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.
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