Bruce Springsteen: ‘You can change a life in three minutes with the right song’

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Bruce Springsteen: ‘You can change a life in three minutes with the right song’” was written by Michael Hann, for The Observer on Sunday 30th October 2016 09.00 UTC

Bruce Springsteen exists at that rarified level of fame where you get to move like a Dalek, without ever actually having to touch anything. When he is out in public, at least – when he is being the Springsteen who is Brooooooce, the Springsteen who is the Boss, rather than the one who’s been married for 25 years and has three kids – no obstacles stand in his way. No door is left unopened, no person steps out in front of him, and if you find yourself in his orbit, you can’t help but find the gravitational pull of stardom yanking you into your position.

I’ve seen and experienced this a couple of times. In 2010, when he attended a screening of the documentary about him, The Promise, at BFI Southbank in London, a friend and I were walking down the red carpet towards the cinema when there was a stir around us; we felt it before we noticed the faces lining the barriers turning in one direction. Behind us, Springsteen had alighted from a people carrier. We panicked – We’re not meant to be here! Where do we go? – and made ourselves as small and invisible at the edge of the carpet as we could while he ambled past and the energy followed behind. I don’t remember how the doors opened, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t have to lift a finger.

Then backstage at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, this past June. Springsteen was just finishing his final number – an acoustic version of his wonderful 1975 redemption song Thunder Road. We were in the access tunnel at the side of the stage, where a fleet of black luxury cars lined up, windows tinted, engines ticking over, waiting for him and the band to leave the stage, to be whisked from the stadium before the house lights have flashed on, while tens of thousands are still finishing their drinks and working out where the nearest exit is. It is, doubtless, the same wherever he plays.

Watch a young Bruce Springsteen perform Thunder Road.

The 67-year-old Bruce Springsteen who enters the room at his favoured London luxury hotel – door opened by someone else, naturally, and it took three people to wait with me for him to enter – has skin the colour of wealth and clothes so casual they could only be expensive: a close-fitting jacket, a slightly scoop-necked T-shirt, and jeans whose left leg is flecked with white paint, as if he’s just been touching up the cornicing in the corridors. You half wonder if someone splattered the paint on for him, just to keep things looking blue collar.

He’s here promoting his autobiography, Born to Run. Before London, he’d been on a nine-date book tour of US cities, meeting his flock, opening – touchingly – with an appearance in his home town of Freehold, New Jersey (pop: 12,052), to which people travelled from across the east coast. Even that turned into a major operation: the Guardian reported that at least eight police officers were on duty around the branch of Barnes and Noble, with around twice that number of private security guards.

Springsteen estimates he has scrawled his signature on 17,000 copies of the book. Perhaps surprisingly, he’s rather enjoyed the experience. “You meet the fans – only for 10 seconds, but you meet them one by one,” he says. “And they have an opportunity: what’s the one thing you always wanted to say over the 40 years of the relationship we’ve had? I actually found it quite moving. Always enjoyed that part. I used to love to drift around, bump into people, see what their lives were like, wander into their lives for a few moments then drift back out. It appealed to the transient nature of my personality. I liked the idea of being here and then being gone, this little spirit moving through the world.”

A couple of days before we meet, he opens the European leg of his promo jaunt with an event in front of an invited audience of journalists at the ICA in London, where he notes that when the fans have met him, one of the commonest responses has been: “You’re shorter than I expected.” Here, too, the reverence is striking. When questions are opened to the floor, someone identifying himself as “Eddie from Ireland” tells Springsteen: “Such is the affection that the people of Ireland have for you, that if you ran for president of Ireland in the morning, you’d be elected.” When the event winds up, a throng of middle-aged men gathers at the front of the stage to get their copies of Born to Run signed.

It is a pretty decent book, in a genre – the rock autobiography – replete with stinkers. (But then, you’d hope it would be a pretty decent book given that Springsteen was reportedly paid $10m to write it.) It deserves to have topped the bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic, for its honesty about Springsteen’s difficult childhood, his troubled relationship with his father, his struggles with depression, and his unyielding faith in the redemptive power of rock’n’roll. He writes about the first time depression struck, in the early 1980s, in a way that resonates powerfully: he is on a road trip with a friend, stopping at a small-town fair, when, “From nowhere, a despair overcomes me; I feel an envy of these men and women and their late summer ritual, the small pleasures that bind them and this town together. Now, for all I know these folks may hate this one-dog dump and each other’s guts and be screwing one another’s husbands and wives like rabbits. Why wouldn’t they? But right now, all I can think of is that I want to be amongst them, of them, and I can’t. I can only watch.”

That depression still haunts him, fended off by performing – in the book he talks of being “crushed between 60 and 62, good for a year, and out again from 63 to 64” – and I want to ask what his favoured antidepressant is, whether Sertraline (Zoloft in the States) performed the miracles for him it did for me. But there doesn’t really seem to be a good way to ask about a hero’s pill regimen.

***

It’s less than a month, when we speak, before the US elections, and Springsteen is getting increasingly confident that Donald Trump won’t win. He’s no less scathing about the Republican candidate for that confidence, though. We talk about the contrast between the American ideal of masculinity – generous, confident, empathetic, determined; the one you think of when you imagine the “Greatest Generation” who fought in the second world war – and the one Trump presents. He laughs at the difference. “In Trump’s case, the facade is easy to see through, and what you see is a bundle of anxiety, fragility and insecurity,” he says. “It’s the thinnest possible mask of masculinity. And it wouldn’t fool anybody from the Greatest Generation.” There’s a faint hesitation around his use of those words, as if acknowledging that not everyone who fought in the war, including his father, was necessarily great. “It’s such a thin costume that for me it doesn’t hold for a moment. But there have been quite a few people he has attracted along the way, so I suppose the bluster works to a certain degree. He’s really quite an embarrassment if you’re from the USA. It’s simply the most rigid and thinnest veil of masculinity over a mess.”

Watch Bruce Springsteen campaign for Barack Obama in 2012.

Springsteen notes that he’s been asked about Trump a lot as he’s promoted his book. And, despite a reputation for political engagement, he’s evidently a little tired of it. In fact, he’s been relatively quiet this election. Though he appeared at campaign events for both Barack Obama and John Kerry, he hasn’t stumped for Hillary Clinton. His most notable piece of activism this year came in April when he pulled out of a show in North Carolina in protest at the state’s “bathroom law”, dictating which public toilets transgender people could use: “To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognising the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress,” he wrote on his website at the time.

His politics are simple, and basically non-partisan. When he’s used his voice it has tended to be to support specific causes – his tours have supported food banks in cities where he’s played; he went on Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! tour in 1988; he donated £16,000 to Durham miners during the 1985 miners’ strike. In song, he has returned repeatedly – not just in Born in the USA – to the plight of America’s Vietnam veterans.

He believes in fairness, people being treated decently, the right to a job, medical treatment, education, decent housing, childcare, and open government. He once surprised an interviewer by observing: “To me, these are all conservative ideas… Economic stability. Health. That’s not remotely radical.”

Arguably the biggest influence on his politics was his manager, Jon Landau, the former music writer whom he met when he was studying a gig review pinned up outside a Boston club before his appearance in April 1974. Landau, the review’s writer, sidled up and asked the young musician what he thought. Thus began a friendship that transformed into a professional relationship, and something more: in Born to Run, Springsteen speaks of him being “the Clark to my Lewis”. It’s not so much that Landau told Springsteen what to think, more that he guided him to the books and films that might provoke him to think.

One of the binds of that, though, is the number of heartland American fans – the ones who are voting Trump – who believe Springsteen would think like them if only, as one contributor to the Backstreets fansite recently suggested, he hadn’t been “brainwashed” into liberalism by Landau and others in his inner circle. On the other hand, there are those who think it outrageous that someone whose songs display an extraordinary empathy for ordinary people should dare to have homes in New Jersey, Florida and Los Angeles, and charge £100 per ticket to see him (the guarantee he demands from promoters for live shows is reputed to be among the largest in music; certainly, I received no reply from Landau last year when I wrote offering a guaranteed £700 and a lift down from London in my Ford Focus if Springsteen fancied playing a solo set at Ramsgate Music Hall).

For Springsteen, politics seems to be about the way you live your life as much as anything. It’s about being decent. About being fair to others. Being a good man. So what does being a good man entail?

“That’s a big question,”

It is.

“I guess, really… I probably learned the best answers to that from my mother. My mother was basically decent, compassionate, strong, wilful. She insisted on creating a world where she could make her children feel as safe as possible, even though she certainly had her faults in that area. But she was consistent. You could count on her. Day after day after day. And she was very strong. The best part of me picked up a lot of those characteristics and I struggle to live up to them today. So I think dependability, strength, wilfulness… put in the service of something good – those are the things that matter to me.”

Bruce Springsteen photographed in New Jersey, October 1979.
Bruce Springsteen photographed in New Jersey, October 1979. Photograph: The Estate of David Gahr/Getty Images

His mother had to be the rock because his childhood in New Jersey was, to say the least, peculiar. He spent a chunk of it in the early 1950s living in Freehold with a paternal grandmother who loved him too much, compensating for the death of her daughter in 1927 (“It was very emotionally incestuous and a lot of parental roles got crossed,” he told the writer Peter Ames Carlin); school was cruel, his father Doug – consumed by an often silent rage against the world, and against the son who mystified him – crueller still, emotionally at least.

Born to Run paints a picture of a childhood that is semi-feral, where Springsteen might refuse to go to school, and his grandmother would back him up. “I think I was a little unusual in that I went into rock’n’roll music to create order out of my life,” he says. “My younger life felt rather chaotic, so I was in search of some stability, actually, some order.”

As a kid, he felt invisible. That stopped when he started playing guitar. “Suddenly I was able to make a very loud noise, and a noise that was not so easy to ignore,” he says. “I had my little rock’n’roll band and we were playing to a small gym full of dancers and their friends, and they immediately looked at you as a presence in their lives.”

When he was 19 his parents moved to California, and he was free to pursue music, to become – as he would say on stage years later – a “prisoner… a prisoner of rock’n’roll”.

Politics started entering Springsteen’s music, though far from explicitly, with his fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, in 1978. That was when his music ceased to be the myth-making epics of his first three albums, and he started writing instead about ordinary people and their struggles. He wasn’t informed by reading political tracts. “I just referred to my experiences growing up – my parents’ lives, my sister’s life.”

Watch a trailer for the documentary Springsteen & I.

His parents had struggled to make ends meet, his mother working as a legal secretary, his father in a succession of blue-collar jobs. His sister had married in her teens, and she and her husband’s travails inspired his masterly song The River, about a couple trying to face up to the wedge that joblessness drives into relationships. “I was surrounded by people who were youthful but living very complicated adult lives,” he says. “They were having kids at young ages and trying to build a work life and a home life that was very adult. It was very easy to draw upon. It wasn’t a stretch or a strain.”

***

The songs about ordinary lives – combined with Springsteen’s revelatory, ecstatic live performances – built the bond with his audience that has lasted more than 40 years, and itself became the subject of an extraordinarily moving film in 2013, Springsteen & I. I don’t think he takes that relationship for granted. He understands that people want a piece of him for themselves: at that BFI Southbank event in 2010, Springsteen came to the bar afterwards; while his entourage sat in the corner, talking to one another, he perched on the back of a sofa facing the room. A receiving line of people queueing for a photo and autograph formed, and he stayed until everyone had their moment (my photo was out of focus; I got the autograph for my sister).

People think they know Springsteen. They have an image of Bob Dylan (inscrutable), Neil Young (irascible), Paul McCartney (wearingly cheerful; Springsteen laughs when I use the old Smash Hits name of Fab Wacky Macca Thumbs Aloft). But they can imagine watching sports in a bar with Springsteen, which perhaps accounts for why people get a bit overexcited – I do not excuse myself from this – at the prospect of meeting him (fan accounts of encounters almost always dwell, approvingly, on what an ordinary guy he is. Even if he is shorter than expected).

They think they know Springsteen because, these days, he’s as much an idea, an ideal, as a person.

“Sure, that’s true,” he says, of that notion. “You bring with you an entire philosophy, a certain code of living, I suppose. It’s something you pursue. My heroes were people like Frank Sinatra, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan. These were all people who brought their entire philosophy along with them, created a world that would engulf you and give you you, assist you in different ways of living, different ways of presenting yourself. Those were the artists that always interested me. They always seemed to carry a realisation of what being a musician might mean, could mean, the possibilities of what being a musician could be. That was something I was at least semiconscious of trying to create.”

Springsteen performing with his wife, Patti Scialfa, in 2005.
Springsteen performing with his wife, Patti Scialfa, in 2005. Photograph: KMazur/WireImage

And when did he realise he had become an idea in the minds of his public?

“I’m not sure. If you’re doing it right, it’s a byproduct of all your actions and all your choices and what you’ve created.”

It should be noted at this point that Springsteen appears to know exactly what he thinks about every aspect of his life and art and how they interact. I guess that’s inevitable. First, he’s just written a 500-page book about those subjects; second, he’s been in therapy for decades; third, he and Landau based their entire relationship on talking at exhaustive length about all this stuff. But, for an interviewer, it’s a bit odd. The most fascinating moments in interviews usually come when you catch a subject by surprise and you can see them deciding what they think about something. With Springsteen, it feels more like he’s searching through his mental hard drive for the relevant file.

That’s not to say his answers are not fascinating (they are) or cursory (they very much are not). When asked what he means when he says his covenant with his audience depends on honesty, he replies without pause, without any errs or urrms, in a single perfect paragraph, that requires not one piece of tidying in the transcription: “I guess we come out and deliver the straight dope to our crowd as best we can. It’s coming on stage with the idea: OK, well the stakes that are involved this evening are quite high. I don’t know exactly who’s in the crowd. But I know that my life was changed in an instant by something that people thought was purely junk – pop music records. And you can change someone’s life in three minutes with the right song. I still believe that to this day. You can bend the course of their development, what they think is important, of how vital and alive they feel. You can contextualise very, very difficult experiences. Songs are pretty good at that. So all these are the stakes that are laid out on the table when you come out at night. And I still take those stakes seriously after all that time, if not more so now, as the light grows slightly dimmer. I come out believing there’s no tomorrow night, there wasn’t last night, there’s just tonight. And I have built up the skills to be able to provide, under the right conditions, a certain transcendent evening, hopefully an evening you’ll remember when you go home. Not that you’ll just remember it was a good concert, but you’ll remember the possibilities the evening laid out in front of you, as far as where you could take your life, or how you’re thinking about your friends, or your wife or your girlfriend, or your best pal, or your job, your work, what you want to do with your life. These are all things, I believe, that music can accommodate and can provide service in. That’s what we try to deliver.”

I email that paragraph to a Springsteen obsessive friend, who blogs about both Springsteen and burgers. She writes back: “It sounds silly, and I try to explain to people, but going to Springsteen shows has shaped a lot of changes in my life. I went to South Africa for a week on my own for four concerts, felt revived, like I could achieve anything. So I left my job and tried to get into journalism, something I’d wanted to do since I was 10. And that’s why I feel like I have to go to Australia [to see Springsteen next year], too, because I need to find that direction again. It’s a funny way to live your life, seeking these highs, living the lows, but ultimately I think I’m better off for it. I really don’t know what I’d do without his music in my life.”

Watch the video for Bruce Springsteen’s Tougher Than the Rest.

I ask Springsteen if he ever looks at fansites and messageboards.

“No.” (I bet he does. I really, really bet he does.)

Then is he unaware of the section of his hardcore fanbase who complain that his sets are too predictable because he only changes half of a three-hour-plus set from night to night, instead of the whole thing? “I’ve seen that,” he says. “You have to indulge your hardcore fans. It’s really all right.”

You’re more tolerant than I’d be. I’d tell them where to get off. No one else changes their sets like you! They should be grateful!

He doesn’t reply. He just laughs long and hard, his head back, his eyes creasing.

***

On 5 June this year, as the sun set over Wembley Stadium, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band struck up the sombre opening chords of Tougher Than the Rest, the 1987 single about the difficulties of adult love that marked his return after Born in the USA had made him the world’s biggest rock star. Stepping up to the front of the stage to duet with him was Patti Scialfa, a member of the E Street Band since 1984, and his second wife – his first marriage, to Julianne Phillips, ended quickly (in Born to Run, Springsteen admits he was wholly unready for it). Three days after performing what might as well be their theme song, Scialfa and Springsteen marked their 25th wedding anniversary.

Her presence changed not just Springsteen’s life but his work, too. The E Street Band stopped being an all-male preserve, a gang, forcing a change in their behaviour and attitudes. “I think women are in general a good influence on growing up, on growing into your manhood,” he says, delicately.

And then when they had children – two sons, Evan and Sam, born in 1990 and 1994, and a daughter, Jessica, in 1991 – his life was altered even more profoundly. “If I was going to chop my life into sections,” he says, “it would be before the children and after the children, certainly. Just changed my entire worldview. Changed the way I looked at myself. Changed the way I looked at my job. Gave me an entirely separate identity away from my music, which I found to be very fulfilling.”

Springsteen in concert in 1984
Springsteen performing in 1984, the year Born in the USA took him to new commercial heights. Photograph: Images Press/Getty Images

Before he had children, Springsteen had assumed that whatever he was working on was what everyone around him should be concentrating on. He recalls his bafflement when Jon Landau had his first child, and would suddenly start leaving recording sessions at 6pm, to go and bathe his baby daughter. “I remember thinking…” he adopts a puzzled tone, “You gotta go home and bathe your daughter? We’re doing A, B, C or D, which I happen to think is the most important thing in the world right now. But of course it’s not.”

Having children made Springsteen realise that his work wasn’t his life, it was a substitute for life. “I realised that previously I’d expanded my work life so that I’d have something to do during the day, and into the evening. Without it, what am I gonna do? Go home, sit in a chair and watch TV? So I’d expanded the time it took me to do my job. Once the kids came along, I realised, I could squeeze my previous 18 hours of work day into six or eight, without any problems whatsoever. I realised the song is always going to be there – there’s always going to be a song in your heart or in your head – but kids, they’re there and then they’re gone. And when they’re gone, they’re gone. Once I realised that, I found a tremendous freedom from the tyranny of my own mind.”

You couldn’t say that Springsteen has slowed down, though, especially now the kids are gone. This summer’s tour of European and US stadiums saw him playing some of his longest ever shows, breaking the four-hour barrier – with no intermissions, unlike his late-70s marathons – on occasion. Springsteen says he has no problems finding the energy to play them, but it’s not so easy for some of his bandmates. Before Springsteen arrives, his co-manager Barbara Carr mentions that Max Weinberg, the 65-year-old drummer, spends all his time between shows sequestered in his hotel room, the windows blacked out, the gaps between door and frame filled to block out all noise, simply recuperating from the previous gig.

That’s the price the band must pay in order to deliver what Springsteen wants: “I come out on stage to deliver to you the greatest band in the world,” he says. “I still have great pride in what I do. I still believe in its power. I believe in my ability to transfer its power to you. That’s never changed. One of the things our band was very good at communicating was that sense of joy, which I think makes us somewhat unique. Rock bands try to project a lot of different things: intensity, mystery, sexuality, cool. Not a lot of rock bands concentrate on joy, and I got that from my relatives on the Italian side – they lived it and they passed it down to me.”

The ambition that drove him to chase perfection 40 years ago – when he would spend hours shouting “Stick!” at Weinberg in the studio, insisting he somehow find a way to play his snare without the sound of stick hitting the skin being audible – is still present.

I ask if, for all his testimonies to the simple power of playing rock’n’roll, and how he says he’s happy pitching up for an impromptu set at a local bar with a pick-up band, whether he would have been content if he’d ended up precisely as popular as his friends and contemporaries Southside Johnny and Joe Grushecky, blue-collar rockers who never transcended the clubs. “I would probably be an old, disgruntled entertainer,” he says, then chuckles at the very notion that he might not have conquered the world. “I was shooting for the whole show. But I certainly would have made my peace with it. Any time you make your living as a musician, you’re way ahead of the game. You’re way ahead of the game. I always thought: Gee, I’m making a living scratching on a piece of wood. I can’t complain too much.”

In 1975, when he was promoting the Born to Run album, there was a story Springsteen used to tell interviewers. While he was recording the album in New York, he was staying in a grotty outpost of Holiday Inn, in one of Manhattan’s less salubrious districts. In his room was a mirror, which hung crooked. Every morning he would dutifully straighten the mirror. And when he returned to his room, the mirror would be askew again. And so, once more, he’d correct it. And again it would slip off centre.

It is, I suggest, a perfect metaphor for a man driven, even when the reasons for his drive, his desperation, might seem unclear to those around him. He smiles. And, rather unexpectedly, quotes Immanuel Kant back at me: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

And then the door opens, and he glides away, no obstacles in his path.

Born to Run is published by Simon & Schuster (£20). Click here to buy it for £16.40

Bruce’s backpages: the songs that define Springsteen

Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
1973
A showstopping, Van Morrisonesque epic that’s still a highlight of Springsteen’s live shows, Rosalita sprawls and swerves and swings, irresistibly. It also has the couplet that most encapsulates the joy it must have been to be young and on the cusp of greatness: “Tell him this is his last chance to get his daughter in a fine romance / Cos the record company, Rosie, they just gave me a big advance.”

Born to Run
1975
It took until his third album for Springsteen to write the song that defined him, and of which he has still not tired. “Good songs collect the years, cumulative meaning,” he says. “They grow with you. Play Born to Run and it just allows more people in. I’ll see a 15-year-old kid singing every word, and I’ll see a grandma too! A good song keeps its arms open and welcomes those who come to it over the years.”

Darkness on the Edge of Town
1978
The album Darkness on the Edge of Town saw Springsteen ditching mythologising and writing about adult dilemmas. “I was very concerned about writing music that I felt an adult voice could sing,” he says. “I felt that was a trap some bands fell into. I never wanted to have to come out on stage and pretend. Of course, it’s all pretending, I suppose. But I wanted to feel comfortable in my own skin.”

The River
1980
In growing up, Springsteen says, “you have to come face to face with a lot of your weaknesses and the things you do poorly, so that you’re able to assess the landscape and find out what are the righteous paths you can travel down, and what are the roads that are just going to lead you to a dead end. The River, of course, is the song I wrote about that specific idea.”

Born in the USA
1982
The acoustic version recorded at the time of the Nebraska album allows none of the ambiguity of the stadium-crushing version released two years later. Spare and haunted, a howl from the margins, and utterly unsuited to being co-opted by Ronald Reagan, it would remain unreleased until the 1998 Tracks box set.

Brilliant Disguise
1987
Springsteen’s first marriage failed – but led to the brilliant, introspective album Tunnel of Love. This single seemed to be an autobiographical take on his relationship, with a devastating payoff: “God have mercy on the man / Who doubts what he’s sure of.”

The Ghost of Tom Joad
1995
The lives of the dispossessed were the theme of the largely acoustic album The Ghost of Tom Joad. The title track seems to echo Born to Run when it claims “the highway is alive tonight”. But this time “nobody’s kidding nobody about where it goes”. Desolate and beautiful.

Long Walk Home
2007
An idealised small-town America turns out to be a ghost town as the Bush years come to a close – “the diner was shuttered and boarded, with a sign that just said ‘Gone’.” To get back to the America of the national dream will take a long walk – so long we shouldn’t wait up for Bruce.

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