Bruce Springsteen: Bringing It All Back Home

With his third great album this decade, he tackles love, loyalty -- and the ultimate deadline

February 5, 2009
bruce springsteen 1071
Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Albert Watson

The sound is classic amateur 1966 — chaotic, jangling guitars, impatient drumming and crude raging-hormone vocal harmonies — and Bruce Springsteen knows every note by heart. Hypnotized by joy in front of a small tabletop stereo cranked to top volume, he dances on the balls of his feet, vigorously strums an imaginary guitar with his right fist and howls along during the chorus — "Baby I-I-I-I!" — in a deeper wild-bear version of his old plaintive teenage tenor. Springsteen, 59, is happily singing and playing air guitar with himself- to "Baby I," a single he made at 16, when he was a guitarist and singer in a New Jersey garage band, the Castiles. Earlier that afternoon, Springsteen is sitting in the wood-paneled living room of Thrill Hill, a 19th-century farmhouse in central New Jersey that he has converted into a studio. He talks about some of the Sixties echoes — including the Walker Brothers, Jimmy Webb, the Beach Boys on "Heroes and Villains" and the Byrds' Fifth Dimension — ringing throughout his new album with the E Street Band, Working on a Dream. That gets him reminiscing about the Castiles, his first serious band. Suddenly, Springsteen bolts upright in his chair. "I have to dig it out before you go," he says excitedly. "I found the actual two-track tape of our record. I had it put on a CD. It's back at the house. I'll bring it over."

And he does, rushing home — Springsteen, his wife and E Street singer Patti Scialfa and their three teenage children live in an 18th-century house just down the road — and back. Springsteen doesn't even bother taking off his bulky winter coat. He strides into the glassed-in porch where he demos new songs and made his 2005 solo album, Devils & Dust, hits "play" and flies back to May 18th, 1966, when the Castiles recorded "Baby I" and the flip side, "That's What You Get," at Mr. Music Inc., a studio in nearby Bricktown.

"Well, what could have been a studio back then," Springsteen cracks after he plays both tracks. He and singer-guitarist George Theiss wrote the songs, according to legend, while driving to the session. The band cut them in an hour. "I talk to George once in a while," Springsteen says. "He got married very, very young. Had a lovely family. Made music. I used to see him at the Stone Pony all the time. He had a great voice."

But the Castiles' big moment passed that day in '66 — their single was never released — while Springsteen, nearly 43 years later, is at a new peak in his career. Working on a Dream is Springsteen's third great album with the E Street Band in a decade and arguably the best of the three in its classic-pop songwriting and intimate lyric force. They made most of it on days off from their 2007-08 shows — Danny Federici played keyboards on some tracks before his death at 58 last April 17th from melanoma — with Springsteen and producer Brendan O'Brien enriching the E Street Band's natural stampede in "My Lucky Day," "What Love Can Do" and the opening eight-minute horse opera, "Outlaw Pete," with an abundance of strings, guitars, choral vocals and saxophonist Clarence Clemons' leonine blowing. The result is Springsteen's most ornate album since 1975's Born to Run.

He has already started the new year with a Golden Globe for his theme song to The Wrestler and is assured an Academy Award nomination as well. After his January 18th performance in Washington, D.C., at "We Are One," the free Barack Obama inauguration concert, Springsteen will play a hotly anticipated halftime set with the E Street Band at the Super Bowl on February 1st — itself a kick off for another E Street tour, in the spring in the U.S. and Europe. The last time Springsteen wrote, recorded and hit the road at this velocity was when he was a new Columbia artist. His first two albums, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, were both released in 1973.

"At that time, you signed old-fashioned contracts where you were supposed to make an album every six months," Springsteen says. "But after that, I said, 'Nah.' Without going into the whole story" — he grins — "obviously there was the perfectionism, the self-consciousness and the pursuit of very specific ideas, while you're forming who you are, what you want to write about."

Drummer Max Weinberg remembers Springsteen leading endless E Street rehearsals for 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town and the 1980 double album, The River. "Then, generally, everything we rehearsed would not get recorded — we would start rehearsing again in the studio," Weinberg recalls, relaxing on a floppy sofa in a small dressing room at his other job, the Rockefeller Center studios of NBC's Late Night With Conan O'Brien, where he has ' been the show's bandleader since 1993. "A lot of the tracks on those records were recorded rehearsals. 'Streets of Fire' [on Darkness] — it wouldn't even be legitimate to call it a demo. None of us had any idea where it was going."

"It was not exciting — it was the opposite of exciting," guitarist Steven Van Zandt says of those sessions with a guttural chuckle. One of Springsteen's oldest friends (Weinberg calls him Springsteen's "consigliere"), Van Zandt co-produced those two albums and 1984's Born in the U.S.A. with Springsteen and the singer's manager, Jon Landau. "I'm not that disciplined," Van Zandt admits. "If it's 10 percent less good if we did it in a day instead of a month, I'm cool with that. It's still 110 percent better than what anybody else is doing. Bruce understood that. But he said, We're going for 100 percent all the time. We're not compromising one iota.'"

"Yes, there was fear of failure," Springsteen concedes, surrounded in the Thrill Hill living room by vintage mounted photographs of what he calls "my saints," including the elder Bob Dylan, the young Elvis Presley and the folk-blues singers Elizabeth Cotten and Mississippi John Hurt. "This is all repair work, in one way or another. The guys I was interested in Dylan, Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, Bob Marley, John Lydon, Joe Strummer — all had something eating at them. Those are the forces you're playing with. And you're in the studio trying to figure out, 'How do I live with myself?'

"I'm not worried now about who I am," he says. "My identity, what people are connecting with — those things are set pretty firmly. I have an audience, of some kind. I also have a world of characters and ideas I have addressed for a long time. By now, at my age, those things aren't supposed to inhibit you. They are supposed to free you."

Springsteen goes quiet for a minute when asked if, even at 16, he had bigger dreams and a stronger will than the other guys in the Castiles. "We were kids, you know," he says. There is another pause. "A lot of it has to do with raw need, motivation. I was very isolated. That's a common story with rock musicians. We all feel like that. And it makes you mad." He smiles, then explodes with laughter. "I mean, really mad! But if you learn to organize your desires and demands and shoot them into something that is more than just being about you, you start to communicate. I wanted to be a part of the world around me."

Springsteen had a long-term advantage: the E Street Band, started in 1972, formally named in 1974, reunited in 1999 after a 10-year split and now numbering eight, including bassist Garry Tallent, an original member with Clemons and Federici; pianist Roy Bittan, who joined with Weinberg in mid-'74; guitarist Nils Lofgren, first recruited for the Born in-the U.S.A. tour; and violinist-singer Soozie Tyrell, who first played on The Rising. (Charlie Giordano played keyboards after Federici's illness forced him to leave the Magic tour in November 2007.)

"They are my greatest friendships, my deepest friendships — irreplaceable things," Springsteen says. "I'll put The Rising, Magic and the new one against any other three records we've made in a row, as far as sound, depth and purpose, of what they're saying and conveying. It's very satisfying to be able to do that at this point in the road."

"It makes you proud to be his friend," Van Zandt declares with another rusty chuckle, "when so many others are, you know, cruisin'."

When Springsteen was a young boy, his mother, Adele, sent him off to sleep every night with a story — a rhyme about the ranch hand Cowboy Bill. "She would say it to me before I went to bed," Springsteen says. "It was like our good night to each other." He starts the first verse from memory — "Of all the hands on the Bar-H Ranch, the bravest was brave Cowboy Bill" — but can't remember the rest. "There were other good lines. I gotta find out what they are."

Three weeks later, Springsteen sends them in a handwritten fax after his mom recited them again to him over the phone: "He wore tight boots with heels so high, a 10-gallon hat that hid one eye and sheepskin chaps with flaps/He named his pony Golden Arrow, and every day with a clip and a clop he rode into the highest mountaintop." Later in the tale, published in 1950 as "Brave Cowboy Bill" in a Little Golden Book for children, the hero foils a gang of cattle thieves. "At some point, I told Patti my mother would recite this stanza about Cowboy Bill," Springsteen says. "Patti said, 'Outlaw Pete — I think that's Cowboy Bill.' I thought, 'Gee, maybe you're right.'"

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