Bruce Springsteen: The Advocate Interview
While waiting to find out if his second Oscar-nominated song, "Dead Man Walking," will turn into a second win, Bruce Springsteen talks to the gay press for the first time
The Advocate , 1996
By Judy Wieder
"The bonus I got out of writing 'Streets of Philadelphia' was that all of a sudden I could go out and meet some gay man somewhere and he wouldn't be afraid to talk to me and say, 'Hey, that song really meant something to me.' My image had always been very heterosexual, very straight. So it was a nice experience for me, a chance to clarify my own feelings about gay and lesbian civil rights," says rock's most thoughtful megastar, Bruce Springsteen. Sitting in the dimly lit living room of a West Hollywood hotel suite, the man the world calls "the Boss" is talking about his 1994 Oscar and Grammy award-winning song from the film Philadelphia- a song detailing the feelings of a gay man facing the final turmoil of his struggle with AIDS.
Now, with his second Oscar nominated song, "Dead Man Walking," and his stark new acoustic album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, the 46 year-old Springsteen seems relieved to have returned once again to the deliberately noncommercial core of his best social-commentary- songwriting skills. Like "Streets of Philadelphia" and 1982's daring Nebraska- recorded on his home tape recorder- Springsteen's latest album and tour strip his muscular stadium rock down to a dark one-man stage show. No E Street Band, no mania-driven masses waving lighters from the balconies and shrieking "Bru-u-u-ce!" Just Springsteen, alone onstage, singing out from the shadows of all that's gone wrong between people in the world today.
For many skeptics, the idea of a hard-core rocker from the mean streets of New Jersey growing up, growing rich, and aligning himself with those who have not is pretty far-fetched. Yet that's essentially the Springsteen way. Although he has sold millions of albums, filled thousands of concert arenas, and won mantelsful of Grammy and American Music awards, over the years he's still managed to lend his support directly or indirectly to people and causes as diverse as Amnesty International,feeding the starving in Africa ("We Are the World"), the plight of immigrants, AIDS awareness, and the struggles of gays and lesbians. "After Bruce supported me by appearing on my VHl special last year, we became friends," says out lesbian rocker Melissa Etheridge. 'I think the experience of having his song in Philadelphia led him to meet a lot of gay people and learn a lot about our lives. My girlfriend, Julie, is always with me when we go to his house, and he always treats us as a couple. I've often talked to him about my frustration over not being able to get legally married, and he's always supportive and sympathetic."
Springsteen's own struggles with finding love and settling down have been well-documented in both his songs and the press. After his herculean 11-year rise to superstardom- which began with Greetings From Asbury Park N.J. in 1973 and culminated in 1984 with Born in the U.S.A.- he married model-actress Julianne Phillips. The marriage ended in the tabloids four years later when Springsteen fell in love with his backup singer, Patti Scialfa. They were married in 1991 and have three children.
Do you think you'll win another Oscar for your song "Dead Man Walking"?
[Laughing] Oh, I don't know. When those Disney pictures are out there [Pocahontas], you don't stand a chance. "Dead Man Walking" is another song that's pretty offbeat, so I am not really expecting one.
Still, offbeat subject matter served you well in "Streets of Philadelphia." You say you're pleased that gays and lesbians began approaching you after that song?
Oh, yeah! I had people come up to me in the streets or in restaurants and say, "I have a friend" or "I have a lover" or "I have a partner" or "I have a son."
Why do you think Jonathan Demme - the director - asked you to write a song for Philadelphia?
Demme told me that Philadelphia was a movie he was making "for the malls." I'm sure that was one of the reasons why he called me, I think he wanted to take a subject that people didn't feel safe with and were frightened by and put it together with people that they did feel safe with like Tom Hanks or me or Neil Young. I always felt that was my job.
How could you make people feel safe?
When I first started in rock, I had a big guy's audience for my early records. I had a very straight image, particularly through the mid '80s.
But why could you reach them?
I knew where the fear came from. I was brought up in a small town, and I basically received nothing but negative images about homosexuality-very bad. Anybody who was different in any fashion was castigated and ostracized, if not physically threatened.
Did you have some personal inspiration for the song?
I had a very close friend who had a sarcoma cancer and died right around that time. For me, it was a very devastating experience, being close to illness of that magnitude. I had never experienced what it calls on or asks of the people around the person who is so ill. Part of that experience ended up in the song.
You caught a particular isolation that many gay AIDS patients experience. When there are walls between people and there is a lack of acceptance, you can reach for that particular kind of communion: "receive me, brother" is the lyric in the last verse.
That's all anybody's asking for-basically some sort of acceptance and to not be left alone. There was a certain spiritual stillness that I wanted to try to capture. Then I just tried to send in a human voice, as human a voice as I possibly could. I wanted you to be in somebody's head, hearing their thoughts-somebody who was on the cusp of death but still experiencing the feeling of being very alive.
Were you surprised the song was a hit?
I would never have thought in a million years it was going to get radio airplay. But people were looking for things to assist them in making sense of the AIDS crisis, in making human connections. I think that is what film and art and music do; they can work as a map of sorts for your feelings.
Because you come from the streets of New Jersey, was there a personal journey for you in accepting and learning about homosexuality? Did it ever frighten you?
I don't know if frighten would be the right word. I was pretty much a misfit in my own town, so I didn't buy a lot of those negative attitudes. Sure, you are affected and influenced by them. But I think that your entire life is a process of sorting out some of those early messages that you got. I guess the main thing was that the gay image back then was the '50s image, the town queen or something, and that was all anyone really knew about homosexuality. Everybody's attitudes were quite brutal. It was that real ugly part of the American character.
When you said you were a misfit, what did you mean?
Basically, I was pretty ostracized in my hometown. Me and a few other guys were the town freaks- and there were many occasions when we were dodging getting beaten up ourselves. So, no, I didn't feel a part of those homophobic ideas. Also, I started to play in clubs when I was l 6 or 17, and I was exposed to a lot of different lifestyles and a lot of different things. It was the '60s, and I was young, I was open-minded, and I wasn't naturally intolerant. I think the main problem was that nobody had any real experience with gay culture, so your impression of it was incredibly narrow.
So you actually met gay people?
Yeah, I had gay friends. The first thing I realized was that everybody's different, and it becomes obvious that all of the gay stereotypes are ridiculous. [Laughs] I did pretty good with it.
Because of your macho rock image, I didn't know if you were going to tell me, "Oh, yeah, there were years when I didn't want anybody to feel that I had any sympathy for that."
No, I always felt that amongst my core fans- because there was a level of popularity that I had in the mid '80s that was sort of a bump on the scale- they fundamentally understood the values that are at work in my work. Certainly tolerance and acceptance were at the forefront of my music. If . my work was about anything, it was about the search for identity, for personal recognition, for acceptance, for communion, and for a big country. I've always felt that's why people come to my shows, because they feel that big country in their hearts.
You mean a country big enough for everyone?
Yes. Unfortunately, once you get a really big audience, then people come for a lot of different reasons. And they can misunderstand the songs.
You even had to deal with President Reagan thinking "Born in the U.S.A." was about his values.
Yes, at that one point the country moved to the right, and there was a lot of nastiness, intolerance, and attitudes that gave rise to more intolerance. So I'm always in the process of trying to clarify who I am and what I do. That's why I wanted to talk to you.
On The Ghost of Tom Joad, you have a song, "Balboa Park," and in it you say, "Where the men in their Mercedes / Come nightly to employ... / The services of the border boys." Are you talking about drugs or sex or both?
I'm talking about sex, hustling.
What do you know about this subject?
I read about it in a series of articles the Los Angeles Times did about border life. It fit into the rest of the subject matter in the album.
It's impossible for most people to imagine the kind of fame you have. Everyone in the world knows who you are. Does it make you feel alienated?
The only thing I can say about having this type of success is that you can get yourself in trouble because basically the world is set open for you. People will say yes to anything you ask, so it's basically down to you and what you want or need. Yes, you can get isolated with an enormous amount of fame or wealth. You can also get isolated with a six-pack of beer and a television set. I grew up in a community where plenty of people were isolated in that fashion.
How do you keep your personal life connected to the real world?
Over the years I think you may have to strive for some normalcy. Like you need to say, "Hey, I'm not going to lock myself up in my house tonight. I'm going to go to the movies or maybe down to a club or take my kids to Universal Studios."
What keeps you connected?
You have to want to be included. I always saw myself as the kid who got the guitar and was going to hold it for a while and play it and pass it on to somebody else. I always saw a lot of myself in my audience.
But that changed when you got so big.
True, and by anybody's measure I have an extravagant lifestyle. But I never felt that I've lost myself in it. I want to feel that essential spiritual connection that you make with your deep audience, your true audience.
So that's how you've kept it balanced?
Yeah. I just felt that what I was doing was rooted in a community- either real or imagined- and that my connection to that community was what made my writing and singing matter. I didn't feel that those connections were casual connections. I felt that they were essential connections. I was a serious young man, you know? I had serious ideas about rock music. Yeah, it was also a circus and fun and a dance party- all of those things- but still a serious thing. I believed that serious things could be done with it. It had a power; it had a voice. I still fucking believe that. I really do.
And I assume that your being here today means that you want gays and lesbians to feel they're a part of this community-this big country?
Yeah, very much so. The ongoing clarification of the way I feel, of my ideas, where I stand on different issues: That's my work now. That's why this interview is a great opportunity for me. Hey- you write, and you want your music understood.
When you fell in love with your wife Patti, there was a lot of negativity in the press because your marriage to Julianne Phillips was breaking up. Did your experience with this kind of intrusion into your private life give you any idea what it's like for gays and lesbians, who constantly get criticized for who they love?
It's a strange society that assumes it has the right to tell people whom they should love and whom they shouldn't. But the truth is, I basically ignored the entire thing as much as I could. I said, "Well, all I know is, this feels real, and maybe I have got a mess going here in some fashion, but that's life."
But that's everything: This feels real.
That's it. Trust yourself in the end. Those are the only lights that can go by, and the world will catch up. But I think it would be much more difficult to be gay, particularly in the town that I grew up in. Divorce may have been difficult for me, but I don't know what it would be like to have . your heart in one place and have somebody say, "Hey, you can't do that." So all anybody can do is do their best. Like when President Clinton came into office, the first thing he tried to do was have gays in the military. I thought, Wow! A leader. I just felt that was leading.
What did you feel when it all fell apart?
Initially I felt surprised at the reaction. I was surprised that it was such a big deal. But that's what the federal government is supposed to do: It is supposed to encourage tolerance. If you can't get acceptance, tolerance will have to do. Acceptance will come later. That's what the laws are for. So I was saddened by the fate of the whole thing and the beating that he took.
Were you surprised when Melissa Etheridge was able to come out and still have success in rock and roll?
It was tremendously groundbreaking. The rock world is a funny world, a world where simultaneously there is a tremendous amount of macho posturing and homophobia- a lot of it, in my experience- and yet it has as its basic rule the idea that you are supposed to be who you are. When I first heard about Melissa, I was very happy to see that that was where some of the seeds of what I had done had fallen. I said, "Wow, a lesbian rock singer who came up through the gay bars! I don't believe it!" [Laughing] I felt really good about it.
I understand you and Patti and Melissa and her Julie have become friends.
We have gotten to know each other since her VHl special. Since then, we've got a nice relationship going.
She told me she's talked with you about the fight gays and lesbians are in to have the right to be legally married. Some people, especially heterosexuals, think it isn't that important. I've had well meaning people say, "But you know that loving is all that's important. Getting married isn't."
It does matter. It does matter. There was actually a long time when I was coming from the same place: "Hey, what's the difference? You have got the person you care about." I know that I went through a divorce, and it was really difficult and painfuL and I was very frightened about getting married again. So part of me said, Hey, what does it matter? But it does matter. It's very different than just living together. First of all, stepping up publicly- which is what you do: You get your license, you do all the social rituals- is a part of your place in society and in some way part of society's acceptance of you.
You and Patti decided you needed that?
Yes, Patti and I both found that it did mean something. Coming out and saying whom you love, how you feel about them, in a public way was very, very important. Those are the threads of society; that's how we all live together in some fashion. There is no reason I can see why gays and lesbians shouldn't get married. It is important because those are the things that bring you in and make you feel a part of the social fabric. The idea that Melissa and Julie can't be married- that seems ridiculous to me. Ridiculous!
So you, a rock star, a symbol of counterculture earlier in your life, have come to defend the importance of traditions?
Yeah, oh, yeah. It's like, my kids are sort of little heathens at the moment. [Laughs] They have no particular religious information. Ten years ago I would have said, "Who cares? They'll figure it out on their own." But you are supposed to provide some direction for your children. So you look for institutions that can speak to you and that you can feel a part of and be a part of and that will allow you to feel included and be a part of the community.
What about gays and lesbians having children?
Being a good or bad parent is not something that hinges on your particular sexual preference. I think that people have some idea of what the ideal parent is. I don't know any ideal parents. I have met single mothers who are doing an incredible job of raising their kids. I don't feel sexual preference is a central issue.
You have three children. What would you do if one of them came to you and said, "I think I'm gay"?
Whatever their sexual preference might be when they grow up, I think accepting the idea that your child has his own life is the hardest thing to do. That life begins, and you can see it the minute they hit the boards. I think when I was growing up, that was difficult for my dad- to accept that I wasn't like him, I was different. Or maybe I was like him, and he didn't like that part of himself- more likely. I was gentle, and generally that was the kind of kid I was. I was a sensitive kid. I think most of the people who move into the arts are. But basically, for me, that lack of acceptance was devastating, really devastating.
Your father didn't accept you?
Yeah, and it was certainly one of the most devastating experiences. I think your job as a parent is to try to nurture and guide. If one of my kids came and said that to me- hey, you want them to find happiness, you want them to find fulfillment. So they're the ones who are going to have to decide what that is for them.
Does it get harder and harder for you, in terms of being a father, as your children define themselves more and more?
Yeah, because you are caught up with your children's identities. You try not to be rigid, but you do find out the places where you are rigid. And you do get caught up in really some of the great cliches of parenting, whether it is wanting them to excel at some particular sport- I mean, really, just some of the dumbest things.
It's hard to separate?
Yeah, it's the separation.
And then to have your child's sexuality be different from your own, that would be difficult, right?
I think that with a lot of these issues, you just don't know until they truly enter your life in some really personal way. You have your lights that you are trying to steer by, everybody has those. But then you have all that stuff that's been laid on you that you're working your way through. Sure, I can sit back and say I know how I would want to react. I know what I would want to say and how I would want to feel. But unless those things enter my life in some personal fashion, I don't know how I will act.
I think that is very honest. Do you have any family members who are gay?
No. [Laughing] I have a very eccentric family, but, no, nobody gay in my immediate family.
In your whole career, have you ever had a man ask you out or make a pass at you?
Once or twice when I was younger. Yes [laughs] - I mean, no, not exactly directly - [laughs again] but you know how those things are.
Being gay or lesbian is a unique minority in the sense that we can pretend we're straight if we don't want to encounter homophobic feelings, including our own. Unfortunately, we'll never change the world that way. To that end it's important to identify ourselves so that people learn how many people really are gay. As always, there is a tremendous conflict going on in the gay community about pushing people to come out-especially celebrities, because of their wide visibility. Do you have any strong feelings about it?
I have to come at it from the idea of personal privacy. To me, that is a decision that each individual should be free to make. I don't know if someone should make as profoundly a personal decision as that for you. I'm not comfortable with that.
But would you encourage them?
Sure, you can say, "Hey, come on, step up to the plate" or "We need you" or "It'll make a big difference," and that would be absolutely true and valid. But in the end - hey, it's not your life.
Do you think they could get hurt professionally?
If you're in the entertainment business, it's a world of illusion, a world of symbols. So I think you're talking about somebody who may feel their livelihood is threatened. I think you've got to move the world in the right direction so that there is acceptance and tolerance, so that the laws protect everybody's civil rights, gay, straight, whatever. But then you also have got to give people the room to make their own decisions.
But on a very personal level, what would you tell somebody who asked you for advice about whether or not he or she should come out?
First of all, I can only imagine that not being able to be yourself is a painful thing. It's awful to have to wear a mask or hide yourself. So at the end of my conversation, I'd just say, "Hey, this is how the world is; these are the consequences, and these are your fundamental feelings." Because a person's sexuality is such an essential part of who he is, to not be able to express it the way that you feel it [sighs] has just got to be so very painful.