The iconic songwriter on making his most romantic record since 'Born to Run' - and why a hundred George Bushes can't destroy the American spirit
This afternoon, Bruce Springsteeen has a lot on his mind. There is the matter of band rehearsals and the thirty-seven-date world tour that he will soon start. There is the new album he has made, Magic, his third release in the past eighteen months. There is also the subject matter of that album, weighty stuff like the direction of our democracy and party stuff that recalls the days when sparks first flew on E Street more than three decades ago. And there is something else as well: His oldest son's soccer game starts at 4:30.
Springsteen's life at fifty-eight revolves around family and music. It was not always tin is way. For a long time, there was only the music. And then, for a while, only the family. The balance he's achieved – and the creative roll he's been on, four albums in the past five years – is relatively, recent. "I spent about ten years where I had no destination, exactly," he says, referring to the time during which he moved to Los Angeles, settled into his second marriage and began a family. He and wife Patti Scialfa have three children, Evan, 17, Jessica, 16, and Sam, 13.
The ten years Springsteen mentions roughly line up with the period during which the E Street Band was idle, from 1988 to 1999. During that time, Springsteen redefined his career and his music more radically than any major artist save Bob Dylan, the eternal trickster. Having reached the level of mass success that his music and ambition always demanded, Springsteen pulled back. His subject matter went first inward and then outward. The most personal albums he ever made – Lucky Town and Human Touch – were, as he's pointed out, his happiest and least successful. In 1995, The Ghost of Tom Joad, a literary album with a political bent – Raymond Carver meets Woody Guthrie – followed the birth of his youngest child. He had gone, in seven years, from stadiums to arenas to theaters, a man alone with an acoustic guitar.
In 1999, a few months shy of his fiftieth birthday, Springsteen went on tour with the E Street Band for the first time in more than a decade. As it always had, the band put flesh and muscle behind the words, reconnecting Springsteen to the rock and soul that had first been the wellspring of his music. This is clear when I watch the band rehearse for its current tour at Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey – an arena band gathering in a room the size of a high school gymnasium to stretch out before a long run. In that familiar voice full of gravel, Springsteen traces Sam Cooke-style melodic runs in the air.
Magic returns to the spirit of Asbury Park with a big sound Springsteen hasn't pursued since Born to Run. "Lately, I've had a little romance with my oldest stuff," he says. "There was a lot of freeness in it. When you start and when you finish – that's when the pressure is off. In the beginning, you're too unknown, you're not really competing with people. And at this point, I'm not competing with 50 Cent or trying to get on MTV. I'm playing for myself and my band and my audience."
As he explains when we sit down to talk backstage at Convention Hall, Magic uses the boardwalk sounds of the past to put across the feeling of the present: "the uneasiness of these very uneasy times." Often when he speaks, Springsteen laughs midsentence, as if he's embarrassed to be taking himself this seriously. But not when he talks about the course the country has taken under George W. Bush or the war in Iraq. Then the laughter stops.
The record starts with "Radio Nowhere," a song about a guy out on the road looking for a connection.
It's an end-of-the-world scenario – he's seeing the apocalypse. All communications are down: "Trying to find my way home/All I heard was a drone bouncing – trying to connect to you. It comes down to trying to make people happy, feel less lonely, but also being a conduit for a dialogue about the events of the day, the issues that impact people's lives, personal and social and political and religious. That's how I always saw the job of our band. That was my service. At this point, I'm in the middle of a very long conversation with my audience.
And what are you hearing from their side of the conversation?
A lot of different things. "I like the old Bruce better.…" [Laughs] It's an ongoing dialogue about what living means. It's not like a one-on-one dialogue. It's more what you feel back from them. You create a space together. You are involved in an act of the imagination together, imagining the life you want to live, the kind of country you want to live in, the kind of place you want to leave to your children. What are the things that bring you ecstasy and bliss, what are the things that bring on the darkness, and what can we do together to combat those things? That's the dialogue I have in my imagination when I'm writing. I have it in front of me when I'm performing.
It's an organic, living thing. There's something subtly different being said on a nightly basis. But you're attempting to define and have impact upon the world and the life you're living. I can't do it by myself. I need my audience. It'll be a lifelong journey by the time that I'm done.
This kind of dialogue requires a heavy commitment. What do you get out of it?
I enjoy it, but more than that, I need it. It's the fundamental thing that moves me out on the stage, that keeps me writing throughout my entire career. I've felt the absence of that dialogue in the past in my life, and it was a terrible emptiness. When I latched onto it, I latched onto it like a life raft. You're in that room together, that dark room together. The lights go down, and you are free to imagine the person, the place, that you want to be. I suppose you take some of that with you when you go. It stays with you.
I remember the birth of my children. It was so overwhelming, one of the few moments where I've experienced total love without fear. I was afraid of losing it afterward, except you never lose it. The memory of that moment and the possibilities inherent in that moment are everlasting. So on a good night, when the band's playing real well, there's a moment when you've been a part of a collective event of imagination, and when you leave, you take some of it with you. And you put it in action however befits your needs.
That collective act of the imagination comes up on "Magic." What kind of country we want to live in is a recurring theme.
The song "Magic" is about living in a time when anything that is true can be made to seem like a lie, and anything that is a lie can be made to seem true. There are people that have taken that as their credo. The classic quote was from one of the Bushies in The New York Times: "We make our own reality. You guys report it, we make it." I may loathe that statement – the unbelievable stupidity and arrogance of it – more than I loathe "Bring it on" and "Mission accomplished."
That song, it's all about illusion: "Trust none of what you hear/And less of what you'll see/This is what will be" – we make it. Until you get to the last verse: "There's a fire down below/It's coming up here.… There's bodies hanging in the trees/This is what will be." That's the heart of my record right there.
There's a line at the end of that song about carrying "only what you fear." You're addressing the politics of fear, aren't you?
Yeah. You can't kill your way to security, and you can't lead through scaring people. Maybe you can get people to vote for you sometimes, but it's not a tactic that's going to provide the kind of moral authority and leadership that it's going to take to communicate in the world. It's the coward's way out.
So you're saying you can win elections that way, but you can't govern that way.
That's right. That's the only card that they've played, pretty much from Day One. If the 2004 election had been held six months later, they would have lost. People were still under the spell of 9/11 and the magic [laughs] and the Swift Boating. One of the most satisfying moments of the election was Ted Koppel ripping the Swift Boaters a new asshole on Nightline about a week or so before the election, when they went to the village in Vietnam where the incident occurred and talked to the Vietnamese witnesses. It was right there, but it wasn't enough, and it was too late.
The bottom line is if you're a member of the press and you believe that part of your responsibility is to give people the information they need to protect their freedoms, there's an editorial responsibility. But that ball's been dropped terribly. When somebody's saying you're going to lead with Anna Nicole Smith, you've got to be wondering if you're in the right job. It's become a business, and on what's supposed to be the most credible channels, there's an endless parade of nonsense on a daily basis.
Right. Because during the election to get the truth behind the Swift Boat ads, you had to skip the mainstream media and go straight to The Daily Show.
Jon Stewart is such an important and lonely force on television. He's in the business of assisting people to interpret the modern media world. There's so much sheer noise. Every night he comes on and pulls the veil down, and you get a shot at what things really look like. That's why people have gravitated to him and have faith in him.
There's a line from "Long Walk Home" on the new album that has tremendous power. A father tells his son that the flag flying above the courthouse means "certain things are set in stone . . . what we'll do and what we won't." But we live in a moment where those things aren't set in stone.
No, because those things have been chipped away at horrendously. Who would have ever thought we'd live in a country with no right to habeas corpus? That's Orwellian. That's what political hysteria is about and how effective it is. I felt it in myself. You get frightened for your family, for your home. And you realize how countries can move way off course, very far from democratic ideals. Add another terrorist attack or two, and the country can turn into a pretty scary place. Philip Roth caught it in The Plot Against America: It happens in a very American way – the flag is flying over civil liberties as they crumble. It was a fascinating insight.
You mentioned Philip Roth. Are there other things you were reading that had an impact on the record?
Not really. I'd been influenced a lot in the past through books and films, but I would say on this record I got re-infatuated with pop music. Pete Seeger says, "I want to know, 'What's the song for? What's the job it's supposed to do?' " I carry a little bit of that with me, but I'm a pop kid. I grew up on Top Forty. Sometimes what the song is for is just the way it makes you feel. On this record, I wanted a lot of that. There's some classic Sixties pop forms. California-rock influences – Pet Sounds and a lot of Byrds. I wanted to take the productions that create the perfect pop universes and then subvert them with the lyrics – fill them with the hollowness and the fear, the uneasiness of these very uneasy times.
"Girls in Their Summer Clothes" is a crooning Sixties ballad, but it creates an ideal picture that stands in juxtaposition to what's running through the inside of this record. There's a diner on two songs, and they're very different. There's the one in "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" – Frankie's Diner, on the edge of town, with neon signs – and then there's the diner with the sign that just says gone [on "Long Walk Home"]. I believe in them both. Those are the parameters of what I'm talking about, right there.
"Girls in Their Summer Clothes" is one of several songs that seem to call back to your earlier work.
It's straight-out big. I don't think I've written as romantically as I allowed myself to do on that song maybe since Born to Run. This record, I felt free to go back to the romanticism of my earliest records. I doubled my voice, I sang in a bigger voice. I'm actually looking forward to writing a little bit more in that style, to picking up some of those elements that I discarded because I wanted to make sure that the music was tough enough for the subjects I was interested in dealing with. That's what I did with Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska and parts of The River. But now, I feel free enough to go back and reclaim those lovely elements of pop simplicity and the well-crafted three-and-a-half-minute song, which I love to do.
Did working on the thirtieth-anniversary edition of "Born to Run" open that up?
I forgot how good that record was. I hadn't listened to it in many, many years. Born to Run was criticized as being too romantic. I was in that part of my career where I was reacting. Once you gain some attention, you're reacting to . . . maybe it's success, or something you overheard passing down the street. And so I moved toward darkness. But part of the things I was frightened of were the reasons why it lasted: because it was romantic.
But even then, I filled the romanticism with darkness. It was a post-Vietnam record, and you can hear, once again, the uneasiness and the fear and the concern about the future. The classic line of "Thunder Road," which I wrote at twenty-four, was "We're not that young anymore." That came right out of the last years of the war. Nobody felt that young anymore. All that's in there. It has some of my greatest songs on it. I set out the parameters of the world I was going to be investigating.
It's interesting – I didn't think about that, but I really wanted that. All the little different effects we had. I always loved those little pop symphonies, so on this record, I had a chance to play around with some of that. "Your Own Worst Enemy" was one of my big pop productions. The lyrics are "we're always teetering on the edge," and it's all about self-subversion. You can take it personally or politically. That's what gives the record its tension, those two things - the perfect pop universe and then what's at its center. "Living in the Future" has a very boardwalk sound, but it's about how terribly fucked up things have gotten. It's a song about apathy, and how what you never thought could happen has happened already. I tried to combine personal and political, so you can read into the songs either way. You can read the record as a comment on what's been going on, or you can read it just as relationship songs.
It's effective. It has an allegorical power.
Yeah. Despite the interview here, I didn't want a big Bush-bashing record. It's been done, and that's not really what people needed, or maybe it's just not what I needed right now. Your writing has to be multidimensional to remain interesting, to have life. You're not headline-writing. I've found ways to express my political concerns and personal concerns, and I always found them best combined, because that's how people live.
I want to go back for a moment to "Radio Nowhere." There's an invocation of Elvis when the narrator is "searching for a mystery train." What's he looking for?
What everybody's looking for. The ever-unattainable but absolutely there part of life that's slightly out of your fingertips, slightly shaded in the dark somewhere. But within, it contains all the essences and raw physical vitality and blood and bone and sweat of living. It's the thing that makes it all worth it at the end of the day, even if you just get the tip of your tongue on it. It's our history. It's that train that's been running since they friggin' landed over here on the boat, and it's roaring with all of us right now, that thing. That's what I like to look for.
Your sense of American identity and American possibility - where does that come from?
The people I liked did that. They were searchers – Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, James Brown. The people I loved – Woody Guthrie, Dylan – they were out on the frontier of the American imagination, and they were changing the course of history and our own ideas about who we were. And you can throw in Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
It was a part of what I was imagining from the very beginning, just because I got tremendous inspiration and a sense of place from the performers who had imagined it before me. It was something I wanted to take a swing at, what thrilled and excited me. For me, I started with what I had. I walked down to the boardwalk about a hundred yards from here, and I looked into a little knickknack shop. There was a rack of postcards, and I pulled one out that said GREETINGS FROM ASBURY PARK. I said, "That's my album cover. This is my place."
My songs, they're all about the American identity and your own identity and the masks behind the masks behind the masks, both for the country and for yourself. And trying to hold onto what's worthwhile, what makes it a place that's special, because I still believe that it is.
The American idea still has enormous power in its best manifestation. And ten George Bushes cannot bring that idea down – a hundred cannot bring that idea down. What we're going through now, we're going to be out the other side at some point. But that idea remains, and it's something that has compelled me my whole life. Part of it was to make sense of who I was – where I came from and what I saw and what I saw happen to some people around me.
What does that mean?
My family was troubled in a lot of ways. I came from . . . it was an interesting family. My mother is only second generation Italian. My grandmother lived to be 102 and never spoke any English. When I went into her room, I went to Italy. Everything: the Madonnas, the shawls. She lived in the country since she was in her twenties and never learned any English. So there was Italian culture, and then the Irish folks were just very old-school people.
I had to sort some of that out. So identity became a big part of the music I was writing. And then because of the times when I grew up, the Sixties, our national identity was in tremendous flux. I got interested in "what's the social side of that equation?" That's really what all my stuff is ultimately about: "Is there anybody alive out there?" asked over and over again. "Long Walk Home" could have come off Darkness on the Edge of Town.
You performed "Long Walk Home" during the Seeger Sessions tour. What's the difference between playing it with the Sessions band and the E Street Band?
It was our opening night in London. You're very conscious of your American-ness when you're in Europe, particularly during these horrible times. I had the song, and we worked up a loose arrangement. That band was very easy to improvise with. Work something out at soundcheck and play it that night – we did that a lot. They were a great, great band. I felt like I've got two of the best bands in the world.
I wrote most of this album on tour with the Sessions band. I wrote some of it the minute I came off The Rising. My idea was to pick up with the political and social results of what came out of the tragedy of 9/11. "Livin' in the Future" I've had since then, and I might have had "Radio Nowhere." I had a few things, but I didn't have enough. So I set it aside.
When I toured with the Sessions band – you play and go home, you sit in a hotel room, and I'd pick up my guitar. That's where I do a lot of writing now. And then I write in my spare time when I'm at home. It doesn't take much time now. It's a very fluid process compared to what it used to be when I was young, when I insisted on beating the hell out of myself for as long and as hard as I could because I didn't have anything else better to do. Now that I've got three teenagers, my time is all called upon, so I write pretty much in my spare time.
When you say you beat yourself up when you were younger, in what way?
You think there's a right way, which is a fallacy when it comes to creating something. So you're in trouble there. And also, you have no life. So rather than going through the unpleasantness of your actual daily experience, you'd rather live in the unpleasantness of your creative experience. The hours I spent on . . . It was the only way I knew how to work. It was fun, but it was exhausting. I think intentionally exhausting. I made a lot of good music, but it all came out on Tracks. There's probably another Tracks sitting in the vault that I'll get to at some point.
The creative roll you're on now is relatively recent, given the scope of your career. There was a period eight to ten years ago where you were still making records and putting them away.
Yeah, I made one for "Streets of Philadelphia" that I didn't put out, which I'd like to. It was interesting, it had a lot of little loops and things. A good record, written pretty well. It wasn't a complete record in the end, which is why I would sit down and feel great for four or five songs and in the end get up with some sense of dissatisfaction.
What were those songs about?
Mostly personal relationships. I'd come off Tunnel of Love, and it would have been my fourth record about those things, and I thought that was one too many. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I had to break the narrative that I was in, break the context and move to L.A. for three or four years, get away from all things connected to myself.
We went to Los Angeles, and the change of scenery was good. I love that city, actually. I love the mountains and the desert, and up there I can have my cars and my motorcycles. I tried to live in New York for a while, but I couldn't deal with a place where you had to catch a car. It's too late for me for that.
So I moved out West, where I had a little house in the Hollywood Hills from the middle of the Eighties, and I felt real comfortable there. My sister lives there, my younger sister, my parents lived up north in San Francisco, and it was a fascinating time to be there, because it's what the East Coast looks like now. If you go to my hometown, in Freehold, there's tremendous Hispanic influence, and that was California fifteen years ago. So when I wrote The Ghost of Tom Joad and wrote a lot about what was going on, it felt like "This is what the country's going to look like in another ten or fifteen years." All those immigration issues that people are trying to ride right now to wherever they think they're going were all in the news and in your face in the early Nineties in California.
I wrote things that I wouldn't have if I stayed back East. Two or three albums of Western songs. Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils & Dust and another record of Western songs that I've been working on. So it was really a great geographical change, a place to find new stories.
But I also took ten years and I learned how to live, which I didn't know how to do. Thirty-five years old, and I didn't have a clue about it. I learned how to live, and I found the joy in those things.
What did you learn?
I guess life outside of work. This is a very satisfying work life, but it's a part of your overall life. How do you have relationships? How do you commit to things that are forever? How do you break all your old habits, or some of them?
If you can share some secrets, you can save me a lot of money in therapy.
I spent a lot of money there myself, and I learned a lot. I had to work on it the way that I had to work on playing the guitar when I first started – many, many hours and a lot of intense devotion. I realized that some people may come to that naturally, but I was somebody that was going to have to learn it, because all my instincts were wrong. All my instincts drove me away from things.
Sometimes you're running in a different direction because you don't know how to do things differently than what you've seen growing up.
Yeah, that's it. So you realize you've got to make your own map, and in so doing, you honor your parents by taking the good things they gave you and carrying them forth, and taking burdens and weights and putting them down so your children don't have to run with them.
But that break was really extreme for me, and Patti was, and has been, patient beyond patient. I couldn't get up in the morning, I couldn't go to bed at night. The basic things that set the clock. The kids were young – it was "It's six-thirty now." That took about four or five years to figure out.
Was that from having to unlearn the rhythm on the road?
It goes back to my childhood. I had a weird upbringing where I was up for all hours at night when I was, like, six years old. We had a very eccentric household. My clock got thrown off when I was really young. Five and six, I was up until 3 A.M. I'm sure it's no coincidence I ended up a musician, so I could be up to 3 A.M., just like I was.
When your own kids come along, I said, "Good, you've got to change that." So many basic things. So I spent a lot of that time learning how to live. I suppose Patti would say I've reached a tolerable level of competency.
What brought you back to New Jersey?
I grew up around a very big extended family. I think Patti and I have maybe seventy family members, just in this area, and there's a lot of Italians and also an Irish side. At some point, when the children got to school age, we decided we wanted that for the kids. We were always here half the year anyway, even then. So when we came back, my kids grew up around my uncle that hunts, the one that owns the dry-cleaning business – people who do all different kinds of work and bring all kinds of things to them. It took away the weirdness of my job, and it allowed them to look other places for all different kinds of role models. That was important.
Then we came back, and I re-found the freedom in some of my early narrative, and that includes here in this building and this town and in my band. I feel the freest I've ever felt in my life creatively. I feel like I've picked up a thread that I never let go of but just let sit for a while.
And I feel like we're very on it right now. This is going to be the best E Street Band somebody's ever seen. You may have a favorite part of my work, you may have a favorite show, but if you're a young kid and your brother or your dad saw us, and you come and see us now, you can say, "I saw them when they were at their best." I like that. I like the fact that all my guys are out there and that they're all alive. I like that a lot. It could have gone many other ways. There were struggles, the same type of troubles that many other bands have, but people took care of one another, and everybody's there. I can't tell you the joy of standing next to those same people.
Some of whom have been with you for more than three decades.
I met Steve [Van Zandt] when I was sixteen. Now I'm fifty-eight. So that's more than forty years. It's an amazing thing to be up there with your best friends and your wife. Your whole world's up there. I think for a lot of our fans, part of the thing is when the world's falling apart, we're not. That's why people come to us. There was always a sense of stability and continuity and connection.
It sounds like something you've been able to provide for both your families – your family onstage and your kids.
You've got to have the whole picture at this point. You need the fullness of life. Without that, it's an exercise. You don't want the things that you're writing and singing about to remain an abstraction to yourself. I always liked the scene at the end of The Searchers: John Wayne brings the girl back home, but he can't enter the house himself. Very tragic. That was always really resonant for me. I grew up with a lot of that, people not being able to get in, and that was always my natural state.
I think that because I had a bit of a chaotic heart myself, I always was in search of that stability. It's in "Leah," on Devils & Dust: "I walk this road with a hammer and a fiery lantern/With this hand I've built, and with this I've burned." I think everybody feels those two things. It's just how you balance them. There's a lot of fire in the burning, but it don't do you any good if you ain't got the hammer for the building.
This story is from the November 1st, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.