In the new issue of Rolling Stone, Bruce Springsteen gives his first major interviews in nearly a year – in the middle of the live action and euphoria of his current European stadium and festival tour. Backstage before shows in Padua and Milan, Italy, in the middle of writing set lists that he will largely ignore once he gets on stage and immerses himself in the moods and needs of his audiences, Springsteen, 63, speaks at length about the freshened, dynamic state of his E Street Band; the powerful, emotional resonance of his songs abroad, from the New Jersey tales of the early Seventies to the topical fire on last year’s Wrecking Ball; the passing of his great friend and saxophonist Clarence Clemons two years ago; and the arrival of Clarence’s nephew, Jake, blowing those iconic licks through his uncle’s original horns and taking Springsteen’s storytelling into a new, reborn phase.
“What are the odds that Clarence’s brother had a son that played the sax, that travelled with Clarence on the road . . . ,” Springsteen says at one point in Padua, his voice trailing off in amazement. “Jake allowed us to deal with Clarence’s legacy, to deal with death as it plays upon you.”
“You get to remember and rebuild,” he goes on, as the 40,000-strong crowd outside makes a mighty noise, anticipating showtime. “Something has happened through this period of time, in the United States and Europe, that greatly deepened our relationship with the audience. Now it’s a part of our experience together.”
What follows are additional excerpts from those interviews, including a notable announcement: Next year, Springsteen celebrates his 50th anniversary as a live performer and working musician. This is how he got there.
How would you describe the reception you get in Europe?
It’s fascinating. We played in Naples. It was only the second time I’ve played in southern Italy. We were about 30 minutes from where I’m actually from, Vico Equense [where Springsteen’s maternal grandfather was born]. I’m only one full generation away from these people I’m playing to. And they were incredible, not hidden at all. There is an emotional openness that is rare in the States.
Why do the songs on ‘Wrecking Ball’ resonate so strongly with European audiences, given the Stateside conditions addressed in the lyrics?
The last time we played Ireland – we noticed they were going through very hard times. “Jack of All Trades” was a big song there. They were right in the middle of what that song is about. But generally, it’s not an intellectual experience. The nice thing is the songs fall in the body of the show. It extends your story down the road. And if you get a chance to sit with individual fans and talk about it, it kind of comes out there.
They are not issues that are easily ignored. But I’ve been writing about these things for so long now. It’s been a conscious 30, 35 years. And it was before that, sort of naturally. The fascinating thing, when we come over here, is the band is so fundamentally American. We have a very generous audience. They are interested in the ideas that we’re talking about. Maybe it’s because it’s somewhat exotic. But there is a level of interest. People are politically conscious.
Have your recent European tours played a part in extending the life of the E Street Band? You keep coming here at a time when, for many bands of your vintage, doing the States is like repeating a cycle.
We have one simple idea – we are on the planet to do it for you one more time. [Laughs] What happened yesterday or the year before or 30 years ago – we hope we did a good job then. But we are here to do it for you one [pauses] more [pauses] time. We’re trying to write one more song that’s going to mean something to you, the way I hope some of my earlier music connected. And we’re here to play one more show that feels like tonight was the greatest night we ever played. That’s just a road-dog code of honor. We’re not out here to pass the time.
The Big Band Era
So this is not a summer vacation.
No. The thing that has always served our band is I had a delivery system that was unique. I go back to the very beginning. I was signed to a record label at the same time as my friend Elliot Murphy, who makes great records to this day. I was signed along with Loudon Wainwright III, John Prine.
The so-called New Dylans.
But I was the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Because I had spent eight or nine years in that hard-core bar-band experience, before I signed a contract. I played in front of every conceivable audience you could face: an all-black audience, all-white, firemen’s fairs, policemen’s balls, in front of supermarkets, bar mitzvahs, weddings, drive-in theaters. I’d seen it all before I ever walked into a recording studio.
You need two things to remain very, very present. You need to continue to write well and engage yourself in the issues of the day. And you have to continue to make good, relevant records. People say, “I have the record from 20 years ago. I don’t need the new one.” No, you need to make records where if people are interested in your world, then they need the new one. Because there is something new in it.
You have also toured for the last year and a half with a new, very large E Street Band, with horns, extra singers and percussion.
The Seeger Sessions band – I incorporated some of the things from that. Then when Clarence passed away, we were fortunate that Jake was there. And I have not toured with a horn section since the late Eighties. So it was, “Let’s give that a try.” There is a range of expression over the course of a night that divides, very specifically, this band from previous E Street Bands. It’s a real re-thinking of what the band is.
Does it free you as a performer, having that armory behind you?
I had a ten-piece band when I was 21 years old, the Bruce Springsteen Band. This is just a slightly expanded version of a band I had before I ever signed a record contract. We had singers and horns.
How did you pay them?
That was the problem. Paying and travelling were impossible. I think we might have played a dozen shows. We travelled in the back of a Hertz truck – with the equipment [laughs]. It didn’t last long. The band went back to being five pieces. But the idea was there. And I can afford it now.
But the point is the band and the live performance as a tool of rejuvenation. It keeps your music alive, vibrant, present. That has been of tremendous value to us. It just stirs it to life, every single night. You can’t underestimate that particular power.
50 Years and Counting
You talk a lot about the “we”. What about the “me” feeling, the life force for you? You’ve been doing this since the mid-Sixties.
It’s actually 50 years next year [laughs].
Doesn’t that seem extraordinary to you?
I’m not sure I envisioned it at the time. When I started, I was 14 and 1/2. I remember there was a circle of guys on the beach every Sunday. I said, “I’d just like to play well enough to sit in that circle. All I want to do is play well enough so on a particular Sunday, I can sit in that circle of guys and play along.” It was 19 or 20 guys. They’d play “La Bamba,” “Twist and Shout.”
Guitars and bongos?
That’s all it was, on the main beach in Manasquan [New Jersey]. Then I’d go see bands. I’d watch the guy who stood in the back, the rhythm-guitar player. “I’d just like to be that guy. I’d just like to be there – know some chords, give me my spot. Let me be good enough just to be a part of it.” That was my dream.
And I followed it. And it turned into a life, one I wouldn’t have had the courage to imagine when I was young. But piece by piece. . . So now, it doesn’t seem strange that I have been doing it for 50 years.
It’s what I do. And what do I do? I live to do it for you one more time [laughs]. That’s what seems natural to me. What I can’t imagine is not doing that. That’s your primary life force. I go back home after a tour, what am I thinking about? “What story needs to be told? What do I have to say of urgency to a 15-year-old kid, or a 70-year-old guy, out there?”
That is an appetite. It’s like breathing. It’s not something I have to work on. And it doesn’t strike me as work. It’s just an adventure. I’m always looking for that next line, that next song.
It’s the old Dylan line: “He who is not busy being born. . .” I live by that one a lot.