At the music hall in Boston in late May, Bruce Springsteen begins a song in almost total darkness, a single blue spotlight faintly limning the singer during the quiet opening minutes of “Thunder Road.” It’s a magic moment, avoiding pretentiousness only because it works. Springsteen has carefully cultivated the Method actor’s idiosyncratic timing, added a professional street character’s sense of the dramatic, a dancer’s knack for picaresque tableaux, and wrapped the whole package in explosive vulnerability and the practiced pose of a tender, punky hood. Thus the upcoming, split-second move from singular near-silence into vehement, resounding rock & roll as the band joins in-a strategy picked up from R&B groups and one which Springsteen will repeat all night–is a surprise only to the uninitiated, a delicious treat to the aficionado. The sound of the bass drum is so loud that the girl on my left literally clutches her heart. Tonight has an air of expectancy–one may say even privilege. There’s an intensity present, a premonition that this is where the best music in America might well be happening in the next few hours, and the hope that it may be true. It is. Between songs, Springsteen practically becomes a member of the audience. He prowls the edge of the stage, shaking hands and talking to those ecstatic fans who, by standing on their seats, can lean forward and touch him. He’s an easy mark. After “Born to Run,” when the crowd offers him a tremendous ovation, he subverts the applause by holding up his guitar as if it were some communal instrument of magic, something which he alone does not own. All of a sudden, I realize that we are making this glorious noise not for the pride of one man but for the power of rock & roll.
Backstage, Bruce Springsteen is so shy and unassuming you could mistake him for his own roadie. Since he’s shaved his beard, few people seem to recognize him immediately, a fact that producer Jon Landau verifies by saying that, during the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen could walk the streets of New York City totally unnoticed. Now, sipping a Pepsi and making everyone feel at home, he appears both eager to get people’s reactions to the concert and LP and anxious to avoid drawn-out analytical questions about What It All Means. The notoriety of those Time and Newsweek cover stories about Born to Run still seems to haunt him somewhat, but like a tired, albeit polite, host who might secretly wish he could postpone all discussion until things cool out a bit, he’s a model of professional and personal courtesy.
Springsteen and I first met in 1973, right before his first record, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., came out. Tonight, I’m aware that this friendship gives me an edge – that instead of giving me a formal interview, he’d probably rather just talk – and I’m more than a little uneasy about it. When the tape recorder is turned on, both of us are careful not to cross a certain line. I’m glad to see him, but wish the circumstances were different. He seems to feel the same way.
Springsteen laughs when I ask him if it’s true that he once said people riding in cars were his genre, and that he’d like to begin every song with the same line or image. And often seems to.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “During the record, I think Jon [Landau] said, ‘What’s all this about these cars?’ I think we were doing ‘Prove It All Night,’ and it had a different first verse. But it [the car imagery] is just a general thing that forms the action in a particular way. The action is not the imagery, you know. The heart of the action is beneath all that stuff. There’s a separate thing happening all the time. I sort of always saw it as the way certain people make certain kinds of movies.”
Like detective movies and westerns?
“That’s always how I saw the songs. They always had a sort of drive–in quality to them.” Springsteen is animated now, smiling, punctuating his sentences with his hands. “Like I wasn’t really going for – in a way, I was, aiming for the big Hollywood opening, but they really had more of a drive-in quality. Which is what I wanted because that’s where I wanted to work. Plus I’d gotten into seeing movies. I saw The Grapes of Wrath on TV, which I used to turn off.”
I shake my head in mock sorrow and horror. Springsteen breaks up.
“That’s a terrible thing to say, but I always remember turning it off and turning on something that was in color. Then I realized it was a stupid thing to do because one night Jon and I watched it, and it opened up a whole particular world to me. It was very interesting, just a way to watch movies–just a way to observe things, period. Over the past year or two, I got into all the John Ford westerns and seeing just how he made his particular movies.”
Sometimes Ford and other auteur directors remade the same movie with a slightly different emphasis, I suggest.
“Yeah, and that had a big influence on the way I approached my own work. I loved all those movies, you know. I just felt real close to that stuff.”
So close, in fact, that he and Landau, while trying to come up with a name for the new album, jokingly flipped through the film–titles index of Andrew Sarris’ classic text, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968. Springsteen’s choice was American Madness; Landau’s, History Is Made at Night.
Bruce Springsteen credits Jon Landau as being “a big help to me. He helped me see things – to see into things – and somehow it would come out in the songs. It’s hard to explain. There’s a certain little consciousness barrier that gets broken down. What happens in a funny sense is if you grow up in a particular house where the concept of art is twenty minutes in school every day that you hate, and there’s no books, no music, there’s nothing – well, until you bump into someone who grew up in a house that had a lot of books and different stuff, it’s [difficult]. That’s a problem for a lot of people – a lot of my friends. You just don’t bump into [anyone who’s] going to make you more able to use whatever brains you’ve got.