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Bruce Springsteen’s State of the Union

Jon Stewart sits down with his home-state hero for a conversation about ‘Wrecking Ball,’ the death of Clarence Clemons, and the gap between the ‘American reality and the American dream’

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Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Mark Seliger

They have a lot to talk about this evening, these two guys from New Jersey, these serious men with silly jobs. “When he’s talking to his audience,” says Jon Stewart, “he’s put time and effort into that conversation. He wants his music to be about something.” The host of The Daily Show is talking about Bruce Springsteen, and about himself, too: Stewart and Springsteen have each found ways to instill a steeliness of purpose into the acts of singing songs and telling jokes. But there’s another way to look at it, Stewart suggests with a laugh: “You’re in businesses where you should be having a good time, you dour pricks! What is wrong with you?”

Springsteen arrives at The Daily Show‘s Manhattan studios on foot one icy day in late January, fresh from Jersey – he fought the wind for the dozen blocks from the Lincoln Tunnel along 11th Avenue, wearing only a thin leather jacket. “There was traffic,” says Springsteen, “so Patti dropped me off.” (“The Freehold is strong in that one,” Stewart says, picturing this journey.) Back from taping that night’s Daily Show, Stewart joins Springsteen in his cluttered office – where there’s already a photo of the two men together pinned to the wall – after exchanging his suit and tie for khakis and a long-sleeved T-shirt.

In recent years, Stewart has seen his decades-long Springsteen fandom turn into a friendship. “It’s in no way surreal,” Stewart says with heavy sarcasm. “It’s the most natural thing in the world. It’s very hard to reconcile sitting and fishing in a little pond in New Jersey with a guy you spent many years hitchhiking the 1-95 corridor to see in Philadelphia back in the day. The only band I think I’ve seen more than Bruce Springsteen is the Springsteen tribute band Backstreets. I try not to let him know how pathetic I truly am.”

Stewart grew up in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, 30 miles northwest of Springsteen’s Monmouth County hometown. “Every car he sang about you were like, ‘I’ve seen that up on blocks in the backyard right near where I live.'” He saw his first Springsteen show on 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town tour, when he was about 15. “The first time you hear Darkness, you begin to plan how to move out of New Jersey,” says Stewart. (Like Springsteen, Stewart eventually returned, and has a home in the Garden State: “You realize, hey, New Jersey’s all right, actually!”)

On Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, his characters aren’t looking for escape – they just want a job. With fiercely populist tunes like “Death to My Hometown” and “Jack of All Trades,” Springsteen paints a picture of an America where “the banker man grows fat/Working man grows thin.” Springsteen wanted the new songs to address “what happened to the social fabric of the world that we’re living in.”

The two men spoke for nearly two hours, with Springsteen sharing details of his creative process, his grief over the loss of Clarence Clemons last year and the angry patriotism that fuels Wrecking Ball. When it was over, Stewart handed the recorder to a Rolling Stone staffer: “Here you go – we got most of it.”

“There’s a lot of drunken singing,” adds Springsteen.

“A lot of it’s in Hebrew,” says Stewart.

Photos: Jon Stewart Interviews Bruce Springsteen

How have you been, man?
Good! We’ve been starting rehearsals with the whole band – on the abandoned military base at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.

I know that place. Every time I drive by there, I think about The Andromeda Strain. I always think that it’s one of those horror movies where all the structures still stand, still somewhat manicured, but the shit is just empty.
That’s what it’s like. There’s a rehearsal studio, and we are the sole citizens. We’re the only game in town on that thing. And the funny thing was, I played there at the teen club and the officers’ club when I was 16 – it was a regular gig. It’s funny to be back there now when it’s completely empty.

This was more of a solo album than an E Street Band album – what was the process behind it?
It basically all started out as folk music – it was me and my guitar singing these songs. But while I was doing that, I was hearing maybe 50 percent of the arrangement in my head. So the minute I stopped playing, I would run around on all the instruments, and in about an hour or more, I would rough out the sound I was hearing in my head while I was singing. A lot of it was cut with acoustic guitar, singing and a sample, like maybe a hip-hop loop or country-blues-stomp loop. And the actual drums came later – there was no preconceived set of instruments that needed to be used. I could go anywhere, do anything, use anything. It was very wide-open.

There are songs on here that feel like you and the Chieftains went out for a beer, and you decided to go kick it.
I called on a lot of roots and Celtic elements because I use the music to give the story a historical context. “Death to My Hometown” sounds like an Irish rebel song, but it’s all about what happened four years ago. I want to give people a sense that this is something that’s happened over and over and over again; what happened in 2008 happened before the turn of the century, and just after the turn of the century – it’s a repetitive, historical cycle that has basically landed on the heads of the same people.

They could have been singing in 1840, 1860. . . .
Or yesterday. “Shackled and Drawn” is the same thing, it’s like a slave song, a field chant.

Near the end of the record, hearing Clarence’s sax on “Land of Hope and Dreams” hits you in the gut. It’s powerful.
He played beautifully. That’s a loss we haven’t gauged, or will be able to gauge.

Did it make you reticent to tour?
No, I knew we were going to play, and I knew the band was going to continue. I knew that, I guess, it’s two things: One, people need to know that the band is going to continue and be OK and carry on its service and its entertainment. And the other part of the show will be that people need to miss Clarence – and they will, and so will I.

But all it says is that the currents of life hold their sway even over the dream world of pop music, and that’s the way it goes. We’re like everybody else. We’re just trying to figure it out. I don’t know what’s going to happen the first night we walk out onstage or the 10th night or . . . you don’t really know. It’s an experience we’re going to have with our audience on this tour.

How did his death affect this album?
The record was pretty much done, except that I wanted to get Clarence on it. The week before he died I called him to come in and record on his way back from Los Angeles, where he’d worked with Lady Gaga. He was having problems with the feeling in his hand. He was worried and asked if he could go home to Florida first and have it checked out. It was the only time Clarence passed on a recording session, so I said sure, we’d catch it later down the road.

A week later, he was in the hospital from the stroke. I flew to Florida and spent the week with his family at his bedside. He never really regained consciousness, but in the first few days he’d squeeze my hand when he heard my voice. Then things got worse. After the funeral, I returned home to my studio to finish the record. [Wrecking Ball producer] Ron Aniello greeted me, and as we sat at the control board he said, “I’m so sorry about Clarence. I didn’t know what to do when I heard, so I went home to Los Angeles and put this together from one of the live takes of the song.” He played me “Land of Hope and Dreams,” and when the solo section hit, Clarence’s sax filled the room. I cried. So he’s there, through a little technical magic . . . but he’s there.

“Hope and Dreams” and other songs on the album’s second half seem to move from the personal and political to a sense of the spiritual.
Well, on the first half of the record, you’re just pissed off. The first cut, “We Take Care of Our Own,” is where I set out the questions that I’m going to try to answer. The song’s chorus is posed as a challenge and a question. Do we take care of our own? What happened to that social contract? Where did that go over the past 30 years? How has it been eroded so terribly? And how is it that the outrage about that erosion is just beginning to be voiced right now? I’ve written about this stuff for those 30 years, from Darkness on the Edge of Town to The Ghost of Tom Joad through to today. It all came out of the Carter recession of the late Seventies, and when I was writing about that, my brother-in-law lost his construction job and went to work as a janitor in the local high school. It changed his life.

So these are issues and things that occur over and over again in history and land on the backs of the same people. In my music – if it has a purpose beyond dancing and fun and vacuuming your floor to it – I always try to gauge the distance between American reality and the American dream. The mantra that I go into in the last verse of “We Take Care of Our Own” – “Where are the eyes, where are the hearts?” – it’s really: “Where are those things now, what happened to those things over the past 30 years? What happened to the social fabric of the world that we’re living in? What’s the price that people pay for it on a daily basis?” Which is something that I lived with intensely as a child, and is probably the prime motivation for the subjects I’ve written about since I was very, very young.

Someone wrote in The New York Times that “We Take Care of Our Own” was “jingoistic.”
Whoever said that, they need a smarter pop writer.

[Laughs] It takes you back to the days of “Born in the U.S.A.,” which was so widely misunderstood.
Yeah. I didn’t feel that so much from this particular instance, but you write the best piece of music you can, and you put it out there, and then you see what comes back at you. Lately, it seems as if the polarization of the country has gotten so extreme that people want to force you into being either a phony “patriot” or an “apologist.” Nuanced political dialogue or creative expression seems like it’s been hamstrung by the decay of political speech and it’s infantilized our national discourse. I can’t go for that and I won’t write that way.

What’s the thinking behind “Easy Money”?
That’s the street criminalization of the big-money Wall Street hustle. That’s the guy that’s saying, “Everybody else is getting theirs, and not paying for it, I’m going out to get mine.” That hustle has been legitimized over the past four years, when you have the level of risk and greed at the top of the financial industry, and people basically walking away, relatively scot-free, completely unaccountable. That lack of accountability is the poison shot straight into the heart of the country. It goes back to Watergate. Watergate legitimized the hustle at the top of the game – it legitimized every street-corner thug. You almost had the country brought down by it, basically. All the radical hippies, longhairs – no one ever came as close to sinking the USA as the guys in the pinstriped suits.

You cannot have a social contract with the enormous income disparity – you’re going to slice the country down the middle. Without jobs, without helping folks with foreclosures, without regulating the banks, without some sort of tax reform . . . Mitt Romney paid 15 percent tax? Without addressing those issues in some way, I don’t think the country is going to hold together. I understand the effects of globalization, I understand all that, but at the end of the day, you can’t have a society and you can’t have a civilization without a reasonable amount of economic fairness, full employment, purpose and civic responsibility.

You’ve been writing about poor men wanting to be rich, rich men wanting to be king since the Seventies. That’s what I like about what you were saying earlier – there’s a certain universality to it that’s ageless. The motivations don’t seem to change.
For the majority of my lifetime, you saw an increase in inequality. It has only been in the news since Occupy Wall Street, but it was something that was a long, long time coming, and I think that, for better or for worse, I experienced the dynamic as a child, and it was something that I never forgot. I experienced what happens when, say, the male figure in your house struggles to work, can’t find work, and the woman in the house becomes the primary breadwinner. That was my house.

That’s happening in homes all across America right now: guys that worked outside, guys that worked construction, guys that worked manufacturing, particularly those kinds of guys, suddenly those jobs disappeared. Their attitude, their education may not be suited immediately for the service economy – the economy now. It’s been devastating on middle-class and blue-collar men, particularly. That was my story, that was the story I’ve written about. I’ve written about that story for 30 years, because I lived that story as a child, and I witnessed it day after day after day, and I saw its effects. I saw the crisis that it creates. I saw the loss of your sense of masculinity. It was a wrenching thing to watch for a child, a young child, on a daily basis, and it never, ever let up.

I think people would look at it and go, “Jeez, you have all the creature comforts, how do you understand that?”But it’s clearly something that was imprinted on you genetically in your soul. It just doesn’t matter.
We talk, we write, we think, and even as late in the day as I am, we experience so much through the veil of the formative years of our life. That never goes away.

I have a metaphor. I say, “Look, you’re in a car, your new selves can get in, but your old selves can’t get out.” You can bring new vision and guidance into your life, but you can’t lose or forget who you’ve been or what you’ve seen. New people can get in, but nobody ever gets out: The child from 1950, he doesn’t get out. The teenager, the adolescent boy, no one can get out. They are with you until the end of the ride, and you’re going to pass a certain amount of them on.

And they exert an amazing amount of influence.
The key is, of course, who’s driving. On any given day, you’re hoping that one of your better angels is at the wheel. That’s not necessarily always the case, but that’s what you work toward. Why do you always hear of the tycoon hoarding Kleenex, like they are the last he’s ever going to see? Why is my mother-in-law switching out all the lights in her house? She came up through the Depression, when those fucking lights had to go out, and you used the one that you needed. These enormous economic shifts imprint people at an incredibly deep level. People who are going through the pain of this one, it’s a life-changer – it will change the way you grow up and the way you think for the rest of your life for the people who are suffering through this one.

You lose trust.
And that stays with you even if the economy gets better, even if you get a better break. The cumulative effect of these kinds of recessions and this kind of punishment of people is so deep, and so those things are always there.

So how does that shape your work?
For me, it’s the thing that pisses you off the most, the thing you want to fix the most, right? They’re the things you want to heal the most, they’re the things you want to repair the most. They’re what obsess you, and what makes your art interesting to other people: “What’s that thing eating at that guy?” Hank Williams, all the people I love the most, had something eating at them that they just couldn’t shake off. That makes for interesting work and an interesting life, if you shape it correctly. That, for me, has been lifelong. Occasionally, you come upon a moment in time when you’re really able to push up against it, where there’s something out there for you to really push up against. And this last decade, there’s been a lot of that. That was the case with The Rising and with Magic, which was a record about the Bush presidency. And this record, in a funny way, is an opportunity – an opportunity to bring the questions that have obsessed me for a large part of my life to the forefront. The problem we’re having right now is that those questions aren’t being pushed to the forefront on a national level – they’re just beginning to really be voiced. I think Occupy Wall Street has given the president some elbow room where he can talk about income equality, talk about programs that would help the folks that have been hit the hardest, but it’s just the very, very beginning. I think that is a moment that’s here, and you have to give credit to the folks at Occupy Wall Street for changing the national discussion, which I really believe that they did.

As dark as this record gets, there’s a sense of hope by the end.
All of these issues aren’t going to be solved immediately, obviously. I have faith that through pressing on and through paying attention and listening and being vigilant and voicing your concerns and insisting that the right thing be done, you can move your world inches closer to where you want it to be for your children. You have to have faith in that. You have to have a clear eye, but you still have to have an open heart and mind. Because you have to have spirit, you have to have the soul.

If you look at the character in “Jack of All Trades” or when you move to “Rocky Ground” and those voices, they’re resilient voices, and voices that go on through the next generation. When you get to the end of the record, the voices are really coming from the other world, they’re coming from beyond the grave. In “We Are Alive,” those are voices of people who have died, and even “Land of Hope and Dreams” – something that I wrote 10 years ago – gives voice to those spirits.

I love that song. How did you come to include it?
This was funny, because I wrote everything else on the album, and I did not have an end. I stopped somewhere around “Rocky Ground” and I said, “Where do you take this? How do you turn this into something that provides both clarity and inspiration?” Because that, along with fun and entertainment, is what I think my job is. So I sat around and I had “Land of Hope and Dreams,” and that was a song I wrote when the E Street Band got back together again in 1998. I wrote it before the tour as the band’s current manifesto. In other words, we have stood for these things in the past. This is our current statement of how we will try to stand for these things in the future. That’s what our band is about.

But it was a funny song because the voices in it sort of do come from beyond the current moment, they’re talking about that other world: “People, get ready, there’s a train coming” – everybody knows what that refers to. It refers to both something that’s present, whether it’s a train of equality, justice, fairness, whatever, good times, joy, struggle – that train is coming into your life every single day of your life. And then there’s the train that you hop on maybe when that train has passed. It’s the train that you’re riding, your children are going to ride long after you’re gone, and there was a deep sense of that in the gospel church, and in the black community, that forged an enormous character and toughness. So for me, you’re talking about that, too. It’s the train that keeps going when I’m gone, and when your music and these times are just a memory. . . . These ideas are something that I wanted at the end of this record. We had a difficult time recording it, because we had a very good live version of it, so I had to find a way to reinvent it, rhythmically, and once again, I have to give credit to the fella that produced it with me, Ron Aniello, and Jon Landau, who also contributed an enormous amount to this record.

After that, the record ends with “We Are Alive.” How did that one come together?
When I got there, I needed one more song – I needed a strange kind of party. And “We Are Alive” provides that. It’s a party filled with ghosts. It’s a party filled with the dead, but whose voices and spirit and ideas remain with us and go on and on. That’s why I talk about the girls in Birmingham, the workers in Maryland and the new immigrants crossing the southern border. It’s just the recurrence and how the blood and spirit of all those people regenerate the country and what America is, generation after generation, so I end the record with a party of ghosts. Ghosts who are speaking to the living.

Throughout this album, you get a taste of many different Springsteen flavors. You have so many different constituencies that want so many different things from you. How do you deal with that?
Generally I do what I like at any given moment and let the people find out where they fit in. The only thing I do keep in mind is that I’m in the midst of a lifetime conversation with my audience, and I’m trying to keep track of that conversation. Martin Scorsese once said that “your job is to make your audience care about your obsessions.” So if the artist loses track of the conversation he’s having with his audience, he may lose us forever. So I try to keep track of that conversation, while giving myself the musical freedom I need.

You don’t want to shut people out.
No. I see the cops, the firefighters, the construction workers, the conservative guys, the Republicans, the Democrats. My family is filled with Republicans and Democrats, every Sunday night at the table, and so it’s not hung there on anybody’s political hat. I want people to just experience it as their own, and see where their ideas and their feelings fit inside of it. Its independence means a lot, because I respect the audience that comes to see me. I want them to be able to hear it as clearly as they can. I don’t want the horse to follow the cart.

Has that gotten harder as the times have gotten more divided? As you find that the partisan voices are getting more shrill, is it harder to put something out and feel like it lives beyond that conversation, and it can be the conversation you want to have?
The conversation I want to have with the audience is just the one that I want to have. There’s also the one they’re having with themselves, the one they’re having with their buddy, the one they’re having with their wife. It’s a wide-open playing field. We’ve been onstage and we’ve been booed by our own crowd.

I’ve been there.
I mentioned Bush being impeached at the Meadowlands in 2000-something, and some people booed, and that’s fine.

A conversation can be an argument. That’s the thing I don’t understand. That’s what Thanksgiving is for – you sit and you and your family argue out all different points of view, but you still love each other.
Yeah. I’m proud of our band in that we’ve maintained an audience who want to listen to us, in the sense that they’re interested in not just what you were saying in ’85 or ’80, but interested in what we’re saying right now – what’s the next step we’re going to take together, what are we going to argue about, what are we going to debate the meaning of?

How consciously did you translate some of your political ideas into songs?
It’s not something you can do when you push a button. You sit down, and if you’re lucky, the planets have aligned to the point where that anger and the craft you’ve learned combines with whatever that mysterious X factor is that allows you to scoop some of it up – and it turns into a piece of music. Before this record, I recorded almost 40 songs for another record I was working on that had nothing to do with any of this, and at one point, I threw it out. I said, “This is the wrong voice for me right now.”

[Deliberately meek] Can I hear that one too, sometime?
[Laughs] I hope so. I hope I wasn’t wasting my time. I spent a good amount of time doing it. I spent almost a year writing and recording it. But the songs had nothing to do with what was going on out there at all. They were more like, for lack of a better word, solo, a little quieter, and at the end of the day I sat back and looked at it and couldn’t get an album out of it. So I put that aside and cut this record, basically 10 songs in 10 days. You hit something, it’s like a visitation, you are up at night, the guitar sits at the foot of the bed, you’re up at 4 a.m., you have the book nearby, you have the tape recorder, and this goes on for maybe a week and a half or two weeks, and then it stops, it’s done. Once in a great while, that happens. So this record, I went in every day and recorded a different one of these songs, 10 days in a row. It was because I felt I really had something, once I asked the right questions, the questions of “We Take Care of Our Own.” Once I asked those questions, it helped me lock into the rest of the record. You know it when you catch a wave.

I used to love that feeling, nothing better than waking up to a joke. You wake up and go, “Shit, it’s right there.” It’s great.
And then if you take that joke and you’ve been able to integrate it with your deepest set of beliefs, it doesn’t get any better than that.

I always wondered, it’ s funny, as much as other people get out of it, it’s still such an oddly selfish pursuit. It’s scratching that itch deep inside you.
That’s why we’re narcissistic, self-serving bastards – our wives will guarantee. But sometimes it works.

When you’re revisited by that muse, is it a welcome friend? Do you ever worry, “That was my last visitation – Scrooge, you had three ghosts come see you, and that’s it”?
Here’s the thing, I finally talked myself out of that. I remember when I wrote The River, I was 30 years old, and I said, “I’m never going to write another good song again – that was it, I’ve peaked, I’m not going to write a good song ever again.” Then my kids came along, and at some point, Patti was assisting me in the fact that I was not as attentive a father as I should be, and my argument was, “Don’t you understand, I’m thinking of a song!”

You’re an artist, you can’t be bothered with raising children!
“I’m writing a song right now, I have to lay another golden egg or we’re all going down, and this whole place, this is all sinking!” One day I realized, “Wait, I’ve got it, I’ve got more music in my head than I’m going to live to put out.” But your son or your daughter, they’re going to be gone tomorrow, or the day after. I realized, “This is what’s going to be gone, and this is what’s going to always be here, not the other way around.” Music and art are always flowing through the ether – they’ll always be there – but life, life moves on and is gone. Life is locked in an eternal dance with time, and unlike art and time, the two can’t be separated.

After I realized that, I relaxed. Now if I’m humming something and I don’t have a recorder, maybe I’ll hum it again a little differently later. If I have an idea, it will come back. What’s happened is it’s percolated up in you and become concrete. Once it’s grown, it’s there. But it took me a long time to realize that, just because the fear of not telling another funny joke or writing another song is based in simple self-loathing. Which can come in handy.

Everybody’s first song, first joke, is “This is who I am, this is where I was raised, this is who my parents are.” Then you exhaust that, and are faced with “What do I write about now?” And you begin to look out. But that transition is a very tough one to make.
It really depends on where it takes you. It depends on how hard you’re paying attention. When I see performers who feel like they’ve lost their mojo, sometimes it’s that they’re just not paying hard enough attention. Your willingness to think hard about things and to remain interested in the world around you is really essential as you go on.

Personally, how are you dealing with the loss of Clarence?
Losing Clarence was like losing the rain. You’re losing something that has been so elemental in your life for such a long time. It was like losing some huge part of your own psychic construction – suddenly it’s just gone, everything feels less. Our relationship was just this immediate chemical connection that happened that first night in Asbury, as he was walking toward the stage: “Here comes my guy.”

Love at first sight.
Yeah, for me, anyway. Actually, the first time I asked him to join the band, he said he already had a job.

“Sounds great, but, no, man, I don’t think I can swing that.”
Yeah, he was playing with Norman Seldin and the Joyful Noyze, and I didn’t have a record deal or any immediate prospects. My recollection – and Clarence’s might have been different over the years – was he said, “I don’t know, I have a steady gig, I’m enjoying that,” then he disappeared.

I turned the record in to Columbia Records, and Clive Davis gave it back to me and said that there was nothing that could get played on the radio. My recollection is I went to the beach and I wrote “Spirit in the Night” and “Blinded by the Light,” and then we found Clarence somehow. Garry Tallent had played with him in a band called Little Melvin and the Invaders, which was an all-black band that played in the black clubs around Asbury Park – Clarence was the saxophonist and Garry was the only white member and bassist.

We were always trying to track Clarence down – he was this mysterious figure that you couldn’t quite get your hands on. We found him for the last two songs on Greetings From Asbury Park. He came in and laid down the magic, and I said, “Yeah, that’s my sound.” I said, “I’m going to go on tour,” and he said, “I’m ready,” and that was when we connected.

So even though we got up and played together that first night and it felt like magic, he was a little hesitant at first, because he had a steady job, and that was not to be undervalued at the time, because no one else did. Also, he had a very different life already – he had two children. He might have been divorced, so he had payments. He was in the adult world in the sense that he was a social worker at the Jamesburg youth reformatory. He worked as a counselor with the boys there.

I played at the boys’ facility there around that time! I was in a band, and I played for the fellas at the academy. We played big-band music – I was nine or 10. I played trumpet. I can’t believe I haven’t laid down tracks for you yet. We played all those songs like “In the Mood” and “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Golden Earrings.”
Can you still play that thing?

The embouchure is slightly out of shape thanks to the years of smoking, but I imagine I could do a few lip-ups and have myself back in shape in no time.
We have a horn section. We’re ready for you.

It must be a strange thing – to lose something that can t be replaced, and to find yourself in this position of other people saying, “So how are you going to replace that?”
Yeah. We’re not the first band that’s had to deal with that issue. That’s just the way that it is. In Clarence and my case, we were not just in a band together – we were a real duo, a team that existed not only within the structure of the E Street Band, but also apart from it as something powerful in and of itself. That’s something and someone you don’t replace, not 40 years of it. You just have to give thanks that it was a part of your life, that he was a part of my life, and honor what we did together.

You make that part of the conversation you’re having with your audience.
You have no other choice. And that’s what we’re going to do when we go out this time. It’s just a question of how you address it. We wanted people who were close to home, people who understood the band, not necessarily somebody who could play rings around the moon – all our guys are great players, but it’s not what we’re about. It was about how well you understand who we are and what we do and what we’re trying to do. We were very, very lucky, and we had Eddie Mani on, who worked with Southside Johnny over the years. He’s worked with me in the Seeger Sessions Band, he played with the E Street Band back in 1988, and we had Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew. Jake traveled with us on the last tour for quite a while with “C” – he’d picked up the saxophone as a youngster after he came to a show in 1988 and saw his uncle.

That’s how he got into it?
Yeah. He’s been a musician most of his life and has worked really hard. Between those two guys – and we have an excellent horn section we’re going to bring out this time – I feel really comfortable with how it’s going.

I imagine musicians having that mentality of “Go on without me – I’m down, I can’t keep going, but go on without me!”
I’ve seen some funny moments onstage. I’ve seen Max [Weinberg] stretchered into his dressing room, neck bolted down, and two hours later, in the middle of “Badlands,” playing like a banshee. I know what it took for him. I’ve seen the guys do some strange and funny things. At the end of the day, a show is just a show. It’s an act of theater, it’s pretend, it’s as deeply rooted in reality and real feelings as you can make it, but it’s a performance, and life and the things we’ve experienced the past couple of years, they’re bigger and broader than that. They’re real friendships you have with all these folks that were not part of what people saw – that were part of some mystical, strange chemical alchemy that you had with this person. I was my son Evan’s age when I met Clarence, 22. And I’m 62, right? So there was a huge relationship that occurred beyond our audience’s imaginations and dreams.

So I’m looking forward to the shows being a happy thing, a sad and happy thing. Like I said, people need to miss Clarence. I need to miss him, too. That’s what’s going to happen.

Do you have an idea for yourself of where this conversation is going? Are there conversations you’ve wanted to wrap up with the audience that you haven’t had a chance to?
It’s never going to be wrapped up. You’re never going to hear anything called an E Street Band farewell tour – that’s never going to exist. It just goes until it stops, and then it keeps going.

It doesn’t even stop then.

You can still get stimulated by things artistically. Do those things have to be greater and greater to break through to you, or is the muse still tuned as finely as it was?
You just have to be living and listening. I don’t have a wide knowledge of hip-hop – I listen to some, I have a glancing knowledge of it – but it found its way into this record. You have to let it impact you. You have to be open and see the value, hear what magic it holds, and somewhere down the line, maybe years later, suddenly there’s a little spot in your song where you go, “I know what this needs,” and it’s there for you. Listening, paying attention, being open – that’s supposed to be the natural development of adulthood.

What’s the development of adulthood? I knew it was something.
It’s supposed to be how we broaden and move into adulthood. We’re supposed to be picking up as we go – a larger experience of our world. It’s something I’ve tried to facilitate through what I’ve done – broaden people’s perspective, broaden people’s vision and assist people in seeing through to, for lack of a better word, the inner reality of things. Your show is basically an interpretive media class.

That may be the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about our show.
That’s one of the things it is. That did not exist, in that form, until you did it. You have to go back to some of the early stand-up, Mort Sahl . . .

It’s funny – what you were saying about how that song could have been sung in the 1800s, I feel that way about “The Daily Show.” There have always been people who do this, we’re just using the form and technology that exist now to express it.
This is what the guys at Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers forgot. They forgot that they are a part of a continuum of history, and it’s not about the fucking buck that you make today at whoever’s fucking expense. If there’s not a sense of continuity, a sense of some sort of communal obligation and responsibility, a sense of a future involved in what you’re doing, and a sense of being beholden to the past, you end up being one shallow, greedy motherfucker, just trying to get all you can get.

Now that’s a name for a song, “Shallow Greedy Motherfuckers.”
I had that one, but I left it off.

I love that you’ve never let the tail wag the dog, which is pretty surprising for a guy in rock & roll. I never saw you in a Ziggy Stardust suit – you were never that guy.
I would have looked completely ridiculous in it. Any time I tried to put anything on other than the boring things that I still wear, I just, for some reason, looked ridiculous. I wish I could have carried a little more flash.

Whatever you were wearing during those times, I can remember me and my friends hearing you and thinking, “Oh, we’re not alone. It feels like this guy knows us.” Maybe that’s the magic of the conversation.
At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. When I did your show, that’s the experience I’m having. It’s like, “Oh, my God, an island of sanity.”

I think this is when we should kiss and hug [laughs].

This article is from the March 29, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.


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