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The Rolling Stone Interview: Bruce Springsteen Leaves E Street

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For the first time in about twenty years you're embarking on a tour without the E Street Band. What led to your decision to get rid of them?
At the end of the Born in the U.S.A. tour and after we made the live album, I felt like it was the end of the first part of my journey. And then, for the Tunnel of Love tour, I switched the band around quite a bit. I switched where people had stood for fifteen years, just trying to give it a different twist.

But you can get to a place where you start to replay the ritual, and nostalgia creeps in. And I decided it was time to mix it up. I just had to cut it loose a little bit so I could have something new to bring to the table. I wanted to get rid of some of the old expectations. People were coming to my shows expecting to hear "Born to Run" or stuff that I wrote fifteen or twenty years ago. And I wanted to get to a spot where if people came to the show, there'd be a feeling of like, well, it's not going to be this, it's going to be something else.

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Did you call each of the guys to give them the news?
Oh, sure, yeah. Initially, some people were surprised, some people were not so surprised. I'm sure some people were angry, and other people weren't angry. But as time passed, everything came around to a really nice place. I mean, I wasn't the guy writing the check every month. Suddenly, I was just Bruce, and some of the friendships started coming forward a little bit. And it was interesting, because we hadn't had that kind of relationship. We had all been working together for so long that we didn't really have a relationship outside of the work environment.

You mentioned the Born in the U.S.A. tour as marking the end of one phase of your career. How did the enormousness of that album and tour affect your life?
I really enjoyed the success of Born in the U.S.A., but by the end of that whole thing, I just kind of felt "Bruced" out. I was like "Whoa, enough of that." You end up creating this sort of icon, and eventually it oppresses you.

What specifically are you referring to?
Well, for example, the whole image that had been created – and that I'm sure I promoted – it really always felt like "Hey, that's not me." I mean, the macho thing, that was just never me. It might be a little more of me than I think, but when I was a kid, I was a real gentle child, and I was more in touch with those sorts of things.

It's funny, you know, what you create, but in the end, I think, the only thing you can do is destroy it. So when I wrote Tunnel of Love, I thought I had to reintroduce myself as a songwriter, in a very noniconic role. And it was a relief. And then I got to a place where I had to sit some more of that stuff down, and part of it was coming out here to L.A. and making some music with some different people and seeing what that's about and living in a different place for a while.

How's it been out here, compared with New Jersey?
Los Angeles provides a lot of anonymity. You're not like the big fish in the small pond. People wave to you and say hi, but you're pretty much left to go your own way. Me in New Jersey, on the other hand, was like Santa Claus at the North Pole [laughs].

What do you mean?
Hmm, how can I put it? It's like you're a bit of a figment of a lot of other people's imaginations. And that always takes some sorting out. But it's even worse when you see yourself as a figment of your own imagination. And in the last three or four years, that's something I've really freed myself from.

I think what happened was that when I was young, I had this idea of playing out my life like it was some movie, writing the script and making all the pieces fit. And I really did that for a long time. But you can get enslaved by your own myth or your own image, for the lack of a better word. And it's bad enough having other people seeing you that way, but seeing yourself that way is really bad. It's pathetic. And I got to a place, when Patti and I hooked up, where I said I got to stop writing this story. It doesn't work.

And that's when I realized I needed a change, and I like the West. I like the geography. Los Angeles is a funny city. Thirty minutes and you're in the mountains, where for 100 miles there's one store. Or you're in the desert, where for 500 miles there's five towns.

So Patti and I came out here and put the house together and had the babies and . . . the thing is, I'd really missed a big part of my life. The only way I could describe it is that being successful in one area is illusory. People think because you're so good at one particular thing, you're good at many things. And that's almost always not the case. You're good at that particular thing, and the danger is that that particular thing allows you the indulgence to remove yourself from the rest of your life. And as time passed, I realized that I was using my job well in many ways, but there was a fashion in which I was also abusing it. And – this began in my early thirties – I really knew that something was wrong.

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That was about ten years ago?
Yeah, it started after I got back from the River tour. I'd had more success than I'd ever thought I'd have. We'd played around the world. And I thought, like, "Wow, this is it." And I decided, "Okay, I want to have a house." And I started to look for a house.

I looked for two years. Couldn't find one. I've probably been in every house in the state of New Jersey – twice. Never bought a house. Figured I just couldn't find one I liked. And then I realized that it ain't that I can't find one, I couldn't buy one. I can find one, but I can't buy one. Damn! Why is that?

And I started to pursue why that was. Why did I only feel good on the road? Why were all my characters in my songs in cars? I mean, when I was in my early twenties, I was always sort of like "Hey, what I can put in this suitcase, that guitar case, that bus – that's all I need, now and forever." And I really believed it. And really lived it. Lived it for a long time.

In a Rolling Stone cover story from 1978, Dave Marsh wrote that you were so devoted to music that it was impossible to imagine you being married or having kids or a house . . .
A lot of people have said the same thing. But then something started ticking. It didn't feel right. It was depressing. It was like "This is a joke. I've come a long way, and there's some dark joke here at the end."

I didn't want to be one of those guys who can write music and tell stories and have an effect on people's lives, and maybe on society in some fashion, but not be able to get into his own self. But that was pretty much my story.

I tend to be an isolationist by nature. And it's not about money or where you live or how you live. It's about psychology. My dad was certainly the same way. You don't need a ton of dough and walls around your house to be isolated. I know plenty of people who are isolated with a six-pack of beer and a television set. But that was a big part of my nature.

Then music came along, and I latched onto it as a way to combat that part of myself. It was a way that I could talk to people. It provided me with a means of communication, a means of placing myself in a social context – which I had a tendency not to want to do.

And music did those things but in an abstract fashion, ultimately. It did them for the guy with the guitar, but the guy without the guitar was pretty much the same as he had been.

Now I see that two of the best days of my life were the day I picked up the guitar and the day that I learned how to put it down. Somebody said, "Man, how did you play for so long?" I said: "That's the easy part. It's stopping that's hard."

When did you learn to put the guitar down?
Pretty recently. I had locked into what was pretty much a hectic obsession, which gave me enormous focus and energy and fire to burn, because it was coming out of pure fear and self-loathing and self-hatred. I'd get onstage and it was hard for me to stop. That's why my shows were so long. They weren't long because I had an idea or a plan that they should be that long. I couldn't stop until I felt burnt, period. Thoroughly burnt.

It's funny, because the results of the show or the music might have been positive for other people, but there was an element of it that was abusive for me. Basically, it was my drug. And so I started to follow the thread of weaning myself.

For a long time, I had been able to ignore it. When you're nineteen and you're in a truck and you're crossing the country back and forth, and then you're twenty-five and you're on tour with the band – that just fit my personality completely. That's why I was able to be good at it. But then I reached an age where I began to miss my real life – or to even know that there was another life to be lived. I mean, it was almost a surprise. First you think you are living it. You got a variety of different girlfriends, and then, "Gee, sorry, gotta go now." It was like the Groucho Marx routine – it's funny, 'cause it runs in my family a little bit, and we get into this: "Hello, I came to say I'd like to stay, but I really must be going." And that was me.

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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