You can tell a lot about a musician by how he or she arrives at an interview. Some come with a manager, others with a publicist, some come with bodyguards, others with a retinue of hangers-on. Bruce Springsteen came to this interview alone. he drove himself from his home in Rumson, New Jersey, to the Sony Studios in Manhattan in his black Ford Explorer, and he arrived early. Sitting in solitude with his back to the door in a darkened conference room, a mass of flannel and denim with a glinting silver-cross earring, he didnt need much prodding to be talked into heading to a nearby bar for drinks and atmosphere.
Springsteen entered the 1990s on shaky ground. He fired his longtime back-up group, the E-Street Band, bought a $14 million spread in Beverly Hills, divorced his first wife, model Julianne Phillips, and married a member of his backing band, Patti Scialfa. Since then, his career has been the subject of hot debate. What is his relevance in the Nineties? Does his solo work hold up to his recordings with the E-Street Band? Is he losing touch with his audience?
But in the past year, Springsteen ended the debate. He recorded his most successful solo song ever, "Streets of Philadelphia," earning himself a shelf full of Grammys and an Academy Award, and reformed the E-Street Band to record new songs for his Greatest Hits album, which debuted at Number One on the charts. On Labor Day weekend, he will perform at the opening ceremony for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame museum in Cleveland, an institution he will no doubt be inducted into when he is eligible in two years.
In a rough cut of a documentary now being put together from 23 hours of film that were shot while the revived E-Street band was recording the new songs last winter, the reunion seemed like an easy one. Three days after Springsteen called the band, they were in the studio, stretching what was supposed to be a two-day process into one which took a full week. In one scene that doesnt seem created for the camera, the band gives its saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, a cake on his birthday and he gushes, "This is the best present a person could have for his birthday, being among you guys."
The documentary also shows the recording of "Secret Garden," a song that Springsteen originally wrote for his upcoming solo album. Here, he demonstrates the E-Streets democratic approach when he hands out a torn-up pieces of paper so that the band can anonymously vote for or against the inclusion of string arrangements. (The strings lost.)
Springsteen takes his interviews as seriously as he takes his music. During the two-hour discussion, he stared intently across the table, face still except for batting eyes, body solid and immobile except for constantly fidgeting hands, and set about answering each question as meaningfully as he could. Giving the waitress a 200 percent tip for his beer and a shot of tequila, he pulled up a chair at a table next to the jukebox in a dark corner of the bar and began talking.
GUITAR WORLD: What does it mean to you to have a "greatest hits" album?
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Its interesting because when I started out making music, I wasnt fundamentally interested in having a big hit right away, I was into writing music that was going to thread its way into people's lives. I was interested in becoming a part of people's lives, and having some usefulness- that would be the best word. I would imagine that a lot of people that end up going into the arts or film or music were at some point told by somebody that they were useless. Everyone has felt that. So I know that one of the main motivations for me was to try to be useful, and then, of course, there were all those other pop dreams of the Cadillac or the girls. All the stuff that comes with it was there, but sort of on the periphery. In some way I was trying to find a fundamental purpose for my own existence. And basically trying to enter people's lives in that fashion and hopefully maintain that relationship over a lifetime, or at least as long as I felt I had something useful to say. That was why we took so long in between records. We made a lot of music. There are albums and albums worth of stuff sitting in the can. But I just didn't feel they were that useful. That was the way that I measured the records I put out.
GW: Instead of doing a Greatest Hits album, did you ever consider just putting out what you thought were your most "useful" songs?
SPRINGSTEEN: That would be so personal. It might be more interesting and maybe fun to write about, but the song selection for the Greatest Hits was pretty much Jon's [Landau, Springsteen's manager] idea. We didn't try to get into a "best of," because everybody's got their own ideas. Basically it was songs that came out as singles. The only exception is "Thunder Road," but it seemed central. I like the classic idea of hitsit was sort of like "50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong." That was what we were thinking when we put it out. The album was supposed to be fun, something that you could vacuum the rug to if you wanted to. I think part of the reason we put the record out was that I wanted to introduce my music to younger fans, who for 12 bucks could get a pretty good overview of what I've done over the years. And for my older fans I wanted to say, "This still means something to me now, you still mean some thing to me now." It was just kind of a way of reaffirming the relationship that I've built up with my audience over the past 25 years, which outside of my family is the most important relationship in my life.
GW: Did you include the "Murder Incorporated" outtake for them?
SPRINGSTEEN: A lot of fans have asked for outtakes, and I have so many sitting around. It might be fun at some point to throw together some sort of collection of stuff like my attempts at other genresfrom the bubble-gum sort of thing to more pop-oriented material to the British-Invasion things. We used to go in the studio and say, "Tonight is Beatles night," and we'd put things together that had all these influences either just for fun or because we thought they were going to work out at the time. In the end, I would generally opt for things that had my own voice in them the most. But a lot of the other stuff was fun, and at some point it might be a blast for some of the fans to hear.
GW: Before you ever started releasing records, you were known more as a guitarist than a songwriter. Do you ever think about stepping out as a guitarist again?
SPRINGSTEEN:I was always the guitar player in the band. But I reached a point in the early Seventies where I said, "There are so many good guitarists, but there are not a lot of people who have their own songwriting voice." And I really focused on that. Then the label wanted a folk album, because I was really signed as a folk artist by John Hammond, who didn't know that I ever had a band.
Ultimately, my guitar playing came to be about fitting in with the ensemble. Then Clarence came along with his saxophone. He's sort of a force of nature, so if I wanted to hear a solo, I let him do it. I put a lot of my guitar playing in the rear, but at this point I'd like to bring it back to the front. As a matter of fact, I played with the Blasters the other night, and it was really fun. I was back to being just a blues guitarist; I used to play the blues all the time.
One of these days I'd like to toy around with making a record that's centered around loud guitars and me playing more. At some point I sort of opted out of the jam thing and got more into the solo being in service of the song. I'd like to do something where I've got to really play, you know. Now I feel like I'm at a place where I can do anything and I want to do it all. I like a lot of different types of music and musical styles and I want to use all those influences.
The best thing about being at this place in your career is you can be more relaxed about it. I think it's more like your job now, and you're just going out and trying new things that are hopefully interesting for both you and your fans.
GW: You mentioned earlier that while "Thunder Road" wasn't a hit, or even a single, you included it on the Greatest Hits album because it seemed central to your work. Why do you think that's so?
SPRINGSTEEN: I'm not sure what that song has. We played it the other night at the Sony studio, when we were taping a European show, and it just felt all-inclusive. It may be something about trying to seize a particular moment in your life and realizing you have to make very fundamental and basic decisions that you know will alter your life and how you live it. It's a funny song because it simultaneously contains both dreaming and disillusionment.
GW: That's similar to what Melissa Etheridge was saying when she introduced "Thunder Road" on MTV Unplugged. It was just before you came on stage, and she said, "If anyone can make you dream, it's Bruce Springsteen."
SPRINGSTEEN: You know, you write your music and you never know where the seeds that you sow are going to fall. Melissa Etheridge comes out of the Midwest, and she comes out of the gay bars, and I like that that's where some of my influence falls. I think that a big part of what my songs are about is being who you are, and trying to create the world that you want to live in. Generally, I think people use songs as a way to order their lives in a world that feels so out of order. It's a way of centering themselves and grounding themselves in a set of values, a sense of things they can go back and touch base with.
I'm basically a traditionalist, and I like the whole idea of a rock and roll lineage. I always saw myself as the kid who stepped up out of the front row and onto the stage-who would carry the guitar for a while, and then pass on the rock and roll flame. And you take it as far as you can and write your own map for other people to follow a little bit. You try to not make the mistakes that people who came before you made, and in some fashion you reset some of the rules of the game if you can.
So that was my idea about what I was here to do. I wasn't interested in immediate success or how much each particular record sold. I was interested in becoming part of peoples' lives and, hopefully, growing up with them-growing up together.
I came from a small town where I grew up on popular music. The subversiveness of Top 40 radio can't be overestimated. I grew up on music that was popular; I sat in my bedroom and wrote the Top 20 down religiously every Wednesday night, cheering for my heroes and hissing the villains of the day. So I wanted to play in that arena. I believed that it was a place where you could find both the strengths and the limitations of your work, who you are and who you are not. And I thought it was a worthwhile thing to risk. There was an element of risk in it because you're very exposed, you're very much under the magnifying glass, and it can be relentless and brutal. The town I grew up in was very divided -- racially and class-wise -- yet there were songs that united everyone at some point, like the great Motown music.
GW: It's funny because today's alternative rock is almost a reaction against the experience of music you had growing up. These new bands don't want to carry the flame, they want to stamp it out. Yet you've said in the past how much you like alternative music, and you played with Soul Asylum in New York.
SPRINGSTEEN: Look at a band like Nirvana. They reset the rules of the game. They changed everything, they opened a vein of freedom that didn't exist previously. Kurt Cobain did some thing very similar to what Dylan did in the Sixties, which was to sound different and get on the radio. He proved that a guitarist could sound different and still be heard. So Cobain reset a lot of very fundamental rules, and that type of artist is very few and far between. A similar thing happened with a lot of early rap, which was a return of the rawness of the Fifties records. It changed the conventional ideas of how drums should sound, how guitars should sound, how a singer should soundeven whether you have to sing at all. Those are things that keep the music moving forward.
With regard to alternative music, I sometimes think about the overall corporateness of everything and how that affects your thought processes. How do you find a place of your own when you're constantly being bombarded with so much frigging information that you really and truthfully dont need? What you see on TV is not a mirror image of most peoples daily existence. Your chances of having a violent altercation are relatively small, unless you watch television, in which case youll be brutalized every day.
And I think that what people are feeling is other people's fingerprints on their minds. And that seems to be a real strong and vital subject currently running through a lot of alternative music. I feel it myself. And, hey, there needs to be a voice against that sort of co-option of your own thinking space. What are your memories? What are your ideas? Everything is pre-packaged and sold to you as desirable or seductive in some fashion. So how do you find out who you are, create your own world, find your own self? That's the business of rock music in the Nineties.
GW: A word that is often used to describeand praiseyou is "real." What do you think that means?
SPRINGSTEEN: I'm not sure what it means. I'm not sure if it's the right word. Maybe "grounded" is a better way to put it. When I separated from the E-Street band, there was tremendous feedback from the fans. Some were hurt because, I think, among the values expressed in my music are loyalty, friendship and remembering the past. So at some point, the question becomes, "How do you stay true to those values yet grow up and become your own man?" And I think I've done pretty well threading my way through that sort of thing. I certainly haven't done it perfectly, but, of course, it ain't over yet.
I think every fan creates an image of you in his or her head that may not be totally accurate. I think that the pressure to be groundedand for fans to feel like you're speaking to themis good. That's what I want to do. But you also want to make the music you want to make, live the life that the road you're traveling on leads you to, and live with the contradictions that are a part of finding a large audience and having the success in the world that you live in.
GW: Was "Blood Brothers" [a new song on the Greatest Hits album] a reexamination of what the E-Street band meant to you, and why you fired them?
SPRINGSTEEN: "Blood Brothers' was about trying to understand the meaning of friendship as you grow older. I guess I wrote it the night before I went in the studio with the band, and I was trying to sort out what I was doing and what those relationships meant to me now and what those types of friendships mean as a person moves through life.
Basically, I guess I always felt that friendships, loyalties and relationships are the bonds that keep you from slipping into the abyss of self-destruction. Without those things, that abyss feels a lot closer--like it's on your heels. I think your own nihilism feels a lot closer without someone to grab you by the arm and pull you back and say, "Hey, come on, you're having a bad day." So with that song I was trying to sort out the role that those deep friendships played in my life. We all grew up together from the time we were kids, and people got married and divorced and had babies and went through their addictions and out the other side, and we drove each other crazy.
GW: Did it feel immediately right to be back with the band again?
SPRINGSTEEN: We hadn' t worked together in eight years and really hadn't recorded together in 10. In the meantime, I did a lot of solo stuff, which I found satisfying. But I don't think I'd want to have to choose between the band and the solo stuff. I'd like to have both. One of the things I realized when I saw the guys was that we're like each other's arms and legs. Maybe that's because it wasn't a band that was set up as a democracy, like maybe the Rolling Stones are, and on the other hand it wasn't purely people I'd hired as a backing band. It was somewhere in the gray area in the middle. I wanted some thing that felt like mine, I wanted people that I felt close to, I wanted the best of both worlds: creative control and people with whom I could collaborate emotionally, who felt connected to the music and the things I was writing about.
GW: When you sing, "I don't know why I made this call/Or if any of this matters anymore after all," are you referring to calling up and firing each band member?
SPRINGSTEEN: No, because all the guys in the band got along pretty well. I mean, we had our moments, and everybody drove everybody else nuts sometimes. But people pretty much liked each other.
You have to understand, there were guys in that band that I met when we were 19 and living in Asbury Park, New Jersey. We were together for 20 years. It's very unusual to be sitting in the same room at 39 with people you met when you were 19, and it bred a certain sort of dedication. It came with a certain sense of purpose. There's also an intimacy that occurs after hundreds and hundreds of nights on stage that is very unique. I'm not sure what I would compare it to. Imagine finding a group of people and doing something together for 25 or 35 years, from the time you were just out of high school. It's an amazing thing. And it's a gift that life doesn't often afford. Without sounding too hokey about it, it was pretty easy to call everybody up.
Ive been luckier than most in being able to sustain those types of relationships. Over the years that we werent working together, we had various conversations, some contentious. Some people were hurt, some were angry. But I love all the guys in the band. When we decided to record some new songs, I think I called the guys on a Thursday and we were all together on the following Monday or Tuesday, just happy to see one another.
We're probably going to do some more recording. I have some things that I'm going to record in the next couple of weeks, on my own, and see if I can finish up this solo record I've been working on. If it's good, I'll release it. If not, I'll throw it out. Then I'll see what the guys are doing and maybe cut some things with them and see where that goes.
GW: Did you write "Streets Of Philadelphia" specifically for the movie Philadelphia?
SPRINGSTEEN: Yes. That song was kind of a collaboration with [director] Jonathan Demme. He called me up and mentioned he needed a song, and told me a little bit about the picture. The message of the song was something I've dealt with in the past, but I'm not sure I would have written it had he not asked me for it.
That period of collaboration is something that drew me back towards the E Street Band. The response from the song was pretty intense. It's funny, because when I wrote it, I wasn't even sure that I captured what 1 wanted to get. There were very few instruments, it's a very short song, it's very linear, there's not a lot of musical development. I thought it would sound good over the images that he sent me, but I didn't know if it would stand on its own.You just can't tell with these things. It made me think about other stuff I've chosen not to release over the years. In hindsight, I wish I hadn't been as rigid as I've been about what I would put out.
GW: On the other hand, you did sue the English label Dare for trying to release your early material.
SPRINGSTEEN: Right. On the other hand, there's a reason I don't put out the stuff that I don't put out -- I don't think it's good enough or focused enough. You try to have some control over your releases, although you really don't, of course, because most of the stuff ends up bootlegged anyway. But the Dare thing was different because they were attempting to put it out as an actual legal release and they simply didn't have the right to do that. I don't have any strong feelings about the material one way or another. There were some good things and some stinkers on the tape, and some day I'd like to get some of it out. But your editing is part of your aesthetic process.
Certainly, I go back and realize that there are many outtakes that should have been released at different times. I still wish I'd put more records out, and maybe I could have. But I made records very purposefully, with very specific ideas of them being about and representing certain things. That probably caused me to be overly cautious about what I released and what I didn't. I certainly feel a lot more freedom now.
GW: For many musicians, having children changes the way they write songs and experience the world. Is that true for you?
SPRINGSTEEN: When you have your children, basically the best thing, the nicest thing, you can do for them is to slip into their time, into the way that they experience the world and the way that they experience the day. And that can be hard to do if you're a restless, anxious, nervous person, and also if you're someone who has always asked people to step into your world. Once you have kids, you realize that's hard to do.
By the time I had kids, I'd burned out on the idea of living internally, for my own excitement. I just had to give up that type of control. I think at some point you realize that you don't need that as much as you thought you did. You feel more centered and safer with kids and marriage, which gives you a lot more emotional flexibility, and allows you to go along with other peoples' lives. For me it's still a struggle sometimes. 1 think I've been a good dad, but it calls for an entirely different set of responses than those that Ive used for the past 30 years.
GW: Are you worried that your success will keep your kids from having the same kind of experiences you had as a child?
SPRINGSTEEN: It will change their experience tremendously from what my experience as a child was. A friend of mine, Van Dyke Parks, who worked on one of my records, came in the studio one day, and we got into this discussion about how I was concerned about my children growing up differently than I did. And in retrospect I felt that a lot of things about the way that I grew up were good, because I struggled and had the opportunity to make some thing from not a whole lot. He said, "Well, you give your kids the best and the world takes care of the rest." And I think that's what every parent tries to do. That's what I try to do with my children. And also not to put them in any circumstances where the distortions of the experience are too overwhelming, or too unusual, and then just protect them as best as possible.
GW: Before you ever got married, you wrote a number of songs about characters with wives and kids.
SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah, I was probably testing it out.
GW: Do you feel that you portrayed those relationships accurately before you had even experienced them?
SPRINGSTEEN: Well, there were a lot of different types of portrayals. I guess the songs that come to mind would probably be "The River," "I Want to Marry You," which is just a guy standing on the corner fantasizing, and "Stolen Car."
I stayed away from that subject for a long time. I didn't write about relationships, probably because I didn't know much about 'em and I wasn't very good at 'em, and also it was a subject that had been written about so much in pop music and I wasn't interested in writing just your classic sort of love songs. Later on, when I did write about them, I tended to write about them with all the real complications that they involve. I tried to write a more realistic sort of love song, like "Brilliant Disguise" or any of the stuff from Tunnel Of Love or Lucky Town. I just wanted something that felt grounded in the kind of tension and compromise that these things really involve.
GW: What kind of advice would you give the young Bruce Springsteen now?
SPRINGSTEEN: I would tell him to approach his job like, on one hand, it's the most serious thing in the world and, on the other hand, as if it's only rock and roll. You have to keep both of those things in your head at the same time. I still believe you have the possibility of influencing peoples' lives in some fashion, and at the same time it's only entertainment and you want to get people up and dancing. I took it very seriously, and while I don't regret doing so, I think that I would have been a bit easier and less self-punishing on myself at different times if I'd remembered that it was only rock and roll. Being a little bit worried about it can be dangerous. It's a minefield, it's dangerous for your inner self and also for whatever your ideas and values are that you want to sing about.
You drift down your different self-destructive roads at different times and hopefully you have the type of bonds that pull you back out of the abyss and say, "Hey, wait a minute." When I was 25, I was in London and there were posters of me everywhere in this theater that were making me want to puke. I was disgusted at what I'd become, and then someone in the band said, "Hey, do you believe we're in London, England, and we're going to play tonight and somebody's going to pay us for it?" So I was lucky. I had good friends and a good support network that assisted me along the way. In retrospect, I look back on those times now and they just seem funny, you know. But there was good cause for worry because I'd read the maps of the people that came before me and I was interested in being something different, and accomplishing something slightly different.