"In the crystal ball, I see romance, I see adventure, I see financial reward. I see those albums, man, I see them going back up the charts. I see them rising past that old Def Leppard, past that Kris Kross. I see them all the way up past 'Weird Al' Yankovic, even . . . Wait a minute. We're slipping. We're slipping down them charts. We're going down, down, out of sight, into the darkness . . ."
It was June 5th, and as Bruce Springsteen was performing "Glory Days" near the end of a live radio broadcast from a Los Angeles sound stage, he finally offered his commentary on the much-publicized failure of his latest albums – Human Touch and Lucky Town – to dominate the charts in the same way that some of their predecessors had. Thankfully, Springsteen demonstrated that while he may have lost a little of his commercial clout, he hasn't lost his sense of humor.
The show, in front of about 250 invited guests and radio-contest winners, was a "dress rehearsal" meant to introduce his new band – keyboardist Roy Bittan, guitarist Shane Fontayne, bassist Tommy Sims, drummer Zachary Alford, singer-guitarist Crystal Taliefero and vocalists Bobby King, Gia Ciambotti, Carol Dennis, Cleo Kennedy and Angel Rogers – and to stir up excitement for his summer tour of the States. He succeeded on both counts. The concert proved that even without the E Street Band, Springsteen is still a masterful performer; in fact, his new band rocks harder, and musically it challenges him more than his previous group. And he still has more than a few loyal fans: The day after the radio broadcast, he sold out eleven shows at New Jersey's Brendan Byrne Arena (more than 200,000 tickets) in just two and a half hours.
Even so, it has been an unusually trying season for Springsteen. Though Human Touch and Lucky Town entered the charts at Numbers Two and Three, respectively, they quickly slipped and eventually dropped out of the Top Forty. On top of that, some segments of the media seemed to be reaping pleasure from Springsteen's relative lack of success (and indeed, it is relative: Each of the albums has sold more than 1.5 million copies). One magazine, Entertainment Weekly, even put Springsteen on its cover with the headline What Ever Happened to Bruce?
But things could be worse, as Springsteen well knows. For the past several years, he has been waging a far tougher battle – trying to repair what had become a badly damaged personal life. "I was real good at music," he says, "and real bad at everything else."
Onstage, of course, Springsteen could do it all; offstage, it was a different story. Something of a loner by nature, he had difficulty maintaining any kind of long-term relationship. Even as he was preaching about "community" during his Born in the U.S.A. tour, he himself was keeping his distance from just about everyone. And when he wasn't working, he wasn't happy.
When he hit the road in 1988 to support his Tunnel of Love album, the cracks in Springsteen's personal life were beginning to show. His marriage to actress Julianne Phillips had begun to deteriorate, and thanks to the tabloids, it soon became public knowledge that he was seeing E Street Band singer Patti Scialfa. When he got off the road in late 1988 after playing a series of shows for Amnesty International, Springsteen hit rock bottom.
Gradually, he began to regain control of his life. He went into therapy. He got divorced from Phillips and eventually married Scialfa. He parted ways with the E Street Band. He left New Jersey and moved to Los Angeles. And with Scialfa, he fathered two children: Evan James, who's almost two, and Jessica Rae, who was born last New Year's Eve.
Springsteen's personal trials are documented on Human Touch; his victory over those trials is the subject of Lucky Town. The jury is still out on whether his U.S. tour, which kicks off on July 23rd in New Jersey, will resuscitate those albums. But there's no question that Springsteen himself is the happiest he's been in a long time. Over the course of three lengthy interviews in Los Angeles and New York – the first in-depth interviews he's done since 1986 – he outlined in great detail what he calls "the biggest struggle of my life," and he addressed a variety of other subjects, ranging from rap music to the presidential race.
The music scene has changed a lot since you last released an album. Where do you see yourself fitting in these days?
I never kind of fit in, in a funny kind of way. In the Seventies the music I wrote was sort of romantic, and there was lots of innocence in it, and it certainly didn't feel like it was a part of that particular time. And in the Eighties, I was writing and singing about what I felt was happening to the people I was seeing around me or what direction I saw the country going in. And that really wasn't in step with the times, either.
Well, given the response to your music then, I think you fit in pretty well during the Eighties.
Well, we were popular, but that's not the same thing. All I try to do is to write music that feels meaningful to me, that has commitment and passion behind it. And I guess I feel that if what I'm writing about is real, and if there's emotion, then hey, there'll be somebody who wants to hear it. I don't know if it's a big audience or a smaller audience than I've had. But that's never been my primary interest. I've had a kind of story I've been telling, and I'm really only in the middle of it.
At the same time, your new albums haven't fared as well on the charts as most people expected, and you've had to endure some sniping from the media. How do you feel about that?
I try not to get involved in it. It does seem to be out there in the air, for everybody and anybody, but I don't take it that personally. I mean, if you spend any time in Los Angeles, you see that a lot: "Great, you're a tremendous success – now fail!"
There's a media game that's played out there, and I guess it sells newspapers and magazines. But it's not central to who I am or what I do. You make your music, then you try to find whatever audience is out there for it.
Do you think that a teenager who's into rap or heavy metal would be interested in your new albums?
I don't know. And I don't know if you can generalize like that. I think some yes and some no. All I can do is put my music out there. I can't contrive something that doesn't feel honest. I don't write demographically. I don't write a song to reach these people or those people.
Of course, I'm interested in having a young audience. I'm interested in whoever's interested in what I'm doing. And what I have to say is "This is how I've grown up. Maybe this will have some value. These are the places I've been, and these are the things I've learned."
But I want to sing about who I am now. I want to get up onstage and sing with all of the forty-two years that are in me. When I was young, I always said I didn't want to end up being forty-five or fifty and pretending I was fifteen or sixteen or twenty. That just didn't interest me. I'm a lifetime musician; I'm going to be playing music forever. I don't foresee a time when I would not be onstage somewhere, playing a guitar and playing it loud, with power and passion. I look forward to being sixty or sixty-five and doing that.
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