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Bruce Springsteen and the Secret of the World

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The night after John Lennon's murder, Springsteen was scheduled to play Philadelphia's Spectrum Arena. The band had been onstage at the Spectrum the previous night when the news came, but, as organist Danny Federici put it, "They saved it from us till after the show." The next day, Miami Steve called the tour manager to see if the second night was going to be postponed. The answer was no. Steve was so upset he went to Springsteen shortly before the show," saying that I felt really weird about going onstage, that I couldn't put it together. And he really just reminded me of why we do what we do, and how it was important to go out that night in particular. I wish I could remember exactly what he said, like, "This is what John Lennon inspired us to do and now it's our job to do the same thing for these other people, that today it was Lennon and tomorrow it might be me, and if it is….' That's how he does every show, like it was his last. He lives every minute like it was his last. That's the way to live. It's really lucky to be close to him at moments like that."

The band took the stage, most of them wearing black. Springsteen went to the mike. "If it wasn't for John Lennon," he said, "a lot of us would be in some place much different tonight. It's a hard world that makes you live with a lot of things that are unlivable. And it's hard to come out here and play tonight, but there's nothing else to do."

I've seen people digging firebreaks to save their homes, and I've seen some desperate fist fights, and, God knows, I've seen hundreds of rock & roll shows, but I have never seen a human being exert himself the way Springsteen did that night in Philly. His delivery of the last verse of "Darkness on the Edge of Town" was raw with a mixture of anger, grief and determination. I'll remember "Promised Land" for the way the silhouettes in the top tier of the 18,500-seat arena were standing, striking the air with their fists. The crowd sang the refrain of "Thunder Road" so hard you could feel your sternum hum. "I've heard these songs a million fucking times," Miami would say the next day, "and it was like I never heard 'em before. I've watched him write, months and months of digging, but last night was a weird feeling – like you were in exactly the same place he was when he wrote them."

Springsteen works from the gut. There seem to be no planks of his ideology that are not nailed down by some hard-core, practical fact of life. There have long been hints that this lover of automobiles doesn't like the big oil companies; for the B side of "Hungry Heart" he chose "Held up without a Gun," which is partly about gas prices.

Yet many people were surprised when he made his passionate but furtive ideology explicit by joining the lineup for the "No Nukes" concerts at Madison Square Garden. While in Los Angeles in mid-1979, Bruce went to a Jackson Browne concert. Afterward, the MUSE people had a question for him. "They said they needed some help in New York City," he recalls, "and they asked, did we want to help out?"

His manner, as he considers the politics of helping out, is not easy. There seems to be a heavy, slow beat somewhere in his innards before every word he speaks. "There's too much greed, too much carelessness. I don't believe that was ever the idea of capitalism. It's just gotta be voices heard from all places, that's my main concern, and when you're up against big business and politics, you gotta have some muscle.

"People every day in different ways try to talk to people out there. Especially during the elections, they try to appeal to people's secret hearts, you know, with the American dream – really it's the human dream, and everybody knows by now that it ain't about two cars in the garage. It's about people living and working together without steppin' on each other.

"There's a cruel and cynical game that goes on," he continues, letting his hands fall open, as if they could catch hold of whatever is bugging him so deeply. "A game that people with responsibility play with these immense hopes and desires. It's disgusting the disrespect those people with responsibility can have. Like TV. You wonder what's going on in this [NBC-TV chief] Freddy Silverman's head sometimes, like how can he do that? There's some good things on TV, but way too much of it is used to zonk people out.

"So that cynical game goes on; it's like the carrot-in-front-of-the-donkey game. The cynicism of the last ten years is what people adopted as a necessary defense against having tire tracks up and down their front and back every day."

Springsteen pauses and looks across a table littered with chicken bones and empty soda bottles. Outside the hotel room, Lake Erie's gray expanse is whitening with the dawn.

"That was the spirit of rock & roll when it came in, "he goes on, "talking to kids in their secret heart. To promise to somebody that things are gonna be all right, you don't ever have the room to do that. Then you're a politician. All you can do is say there's possibilities, some are gonna stand, some are gonna fall, and then try to say that the search and the struggle is a life-affirming action. Illusions make you weak, dreams and possibilities make you strong. That's what I hope people get from our music. That's what I got from the Drifters, say, 'Under the Boardwalk. As full as the singer sounds, it always had that little sadness that made you love it, made you recognize it as being true.

"There's this movie, Wise Blood [from Flannery O'Connor's story in which a young religious zealot from the deep South blinds himself]. One of my favorite parts was the end, where he's doin' all these terrible things to himself, and the woman comes in and says, 'There's no reason for it. People have quite doing it.' And he says, 'They ain't quit doing it as long as I'm doing it.'

"There's this thing that gets conjured up at night. In fact, to me it's different every night. I was always close to work. I found out very young what makes me happy. I stay very close to that. It just seemed like the secret of the world."

This story appears in the February 5th, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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