"We'll have to see how everybody feels, how the show feels," Bruce Springsteen said, lounging on a sofa in his dressing room backstage at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. The singer was speaking the night before he opened his 2016 North American tour with the E Street Band, on January 16th in Pittsburgh. He had just come off stage from a three-hour rehearsal in which he drilled his group, one more time, through Sides Three and Four of the centerpiece of the current shows — a complete, nightly performance of Springsteen's 1980 double album, The River. Looking improbably relaxed after that long, intense practice, Springsteen, 66, was responding to a question about whether he would add more dates past the originally scheduled finale in Los Angeles on March 17th.
"I have an idea of what it's going to be like," Springsteen said of the next evening's planned marathon — that whole record plus another "set after the set," as he put it, of hits and deep tracks. "But I'm anxious to feel it."
Springsteen found out soon enough, setting a repeatedly explosive standard in Pittsburgh with 34 songs over three hours and 17 minutes. Two weeks later, after a similar epic show in Chicago and a few hours before raising the roof at New York's Madison Square Garden, Springsteen announced an extension of the tour into late April, with a May 19th festival date in Lisbon, Portugal, suggesting a run of European stadium gigs in the summer.
That evening backstage in Pittsburgh, during a wide-ranging interview for a story in the current issue of Rolling Stone, Springsteen spoke of his sudden eagerness to take The River on the road, in the wake of the recent multi-disc reissue, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection (Columbia); and of the much-younger man who made the original album, from the impulsive mass of songwriting resurrected in that box. He also confirmed his completion of a solo album nearly four years in the making — and admitted that it was unusual for him to be back on the road with the E Street Band with such a focused, retrospective show. But, Springsteen insisted, "At this point, the old blueprints don't have to be followed. We're presenting this record to people. And it'll find its spot."
Is there any material from the River era — unheard songs or performances — still waiting around to be heard, that isn't in the box set?
The box cleared out everything that was listenable. There might have been some curiosities. When we put these boxes out, I discount those things where the only interest is "This happened" [laughs]. I don't go for the multiple outtakes. I go for something that had a reason for living, came to life, didn't get used but is a thriving entity of its own.
Were you writing literally everyday on the way to The River? That record almost forced itself to become a double album.
You have to understand: You're writing in a panic, right? Because you don't have a record, which is a very anxious and unsettled feeling. While it's a feeling you have to get used to when you're a record maker, it never loses its unpleasantness: "Is it going to happen? Are all the pieces gonna fit? Is it going to come to life?" You don't know until it does.
And as the leader, you're responsible for the band eating. There is an economic obligation as well.
You're spending money in the studio, certainly at that time. We spent everything we had. When the record finally came out, we were down to peanuts. The only thing you have to go on is some vague notion of an aesthetic, an idea, something you want to accomplish, not knowing exactly what it is. All I knew was I wanted it to have scope, to have size. I wanted it to appeal to all the different parts of what we did. I had the parameters. I didn't have the working parts.
Why did you pull that early, unreleased sequence, The Ties That Bind?
It didn't seem like enough. It was a nice 10-song record.
Was it lightweight?
I enjoy listening to it now. It didn't have the complexity that the later record had.
Just listening to Side Three in rehearsal today, The River goes from "Point Blank" to "Cadillac Ranch" and "I'm a Rocker" — that's a lot of emotional and physical ground, where [1978's] Darkness on the Edge of Town was more intensely focused.
Darkness was a one-track mind. It was austere. Everything else was stripped away. Some of the songs that got on The River — "Sherry Darling," "Independence Day" — I originally had for Darkness on the Edge of Town.
We had a couple of goals for The River. One was to make a record that felt like a show. So there were character studies. There was bar-band music. It went from being ridiculous and joyous to heart-numbing. I thought, "This is what I like. I like both of these things." I always struggled to fit it on a single album. "This time, let's make a record that's like the show." It had to be a double album.
This is the first time in my memory that you have gone out with a tour that is a set piece. You've done full performances of other albums, but you called those on the night. This is a theatrical presentation.
The size of the record doesn't make it a casual undertaking. And it's a funny record. It ends on a strange note with "Wreck on the Highway," where it's just a guy and his thoughts [laughs]. That's all there is. The album starts with the pursuit of connection and community, the desire to find out where you fit in, and ends up with this guy in a bedroom with the person he loves and his thoughts.
Does it feel strange to be going out on a major tour without new music? Most of your tours since you reunited the E Street Band in 1999 have been tied to a new album and that album's point of view.
At this point, we have so much music behind us that we don't need to restrict ourselves to that formula. I want to be able to say, "Maybe we should go out and play 20 shows, 40 shows, 60 shows — or 10 shows. Just let the band play." We've passed the point where we need a release to justify going out and performing. I want to break that cycle, whatever it is. Just go out, play your music and see what develops. The box set gave us an opportunity to put that in practice.
Plus, the record I was working on was a solo record. I was probably gonna go out and perform it on my own. Given that amount of time, I thought, "That means the band won't play again for two-and-a-half, three years. I didn't want that amount of time to pass without the band performing together. It will be two years in May since the last time. At this point in my life, I want to have the freedom to say, "You want to play? Let's book some shows."
I noticed that the itinerary for this tour has two, sometimes three off days between shows. Is that a concession to age and the physical stress of doing such a long show — how much it takes to recover from one of these nights?
I don't think it was a factor. I didn't book the shows [grins].
You just show up?
[Laughs] Basically. Our average has been three-and-a-half shows a week. And with this show, we're pressing the three-hour mark. It's just comfort, I suppose. You don't want to burn your voice out. You want to give your best every night.
But there is the fact that age comes to everyone. How do you decide when you can't do something at the pace and intensity you set in your twenties and thirties? You don't want people to come with better memories than they leave with at the end of the night.
You not only have to be better than you were. You have to be better than what people remember you did [laughs], which is tough. Somebody will be like, "I saw you back in '76 at Blah-Blah-Blah College. That was the greatest show I ever saw." Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn't. But it's remembered that way.
I don't have a problem with that. We stand toe-to-toe with any version of our band that's been out there. It's a richer experience now because there is so much material to draw from. And that shared history you have with people makes the night very full, very beautiful.
One thing I noticed as you rehearsed the set that comes after you finish The River — the mix of "Badlands," "Wrecking Ball," "Backstreets" and "The Rising" — was that despite the people who often say, "I like the old stuff better than the new stuff," it is all cut from the same emotional and topical timber.
The past decade, we've made a lot of good music. For my money, the best of it can stand with the best of what I've done. And the test of it is on stage. One problem I had in the late Nineties, when I was hesitant to use the band again — I didn't know if I could write successfully for the band again, if I could write material that made sense of the band's existence.
But I feel like I did that — "American Skin (41 Shots)," "Land of Hope and Dreams," "The Rising," "Lonesome Day," "Wrecking Ball." Those were all extensions of the great music we made in the past. And they carried enough impact and weight to move us into the future. It's been a great gift to us over the past 10 years. We've had a lot of great new material to draw on, and it's made for a lot of good shows.
How long have you been working on this new solo album?
It was the record I started before [2012's] Wrecking Ball. I've been making it for a long time. I went back to it after [2014's] High Hopes. I finished it at the beginning of the summer [last year].
When do you plan on putting it out?
I don't know. I'm just sitting on it right now. I want to play with the band a bit, enjoy that. The next opening I have, we'll slot it in and get it out. It's unusual to have a record that you're sitting on.
Are you writing for the E Street Band now?
No. I just finished that batch of material [on the new album]. At the moment, I'm on writing hiatus.
What is the thing that gets you started?
Writing is like being hungry. It's a drive — a primal drive. It's not anything else. When it's there, you do it. Usually, you're trying to figure something out, make sense of some part of your life, something you're seeing, something you're experiencing, the world. "Wow, I need to contextualize this experience." That's when the hunger comes up, and you find yourself searching, searching, searching. That's when songs tend to come.
That was something that I kept thinking about David Bowie and his passing this week. In spite of his ill health, which we know about now, he continued to work and made one of his greatest records [Blackstar] at the very end of his life.
[Sighs] It's incredible, an amazing accomplishment. It takes a lot of strength. Warren Zevon made a record under those circumstances [The Wind, issued two weeks before his death from cancer in September 2003]. I was in the studio a little bit with him, and he was driven. A big part of his struggle was to make this music. I don't know if I could do that. It's a feat of strength.
That you are still out there, playing shows like this — do you sometimes feel like you're pushing your luck?
[Laughs heartily] You're pushing your luck, pal! [Keeps laughing]
Maybe that was the wrong phrase, but there is challenge in there. When you were a young man, 66 was considered old. It was when you retired.
Totally! [Still laughing] It's different when you get there, man. Sixty-six never felt so good. You have to be concerned about things — and you just go ahead. What else are you gonna do?
Yet this is an unusually reflective tour, based on an entire album of songs you wrote at a turning point in your life.
If you wrote them well, they sustain. Not only do they sustain, they grow and find their current context. That's what I'm hoping for on this tour, that the music finds its life in the here-and-now. Hopefully, it's a restorative to some of the ugliness and demagoguery that's been out there. That would be wonderful. I'd go home a happy player.
Are you going to miss calling audibles on stage — taking requests from fans and testing the band?
I'm looking for a relief from it, actually. It will be a nice break. As we go, it might happen in the set after the set. But The River is almost a fans' record, in the sense that it has a lot of things tucked down inside of it — "Stolen Car," "Jackson Cage," things that aren't necessarily on the first list of songs fans may mention as the things they remember you for. That's why I came up with the set after the set — the things the broad audience knows. The River is a little off to the left. That part of the show is for the people who dug all of the little corners of that record, who look forward to hearing "Fade Away" or "Independence Day," things we don't regularly play anymore.
When did you realize, after compiling that first sequence, The Ties That Bind, that the album needed to be a bigger document?
It was a group of songs that I really liked that I would have normally cut [from an album], like "Cadillac Ranch" and "Out in the Street" — things that were great bar-band music but that I would have cut if I only had a 10-song album. Those songs were pooling, collecting — "God, I'd really like to get all of that on." There's quite a few ballads. This show will have more ballads than any show we've ever done in a long time. "The River," "Drive All Night," "Wreck on the Highway" — half of the record is ballads. So you have to wrestle the other stuff in between.
That last 12 minutes on Side Four — "Drive All Night" and "Wreck on the Highway" — is a long stretch of quiet, maybe the longest on any of your albums.
It's the summation of the record, these two very quiet numbers. [Pauses thoughtfully] It will be fun tomorrow night, seeing what happens.
Actually, if I can make a request, it would be the outtake "Held Up Without a Gun." It's only a minute and 10 seconds long, so it won't add too much to the set.
[Laughs] It's only a minute and 10! That's right. It got onto ...
The B-side of the "Hungry Heart" single.
That's right. [Laughs] Yeah, it was a good one.