SUNRISE, FLA.: "Don't make me come out there and slaaaap that tan off ya." Bruce Springsteen's warnings to potentially restless crowds tend to have a local flavor. In September 1995, he began his tour in support of The Ghost of Tom Joad by telling a Los Angeles crowd to turn off their cellular phones. Here at the 3,968-seat Sunrise Musical Theater, in early December, some 100 shows later, he's still asking for quiet. What's changed is that a show he admits was initially "austere" is now a kaleidoscope of jokes, shaggy-dog stories, paeans to cunnilingus and, yes, plenty of the brooding, socially conscious fare that marks the album.
If a few fans out there still holler for "Thunder Road" (one Floridian reprovingly shouted, "Rock & roll," mid-show, before exiting), most are attentive as Springsteen works with his 17 acoustic guitars, his harmonicas and a vocal attack that now includes an evocative, high-pitched keening. He will rock, slamming out a percussive "Johnny 99" or "Working on the Highway," but pointedly deconstructs certain old rockers like the much-misinterpreted "Born in the U.S.A."
Sitting backstage after a strikingly eclectic set on his second night at Sunrise, Springsteen notes, "Tonight was a bit experimental. I've tried to rearrange a lot of the Darkness [on the Edge of Town] stuff, because it was some of the first adult music I wrote – really about people hanging by a thread. That music fits real well into what I'm doing now."
Springsteen has gained momentum from events along the road, including a benefit for the John Steinbeck Center, at California's San Jose State University. Days later, he performed at a Los Angeles rally against the California state proposition blocking affirmative action. (Jesse Jackson stood beside him as the singer warned, "The seeds of racism and injustice do not sleep.") And in places like Fresno, Calif., and San Diego, backdrops for current, edgy songs, he jabbed at then-campaigning Bob Dole.
Springsteen is aware that some found his sobering record to be an arbitrary departure, but he explains, "[Tom Joad] wasn't that different from the legacy of my own family. My parents struggled a lot. The material followed ideas that I started out with – things that bothered me, and I wrote about them. You've got to find your own isolation, your own sense of being between the road and the void. . . . After that, what else does a writer do? He looks around."
What Springsteen found, he says, is "a sense of place" – namely his adoptive California and the long scar marking its border with Mexico. His sets close with a suite of brooding songs from Joad. The show's reflective stretch can be "challenging," he admits. "I'm trying to hold my place and write about the things that I felt were, and still are, important."
The newest song in Springsteen's repertoire was introduced with a mention of his wife, Patti Scialfa. It's a plain, pure love song called "There Will Never Be." "I never played anything quite like that before," he says. "It's been a long time coming."
Springsteen's last trips to his other home, in New Jersey, were for a benefit show and then a trio of homecoming gigs in Asbury Park, with one set featuring Scialfa on vocals, Soozie Tyrell on violin and Danny Federici on accordion – a possible preview, he confirms, of the next record's instrumentation. "I've got probably half a record," he says, "and I don't know if it's any good. I've got to wait and see, record it and hear it back." His reunion with the E-Street Band was "fun" ("I love the guys – if I was going to go out and play with a rock band, that's the one"), but don't look for a major reunion soon: "I'm not sure exactly what I'd do that would be new." Studio plans aside, Springsteen will play a series of shows in Japan and Australia early this year, after which he'll probably tour further in the States. "I certainly don't feel like stopping now," he says. "I feel I have a chance to be a fresh force with these things . . . fundamentally drawn from my personal emotional experience.
"There was a period after 1985 where I didn't know if I'd write about them again," he continues. "I didn't know if I had anything new to say. And then, with this record, I really felt a deep re-connection to that part of my own life. And, you know, 30 years down the line, I feel pretty lucky that I've got a job to do."
This story is from the February 6, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.