Born to Run was certainly an ambitious record. Maybe it wasn't revolutionary, but it was certainly innovative: it redefined what an album could do in the Seventies.
Well, I was shooting for the moon, you know? I always wanted to do that too, on top of it. When I did Born to Run, I thought, "I'm going to make the greatest rock & roll record ever made." I guess what I'm saying is, later on my perspective changed a bit so that I felt like I could maybe redefine what doing the particular job was about. So that it does not have to drive you crazy or drive you to drugs or drinking, or you do not have to lose yourself in it and lose perspective of your place in the scheme of things. I guess I wanted to try and put a little more human scale on the thing. I felt that was necessary for my own sanity, for one thing.
I was always afraid of those things, of the forces that you set loose in people. In this job, part of what you do is excite people. And you don't know what people are going to do when they get excited. My idea was that when I went on a stage, I wanted to deliver my best to pull out the best in you, whatever that may be. But sometimes you don't do that. Sometimes you just pull out someone's insanity – you don't know what you're going to pull out or what will come to the surface.
Your next record, Darkness on the Edge of Town, sounded far less hopeful than Born to Run. Several critics attributed the sullen mood to the long stall between the records – that ten-month period in which a lawsuit prevented you from recording. What really was happening on 'Darkness'?
That was a record where I spent a lot of time focusing. And what I focused on was this one idea: What do you do if your dream comes true? Where does that leave you? What do you do if that happens? And I realized part of what you have to face is the problem of isolation. You can get isolated if you've got a lot of dough or if you don't have much dough, whether you're Elvis Presley or whether you're sitting in front of the TV with a six-pack of beer. It's easy to get there. On that record it was like "Well, what I've done, does it have any greater meaning than that I've made a good album and had some luck with it?" I was trying to figure out that question, which is really one I'm still trying to figure out.
James M. Cain once wrote of "the wish that comes true, for some reason a terrifying concept." He said that readers realized that "the characters cannot have this particular wish and survive." Yet you seem to have achieved your wishes without losing your way.
I guess I consider myself one of those people that that happened to. And you have to decide: Does that leave you with a certain responsibility? I know that before Darkness, I was writing songs where people were trying to escape all the time and were also searching. But once that happens, once you break those ties to whatever it is – your past – and you get a shot out of that community that you came up in, what are you going to do then? There is a certain frightening aspect to having things you dreamed were going to happen happen, because it's always more – and in some ways always less – than what you expected. I think when people dream of things, they dream of them without the complications. The real dream is not the dream, it's life without complications. And that doesn't exist.
For me, the Seventies were a time I spent dealing with what had happened to me and trying to figure out where that fit in with everybody else. Because the irony of the entire situation is that the thing you did in order to be with people, and to be of use to people, is that same thing that – if you do it well enough – ends up making you forever different in some fashion. And it isolates you in that way. That was something that I was fighting against when I was young, and the way I fought against it was with my guitar. I was saying, "Hey, let me in – I got something to say, I wanna say it, I wanna talk to somebody."
I used to think that fame, on its best day, is kind of like a friendly wave from a stranger standing by the side of the road. And when it's not so good, it's like a long walk home all alone, with nobody there when you get there. And I guess what I wanted to figure out is, what happens if you dream that dream? What happens if you dream of having some real effect on people's lives and then you meet people who say that's what you have had?
I remember the night that I got married. I was standing at the altar by myself, and I was waiting for my wife, and I can remember standing there thinking, "Man, I have everything. I got it all." And you have those moments. But you end up with a lot more than you expected. I guess I wouldn't trade it for anything, but it's a strange job, you know?
On each of your records since Darkness – The River, Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. - you managed to write about hard working-class realities in ways that sounded surprisingly immediate, coming from a rich, well-known pop star. Was there something about moving into fame and wealth that caused you to identify more closely with the world you were leaving behind?
I think it's probably a normal reaction. I mean, the circumstances of your life are changing, and what they are changing to is unknown to you, and you have never known closely anyone else who has had the same experience. On one hand you cannot hide in the past. You can't say, "Well, I'm the same old guy I used to be." You have to go ahead and meet that person who you're becoming and accept whatever that's about. I always wanted to live solidly in the present, always remember the past and always be planning for the future. So from Darkness to The River, I was attempting to pull myself into what I felt was going to be the adult world, so that when things became disorienting, I would be strong enough to hold my ground. Those were the records where I was trying to forge that foundation and maintain my connections and try to say, "Well, what is this going to mean? Maybe what this is all going to mean is up to me."
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