ONE AFTERNOON LAST FALL, Bruce Springsteen sat sipping a beer in a room at the Sunset Marquis hotel in Los Angeles. He wore blue jeans, cowboy boots, a black leather jacket and a newsboy's cap slouched down backward over the bandanna tied around his head. Not one of the great glamour-pusses, you could say. At the peak of his twelve-year recording career, and midway through his most clamorously acclaimed tour with the precision-tooled E Street Band, Springsteen remained as wary as ever of massive success and its attendant seductions. "I never felt I was like an Elvis or a Dylan, or the Rolling Stones," he said. "I don't see myself in that way. I see myself more like a real good journeyman. And that's fine: you do your job real good, you pass on some part of the flame... and you stir things up a little bit if you can."
Springsteen's diffidence is a well-known component of what may now be called, with some justification, his legend: the unassuming musical laureate of the working classes. Nevertheless, in 1984, as he began touring in support of Born in the U.S.A., his seventh and biggest-selling album (5 million copies so far), the thirty-five-year-old Jersey flash found he had grown from being the country's biggest cult artist – lionized on the East Coast, more patchily appreciated elsewhere – into something very like a national hero. There appeared to be several reasons for this change. On a purely showbiz level, he is one of the most uproariously exciting performers in rock history, and while an ever-shrinking number of skeptics have sometimes found his four-hour shows to be overblown endurance tests, there has never been any doubt about the deep emotional connection he makes with his audiences night after night. More than most major rock stars – Prince and Michael Jackson, the year's two other musical phenoms, come most quickly to mind – Springsteen is publicly perceived as a real and complete person. There is none of Jackson's ethereal remoteness or Prince's sexual threat about him; he still lives in untrendy New Jersey, where he was born and raised, still goes out unguarded to local bars and clubs and still answers what fan mail he can with personal responses. He seems a regular guy. And yet the resonant social vision set out in the best of his new songs – the working-class despair of "Down-bound Train"; the painful, betrayed patriotism of his Vietnam-vets anthem, "Born in the U.S.A."; the sense of small-town anomie so piercingly evoked in "My Hometown" – marks Springsteen as a lyrical artist with a unique gift for popular expression. His concern for his characters, and by extension their millions of counterparts in his audience, seems genuine – seems, in fact, the wellspring of his art. As he toured the country, soliciting the realities of unemployment from local union leaders, constantly promoting food banks and other community groups from the stage (and often putting significant amounts of money where his mouth was), he appeared to be striving for a practical realization of the communitarian ideals of the Sixties in the more harshly pragmatic Eighties. Here was art once again stirring up social action, and in a year when the Jacksons were charging thirty dollars to witness their seventy-five-minute show (while Springsteen kept a sixteen-dollar lid on his four-hour spectacles), it proved anew that music can have meaning beyond mere entertainment.
"I want to find out what you can do with a rock & roll band," Springsteen said that afternoon in Los Angeles. "I'm trying to apply the original idea of our band, which was that the possibilities are vast. I first started to play because I wanted to do something good – I wanted to be proud of myself, to feel good about myself. And I found the guitar, and that gave it to me; it gave me my sense of purpose and a sense of pride in myself. And that is the gift of life. It was my lifeboat, my lifeline – my line back into people. It was my connection to the rest of the human race, you know?
"Before that, it was a strange existence. I was a big daydreamer when I was in grammar school. Kids used to tease me, call me 'dreamer.' It's something that got worse as I got older, I think. Until I realized that I felt like I was dying, for some reason, and I really didn't know why. I think that's a feeling that a lot of people have. And so now I go out onstage and I feel like there's people dying out there, there's people really hurt – you know because you feel the same thing. And this is your chance to do something about it. So when I go out onstage at night, I feel like there's really something at stake, that it has some meaning. It's not just another night.
"When I sit down to write, I try to write something that feels real to me. Like, what does it feel like to be thirty-five or something right now, at this point in time, living in America? It's not much more conscious than that. I generally try to write songs that are about real life, not fantasy material. I try to reflect people's lives back to them in some fashion. And if the show is really good, your life should flash before your eyes in some way – the show's long enough, that's for sure! I think on a night when we're really good, you can come and hopefully you can see your relationships with your parents, brothers, sisters, your town, your country, your friends, everything – sexual, political, the whole social thing. It should be a combination of a circus, a political thing and a spiritual event. And hopefully you'll come and your life will flash before your eyes. That's kind of what I'm out there trying to do, you know?"
That he succeeds, and often brilliantly, is due in large part to his unusual empathy with his audience, his devotion to the otherwise unsung realities of their lives. "I never look out at my crowd and see a bunch of faces," he said. "It's never happened. Any night I've ever been onstage, I see people – individual people in individual seats out there. That's why, before the show, we go out and we check the sound in every section of the room. Because there's some guy sittin' back here, and he's got a girl with him, and, you know, it's like, this is their seat. And what you hope for is that the same thing goes the other way – that when they look up at you, they don't just see some person with a guitar."
That Springsteen is popularly perceived as much more than that is evidenced by his standing in Rolling Stone's 1984 Readers' Poll, which he effectively swept. But along with his burgeoning success has come what would appear to be a personal paradox. With the money rolling in, this determinedly unpretentious chronicler of the working class has become a millionaire. Can he hold on to his soul, to his street-bred ideals, even as he moves into that mansion on the hill he once only dreamed about?
"I know this is idealistic," he said, taking a slug of beer, "but part of the idea our band had from the beginning was that you did not have to lose your connection to the people you write for. I don't believe that fame or success means that you lose that connection, and I don't believe that makin' more money means you lose it. Because that's not where the essence of what you are lies. That's not what separates people. What separates people are things that are in their heart. So I just can never surrender to that idea. Because I know that before I started playing, I was alone. And one of the reasons I picked up the guitar was that I wanted to be part of something. And I practiced and I studied and I worked real hard to do that, and I ain't about to give it up now."