How consciously did you translate some of your political ideas into songs?
It's not something you can do when you push a button. You sit down, and if you're lucky, the planets have aligned to the point where that anger and the craft you've learned combines with whatever that mysterious X factor is that allows you to scoop some of it up – and it turns into a piece of music. Before this record, I recorded almost 40 songs for another record I was working on that had nothing to do with any of this, and at one point, I threw it out. I said, "This is the wrong voice for me right now."
[Deliberately meek] Can I hear that one too, sometime?
[Laughs] I hope so. I hope I wasn't wasting my time. I spent a good amount of time doing it. I spent almost a year writing and recording it. But the songs had nothing to do with what was going on out there at all. They were more like, for lack of a better word, solo, a little quieter, and at the end of the day I sat back and looked at it and couldn't get an album out of it. So I put that aside and cut this record, basically 10 songs in 10 days. You hit something, it's like a visitation, you are up at night, the guitar sits at the foot of the bed, you're up at 4 a.m., you have the book nearby, you have the tape recorder, and this goes on for maybe a week and a half or two weeks, and then it stops, it's done. Once in a great while, that happens. So this record, I went in every day and recorded a different one of these songs, 10 days in a row. It was because I felt I really had something, once I asked the right questions, the questions of "We Take Care of Our Own." Once I asked those questions, it helped me lock into the rest of the record. You know it when you catch a wave.
I used to love that feeling, nothing better than waking up to a joke. You wake up and go, "Shit, it's right there." It's great.
And then if you take that joke and you've been able to integrate it with your deepest set of beliefs, it doesn't get any better than that.
I always wondered, it' s funny, as much as other people get out of it, it's still such an oddly selfish pursuit. It's scratching that itch deep inside you.
That's why we're narcissistic, self-serving bastards – our wives will guarantee. But sometimes it works.
When you're revisited by that muse, is it a welcome friend? Do you ever worry, "That was my last visitation – Scrooge, you had three ghosts come see you, and that's it"?
Here's the thing, I finally talked myself out of that. I remember when I wrote The River, I was 30 years old, and I said, "I'm never going to write another good song again – that was it, I've peaked, I'm not going to write a good song ever again." Then my kids came along, and at some point, Patti was assisting me in the fact that I was not as attentive a father as I should be, and my argument was, "Don't you understand, I'm thinking of a song!"
You're an artist, you can't be bothered with raising children!
"I'm writing a song right now, I have to lay another golden egg or we're all going down, and this whole place, this is all sinking!" One day I realized, "Wait, I've got it, I've got more music in my head than I'm going to live to put out." But your son or your daughter, they're going to be gone tomorrow, or the day after. I realized, "This is what's going to be gone, and this is what's going to always be here, not the other way around." Music and art are always flowing through the ether – they'll always be there – but life, life moves on and is gone. Life is locked in an eternal dance with time, and unlike art and time, the two can't be separated.
After I realized that, I relaxed. Now if I'm humming something and I don't have a recorder, maybe I'll hum it again a little differently later. If I have an idea, it will come back. What's happened is it's percolated up in you and become concrete. Once it's grown, it's there. But it took me a long time to realize that, just because the fear of not telling another funny joke or writing another song is based in simple self-loathing. Which can come in handy.
Everybody's first song, first joke, is "This is who I am, this is where I was raised, this is who my parents are." Then you exhaust that, and are faced with "What do I write about now?" And you begin to look out. But that transition is a very tough one to make.
It really depends on where it takes you. It depends on how hard you're paying attention. When I see performers who feel like they've lost their mojo, sometimes it's that they're just not paying hard enough attention. Your willingness to think hard about things and to remain interested in the world around you is really essential as you go on.
Personally, how are you dealing with the loss of Clarence?
Losing Clarence was like losing the rain. You're losing something that has been so elemental in your life for such a long time. It was like losing some huge part of your own psychic construction – suddenly it's just gone, everything feels less. Our relationship was just this immediate chemical connection that happened that first night in Asbury, as he was walking toward the stage: "Here comes my guy."
Love at first sight.
Yeah, for me, anyway. Actually, the first time I asked him to join the band, he said he already had a job.
"Sounds great, but, no, man, I don't think I can swing that."
Yeah, he was playing with Norman Seldin and the Joyful Noyze, and I didn't have a record deal or any immediate prospects. My recollection – and Clarence's might have been different over the years – was he said, "I don't know, I have a steady gig, I'm enjoying that," then he disappeared.
I turned the record in to Columbia Records, and Clive Davis gave it back to me and said that there was nothing that could get played on the radio. My recollection is I went to the beach and I wrote "Spirit in the Night" and "Blinded by the Light," and then we found Clarence somehow. Garry Tallent had played with him in a band called Little Melvin and the Invaders, which was an all-black band that played in the black clubs around Asbury Park – Clarence was the saxophonist and Garry was the only white member and bassist.
We were always trying to track Clarence down – he was this mysterious figure that you couldn't quite get your hands on. We found him for the last two songs on Greetings From Asbury Park. He came in and laid down the magic, and I said, "Yeah, that's my sound." I said, "I'm going to go on tour," and he said, "I'm ready," and that was when we connected.
So even though we got up and played together that first night and it felt like magic, he was a little hesitant at first, because he had a steady job, and that was not to be undervalued at the time, because no one else did. Also, he had a very different life already – he had two children. He might have been divorced, so he had payments. He was in the adult world in the sense that he was a social worker at the Jamesburg youth reformatory. He worked as a counselor with the boys there.
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