"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.
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.
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.
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.
What was it that woke you up to the fact that you were missing something or had a problem?
Unhappiness. And other things, like my relationships. They always ended poorly; I didn't really know how to have a relationship with a woman. Also, I wondered how can I have this much money and not spend it? Up until the Eighties, I really didn't have any money. When we started the River tour, I had about twenty grand, I think. So, really, around 1983 was the first time I had some money in the bank. But I couldn't spend it, I couldn't have any fun. So a lot of things started to not feel logical. I realized there was some aberrational behavior going on here. And I didn't feel that good. Once out of the touring context, and out of the context of my work, I felt lost.
Did you ever go to a therapist or seek help like that?
Oh, yeah. I mean, I got really down. Really bad off for a while. And what happened was, all my rock & roll answers had fizzled out. I realized that my central idea – which, at a young age, was attacking music with a really religious type of intensity – was okay to a point. But there was a point where it turns in on itself. And you start to go down that dark path, and there is a distortion of even the best of things. And I reached a point where I felt my life was distorted. I love my music, and I wanted to just take it for what it was. I didn't want to try to distort it into being my entire life. Because that's a lie. It's not true. It's not your entire life. It never can be.
And I realized my real life is waiting to be lived. All the love and the hope and the sorrow and sadness – that's all over there, waiting to be lived. And I could ignore it and push it aside or I could say yes to it. But to say yes to part of it is to say yes to all of it. That's why people say no to all of it. Whether it's drugs or whatever. That's why people say no: I'll skip the happiness as long as I don't have to feel the pain.
So I decided to work on it. I worked hard on it. And basically, you have to start to open up to who you are. I certainly wasn't the person I thought I was. This was around the time of Born in the U.S.A. And I bought this big house in New Jersey, which was really quite a thing for me to do. It was a place I used to run by all the time. It was a big house, and I said, "Hey, this is a rich man's house." And I think the toughest thing was that it was in a town where I'd been spit on when I was a kid.
This was in Rumson?
Yeah. When I was sixteen or seventeen my band, from Freehold, was booked in a beach club. And we engendered some real hostile reaction. I guess we looked kind of – we had on phony snakeskin vests and had long hair. There's a picture of me in the Castiles, that's what it was. And I can remember being onstage, with guys literally spitting on it. This was before it was fashionable, when it kind of meant what it really meant.
So it was a funny decision, but I bought this house, and at first I really began to enjoy it, but then along came the Born in the U.S.A. tour, and I was off down the road again. I had a good time, and I began to try to figure out things. I was trying to find out how to make some of these connections, but once again it was sort of abstract, like how to integrate the band into some idea of community in the places we passed through.
It was during this time that you met Julianne?
Yeah, we met about halfway through that tour. And we got married. And it was tough. I didn't really know how to be a husband. She was a terrific person, but I just didn't know how to do it.
Was the marriage part of your whole effort to make connections, to deal with that part of your life?
Yeah, yeah. I really needed something, and I was giving it a shot. Anybody who's been through a divorce can tell you what that's about. It's difficult, hard and painful for everybody involved. But I sort of went on.
Then Patti and I got together, on the Tunnel of Love tour, and I began to find my way around again. But after we came off the road in 1988, I had a bad year right away. I got home, and I wasn't very helpful to anyone.
You were still living in Rumson?
Yeah, and then we lived in New York for a while. That wasn't for me, on account of growing up in a small town and being used to having cars and all that stuff.
I'd made a lot of plans, but when we got home, I just kind of spun off for a while. I just got lost. That lasted for about a year.
What kinds of things did you do?
The best way I can say it is that I wasn't doing what I said I was going to do. Somewhere between realization and actualization, I slipped in between the cracks. I was in a lot of fear. And I was just holding out. I made life generally unpleasant. And so at some point Patti and I just said, "Hell, let's go out to L.A."
I've always felt a little lighter out here. I've had a house in the Hollywood Hills since the early Eighties, and I'd come out here three, four months out of the year. I always remember feeling just a little lighter, like I was carrying less. So Patti and I came out here, and things started to get better. And then the baby came along, and that was fantastic. That was just the greatest thing.
Had you wanted to have a baby in the past?
I know there were a lot of things in the paper about Juli and me and that the issue of having a baby was what caused us to break up. Well, that just wasn't true. That's a lie.
But was it something you wanted to do – have a family – or was it something you were afraid of?
Well, yeah [pause], I was afraid. But I was afraid of this whole thing. That's what this was about. I had made my music everything. I was real good at music and real bad at everything else.
Was Patti the person who really helped you get through all of this?
Yeah. She had a very sure eye for all of my bullshit. She recognized it. She was able to call me on it. I had become a master manipulator. You know, "Oh, I'm going out of the house for a little while, and I'm going down . . ." I always had a way of moving off, moving away, moving back and creating distance. I avoided closeness, and I wouldn't lay my cards on the table. I had many ways of doing that particular dance, and I thought they were pretty sophisticated. But maybe they weren't. I was just doing what came naturally. And then when I hit the stage, it was just the opposite. I would throw myself forward, but it was okay because it was brief. Hey, that's why they call them one-night stands. It's like you're there, then bang! You're gone. I went out in '85 and talked a lot about community, but I wasn't a part of any community.
So when I got back to New York after the Amnesty tour in '88, I was kind of wandering and lost, and it was Patti's patience and her understanding that got me through. She's a real friend, and we have a real great friendship. And finally I said I've got to start dealing with this, I've got to take some baby steps.
What were some of those baby steps?
The best thing I did was I got into therapy. That was really valuable. I crashed into myself and saw a lot of myself as I really was. And I questioned all my motivations. Why am I writing what I'm writing? Why am I saying what I'm saying? Do I mean it? Am I bullshitting? Am I just trying to be the most popular guy in town? Do I need to be liked that much? I questioned everything I'd ever done, and it was good. You should do that. And then you realize there is no single motivation to anything. You're doing it for all of those reasons.
So I went through a real intense period of self-examination. I knew that I had to sit in my room for eight hours a day with a guitar to learn how to play it, and now I had to put in that kind of time just to find my place again.
Were you writing any songs during this period?
At first, I had nothing to say. Throughout '88 and '89, every time I sat down to write, I was just sort of rehashing. I didn't have a new song to sing. I just ended up rehashing Tunnel of Love, except not as good. And it was all just down and nihilistic. It's funny, because I think people probably associate my music with a lot of positives. But it's like I really drift into that other thing – I think there's been a lot of desperate fun in my songs.
Then I remembered that Roy [Bittan] had some tracks that he'd play to me on occasion. So I called him and said, "Come on over, maybe I'll try to write to some of your tracks." So he had the music to "Roll of the Dice," and I came up with the idea for that, and I went home and wrote the song. It was really about what I was trying to do: I was trying to get up the nerve to take a chance.
And then Roy and I started working together pretty steadily. I had a little studio in my garage, and I came up with "Real World." What I started to do were little writing exercises. I tried to write something that was soul oriented. Or I'd play around with existing pop structures. And that's kind of how I did the Human Touch record. A lot of it is generic, in a certain sense.
We worked for about a year, and at the end I tried to put it together. Some albums come out full-blown: Tunnel of Love, Nebraska, Lucky Town – they just came out all at once. Human Touch was definitely something that I struggled to put together. It was like a job. I'd work at it every day. But at the end, I felt like it was good, but it was about me trying to get to a place. It sort of chronicled the post-Tunnel of Love period. So when we finished it, I just sat on it for a couple of months.
Then I wrote the song "Living Proof," and when I wrote that, I said: "Yeah, that's what I'm trying to say. That's how I feel." And that was a big moment, because I landed hard in the present, and that was where I wanted to be. I'd spent a lot of my life writing about my past, real and imagined, in some fashion. But with Lucky Town, I felt like that's where I am. This is who I am. This is what I have to say. These are the stories I have to tell. This is what's important in my life right now. And I wrote and recorded that whole record in three weeks in my house.
Did you ever think about not releasing Human Touch?
Yeah, except that every time I listened to it, I liked it. Also, I wanted to put out a lot of music, because I didn't want to be dependent on my old songs when I went out to tour. I wanted to have a good body of work to draw from when I hit the stage.
And then I realized that the two albums together kind of tell one story. There's Tunnel of Love, then there's what happened in between, which is Human Touch, then there's Lucky Town. And basically I said: "Well, hey – Guns n' Roses! They put out two albums, maybe I'll try it!"
There's a perception out there – and a couple of the reviews of the albums mentioned it – that you've sealed yourself off from reality, living in a big house in L.A. and so forth. Yet based on what you're saying, I assume you'd say the truth is quite the opposite.
Those are the clichés, and people have come to buy the clichés in rock music. You know, like it's somehow much more acceptable to be addicted to heroin than to, say, hang out with jet-setters. But you know, it's the old story. People don't know what you're doing unless they're walking in your shoes a bit.
Some of your fans seem to think along the same lines, that by moving to L.A. and buying a $14 million house, you've let them down or betrayed them.
I kept my promises. I didn't get burned out. I didn't waste myself. I didn't die. I didn't throw away my musical values. Hey, I've dug in my heels on all those things. And my music has been, for the most part, a positive, liberating, living, uplifting thing. And along the way I've made a lot of money, and I bought a big house. And I love it. Love it. It's great. It's beautiful, really beautiful. And in some ways, it's my first real home. I have pictures of my family there. And there's a place where I make music, and a place for babies, and it's like a dream.
I still love New Jersey. We go back all the time. I've been looking at a farm there that I might buy. I'd like my kids to have that, too. But I came out here, and I just felt like the guy who was born in the U.S.A. had left the bandanna behind, you know?
I've struggled with a lot of things over the past two, three years, and it's been real rewarding. I've been very, very happy, truly the happiest I've ever been in my whole life. And it's not that one-dimensional idea of "happy." It's accepting a lot of death and sorrow and mortality. It's putting the script down and letting the chips fall where they may.
What's been the toughest thing about being a father?
Engagement. Engagement. Engagement. You're afraid to love something so much, you're afraid to be that in love. Because a world of fear leaps upon you, particularly in the world that we live in. But then you realize: "Oh, I see, to love something so much, as much as I love Patti and my kids, you've got to be able to accept and live with that world of fear, that world of doubt, of the future. And you've got to give it all today and not hold back." And that was my specialty; my specialty was keeping my distance so that if I lost something, it wouldn't hurt that much. And you can do that, but you're never going to have anything.
It's funny, because the night my little boy was born, it was amazing. I've played onstage for hundreds of thousands of people, and I've felt my own spirit really rise some nights. But when he came out, I had this feeling of a kind of love that I hadn't experienced before. And the minute I felt it, it was terrifying. It was like "Wow, I see. This love is here to be had and to be felt and experienced? To everybody, on a daily basis?" And I knew why you run, because it's very frightening. But it's also a window into another world. And it's the world that I want to live in right now.
Has having kids changed the way you look at your own parents?
It was amazing, actually, how much it did change. I'm closer to my folks now, and I think they feel closer to me. My pa, particularly. There must have been something about my own impending fatherhood that made him feel moved to address our relationship. I was kind of surprised; it came out of the blue.
He was never a big verbalizer, and I kind of talked to him through my songs. Not the best way to do that, you know. But I knew he heard them. And then, before Evan was born, we ended up talking about a lot of things I wasn't sure that we'd ever actually address. It was probably one of the nicest gifts of my life. And it made my own impending fatherhood very rich and more resonant. It's funny, because children are very powerful, they affect everything. And the baby wasn't even born yet, but he was affecting the way people felt and the way they spoke to each other, the way they treated each other.
You said the song "Pony Boy" was one that your mother used to sing to you.
My grandmother sang it to me when I was young. I made up a lot of the words for the verses; I'm sure there are real words, but I'm not sure they're the ones I used. It was the song that I used to sing to my little boy when he was still inside of Patti. And when he came out, he knew it. It's funny. And it used to work like magic. He'd be crying, and I'd sing it, and he'd stop on a dime. Amazing.
You and Patti had a big wedding, didn't you?
It wasn't that big, about eighty or ninety people. It was at the house, and it was a great day. You get to say out loud all the things that bring you to that place. I'm now a believer in all the rituals and things. I think they're really valuable. And I know that getting married deepened our relationship. For a long time, I didn't put a lot of faith in those things, but I've come to feel that they are important. Like, I miss going to church. I'd like to, but I don't know where to go. I don't buy into all the dogmatic aspects, but I like the idea of people coming together for some sort of spiritual enrichment or enlightenment or even just to say hi once a week.
The fact that the country is spiritually bankrupt is something you've mentioned in connection with the riots in Los Angeles.
We're kind of reaping what's been sown, in a very sad fashion. I mean, the legacy we're leaving our kids right now is a legacy of dread. That's a big part of what growing up in America is about right now: dread, fear, mistrust, blind hatred. We're being worn down to the point where who you are, what you think, what you believe, where you stand, what you feel in your soul means nothing on a given day. Instead, it's "What do you look like? Where are you from?" That's frightening.
I remember in the early Eighties, I went back to the neighborhood where I put together my first band. It was always a mixed neighborhood, and I was with a friend of mine, and we got out of the car and were just walking around for about twenty minutes. And when I got back to the car, there were a bunch of older black men and younger guys, and they got all around the car and said, "What are you doing?" I said, "Well, I lived here for about four or five years," and I just basically said what we were doing there. And they said: "No, what are you doing in our neighborhood? When we go to your neighborhood, we get stopped for just walking down the streets. People want to know what we're doing in your neighborhood. So what are you doing in our neighborhood?" And it was pretty tense.
The riots broke out right after our second interview session. It was pretty frightening being in L.A. then.
It really felt like the wall was coming down. On Thursday [the day after the riots began], we were down in Hollywood rehearsing, and people were scared. People were really scared. And then you were just, like, sad or angry.
At the end of the Sixties, there was a famous commission that Lyndon Johnson put together, and they said it would take a massive, sustained effort by the government and by the people to make life better in the inner cities. And all the things they started back then were dismantled in the last decade. And a lot of brutal signals were sent, which created a real climate for intolerance. And people picked up on it and ran with the ball. The rise of the right and of the radical right-wing groups is not accidental. David Duke – it's embarrassing.
So we've been going backward. And we didn't just come up short in our efforts to do anything about this, we came up bankrupt.
We're selling our future away, and I don't think anybody really believes that whoever is elected in the coming election is going to seriously address the issues in some meaningful fashion.
On the one hand there seems to be a tremendous sense of disillusionment in this country. Yet on the other hand, it seems like George Bush could be reelected.
I think so, too – but not on my vote. People have been flirting with the outside candidates, but that's all I think it is. When they go put their money down, though, it always winds up being with someone in the mainstream. And the frustrating thing is, you know it's not going to work.
Do any of the candidates appeal to you?
What Jerry Brown is saying is true – all that stuff is true. And I liked Jesse Jackson when he ran last time around. But I guess there hasn't really been anyone who can bring these ideas to life, who can make people believe that there's some other way.
America is a conservative country, it really is. I think that's one thing the past ten years have shown. But I don't know if people are really organized, and I don't think there's a figure out there who's been able to embody the things that are eating away at the soul of the nation at large.
I mean, the political system has really broken down. We've abandoned a gigantic part of the population – we've just left them for dead. But we're gonna have to pay the piper some day. But you worry about the life of your own children, and people live in such a state of dread that it affects the overall spiritual life of the nation as a whole. I mean, I live great, and plenty of people do, but it affects you internally in some fashion, and it just eats away at whatever sort of spirituality you pursue.
Do you see any cause for optimism?
Well, somebody's going to have to address these issues. I don't think they can go unaddressed forever. I believe that the people won't stand for it, ultimately. Maybe we're not at that point yet. But at some point, the cost of not addressing these things is just going to be too high.
A lot of people have pointed out that rappers have addressed a lot of these issues. What kind of music do you listen to?
I like Sir Mix-a-Lot. I like Queen Latifah; I like her a lot. I also like Social Distortion. I think Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell is a great record, a great rock & roll album. "Born to Lose" is great stuff. I like Faith No More. I like Live; I think that guy [Edward Kowalczyk] is a really good singer. I like a song on the Peter Case record, "Beyond the Blues." Really good song.
How do you keep up with what's happening musically?
Every three or four months I'll just wander through Tower Records and buy, like, fifty things, and I get in my car and just pop things in and out. I'm a big curiosity buyer. Sometimes I get something just because of the cover. And then I also watch TV. On Sundays, I'll flick on 120 Minutes and just see who's doing what.
Mike Appel, your former manager, has contributed to a new book (Down Thunder Road: The Making of Bruce Springsteen) that essentially claims that your current manager, Jon Landau, stole you out from under him.
Well, that's a shame, you know, because what happened was Mike and I had kind of reached a place where our relationship had kind of bumped up against its limitations. We were a dead-end street. And Jon came in, and he had a pretty sophisticated point of view, and he had an idea how to solve some very fundamental problems, like how to record and where to record.
But Mike kind of turned Jon into his monster, maybe as a way of not turning me into one. It's a classic thing: Who wants to blame themselves for something that went wrong? Nobody does. It's tough to say, "Maybe I fucked it up." But the truth is, if it hadn't been Jon, it would have been somebody else – or nobody else, but I would have gone my own way. Jon didn't say, "Hey, let's do what I want to do." He said, "I'm here to help you do what you're going to do." And that's what he's done since the day we met.
Two other people who used to work with you, ex-roadies, sued a few years ago, charging that you hadn't paid them overtime, among other things. What was your reaction to that?
It was disappointing. I worked with these two people for a long time, and I thought I'd really done the right thing. And when they left, it was handshakes and hugs all around, you know. And then about a year later, bang!
I think that if you asked the majority of people who had worked with me how they felt about the experience, they'd say they'd been treated really well. But it only takes one disgruntled or unhappy person, and that's what everyone wants to hear; the drum starts getting beat. But outside of all that – the bullshit aspect of it – if you spend a long time with someone and there's a very fundamental misunderstanding, well, you feel bad about it.
You recently appeared on Saturday Night Live. It was the first time you ever performed on TV. How did you like it?
It felt very intense. You rehearse two or three times before you go on, but when we actually did it, it was like "Okay, you've got three songs, you got to give it up." It was different, but I really enjoyed it. I mean, I must not have been on TV for all this time for some reason, but now that I've done it, it's like "Gee, why didn't I do this before?" There must have been some reason. And I certainly think that I'm going to begin using television more in some fashion. I think it's in the cards for me at this point, to find a way to reach people who might be interested in what I'm saying, what I'm singing about.
I believe in this music as much as anything I've ever written. I think it's the real deal. I feel like I'm at the peak of my creative powers right now. I think that in my work I'm presenting a complexity of ideas that I've been struggling to get to in the past. And it took me ten years of hard work outside of the music to get to this place. Real hard work. But when I got here, I didn't find bitterness and disillusionment. I found friendship and hope and faith in myself and a sense of purpose and passion. And it feels good. I feel like that great Sam and Dave song "Born Again." I feel like a new man.
This story is from the August 6, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.