The 1960s are often idealized as times of great innocence and wonder. Although your own work has been recorded in the Seventies and Eighties, some of your best songs seem haunted by the strife of that era. Looking back, do you see the Sixties as a period in which a great deal was at stake in American culture?
I think that in the Sixties there was a rebellion against what people felt was the dehumanization of society, where people were counted as less than people, less than human. It was almost as if there were a temper tantrum against that particular threat. In the Sixties moral lines were drawn relatively easily. "Hey, this is wrong, this is right – I'm standing here!" That idea busted up nearly every house in the nation. And people expected revolution. I think some people thought it was going to happen in an explosive burst of some sort of radical, joyous energy, and that all the bullshit and all the Nixons were going to be swept away, and, man, we were going to start all over again and do it right this time. Okay, that was a childlike fantasy. But a lot of those ideas were good ideas.
It's funny, but because of the naiveness of the era, it's easily trivialized and laughed at. But underneath it, I think, people were trying in some sense to redefine their own lives and the country that they lived in, in some more open and free and just fashion. And that was real – that desire was real. But I think that as people grew older, they found that the process of changing things actually tends to be unromantic and not very dramatic. In fact, it's very slow and very small, and if anything, it's done in inches.
The values from that time are things that I still believe in. I think that all my music – certainly the music I've done in the past five or six years – is a result of that time and those values. I don't know, it seems almost like a lost generation. How do the ideals of that time connect in some pragmatic fashion to the real world today? I don't know if anybody's answered that particular question.
One of the central events that inspired the idealism of that era – the war in Vietnam – was also the most horrific thing to happen to this society in the last twenty years. It tore us apart along political and generational lines, but it also drew a hard line across the nation and forced many of us to take a clear stand.
That's true: that was the last time things ever felt that morally clear. Since then – from Watergate on down – who or what the enemy is has grown more obfuscated. It's just too confusing. But you can't wait for events like Vietnam, because if you do, then maybe 55,000 men end up dying and the country is left changed forever. I mean, that experience is still not over. And without those particular memories, without the people who were there reminding everybody, it would've happened again already, I'm sure. Certainly, it would have happened in the past eight years if they thought they could have gotten away with it.
So what went wrong? Why is it that so few of the brave ideals of those times carried over to the social and political realities of today?
I think the problem is that people yearn for simple answers. The reason the image of the Reagan presidency is so effective is that it appeared to be very simple. I think that's also the whole reason for the canonization of Oliver North: he said all the right words and pushed all the right buttons. And people yearn for those sorts of simple answers. But the world will never ever be simple again, if it ever was. The world is nothing but complex, and if you do not learn to interpret its complexities, you're going to be on the river without a paddle.
The classic thing for me is the misinterpretation of "Born in the U.S.A." I opened the paper one day and saw where they had quizzed kids on what different songs meant, and they asked them what "Born in the U.S.A." meant. "Well, it's about my country," they answered. Well, that is what it's about – that's certainly one of the things it's about – but if that's as far in as you go, you're going to miss it, you know? I don't think people are being taught to think hard enough about things in general – whether it's about their own lives, politics, the situation in Nicaragua or whatever. Consequently, if you do not learn to do that – if you do not develop the skills to interpret that information – you're going to be easily manipulated, or you're going to walk around simply confused and ineffectual and powerless.
People are being dumped into this incredibly unintelligible society, and they are swimming, barely staying afloat, and then trying to catch on to whatever is going to give them a little safe ground.
I guess when I started in music I thought, "My job is pretty simple. My job is I search for the human things in myself, and I turn them into notes and words, and then in some fashion, I help people hold on to their own humanity – if I'm doing my job right."
You can change things – except maybe you can affect only one person, or maybe only a few people. Certainly nothing as dramatic as we expected in the Sixties. When I go onstage, my approach is "I'm going to reach just one person" – even if there's 80,000 people there. Maybe those odds aren't so great, but if that's what they are, that's okay.
Was that what you had in mind at the end of the last tour, when before performing Edwin Starr's "War" you told your audience to think twice about committing itself to any of America's future military involvements?
With that, I guess we were playing the percentages, you know? [Laughs,] I mean, I've met people on the street who I could tell misunderstood my work, and I've also met people who have understood it. It was the same thing when we'd play in a club – it was just fewer numbers. But when we started to do "War," which we only did the last four nights of the whole tour, I was looking for some way to reshape that part of the show to make it as explicit as I could, without sloganeering. But "War" . . . a lot of people heard it, and some people didn't hear it. I'm sure that when we're on tour, I'll be singing that song again. And maybe people that didn't hear it will hear it differently this time. My job is to try to make sure that they do. I never thought, "Well, I'll do this because this feels like the right thing to do." I did it because it was the only thing that I felt I could do. I think that people get tired and frustrated. I learned that again during the week when Oliver North was testifying. It was a frustrating time. I was walking around arguing with everybody [laughs]. It was like "I don't believe this is happening." It reminded me that you've got to wake up in the morning and go to work again.
You keep talking about your involvement in rock & roll as a job. That's a far cry from the view that many of us had in the Sixties, when we looked upon artists - such as Bob Dylan - not so much as people performing a job but as cultural revolutionaries.
Dylan was a revolutionary. So was Elvis. I'm not that. I don't see myself as having been that. I felt that what I would be able to do, maybe, was redefine what I did in more human terms than it had been defined before, and in more everyday terms. I always saw myself as a nuts-and-bolts kind of person. I felt what I was going to accomplish I would accomplish over a long period of time, not in an enormous burst of energy or genius. To keep an even perspective on it all, I looked at it like a job – something that you do every day and over a long period of time.
To me, Dylan and Elvis – what they did was genius. I never really saw myself in that fashion. I'm sure there was a part of me that was afraid of having that kind of ambition or taking on those kinds of responsibilities.
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."
With the later records, that resolve seemed to have more and more political resonance. In 1979 you took part in the No Nukes benefit concert, and in November 1980 you made some scathing remarks onstage in Arizona on the evening following Ronald Reagan's election. How did events of recent years inspire your new-found political concern and awareness?
I think my response was based on an accumulation of things. I never considered myself a particularly political person. I wasn't when I was younger, and I don't think I really am now. But if you live in a situation where you have seen people's lives wasted . . . I think the thing that frightened me most was seeing all that waste. There wasn't any one specific thing that made me go in that particular direction, but it seemed like if you're a citizen, and if you're living here, then it's your turn to take out the garbage. Your tour of duty should come around.
It just seemed that people's lives are being shaped by forces they do not understand, and if you are going to begin to take a stand and fight against those things, you got to know the enemy – and that's getting harder to do. People are so easily affected by buzzwords; they're getting their button pushed with God, mother, country, apple pie – even in soda commercials. And so it's like "Where is the real thing? Where is the real America?"
What's also disturbing is the casualness with which people are getting used to being lied to. To me, Watergate felt like this big hustle was going down. And in the end it seemed to legitimize the dope dealer down on the street. "Hey, the president's doing it, so why can't I?" I guess we're pretty much left to find our way on our own these days. That sense of community that there was in the Sixties made you feel like there were a lot of people along for the ride with you. It felt like the whole country was trying to find its way. You do not have a sense that the country is trying to find its way today. And that's a shame. As a result, I think you feel more on your own in the world today. Certainly, I feel more isolated in it.
Maybe everybody's just got to grab hold of each other. The idea of America as a family is naive, maybe sentimental or simplistic, but it's a good idea. And if people are sick and hurting and lost, I guess that it falls on everybody to address those problems in some fashion. Because injustice, and the price of that injustice, falls on everyone's heads. The economic injustice falls on everybody's head and steals everyone's freedom. Your wife can't walk down the street at night. People keep guns in their homes. They live with a greater sense of apprehension, anxiety and fear than they would in a more just and open society. It's not an accident, and it's not simply that there are "bad" people out there. It's an inbred part of the way that we are all living: it's a product of what we have accepted, what we have acceded to. And whether we mean it or not, our silence has spoken for us in some fashion. But the challenge is still there: eight years of Reagan is not going to change that.
That seemed part of what Nebraska was about: a reaction to the Reagan years. Was that how you intended people to see that record?
In a funny way, I always considered it my most personal record, because it felt to me, in its tone, the most what my childhood felt like. Later on, a bunch of people wrote about it as a response to the Reagan era, and it obviously had that connection.
I think people live from the inside out. Your initial connection is to your friends and your wife and your family. From there your connection may be to your immediate community. And then if you have the energy and the strength, then you say, "Well, how do I connect up to the guy in the next state or, ultimately, to people in the world?" I think that whatever the political implications of my work have been, they've just come out of personal insight. I don't really have a particular political theory or ideology. It came from observations, like, okay, this man is being wasted. Why is this man being wasted? This person has lost himself. Why is that? And just trying to take it from there. How does my life interconnect and intertwine with my friends and everybody else? I don't know the answers yet. I'm a guitar player – that's what I do.
But millions of people see you as more than a guitar player. In fact, many see you as nothing less than an inspiring moral leader. But there's a certain irony to being a modern-day hero for the masses. Back in the Sixties nobody ever spoke of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Dylan as being overexposed. Yet these days, any pop artist who has a major, sustained impact on a mass audience runs the risk of seeming either overly promoted by the media or too familiar to his audience. In recent years, performers like you, Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna have all faced this dilemma. Do you ever feel that you're running the danger of overexposure?
Well, what does that mean? What is "overexposed"? It really has no meaning, you know? It's kind of a newspaper thing. I just ignore it, to be honest with you. I make the best records I can make. I try to work on them and put them out when it feels right and they feel like they're ready. That's what it is – not whether I'm overexposed or underexposed or not exposed. It's like "Hey, put the record on. Is it good? Do you like it? Is it rockin' ya? Is it speaking to you? Am I talking to you?" And the rest is what society does to sell newspapers or magazines. You gotta fill 'em up every month. You have an entire counterlife that is attached to your own real life by the slimmest of threads. In the past year, if you believe what was in the newspapers about me, I'd be living in two houses that I've never seen, been riding in cars that I've never had [laughs]. This is just what happens. It's, like, uncontrollable: the media monster has to be fed.
So all that sort of stuff, if you believe that it has anything really to do with you, you know, you're gonna go nuts. In the end, people will like my records and feel they were true or feel they weren't. They'll look at the body of work I've done and pull out whatever meaning it has for them. And that's what stands. The rest is transient. It's here today and gone tomorrow. It's meaningless. Whether Michael Jackson is sleeping in a tank or not, what does it mean to you? It's just a laugh for some people; that's all it really is. And I feel like, hey, if it's a laugh for you, then have one on me. Because when you reach for and achieve fame, one of the byproducts of fame is you will be trivialized, and you will be embarrassed. You will be, I guarantee it. I look at that as a part of my job. And I ain't seen nothing compared to, you know, if you look at Elvis's life or even Michael J.'s. I've had it pretty easy, but I know a little bit of what it's about. These things are gonna happen, and if you don't have a strong enough sense of who you are and what you're doing, they'll kick you in the ass and knock you down and have a good time doing it. That's the nature of our society, and it's one of the roles that people like me play in society. Okay, that's fine, but my feeling is simple: my work is my defense. Simple as that I've done things I never thought I'd be able to do, I've been places I never thought I'd be. I've written music that is better than I thought I could write. I did stuff that I didn't think I had in me.
You've also come to mean a lot to an awful lot of people.
That's a good thing, but you can take it too far. I do not believe that the essence of the rock & roll idea was to exalt the cult of personality. That is a sidetrack, a dead-end street. That is not the thing to do. And I've been as guilty of it as anybody in my own life. When I jumped over that wall to meet Elvis that night [at Graceland], I didn't know who I was gonna meet. And the guard who stopped me at the door did me the biggest favor of my life. I had misunderstood. It was innocent, and I was having a ball, but it wasn't right. In the end, you cannot live inside that dream. You cannot live within the dream of Elvis Presley or within the dream of the Beatles. It's like John Lennon said: "The dream is over." You can live with that dream in your heart, but you cannot live inside that dream, because it's a perversion, you know? What the best of art says is, it says, "Take this" - this movie or painting or photograph or record – "take what you see in this, and then go find your place in the world. This is a tool: go out and find your place in the world."
I think I made the mistake earlier on of trying to live within that dream, within that rock & roll dream. It's a seductive choice, it's a seductive opportunity. The real world, after all, is frightening. In the end, I realized that rock & roll wasn't just about finding fame and wealth. Instead, for me, it was about finding your place in the world, figuring out where you belong.
It's a tricky balance to do it correctly. You got to be able to hold a lot of contradictory ideas in your mind at one time without letting them drive you nuts. I feel like to do my job right, when I walk out onstage I've got to feel like it's the most important thing in the world. Also I got to feel like, well, it's only rock & roll. Somehow you got to believe both of those things.
This story is from the November 5, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone.