Bruce Springsteen: "I think I just wanted to be great" – Part 3
From Uncut's September 2002 issue: In one of the most revealing interviews of his career, Bruce Springsteen talks exclusively to Adam Sweeting about his new album, The Rising, much of which was written in the aftermath of September 11, and which reunites him with the E Street Band for their first studio album since Born In The USA.
One of the trademarks of Springsteen's career has been the way it has advanced by careful, logical steps. If he's been through chaotic or depressive episodes in his life, he has made sure he did so away from microphones and beyond the reach of the paparazzi. His shrewdest creative device has been to use his own life as the raw material of his work, so as he gradually changes over the years, so do his songs. He has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and if he sometimes seems to have been hamstrung by excessive caution, his approach has ensured that he has avoided making a prancing buffoon of himself in the manner of a Rod Stewart, a Mick Jagger, or even a George Michael.
Hence, despite the immediate circumstances of their composition, Springsteen is well aware that the new songs are "outgrowths of stories that I've written all along", as he puts it. "I've written about the everyday for a long time, and a certain sort of… for lack of a better word, heroism or nobility that I've felt that I witnessed in my life as a child among people in my neighbourhood and in my house. That was something that I felt wasn't being sung about at the time when I started to sing about it, and also it was just what mattered to me. It felt real, and those were the things I was moved to sing about. We're living at a time in the United States of certain events, y'know, and as a writer you respond to the events of the day.
"What happened last September was a very natural thing to write about, and there were a lot of obviously inspirational things happening at the time. You're trying to contextualise the event for yourself. I think that's where it starts. It starts with you trying to do it for yourself, and then in the process, because I learnt the language of songwriting and music, I try to communicate and hopefully do it for other people. I'm just doing something that's useful for me, and then hopefully in some fashion it's gonna be useful and will provide some service to my audience."
It seems incongruous that Springsteen's huge career should have grown from such unassuming, almost humdrum, acorns. The way he puts it, he almost makes it sound as if he's a musical plumber who comes round, with a pen behind his ear and a clipboard, to make sure you're getting your regular supply with no leaks or air blockages. But it's been his achievement to take the routines and small details of regular non-rock-star lives and sieve through them until he can separate out a hint of the epic.
Punk bands always used to drone on about removing the barriers between band and audience, but somehow Springsteen was able to persuade his audience, even after they'd been herded into a football stadium with people chucking firecrackers and mooing "Brooooooce!", that the bond they thought they felt to him and his music was real. Even after becoming the biggest white rock star on earth, he found ways to keep the relationship alive, whether it was through high-profile benevolent gestures or Amnesty International tours, or perhaps more tellingly, by showing up unannounced at small clubs and thrashing out a few old rock'n'roll chestnuts, just because he wanted to.
A natural conservative (by character, rather than politically) in a medium which was, at one time at least, associated with anarchy and insurrection, Springsteen was always in it for the long run. Not the burn-out-and-fade-away type of guy at all.
"No, no!" he insists. "I wanted to live to be old, old as hell, y'know? I'm glad The Who can get onstage and still sing 'My Generation' now. I like seeing Marlon Brando alive and kicking. I understood the cult of death was always a very, very integral part of rock'n'roll myth, and possibly because there was this whole idea of the edge and the idea that music felt like life and death. It did feel like life and death, it still does feel like life and death to me, y'know, but it was something that for me and our band I interpreted differently. I didn't discount it and it's a part of a lot of my music, but I interpreted it differently and I think in an integrated fashion as a part of the work that I was doing, and fundamentally our story has always been, 'Hey, look, all we have is this, let's see what we can do with it.'"
He attributes his work ethic and his penchant for self-denial to his mother, Adele. A staunch Catholic from a Neapolitan family, the Zerillis, Mrs Springsteen was a hard-working secretary who shouldered the burden of keeping the household running when her husband was enduring his frequent periods of unemployment. When Springsteen talks about her, his face is lit by an expression of child-like amazement.
"I took after my mom in a certain sense. Her life had an incredible consistency, work work work every day, and I admired that greatly. I admired her ability to present herself. She would get up in the morning and the bathroom was near my bed, and I could hear the sound of her in the bathroom. The faucet would come on, the make-up kit come out, things clicking on the sink, and I just sat and listened to my mother in the act of getting ready to present herself to the world. And then her high heels, and the sound they made when they left the house. I had a little balcony I used to sleep out on sometimes, and I'd hear her heels going up the street towards the office.
"The office was about two blocks into the centre of town and that was the sound of my mom walking to work, y'know, walking to work. I'd visit her at her job sometimes, and it was filled with men and women who seemed to have a purpose. They were presenting themselves in a certain fashion, and I found a lot of inspiration in those simple acts. It was part of what you gave to the town you lived in and your society and your family, and it was not necessarily easy to do. My mother had little babies. We needed breakfast, we needed dinner at the end of her eight-hour working day. We needed somebody to do our homework with us and the day was endless, y'know, and it was just simply performed daily, day in day out, without complaint. As I grew older I began to look at this as a noble thing, and I realised that there were many of these things going on constantly in my little town."
You'd have to guess that this idealistic, stained-glass vision of Adele Springsteen provided at least one template for her son's various Mary figures. It might surprise his mother to learn that she was also a role model for the E Street Band. "The work part of what we did was intensely modelled on what she did, and the way she conducted herself on a daily basis," Springsteen insists. "It was like, 'Hey! We can't be terrible one night and good the next night. We've got to be good every night.' When somebody buys your ticket, it's your handshake, it's the old story, and they only have this night. They don't care if you're great the next night. What about tonight, y'know? I thought those things were real, and we took our fun very seriously.
"We went out there to throw a big party to make you laugh and dance and the band would act crazy onstage, but behind it was the idea also that you're providing an essential service of some sort. That unspoken promises are made between an audience and an artist, whether you say them or not, they're a part of the dialogue that comes with the turf. And it's a valuable dialogue, a valuable occupation, a valuable thing to do, and on top of that, hey, it's great fun and the pay is fabulous and we've had a lifetime of satisfying work. On our last tour, somebody came up to me and said 'Hey, I saw you in '75, there was a show you did at this college.' I thought, why would somebody remember one night in 1975? And I said, 'Yeah, that was the idea, I was trying to make that night memorable.'
"That consistency, I felt, was a part of what we were about and what I wanted to be about. I wanted to be something you could depend upon, as best as I could. I was gonna have my screw-ups and make my mistakes and I was probably gonna do things you didn't want me to do, but fundamentally I was gonna be at least out there searching for that road." He pauses for another eruption of Brucian laughter. "And so it continues."
But when he was, say, 25 and about to make Born To Run, did he have a clear idea of where he was heading and how he would develop? "Well, I'd had success locally and I liked that. You got the attention from the girls. I made a few bucks, not much but I didn't need much, and I beat the 9-to-5 thing which I was very interested in doing. I had no practical skills and I wasn't book-smart at school, so I'd managed to learn this craft that was keeping me afloat. That excited me, and I knew I wanted to be a musician.
"Then, as time passed, we played to a lot of people and people applauded. We were pretty good. As we travelled around I said, 'Yeah, we're not only pretty good, we're better than a lot of these other guys I'm seeing', and I'd put the radio on and I'd say, 'And I'm as good as a lot of these guys that are on the radio, too, so why shouldn't I be on the radio? Anyway, I got to New York and I met Mike Appel [first manager], and it set the next series of things in motion where I was going to be a recording musician now. After my first album came out, I remember Mike called me and I said, 'How did we do?' He said, 'We didn't do very well, we sold about 20,000 records.' I said, '20,000 records! That's fabulous! I don't know 20,000 people. Who would buy a record by someone they have no idea about?'"
Gradually, it dawned on him that whatever success he was going to achieve would be determined by his own efforts. He was gripped by a single-minded will to succeed.
"I think I just wanted to be great, y'know, I wanted to be really as good as I could be, and I wanted to live up to the people who had been my heroes. It's like when Reggie Jackson got put into the Baseball Hall Of Fame, he says 'It was great to be there that day, you don't care if your name's called first or second or tenth, but it's nice that somewhere on that long day when the list gets read off, somewhere in there they come to yours.' I think that was kinda my feeling – 'Gee, I'd like to be a part of this somehow.'
"When I think back on it, I thought I just wanted to play rhythm guitar. I didn't want to play lead guitar. You just want to be in the band and be part of that thing moving along, but then somewhere along the way that becomes intertwined with, of course, raving ambition, and you're trying to make the best, greatest rock record that could ever be made. You're trying to be the best and your ego pushes you, which is okay, that's how things roll. I think as long as all those things are managed in a fashion that allows you to survive and continue, and keeps you on a reasonable path, you know?
It was the arrival of Jon Landau as his manager that guaranteed that Springsteen's potential would be converted into copper-bottomed, platinum-plated results. Landau declared that he had seen "rock'n'roll's future", but when he saw Springsteen he knew he'd seen his own future too. Left to his own devices, it's very possible that Springsteen might have allowed his heart to rule his head. In Landau's case, the equation is emphatically reversed. Doing business deals with Landau is reportedly like sticking your head in a bucket of piranhas, but there's no doubt he has played a pivotal role in sustaining Springsteen's credibility and creativity.
"The main thing about Jon was he was somebody I could trust," Springsteen reports. "There were a lot of things I hated doing, business things, which I had proven terrible at before I met Jon. I wasn't even terrible at it, I just couldn't have cared less. I just wanted to be able to do what I wanted to do. Particularly when I was younger, I was really alienated by that part of it and I felt that any involvement in it was somehow not being true to my original ideals. So when Jon came along that whole thing was taken care of. I had a long period of time when I was pretty estranged from it, probably until well into my thirties, and he kept the boat afloat. He was a writer himself, and he managed because I needed a manager.
"We had a lot of discussions over the years about these issues, and where people went right and where people went wrong, and it was always based around, 'How do we do the best job this time out with the record?' It was so simple. He would say 'Well, you can do this and play a hall this size and it can still be great.' He was constantly pushing the boundaries out for me a little bit, which I needed to do because I was fearful, I was very self-protective, and not unwisely so because you need to be. You need to protect your work, your music and the identity that you've worked hard to present."
It was this belief that drove Springsteen to go to court in London in 1998 to prevent Masquerade Music from releasing a collection of his old demos and outtakes – "I'm not losing sleep at night over it, but I'm protective of it where I can be," as he puts it – and it also informs his attitude to seeing his work traded for free across the internet.
"My take on that as a musician is I know what it takes to write a song, and it's hard and you don't write that many and you pour your blood and sweat into it. I do think it's theft, y'know. I do feel like that about it. Where it's going I don't know. The music business is in a big state of transition at the moment. I don't know anyone who does know where it's going to go. Wherever it goes, I'll be working somewhere."
Perhaps some of his inclination to look back and take stock has been prompted by the death of his father, Doug, in 1998. In between stints as a factory worker, prison guard and bus driver, Springsteen Snr frequently found himself out of work. Bitterness and disillusion caused him to clash frequently with the bohemian-inclined Bruce during his adolescence, and Doug's Irish-Dutch background was probably the worst possible combination when it came to defusing overheated emotions. Their fratious relationship was charted in several songs, notably "Independence Day", "My Father's House" and "Adam Raised A Cain". There was a period during which Springsteen would often talk about his father during his lengthy onstage raps.
Passing time had improved father-son relations considerably, to the point where they were rubbing along pretty well by the end. "I probably went through a few changes when he died," Springsteen ponders. "It's a big moment, I think. It's like 'OK, you're the daddy now.' When your father's gone, I think your own adultness and your sense of responsibility and the role you play in your family at large increases. But he had a pretty peaceful passing and we knew it was coming for a good while, so I had time to go and spend some time and just sit. Big thing, of course, for my mother. They were married for 50-some years. It changes the way you see yourself.”
Does he see Doug in himself now? "Oh yeah, all the time," he says slowly. "All the time. It's funny, as I've gotten older, I've started to look more like him. I used to look more like my mom, but if I… I'm a little down in weight now, but if I go up another 10 or 15 pounds he'll be looking right back at me in the mirror. I go 'There you are!,' y'know? Your features change. When I was young I looked Irish, when I was a little kid I had the little Irish features, as my children have had, up until around 12 or 13 and then zoom! Your face lengthens out and you see the Italian features. I had that for most of my life, it's kinda how I got used to looking at myself. Then as you get a little older, for some reason I see a little bit of the Irish creeping back in. Your face gets a little rounder, your forehead gets a little higher and occasionally I'll look in the mirror and he'll just be looking back at me."
Generations keep changing inexorably, and Springsteen can feel gravity's pull. "Of course, there's the behaviour you inherit from your parents. Over the years I've done a lot to sort through a lot of that. Obviously all your initial responses to things, you respond the way they responded, y'know? Some of those are okay, and some you want to leave behind. My attitude was the way we honour our parents is we hold on to the good things that they taught us and we lost the things that were their mistakes. That's the way we honour them after they're gone, and when we become parents ourselves. That's your life job. That's what people are supposed to be out there doing in some fashion."
Apart from making albums and touring, of course. "I'm coming up on being a 53-year-old guy, and the music business tends to be a little hostile at this time," he says, with a chuckle. "That's OK, because my take is I believe this is one of my very best records. I feel down in my soul that it's as good as any record I've made with the band. I feel like I did my job, and I don't know the way that radio responds, and I'm not comfortable with a lot of the ways that music is disseminated at the moment. I've got a working band, we're gonna go out and we're gonna work very hard playing, and we're gonna play this record every night. I'll do my best to help it find a home and a place in the world, and then let the chips fall where they may. So!"
Visit our new, dedicated features section, with plenty of our best long pieces archived there. You can find it here.