Bruce Springsteen's State of the Union

Jon Stewart sits down with his home-state hero for a conversation about 'Wrecking Ball,' the death of Clarence Clemons, and the gap between the 'American reality and the American dream'

March 29, 2012
bruce springsteen 1153
Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

They have a lot to talk about this evening, these two guys from New Jersey, these serious men with silly jobs. "When he's talking to his audience," says Jon Stewart, "he's put time and effort into that conversation. He wants his music to be about something." The host of The Daily Show is talking about Bruce Springsteen, and about himself, too: Stewart and Springsteen have each found ways to instill a steeliness of purpose into the acts of singing songs and telling jokes. But there's another way to look at it, Stewart suggests with a laugh: "You're in businesses where you should be having a good time, you dour pricks! What is wrong with you?"

Springsteen arrives at The Daily Show's Manhattan studios on foot one icy day in late January, fresh from Jersey – he fought the wind for the dozen blocks from the Lincoln Tunnel along 11th Avenue, wearing only a thin leather jacket. "There was traffic," says Springsteen, "so Patti dropped me off." ("The Freehold is strong in that one," Stewart says, picturing this journey.) Back from taping that night's Daily Show, Stewart joins Springsteen in his cluttered office – where there's already a photo of the two men together pinned to the wall – after exchanging his suit and tie for khakis and a long-sleeved T-shirt.

In recent years, Stewart has seen his decades-long Springsteen fandom turn into a friendship. "It's in no way surreal," Stewart says with heavy sarcasm. "It's the most natural thing in the world. It's very hard to reconcile sitting and fishing in a little pond in New Jersey with a guy you spent many years hitchhiking the 1-95 corridor to see in Philadelphia back in the day. The only band I think I've seen more than Bruce Springsteen is the Springsteen tribute band Backstreets. I try not to let him know how pathetic I truly am."

Stewart grew up in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, 30 miles northwest of Springsteen's Monmouth County hometown. "Every car he sang about you were like, 'I've seen that up on blocks in the backyard right near where I live.'" He saw his first Springsteen show on 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town tour, when he was about 15. "The first time you hear Darkness, you begin to plan how to move out of New Jersey," says Stewart. (Like Springsteen, Stewart eventually returned, and has a home in the Garden State: "You realize, hey, New Jersey's all right, actually!")

On Springsteen's new album, Wrecking Ball, his characters aren't looking for escape – they just want a job. With fiercely populist tunes like "Death to My Hometown" and "Jack of All Trades," Springsteen paints a picture of an America where "the banker man grows fat/Working man grows thin." Springsteen wanted the new songs to address "what happened to the social fabric of the world that we're living in."

The two men spoke for nearly two hours, with Springsteen sharing details of his creative process, his grief over the loss of Clarence Clemons last year and the angry patriotism that fuels Wrecking Ball. When it was over, Stewart handed the recorder to a Rolling Stone staffer: "Here you go – we got most of it."

"There's a lot of drunken singing," adds Springsteen.

"A lot of it's in Hebrew," says Stewart.

Photos: Jon Stewart Interviews Bruce Springsteen

How have you been, man?
Good! We've been starting rehearsals with the whole band – on the abandoned military base at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.

I know that place. Every time I drive by there, I think about The Andromeda Strain. I always think that it's one of those horror movies where all the structures still stand, still somewhat manicured, but the shit is just empty.
That's what it's like. There's a rehearsal studio, and we are the sole citizens. We're the only game in town on that thing. And the funny thing was, I played there at the teen club and the officers' club when I was 16 – it was a regular gig. It's funny to be back there now when it's completely empty.

This was more of a solo album than an E Street Band album – what was the process behind it?
It basically all started out as folk music – it was me and my guitar singing these songs. But while I was doing that, I was hearing maybe 50 percent of the arrangement in my head. So the minute I stopped playing, I would run around on all the instruments, and in about an hour or more, I would rough out the sound I was hearing in my head while I was singing. A lot of it was cut with acoustic guitar, singing and a sample, like maybe a hip-hop loop or country-blues-stomp loop. And the actual drums came later – there was no preconceived set of instruments that needed to be used. I could go anywhere, do anything, use anything. It was very wide-open.

There are songs on here that feel like you and the Chieftains went out for a beer, and you decided to go kick it.
I called on a lot of roots and Celtic elements because I use the music to give the story a historical context. "Death to My Hometown" sounds like an Irish rebel song, but it's all about what happened four years ago. I want to give people a sense that this is something that's happened over and over and over again; what happened in 2008 happened before the turn of the century, and just after the turn of the century – it's a repetitive, historical cycle that has basically landed on the heads of the same people.

They could have been singing in 1840, 1860. . . .
Or yesterday. "Shackled and Drawn" is the same thing, it's like a slave song, a field chant.

Near the end of the record, hearing Clarence's sax on "Land of Hope and Dreams" hits you in the gut. It's powerful.
He played beautifully. That's a loss we haven't gauged, or will be able to gauge.

Did it make you reticent to tour?
No, I knew we were going to play, and I knew the band was going to continue. I knew that, I guess, it's two things: One, people need to know that the band is going to continue and be OK and carry on its service and its entertainment. And the other part of the show will be that people need to miss Clarence – and they will, and so will I.

But all it says is that the currents of life hold their sway even over the dream world of pop music, and that's the way it goes. We're like everybody else. We're just trying to figure it out. I don't know what's going to happen the first night we walk out onstage or the 10th night or . . . you don't really know. It's an experience we're going to have with our audience on this tour.

How did his death affect this album?
The record was pretty much done, except that I wanted to get Clarence on it. The week before he died I called him to come in and record on his way back from Los Angeles, where he'd worked with Lady Gaga. He was having problems with the feeling in his hand. He was worried and asked if he could go home to Florida first and have it checked out. It was the only time Clarence passed on a recording session, so I said sure, we'd catch it later down the road.

A week later, he was in the hospital from the stroke. I flew to Florida and spent the week with his family at his bedside. He never really regained consciousness, but in the first few days he'd squeeze my hand when he heard my voice. Then things got worse. After the funeral, I returned home to my studio to finish the record. [Wrecking Ball producer] Ron Aniello greeted me, and as we sat at the control board he said, "I'm so sorry about Clarence. I didn't know what to do when I heard, so I went home to Los Angeles and put this together from one of the live takes of the song." He played me "Land of Hope and Dreams," and when the solo section hit, Clarence's sax filled the room. I cried. So he's there, through a little technical magic . . . but he's there.

"Hope and Dreams" and other songs on the album's second half seem to move from the personal and political to a sense of the spiritual.
Well, on the first half of the record, you're just pissed off. The first cut, "We Take Care of Our Own," is where I set out the questions that I'm going to try to answer. The song's chorus is posed as a challenge and a question. Do we take care of our own? What happened to that social contract? Where did that go over the past 30 years? How has it been eroded so terribly? And how is it that the outrage about that erosion is just beginning to be voiced right now? I've written about this stuff for those 30 years, from Darkness on the Edge of Town to The Ghost of Tom Joad through to today. It all came out of the Carter recession of the late Seventies, and when I was writing about that, my brother-in-law lost his construction job and went to work as a janitor in the local high school. It changed his life.

So these are issues and things that occur over and over again in history and land on the backs of the same people. In my music – if it has a purpose beyond dancing and fun and vacuuming your floor to it – I always try to gauge the distance between American reality and the American dream. The mantra that I go into in the last verse of "We Take Care of Our Own" – "Where are the eyes, where are the hearts?" – it's really: "Where are those things now, what happened to those things over the past 30 years? What happened to the social fabric of the world that we're living in? What's the price that people pay for it on a daily basis?" Which is something that I lived with intensely as a child, and is probably the prime motivation for the subjects I've written about since I was very, very young.

Someone wrote in The New York Times that "We Take Care of Our Own" was "jingoistic."
Whoever said that, they need a smarter pop writer.

[Laughs] It takes you back to the days of "Born in the U.S.A.," which was so widely misunderstood.
Yeah. I didn't feel that so much from this particular instance, but you write the best piece of music you can, and you put it out there, and then you see what comes back at you. Lately, it seems as if the polarization of the country has gotten so extreme that people want to force you into being either a phony "patriot" or an "apologist." Nuanced political dialogue or creative expression seems like it's been hamstrung by the decay of political speech and it's infantilized our national discourse. I can't go for that and I won't write that way.

What's the thinking behind "Easy Money"?
That's the street criminalization of the big-money Wall Street hustle. That's the guy that's saying, "Everybody else is getting theirs, and not paying for it, I'm going out to get mine." That hustle has been legitimized over the past four years, when you have the level of risk and greed at the top of the financial industry, and people basically walking away, relatively scot-free, completely unaccountable. That lack of accountability is the poison shot straight into the heart of the country. It goes back to Watergate. Watergate legitimized the hustle at the top of the game – it legitimized every street-corner thug. You almost had the country brought down by it, basically. All the radical hippies, longhairs – no one ever came as close to sinking the USA as the guys in the pinstriped suits.

You cannot have a social contract with the enormous income disparity – you're going to slice the country down the middle. Without jobs, without helping folks with foreclosures, without regulating the banks, without some sort of tax reform . . . Mitt Romney paid 15 percent tax? Without addressing those issues in some way, I don't think the country is going to hold together. I understand the effects of globalization, I understand all that, but at the end of the day, you can't have a society and you can't have a civilization without a reasonable amount of economic fairness, full employment, purpose and civic responsibility.

You've been writing about poor men wanting to be rich, rich men wanting to be king since the Seventies. That's what I like about what you were saying earlier – there's a certain universality to it that's ageless. The motivations don't seem to change.
For the majority of my lifetime, you saw an increase in inequality. It has only been in the news since Occupy Wall Street, but it was something that was a long, long time coming, and I think that, for better or for worse, I experienced the dynamic as a child, and it was something that I never forgot. I experienced what happens when, say, the male figure in your house struggles to work, can't find work, and the woman in the house becomes the primary breadwinner. That was my house.

That's happening in homes all across America right now: guys that worked outside, guys that worked construction, guys that worked manufacturing, particularly those kinds of guys, suddenly those jobs disappeared. Their attitude, their education may not be suited immediately for the service economy – the economy now. It's been devastating on middle-class and blue-collar men, particularly. That was my story, that was the story I've written about. I've written about that story for 30 years, because I lived that story as a child, and I witnessed it day after day after day, and I saw its effects. I saw the crisis that it creates. I saw the loss of your sense of masculinity. It was a wrenching thing to watch for a child, a young child, on a daily basis, and it never, ever let up.

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