Rolling Stone at 50: Inside Bruce Springsteen's Long History With the Magazine

Bruce Springsteen has always been rock & roll's truest believer – and in 'Rolling Stone,' he found an ally and a place to explore his passion

Bruce Springsteen with Jon Landau, 1974. We chronicle Springsteen's lengthy history with Rolling Stone, a relationship that has produced 16 cover stories to date. Credit: © Jeff Albertson/Department of Special Collections and University Archives/W.E.B. Du Bois Library/University of Massachusetts Amherst

In March 1973, an item appeared in the Random Notes section of Rolling Stone about John Hammond of Columbia Records. The veteran A&R man had suffered a heart attack while checking out a concert by a new act he'd just signed. "He attributed it to a heavy work schedule and weakness from a virus he picked up in Paris," the item read. "His doctor, however, disagreed. He says it was due to Hammond's enthusiasm at the Springsteen show."

It was the first time Bruce Springsteen's name appeared in the pages of Rolling Stone, kicking off a four-decade relationship that produced 16 cover stories, more than any artist whose career began after the 1960s. The artist and the magazine grew together, as the interviews came to address everything from the majestic power of rock & roll to the fate of Vietnam veterans and the devastating impact of the Great Recession. "We're on the same mission in terms of celebrating music and seeing it make a difference in the world, politically, socially, emotionally and spiritually," says Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann S. Wenner. "We've always shared the values of the Beatles, the Stones and Bob [Dylan], but in a way we share them almost more intensely with Bruce."

Springsteen's debut, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., hit shelves in early 1973. Rolling Stone ran a mixed (but colorful) review by the legendary critic Lester Bangs. "Old Bruce makes a point of letting us know that he's from one of the scuzziest, most useless and plain uninteresting sections of Jersey," Bangs wrote. "He's been influenced a lot by the Band, his arrangements tend to take on a Van Morrison tinge every now and then, and he sort of catarrh-mumbles his ditties in a disgruntled mushmouth sorta like Robbie Robertson on Quaaludes with Dylan barfing down the back of his neck."

The assigning editor on that record review was Jon Landau, a 26-year-old Boston-based critic who'd worked for the magazine since the very first issue. He loved Springsteen from the first time he heard "Blinded by the Light," on Boston's WBCN radio station, but aside from his close friend Dave Marsh (who became a Rolling Stone editor in 1975), the rest of the magazine's San Francisco staff didn't share Landau's passion. Their cynicism only grew when Springsteen was featured on the covers of Time and Newsweek the same week in 1975, the culmination of a huge publicity push by Columbia. "When he landed on both Time and Newsweek's covers, it gave some of us pause, just because we were evolving cynics," says Ben Fong-Torres, Rolling Stone's music editor at the time. "I don't think we thought of the mainstream press as serious rock critics. So we held back a bit."

Landau was not holding anything back when he wrote about Springsteen in May 1974. After the critic saw Spring-steen play a new song called "Born to Run" at Harvard Square Theater, he penned an essay for Boston's The Real Paper featuring a prescient and now-famous line: "I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen."

Springsteen recruited Landau, who had worked on records by the MC5 and Livingston Taylor, to co-produce Born to Run, and soon after he hired him as his manager. In 1978, they worked on Darkness on the Edge of Town, which finally got Springsteen on the cover of Rolling Stone in August that year. Marsh wrote the article, traveling with the E Street Band on a West Coast tour and staying up into the night chatting with the singer. "Even though their personalities are very different, it was like talking to Pete Townshend," Marsh recalls. "There was a lot of theorizing about rock & roll, what it could and couldn't do, and what it oughta do and what it not oughta do."

Marsh also captured lighter moments, like Springsteen and the band hanging out at the Sunset Marquis as they listened to a recording of their newest song, "Paradise by the C." "[Clarence] Clemons walks into the room with an unbelievably joyous look on his face, and when the tape ends, he takes Bruce by the arm and shouts, 'Everybody into the pool!' " Marsh wrote. "The next sound is a series of splashes, and in a few moments they reappear, bathing suits dripping, and listen again, then repeat the performance. Soon, the tiny hotel bedroom is crowded with half a dozen people dripping wet and exuberant."

Things were a little less exuberant in December 1980 when Fred Schruers was wrapping up the reporting for Springsteen's next Rolling Stone cover story. The River tour was in Philadelphia, and the night before the show, news came down that John Lennon had been murdered. "It's a hard night to come out and play tonight when so much has been lost," Springsteen told the crowd. "It's a hard thing to come out and play, but there's just nothing else you can do."

The emotional night, widely regarded as one of Springsteen's greatest shows, was the climax of Schruers' piece. "It almost shakes me up to think about it," Schruers says today. "I have never seen somebody work themselves that hard physically, in any context. Maybe a couple of prize fights I've seen."

Four years later, Springsteen released Born in the U.S.A. and transformed into a pop star whose popularity was rivaled only by the likes of Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. During a two-year period, he was on the cover of Rolling Stone four times. Kurt Loder wrote the first cover story during that era. "The Born in the U.S.A. tour was a physically demanding experience," says Landau. "We kept putting it off, and then finally Bruce agreed to talk to him after a show in San Francisco. That night, I got a call from Kurt. He was totally cool, but he said, 'Jon, there's a problem with the interview.' I said, 'What is it?' He said, 'He fell asleep.' "

By 1992, Brucemania had long since subsided. Springsteen's new albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town (released on the same day), were critical and commercial disappointments, and there was much upheaval in his life. He'd married his backup singer Patti Scialfa after his marriage to actress Julianne Phillips collapsed, and his fans were incensed over his decision to fire the E Street Band. All of this was weighing heavily on his mind when he sat down with Rolling Stone music editor James Henke – to whom he'd grown close when they traveled the world together in 1988 on Amnesty International's Human Rights Now! tour – for a cover story. It was perhaps the most revealing interview of Springsteen's career, touching on his painful divorce, his fading career and his decision to see a therapist.

"I realized that my central idea – which, at a young age, was attacking music with a really religious type of intensity – was OK to a point," he said. "But there was a point where it turns in on itself. And you start to go down that dark path, and there is a distortion of even the best of things. And I reached a point where I felt my life was distorted. I love my music, and I wanted to just take it for what it was. I didn't want to try to distort it into being my entire life. Because that's a lie. It's not true. It's not your entire life. It never can be."

Springsteen briefly touched on politics in that interview, criticizing President George H.W. Bush and praising Jesse Jackson as well as Democratic presidential candidate Jerry Brown. But it wasn't until the 2004 battle between George W. Bush and John Kerry that Springsteen finally decided to let his audience know exactly where he stood. In an interview with Wenner, Springsteen detailed his pro-Kerry Vote for Change Tour. "It was a touchy issue for Bruce," says Wenner. "He was reluctant to confront his audience too much or intrude on their enjoyment of the music."

But with Bush sending young Americans off to die in two unwinnable Middle East wars, the rocker felt he had no choice. "Sitting on the sidelines would be a betrayal of the ideas I'd written about for a long time," he said. "Not getting involved, just sort of maintaining my silence or being coy about it in some way, just wasn't going to work this time out. I felt that it was a very clear historical moment."

The 2004 election didn't go the way Springsteen had hoped, but his music remained infused with the politics of the time, bringing him even more in line with Rolling Stone's worldview. His 2012 cover-story interview with Daily Show host Jon Stewart was just one of his recent pieces that discussed the growing crisis in global leadership. "There's an alignment of sensibilities between Bruce and Rolling Stone," says Landau. "The result is that he has a certain iconic status at Rolling Stone. It's been very satisfying."