Bruce Springsteen's American Gospel

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Despite, or perhaps because of, the Born in the U.S.A. juggernaut, Springsteen had come to seem less and less mass-culturally relevant. With the ascendance of alternative rock and hip-hop, something about Springsteen felt decidedly Reagan-era. And he himself began to pull away from the spotlight. He broke up the E Street Band in 1990. The rock albums that followed (Lucky Town and Human Touch, released in 1992) didn't garner the notice, critical or commercial, of previous efforts. By 1995, Springsteen had grown a mustache and released Tom Joad, a solo album in the key of Nebraska that took up the causes of migrant workers and other dispossessed characters. It was as if, to atone for inadvertently providing the soundtrack to the Reagan revolution, Springsteen turned his back on rock radio and pulled a sort of reverse Dylan, unplugging his guitar and morphing into a folk-singer-slash-activist.

It was around this time, Springsteen admits, that he wasn't sure if he'd lost what he calls his "rock voice."

We're sitting in the living room of a rambling colonial house, where he writes and occasionally records. (Some people have a workroom, but if you are Bruce Springsteen, you have a whole house to work in. The family living quarters are elsewhere on the farm.) On the coffee table between us, there are a stack of books (Dorothea Lange's Ireland, a book of rock photos by Danny Clinch), a vase of freshly cut sunflowers and a ceramic grinning cowboy. Otherwise, the room is decorated with tasteful antique Americana. Springsteen sits in an uncomfortable-looking wooden chair — legs spread, heels together, arms in throne position. He laughs loudly and often, though when speaking he rarely makes eye contact, instead gazing off into near-distant space as his words form.

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Bruce Springsteen, 'Nebraska'

Springsteen felt that he began to recover his rock voice during band rehearsals in Asbury Park, when he wrote a new song, "Land of Hope and Dreams." "It was our last few days there," he recalls, "and having the band around just felt right. I think differently when I'm with them; I write differently. We're a social unit that worked, you know? Imagine seven, eight, nine people you went to high school with; imagine, you know, you're fifty-two and that's the exact same group of people you're working with. That's very, very unusual. I never would have written a song like 'Land of Hope and Dreams' for the Tom Joad record. I never would have used that title. I would've thought it was too broad, that it was a cliché. But with the band, it — it is a big title, but what we're gonna do with that, I think we can fill that song up, with this group of people, in this circumstance."

"Land of Hope and Dreams" and another song, "American Skin (41 Shots)" — the latter inspired by the shooting of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York police officers — made it into the tour and the live album that followed. At that point, Springsteen knew he wanted to make an album with the band. But the context of the project changed again after September 11th. In the hours and days that followed the attacks, Springsteen, like many Americans, was glued to his television set. That first day, he took a drive over a nearby bridge where, dead center, there had been a perfect view of the Twin Towers. His kids wanted to know if a plane could crash into their school. He took his family to church, which he otherwise rarely attends. "We were in there with the rest of the wanna-be's, and it was jammed," he says. "But I found that to be very valuable. People just wanted to be with other people who were addressing issues of faith and hope and love."

Springsteen can't recall listening to much music in the aftermath — though, as is often the case in his life, he took refuge in his own. "Yeah, I picked up a guitar," he says. "That's my life preserver. I mean, when I go into a strange hotel room, to this day, I'll take the guitar out of the case first thing and I'll play for five or ten minutes. Then the place feels like mine. So, yeah. Right to the guitar."

The task at hand became more focused when Springsteen was asked to open a telethon held ten days later to raise money for the September 11th Fund. He quickly wrote two songs, "Into the Fire" and "You're Missing," but neither felt finished enough to perform — so instead, Jon Landau, Springsteen's longtime manager and one of his closest friends, suggested he do "My City of Ruins," a song he'd written a year earlier and performed at a Christmas concert. Springsteen calls it "a sort of prayer" for his adopted hometown of Asbury Park, which has gone through a long period of economic hardship. The opening lines go like this: "There's a blood-red circle on the cold, dark ground/And the rain is falling down/The church door's thrown open, I can hear the organ's song/But the congregation's gone."

"After that performance," Springsteen says, "when I sat down to write a song, whatever I wrote was in that emotional context. The music has to be physical, and there has to be a good deal of light to it. And I have to find that light truthfully. Which is through the darkness, you know?"

It came as a surprise, then, that one of Springsteen's guides through the darkness turned out to be an outsider, Brendan O'Brien. A few years earlier, he had expressed interest in working with Springsteen. By the time of The Rising, Springsteen felt restless and knew he needed a change. "The sounds of records change every five years or so," he says, "the technology, the amps they use. And my production ability, it just wasn't current enough."

O'Brien came to New Jersey, where Springsteen played him a dozen or so new songs. They spent the rest of the afternoon crafting a demo of "You're Missing," a ballad built around a melody Springsteen worked up one night while messing around on the piano with Patti and the kids.

"At one point," Springsteen recalls, "Brendan said, 'Well, I think we should find another chord for this spot.' I said, 'Find another chord?! Wait a minute, now! Hold on, hold on!' " He laughs. " 'Those are the chords!' But then I'm thinking that my job now as the producee, is to say yes. So I said OK, we changed it, and it sounded good. Once I got comfortable with that, it was like, 'Go, man, go.' By the end of the day, we had a real nice demo."

"The biggest difference with making this record," Steve Van Zandt says, "is that it's the first time that Bruce wrote a collection of songs, we went in and recorded them, and he put them out."

Normally, Van Zandt says, Springsteen would "write a bunch of songs, we'd record them, then, you know, hang out for a bit. He'd write another bunch of songs, we'd record them. What would happen is, we'd always do two or three or four records before one finally came out. I produced fifteen songs or so for Born in the U.S.A. during the first three weeks. Then I left, and they kept working for two years! Then they ended up using twelve of the original fifteen, I think. So I don't ever remember a case where everything was done so quickly, and I think that's why this record, conceptually, thematically, is so coherent."

"I remember when we first went down to Georgia to record, the first song we did was 'Into the Fire,' " Springsteen says. "We practiced it maybe three times, and then Brendan said, 'OK, come on in, let's do it.' And when he played us back that song, I heard something I hadn't heard before: I heard the way we sound right now. Today. And I said, 'Well, that's what we need to do.' If somebody has all our other records, I want to make sure they don't have this one. You can't replace this one with some of the other ones. And I think for guys that have made records for a long time, that's important."

Although springsteen lived in Los Angeles for several years in the late Eighties and early Nineties, he has always seemed most comfortable on his native soil. Aside from farming, his ongoing local project has been the resurgence of Asbury Park, the coastal town where he lived in the early 1970s. He played some of his first shows at the now-legendary Stone Pony, and he's been involved in the slow economic revival of the city, playing benefit concerts and remaining an active presence on the scene. "He is the Number One cheerleader and supporter of Asbury Park," says Domenic Santana, who resurrected the Stone Pony. Springsteen to this day plays unannounced shows at the club: Santana says Bruce has the combination to the backyard lock and a standing invitation to walk in off the street and take the stage whenever he wants. "He's always been this city's insurance," Santana says. "That's how I persuaded my parents and grandparents to cash in all their 401(k)s, when the banks wouldn't touch Asbury Park. I'll never forget, my dad said to me, 'What the hell are you smoking?' when I first brought him here to Beirut-by-the-Shore. I said, 'You don't understand, there are so many rock & roll memories here.' As we were speaking, a bus of Japanese tourists pulled up and started taking pictures of the Stone Pony. This abandoned building. My father turned to me and said, 'How much did you pay them?' "

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