the idea that came out on the record. It took a very long time, all the coloring and stuff, there was a lot of decisions and songs to be written. Right up until the very last two weeks, when I rewrote the last two verses to ‘Point Blank’. ‘Drive All Night’ was done just the week before that. Those songs didn’t exist, in the form that they’re on the record, until the last few weeks we were in the studio. So there’s stuff happening all the time. But we get into that little bit of a cycle, which hopefully we’ll be able to break – maybe, I don’t know.
MUSICIAN: In a lot of ways, The River feels like the end of a cycle. Certain ideas that began with the second and third albums have matured, and a lot of the contrasts and contradictions have been – not resolved – but they’ve been heightened.
SPRINGSTEEN: On this album, I just said, “I don’t understand all these things. I don’t see where all these things fit. I don’t see how all these things can work together.” It was because I was always focusing in on some small thing; when I stepped back, they made a sense of their own. It was just a situation of living with all those contradictions. And that’s what happens. There’s never any resolution. You have moments of clarity, things become clear to you that you didn’t understand before. But there’s never any making ends meet or finding any time of longstanding peace of mind about something.
MUSICIAN: That’s sort of like ‘Wreck on the Highway’, where, for the first time in your songs, you’ve got the nightmare and the dream in a package.
SPRINGSTEEN: That was a funny song. I wrote that song real fast, in one night. We came in and played a few takes of it and that’s pretty much what’s on the album, I think. That’s an automatic song, a song that you don’t really think about, or work on. You just look back and it sorta surprises you.
MUSICIAN: On this record, it also feels like you’re relying a lot more on your instincts, the sort of things that happen on stage.
SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah, that’s what happens the most to make the record different. A lot of it is real instinctive. ‘Hungry Heart’ I wrote in a half hour, or ten minutes, real fast. All the rockers – ‘Crush On You’, ‘You Can Look’, ‘Ramrod’ – were all written very quickly, from what I can remember. ‘Wreck on the Highway’ was; ‘Stolen Car’ was. Most of the songs were, sit down and write ’em. There weren’t any songs where I worked – ‘Point Blank’ I did, but actually those last two verses I wrote pretty quickly. ‘The River’ took awhile. I had the verses, I never had any chorus, and I didn’t have no title for a long time.
MUSICIAN: But you always had the basic arrangement?
SPRINGSTEEN: No, on that song, I had these verses, and I was fooling around with the music. What gave me the idea for the title was a Hank Williams song, I think it’s ‘My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It’, where he goes down to the river to jump in and kill himself, and he can’t because it dried up. So I was just sitting there one night, thinking, and I just thought about this song, ‘My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It’, and that’s where I got the chorus. [Actually, he’s referring to ‘Long Gone, Lonesome Blues’ – DM]
I love that old country music. All during the last tour that’s what I listened to a whole lot – I listened to Hank Williams. I went back and dug up all his first sessions, the gospel kind of stuff that he did. That and the first real Johnny Cash record with ‘Give My Love to Rose’, ‘I Walk the Line’, ‘Hey Porter’, ‘Six Foot High and Risin”, ‘I Don’t Like It But I Guess Things Happen That Way’. That and the rockabilly.
There was a certain something in all that stuff that just seemed to fit in with things that I was thinking about, or worrying about. Especially the Hank Williams stuff. He always has all that conflict, he always has that real religious side, and the honky tonkin’, all that side. There’s a great song, ‘Settin’ the Woods on Fire’. That thing is outrageous. That’s ‘Ramrod’, that had some of that in it. And ‘Cadillac Ranch’.
MUSICIAN: Earlier, you said that ‘Ramrod’ was one of the saddest things you’d written. Why?
SPRINGSTEEN: (Laughs) Well, it’s so anachronistic, you know The character – it’s impossible, what he wants to do. One of the ideas of it, when I wrote it, it was sort of like a partner to ‘Cadillac Ranch’ and a few things, it’s got that old big engine sound. That song is a goddam gas guzzler (laughing). And that was the sound I wanted, that big, rumbling, big engine sound. And this guy, he’s there, but he’s really not there no more. He’s the guy in ‘Wreck on the Highway’ – either guy, actually. But he’s also the guy, in the end, who says, “I’ll give you the word, now, sugar, we’ll go ramroddin’ forevermore.” I don’t know; that’s a real sad line to me, sometimes.
MUSICIAN: If you believe it, you mean.
SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah, but it’s a funny kinda thing. I love it when we play that song on stage. It’s just a happy song, a celebration of all that stuff that’s gonna be gone – is gone already, almost.
I threw that song ten million times off the record. Ten million times. I threw it off Darkness and I threw it off this one, too. Because I thought it was wrong.
MUSICIAN: You mentioned something similar about ‘Out in the Street’, that it was too much of a fantasy to possibly believe it.
SPRINGSTEEN: I was just wary of it at that time, I guess for some of the same reasons. It always seemed anachronistic, and at the time, I was demanding of all the songs that they be able to translate. All the characters, they’re part of the past, they’re part of the future and they’re part of the present. And I guess there was a certain frightening aspect to seeing one that wasn’t part of the future. He was part of the past.
To me, that was the conflict of that particular song. I loved it, we used to play it all the time. And there was that confusion too. Well, if I love playing the damn thing so much, why the hell don’t I want to put it on the record?
I guess I always made sure that the characters always had that foot planted up ahead somewhere. Not just the one back there. That’s what makes ’em viable, or real, today. But I also knew a lotta people who were exactly like this. So I said, well, that’s OK. There was just a point where I said, that’s OK, to a lot of things where I previously would not have said so.
I gained a certain freedom, in making the two record set, because I could let all those people out, that usually I’d put away. Most of the time, they’d end up being my favorite songs, and probably some of my best songs, you know.
MUSICIAN: You mean the kind of songs that would show up on stage, but not on record? [‘Fire’, ‘Because the Night’, ‘Sherry Darling’]
SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah. I’m the kind of person, I think a lot about everything. Nothin’ I can do about it. It’s like, I’m a thinkin’ fool. That’s a big part of me. Now, the other part is, I can get onstage and cut that off and be superinstinctive. To be a good live performer, you have to be instinctive. It’s like, to walk in the jungle, or to do anything where there’s a certain tight-rope wire aspect you need to be instinctive. And you have to be comfortable at it also.
Like tonight, I was falling on my head. I wasn’t worryin’ about it. I just went, it just happened. (Laughs) You just think, what happens next? When I was gonna jump on that speaker, I couldn’t worry about whether I was gonna make it or not. You can’t. You just gotta do it. And if you do, you do, and if you don’t, you don’t, and then something else happens. That’s the point of the live performance.
Now, when I get into the studio, both things operate. When we perform on this record, I feel that we have that thing going that we’ve got live. To me, we’re not rockin’ that stuff better live than a lot of it is on the record. I can still listen to it. Usually, two weeks after we’re out on the road, I cannot listen to my record any more. ‘Cause as soon as I hear some crappy tape off the board, it sounds ten times better than what we spent all that time doing in the studio. This is the very first album that I’ve been able to go back and put on to play, and it sounds good to me.
But in the studio, I’m conceptual. I have a self-consciousness. And there’s a point where I often would try to stop that. “No, that’s bad. Look at all these great records, and I betcha they didn’t think about it like this, or think about it this long.” You realize that it doesn’t matter. That’s unimportant, it’s ridiculous. I got into a situation where I just said, “Hey, this is what I do, and these are my assets and these are my burdens.” I got comfortable with myself being that kind of person.
MUSICIAN: But only after going to extremes. Darkness is the least spontaneous of your records.
SPRINGSTEEN: That’s right. And it’s funny because ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, that cut is live in the studio. ‘Streets of Fire’ is live in the studio, essentially. ‘Factory’ is live. It’s not a question of how you actually do it. The idea is to sound spontaneous, not be spontaneous.
So at this point, I just got settled into accepting certain things that I’ve always been uncomfortable with. I stopped setting limits and definitions – which I always threw out anyway, but which I’d always feel guilty about. Spending a long time in the studio, I stopped feeling bad about that. I said, that’s me, that’s what I do. I work slow, and I work slow for a reason: To get the results that I want.
When you try to define what makes a good rock and roll record, or what is rock and roll, everyone has their own personal definition. But when you put limits on it, you’re just throwing stuff away.
MUSICIAN: Isn’t one of your definitions that it’s limitless?
SPRINGSTEEN: I think it is. That’s my definition, I guess. Hey, you can go out in the street and do the twist and that’s rock and roll. It’s the moment, it’s all things. (Laughs) It’s funny, to me, it just is.
You know, my music utilizes things from the past, because that’s what the past is for. It’s to learn from. It’s not to limit you, you shouldn’t be limited by it, which I guess was one of my fears on ‘Ramrod’. I don’t want to make a record like they made in the ’50s or the ’60s or the 70s. I want to make a record like today, that’s right now.
To do that, I go back, back further all the time. Back into Hank Williams, back into Jimmy Rodgers. Because the human thing in those records, that should be at least the heart of it. The human thing that’s in those records is just beautiful and awesome. I put on that Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers stuff and Wow! What inspiration! It’s got that beauty and the purity. The same thing with a lot of the great Fifties records, and the early rockabilly. I went back and dug up all the early rockabilly stuff because…what mysterious people they were.
There’s this song, ‘Jungle Rock’ by Hank Mizell. Where is Hank Mizell? What happened to him? What a mysterious person, what a ghost. And you put that thing on and you can see him. You can see him standing in some little studio, way back when, and just singing that song. No reason. (Laughs) Nothing gonna come out of it. Didn’t sell. That wasn’t no Number One record, and he wasn’t playin’ no big arena after it, either.
But what a moment, what a mythic moment, what a mystery. Those records are filled with mystery; they’re shrouded with mystery. Like these wild men came out from somewhere, and man, they were so alive. The joy and the abandon. Inspirational, inspirational records, those records.
MUSICIAN: You mentioned earlier that when you went into the arenas that you were worried about losing certain things.
SPRINGSTEEN: I was afraid maybe it would screw up the range of artistic expression that the band had. Because of the lack of silence. A couple things happened. Number one, it’s a rock and roll show. People are gonna scream their heads off whenever they feel like it. That’s fine – happens in theatres, happens in clubs. (Laughs) Doesn’t matter where the hell it is, happens every place, and that’s part of it, you know.
On this tour, it’s been really amazing, because we’ve been doing all those real quiet songs. And we’ve been able to do ’em. And then we’ve been able to rock real hard and get that thing happening from the audience. I think part of the difference is that the demands that are made on the audience now are much heavier, much heavier on the audience that sees us now than on the last tour.
But the moment you begin to depend on audience reaction, you’re doing the wrong thing. You’re doin’ it wrong, it’s a mistake, it’s not right. You can’t allow yourself, no matter what, to depend on them. I put that mike out to the crowd, you have a certain faith that somebody’s gonna yell somethin’ back. Some nights it’s louder than other nights and some nights they do, and on some songs they don’t. But that’s the idea. I think when you begin to expect a reaction, it’s a mistake. You gotta have your thing completely together – boom! right there with you. That’s what makes nights special and what makes nights different from other nights.
MUSICIAN: On the other hand, the only way to do a really perfect show is to involve that audience. Maybe an audience only gets lazy if the performer doesn’t somehow keep it on its toes.
SPRINGSTEEN: I’m out there for a good time and to be inspired at night, and to play with my band and to rock those songs as hard as we can rock ’em. I think that you can have some of the best nights under the very roughest conditions. A lotta times, at Max’s or some of the clubs down in Jersey, they’d be sittin’ on their hands or nobody wants to dance, and the adversity is a positive motivation.
The only concern is that what’s being done is being done the way it should be done. The rest you don’t have control over. But I think that our audience is the best audience in the world. The amount of freedom that I get from the crowd is really a lot.
MUSICIAN: The way the stage show is organized is that the first half is about work and struggling; the second half is about joy, release, transcending a lot of those things in the first half. Is that conscious?
SPRINGSTEEN: I knew that I wanted a certain feeling for the first set. That’s sorta the way it stacks up.
MUSICIAN: What you rarely get a sense of around rock bands is work, especially rock and roll as a job of work. Yet around this band, you can’t miss it.
SPRINGSTEEN: That’s at the heart of the whole thing. There’s a beauty in work and I love it, all different kinds of work. That’s what I consider it. This is my job, and that’s my work. And I work my ass off, you know.
MUSICIAN: In Los Angeles one night, when you introduced ‘Factory’, you made a distinction between two different kinds of work. Do you remember what it was?
SPRINGSTEEN: There’s people that get a chance to do the kind of work that changes the world, and make things really different. And then there’s the kind that just keeps the world from falling apart. And that was the kind that my dad always did. Cause we were always together as a family, and we grew up in a…good situation, where we had what we needed. And there was a lot of sacrifice on his part and my mother’s part for that to happen…
MUSICIAN: The River has a lot of those sorts of workers – the people in ‘Jackson Cage’, the guy in ‘The River’ itself.
SPRINGSTEEN: I never knew anybody who was unhappy with their job and was happy with their life. It’s your sense of purpose. Now, some people can find it elsewhere. Some people can work a job and find it some place else.
MUSICIAN: Like the character in ‘Racing in the Street’?
SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah. But I don’t know if that’s lasting. But people do, they find ways.
MUSICIAN: Or else…?
SPRINGSTEEN: (Long pause) Or else they join the Ku Klux Klan or something. That’s where it can take you, you know. It can take you a lot of strange places.
MUSICIAN: Introducing ‘Factory’ on a different night, you spoke about your father having been real angry, and then, after awhile, not being angry anymore. “He was just silent.” Are you still angry?
SPRINGSTEEN: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know if I know myself that well. I think I know myself a lot but I’m not sure. (Laughs) It’s impossible not to be [angry] when you see the state of things and look around. You have to be, somewhat.
MUSICIAN: Tonight, you were saying on stage that you found the election terrifying. That seems to go hand in hand with playing the M.U.S.E. benefits, and striking back at ticket scalpers in L.A. You wouldn’t have done those things two years ago, I don’t think. Are you finding social outlets for that anger now?
SPRINGSTEEN: That’s true. It’s just a whole values thing. Take the ticket thing. It’s a hustle. And a hustle has become…respected. In a lot of quarters – on a street level, dope pushers – it’s a respectable thing, to hustle somebody. I mean, how many times in the Watergate thing did people say about Nixon, “Well, he just wasn’t smart enough to get away with it.” Like his only mistake was that he didn’t get away with it. And there’s a certain point where people have become cynical, where the hustle, that’s the American way. I think it’s just turned upside down in a real bad way. I think it should lose its respect.
MUSICIAN: Do you feel that way about nuclear energy?
SPRINGSTEEN: It’s just the whole thing, it’s the whole thing. It’s terrible, it’s horrible. Somewhere along the way, the idea, which I think was initially to get some fair transaction between people, went out the window. And what came in was, the most you can get. (Laughs) The most you can get and the least you can give. That’s why cars are the way they are today. It’s just an erosion of all the things that were true and right about the original idea.
MUSICIAN: But that isn’t something that was on your mind much until the Darkness album?
SPRINGSTEEN: Up to then, I didn’t think about too many things. In Greetings from Asbury Park, I did. And then I went off a little bit, and sort of roundabout came back to it.
I guess it just started after Born to Run somehow. I had all that time off, and I spent a lotta time home. We were off for three years, and home for a long time. It came out of a local kind of thing – what my old friends were doing, what my relatives were doing. How things were affecting them, and what their lives were like. And what my life was like.
MUSICIAN: Did you have a sense that no one else was telling that story?
SPRINGSTEEN: I didn’t see it too much, except in the English stuff. Things were being addressed that way in that stuff.
MUSICIAN: You mean, for instance, the Clash?
SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah, all that kinda stuff. I liked it, I always liked that stuff. But there wasn’t too much stuff in America happening. It just seemed to me that’s the story. But there was a crucial level of things missing, and it is today still. Maybe it’s just me getting older and seeing things more as they are.
MUSICIAN: On Darkness, the character’s response is to isolate himself from any community, and try to beat the system on his own. The various characters on The River are much more living in the mainstream of society.
SPRINGSTEEN: That guy at the end of Darkness has reached a point where you just have to strip yourself of everything, to get yourself together. For a minute, sometimes, you just have to get rid of everything, just to get yourself together inside, be able to push everything away. And I think that’s what happened at the end of the record.
And then there was the thing where the guy comes back.
MUSICIAN: And The River is what he sees?
SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah, these are his feelings, it’s pretty much there, and in the shows, it’s there now, too, I guess. I hate to get too literal about it, because I can never explain it as well as when I wrote about it. I hate to limit it. I look back at Darkness or the other records, and there were other things going on that I never knew were going on.
MUSICIAN: Do you like Born to Run and Darkness better now?
SPRINGSTEEN: Not particularly. On Darkness, I like the ideas, I’m not crazy about the performances. We play all those songs ten times better live. But I like the idea. Born to Run, I like the performances and the sound. Sometimes, it sounds funny
MUSICIAN: Young and innocent?
SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah, yeah. Same thing with The Wild and the Innocent. I have a hard time listening to any of those records. Certain things on each record I can listen to: ‘Racing in the Street’, ‘Backstreets’, ‘Prove It All Night’, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’. But not a lot, because either the performance doesn’t sound right to me, or the ideas sound like a long time ago.
MUSICIAN: Do you remember when you threw the birthday cake into the crowd, at the second M.U.S.E. concert?
SPRINGSTEEN: (Laughs) Oh yeah. That was a wild night.
MUSICIAN: You’d just turned 30 that night, and didn’t seem to be overjoyed by it. But a couple weeks ago in Cleveland, I was kidding Danny about turning 30, and said, “Oh yeah, we’re 30 now, can’t do what we used to do.” You said, real quick, “That’s not true.” What happened in that year? Was that significant, turning 30?
SPRINGSTEEN: I don’t remember. It just made me wanna do more things. I think, as a matter of fact, when we were in the studio, that was the thing that was big. I didn’t feel we were going too slow for what we were doing. But I felt that I wanted to be quicker just to have more time. I wanted to be touring, for one thing. I wanted to be touring right now.
MUSICIAN: But by the time you finish this tour, you’ll be crowding 32. Then, if you’re right and it’s just gonna take a year or so to make a record, you’ll be 33 or 34 by the time you get out again. Can you still have the stamina to do the kind of show you feel the need to do?
SPRINGSTEEN: Who knows? I’m sure it’ll be a different type of show. It’s impossible to tell and a waste of time guessin’. When I was in the studio and wanted to play, it wasn’t the way I felt in a physical kind of way, it was what I felt mentally. I was excited about the record and I wanted to play those songs live. I wanted to get out there and travel around the world with people who were my friends. And see every place and play just as hard as we could play, every place in the world. Just get into things, see things, see what happens.
MUSICIAN: Like in ‘Badlands’?
SPRINGSTEEN: That’s it. That’s the idea. I want to see what happens, what’s next. All I knew when I was in the studio, sometimes, was that I felt great that day. And I was wishing I was somewhere strange, playing. I guess that’s the thing I love doing the most. And it’s the thing that makes me feel most alert and alive.
MUSICIAN: You look awful before a show, and then those hours up there, which exhaust everyone else, refresh you.
SPRINGSTEEN: I always look terrible before the show. That’s when I feel worst. And after the show it’s like a million bucks. Simple as that. You feel a little tired but you never feel better. Nothing makes me feel as good as those hours between when you walk offstage, until I go to bed. That’s the hours that I live for. As feelings go, that’s ten on a scale of ten. I just feel like talking to people, going out back and meeting those kids, doing any damn thing. Most times I just come back and eat and lay down and feel good. Most people, I don’t think, get to feel that good, doing whatever they do.
MUSICIAN: You can’t get that in the studio?
SPRINGSTEEN: Sometimes, but it’s different. You get wired for two or three days or a week or so and then sometimes, you feel real low. I never feel as low, playing, as I do in the studio.
You know, I just knew that’s what I wanted to do – go all over and play. See people and go all over the world. I want to see what all those people are like. I want to meet people from all different countries and stuff.
MUSICIAN: You’ve always liked to have a certain mobility, a certain freedom of movement. Can you still walk down the street?
SPRINGSTEEN: Oh sure, sure. It depends where you go. Usually…you can do anything you want to do. The idea that you can’t walk down the street is in people’s minds. You can walk down any street, any time. What you gonna be afraid of, someone coming up to you? In general, it’s not that different than it ever was, except you meet people you ordinarily might not meet – you meet some strangers and you talk to ’em for a little while.
The other night I went out, I went driving, we were in Denver. Got a car and went out, drove all around. Went to the movies by myself, walked in, got my popcorn. This guy comes up to me, real nice guy. He says, “Listen, you want to sit with me and my sister?” I said, “All right.” So we watch the movie (laughs). It was great, too, because it was that Woody Allen movie – [Stardust Memories], the guy’s slammin’ to his fans. And I’m sittin” there and this poor kid says, “Jesus, I don’t know what to say to ya. Is this the way it is? Is that how you feel?” I said, “No, I don’t feel like that so much.” And he had the amazing courage to come up to me at the end of the movie, and ask if I’d go home and meet his mother and father. I said, “What time is it?” It was 11 o’clock, so I said, “Well OK.”
So I go home with him; he lives out in some suburb. So we get over to the house and here’s his mother and father, laying out on the couch, watching TV and reading the paper. He brings me in and he says, “Hey I got Bruce Springsteen here.” And they don’t believe him. So he pulls me over, and he says, “This is Bruce Springsteen.” “Aw, g’wan,” they say. So he runs in his room and brings out an album and he holds it up to my face. And his mother says (breathlessly) “Ohhh yeah!” She starts yelling “Yeah,” she starts screaming.
And for two hours I was in this kid’s house, talking with these people, they were really nice, they cooked me up all this food, watermelon, and the guy gave me a ride home a few hours later.
I felt so good that night. Because here are these strange people I didn’t know, they take you in their house, treat you fantastic and this kid was real nice, they were real nice. That is something that can happen to me that can’t happen to most people And when it does happen, it’s fantastic. You get somebody’s whole life in three hours. You get their parents, you get their sister, you get their family life, in three hours. And I went back to that hotel and felt really good because I thought, “Wow (almost whispering), what a thing to be able to do. What an experience to be able to have, to be able to step into some stranger’s life.”
And that’s what I thought about in the studio. I thought about going out and meeting people I don’t know. Going to France and Germany and Japan, and meeting Japanese people and French people and German people. Meeting them and seeing what they think, and being able to go over there with something. To go over there with a pocketful of ideas or to go over there with just something, to be able to take something over. And boom! To do it.
But you can’t do one without the other. I couldn’t do it if I hadn’t spent time in the studio, knowing what I saw and what I felt right now.
MUSICIAN: Because then you wouldn’t have that pocketful of ideas?
SPRINGSTEEN: Then, if you don’t have that, stay home or something. If you have some ideas to exchange, that’s what it’s about. That’s at the heart of it. I just wouldn’t go out and tour unless I had that. There wouldn’t be a reason.
The reason is you have some idea you wanna say. You have an idea about things, an opinion, a feeling about the way things are or the way things could be. You wanna go out and tell people about it. You wanna tell people, well, if everybody did this or if people thought this, maybe it would be better.
When we play the long show, that’s because it gives the whole picture. And if you aren’t given the who picture, you’re not gonna get the whole picture. We play the first part…that first part is about those things that you said it was about. That’s the foundation, without that the rest couldn’t happen. Wouldn’t be no second half without the first half; couldn’t be all them other things, without those things. Without that foundation of the hard things, and the struggling things, the work things. That’s the heart, that’s what it comes down to.
And then on top of that, there’s the living, the things that surround that. That’s why the show’s so long. “You wanna leave out ‘Stolen Car’? No, that’s a little part of the puzzle. “You wanna leave this out?” No that’s a little part of the puzzle. And at the end, if you want, you can look back and see…just a point of view really. You see somebody’s idea, the way somebody sees things. And you know somebody.
People go to that show, they know me. They know a lotta me, as much as I know that part of myself. That’s why, when I meet ’em on the street, they know you already. And you know them, too. Because of their response.
MUSICIAN: Even these days, it’s still not very far from the dressing room to the stage for you, is it?
SPRINGSTEEN: I don’t know if it is. I don’t know if it should be. I don’t know for sure how different the thing is or how it’s perceived. Except a lot of the music is real idealistic, and I guess like anybody else, you don’t live up to it all the time. You just don’t. That’s the challenge. You got to walk it like you talk it. That’s the idea. That’s the line. I guess that’s pretty much what it’s about.
© Dave Marsh, 1981
Tags: Badlands, Bob Dylan, Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Dave Marsh, Dave Marsh interviews Bruce Springsteen, E Street Band, Factory, Garry Tallent, Greetings from Asbury Park, Hank Mizell, Jackson Browne, Jim Keltner, Jon Landau, M.U.S.E., Max Weinberg, Musician magazine, Racing in the Street, Rosalita, Steve Van Zandt, The River, The Wild and the Innocent, Tom Petty