His new album, Born in the U.S.A., is perched at the top of the charts, but it’s the songs from Nebraska, the album Bruce Springsteen made by just singing along with his acoustic guitar into a little tape deck at home, that are the soul of the shows on his new tour.
With a terrifying dark sound, huge drum-beat and chiming guitar duet by Springsteen and his new sideman, Nils Lofgren, “Atlantic City” is one of the show’s most powerful numbers. So is “Mansion on the Hill,” performed like a slowly rocked country duet with new backup singer Patti Scialfa. Springsteen introduces it with a story: “My father used to drive me out of town to a big white house. It became very mystical, like a touchstone. And now when I dream, I’m sometimes outside the gate looking in … and sometimes I’m the man inside.” That’s the compelling paradox of this new roadshow: He sings about the despair that fills you when your dreams let you down, yet he himself has hit the jackpot.
Stinking of Ben-Gay and swaddled in a black leather jacket, Springsteen stretched his legs onto a coffee table in his dressing room after the last of three St. Paul shows. “It’s the emotional reality that makes anything real, it’s not the details,” he said, his voice faint, about why his songs of loneliness and lowly beginnings touch a chord in just about everybody. “Maybe it’s your imagination or maybe it’s something out of real life, it doesn’t matter. It’s the inner thing that makes a song real to you. Whether it’s ‘My Hometown’ or something like ‘Nebraska’ or ‘Johnny 99,’ you kinda just gotta know what that feels like, somewhere.” He let out a gruff laugh. “And everybody does. It’s a funny thing. I think if it’s real, people will respond.”
The Nebraska pieces – “I framed them a little bit with the band” is how he described the way they’re done – give the show an emotionally darker side that only makes his soaring, uplifting early masterworks like “Badlands” and “Thunder Road” more effective and his new high-spirited rockers like “Working on the Highway” and “Glory Days” more hilarious. Of the 30 or so songs in the three-and-a-half-hour show, Springsteen and his band perform as many as seven songs from Nebraska, about eight from Born in the U.S.A. (which he calls a collection of “survival music”), a handful from The River and a couple from Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. He no longer performs anything off his debut LP, Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey, and only does “Rosalita” off his second album. For the encores, he’s added a rousing cover of the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” which he says he performs “because of that one great line – ‘What can a poor boy do but sing in a rock & roll band.'” And at the end of every show, he makes a point of saying, “Let freedom ring.”
He hasn’t dropped his medley of Mitch Ryder songs, a longtime encore piece for him, and it’s become kind of a warhorse, as has the overblown “Jungleland.” Far stronger is the new stuff, including a steamy version of “Pink Cadillac.” Springsteen led into it by saying, “I was brought up Catholic. It seems, according to the Bible, way back when, Eve showed Adam the apple and Adam took a bite. There’s gotta be more to it than that. Fruit?“
The myth-making tales that he used to introduce the songs with are gone, but he still takes time between numbers to talk a little about growing up, his hometown and his relationship with his father. Only “This is about being so lonesome you could cry” introduces “Nebraska,” and “If you’ve ever pushed a car down the street and felt like the biggest jerk in the world, this one’s for you” brings on “Used Cars.”
The show swings from the gut-wrenching truth of those songs to the roller-rink organ and garage-band fervor of the Born in the U.S.A. rockers. When he’s not out front without his guitar, bending into a ballad, he’s in a frenzied dance around the stage. The best rock dancer around, Springsteen is showing more confidence than ever before (“I ain’t shy no more!” he hollered at one point). It makes for a passionate crowd reaction, but when a girl climbed onstage to lay a kiss on his lips during the first notes of “Jungleland,” he sounded exasperated: “Not while I’m singin’, baby.”
“Jump up and down and scream at the top of your lungs for 20 minutes and see how you feel,” Bruce said hoarsely, backstage around 2 a.m. one night. Prince was in a nearby room with saxophone player Clarence Clemons, and off in a hospitality room, Nils Lofgren was talking to the Celtics’ Kevin McHale, a Minnesota boy. Springsteen was drained, but not as badly as back when he lived on fried chicken and Pepsi. He’s a changed man: He eats vegetables, runs six miles a day, lifts weights. But, he said, “I’m no fanatic. I still like to eat in diners.”
He’s been away from the stage since he toured behind The River in 1981. He spent some of that time driving around the States with a friend. “I’ve always enjoyed traveling like that. It was always kinda liberating for me,” he said. “I was only recognized twice. You get out there, and people don’t really care that much about two guys just driving.”
The appetite he’s always had for the road probably comes partly from his ambivalent feelings about his Jersey roots, captured in his new song “My Hometown.” “Your home is your home. That’s all there is to it,” he said. “It’s something you carry with you forever, no matter where you go or what you become. There’s a lot of conflicting feeling you have about the place. That’s just part of it.”
Home for him now is affluent Rumson, New Jersey, where he has a house with a pool, and in the driveway, a blue Camaro, a pickup truck and a ’64 Chevy convertible, a gift from Gary Bonds. A year or so ago, he realized that his life centered too much on his music and set out to create more of a personal life. Now he invites his friends over for barbecues in the backyard and plays a lot of softball. Lately, he’s been reading Flannery O’Connor stories and a book called Dixiana Moon, by William Price Fox.
Though Springsteen says rock & roll can express whatever he has to say, other people have approached him about making movies of certain songs. “Part of the thing is that when I write the song, I write it to be the movie – not to make a movie, to be a movie, like ‘Highway Patrolman’ or ‘Racing in the Street.’ It’s only six minutes.” He laughed. “You could really screw it up in an hour and a half.”
He laughs a lot, and the guys in the band say they’ve never seen him so loose. The changes, even the departure of his guitarist and close friend, Steve Van Zandt (who’s touring with his own band, the Disciples of Soul), seem to have presented a heartening challenge. To learn all the songs in a short time, Nils Lofgren moved into Bruce’s house about a month before the tour started. Working Lofgren into the group has been “real natural and easy,” Bruce said. The two have known each other since the late Sixties, “when we auditioned the same night at the Fillmore. I’d always bump into him. It was just somebody that, when I met Nils, we kinda already knew each other. We looked at music in the same way and cared about the same things.”
At the last minute, Springsteen also asked singer Patti Scialfa, whom he had heard singing in a bar, to join the tour. “Having a woman up there with us gives it more of a feeling of community,” he said.
The rest of the E Street lineup – keyboardists Roy Bittan and Danny Federici, bassist Garry Tallent, drummer Max Weinberg and saxophone player Clarence Clemons – remains the same, and the band has been with Bruce for so long that, Bittan said, “It’s evolved to the point where it’s pretty easy to second-guess him, in some respects. He lets us be creative but gives us signposts along the way. He generally tries to communicate the feeling he’s trying to get across. So he’ll say, ‘We have to play this sparse and simple – we want a lot of space.'”
Born in the U.S.A. is all very early takes of the songs, said Bittan. In fact, the title cut is a first take. “It just never changed,” he said. “He showed us the song on the guitar, I played that riff on the synthesizer, we rolled the tape, and that was it.”
Springsteen seems to take his new album’s reception for granted, and is more pleased that the riskier material from Nebraska is a hit. Still, both are about the same kind of people, he believes. He told the Minneapolis Star and Tribune: “The last two records felt very real to me in an everyday kind of sense. The type of things that make people’s lives heroic are a lot of times very small things. Little things that happen in the kitchen or things between a husband and a wife or between them and their kids. It’s a grand experience, but it’s not always grandiose. That’s what interests me now. There’s plenty of room for those types of victories.”
After the first show, Bruce seemed to be feeling that he’d scored a small victory of his own. He’d changed into a threadbare flannel shirt, black jeans and tan boots smushed down around his ankles and uncapped a Heineken. I’d been fiddling with one of his guitar picks and asked if I could keep it to replace one I’d accidentally thrown into the basket at a tollbooth on the New Jersey Turnpike. Bruce looked pleased. “And then the light went green, right?” he said, laughing. “You gotta tell me that’s the end of the story.”