Bruce Springsteen: Not The Me-Me-Me-Me
Paolo Hewitt, Melody Maker, 9 May 1981
STACKED on the left of the typewriter are two blank cassettes which should contain the voice of Bruce Springsteen. But like Kevin Rowland and Elvis Costello, Bruce doesn't like tapes, recorders or notebooks.
Before starting this European tour he did two formal interviews with music papers – the only press likely to draw him out – one with Rolling Stone, the other with Musician. And that was enough for Bruce.
He doesn't need that kind of publicity to sell records or gigs; he doesn't need it to boost his ego: that kind of superficial security he can do without.
"And also because it ends up me-me-me-me all the time," he told me last week, laughing self-deprecatingly and thumping himself on the chest.
So instead we sat in his dressing room and chatted. Within minutes the intensity of the man came through: he was searching for words and talking about matters not easy to articulate.
By the end of an hour I felt as though I'd made a new friend. That intimacy comes through on record, and more so in his current three-hour show, where the songs range from the deep emotion of 'Darkness On The Edge Of Town' to the vibrancy of 'Rosalita'.
On the latter Bruce, Garry Tallent, Clarence Clemons and Miami Steve jump down into the audience to heighten the communication, performer and listener look each other straight in the eye.
The same was true offstage; with the tape whirring the conversation we had could never have happened. So how do I know I haven't misquoted him? That's just the price you pay.
BECAUSE it's been six years since he last played here, and the aura that surrounds him, Bruce Springsteen has become a legend, an untouchable, a saviour even.
The mystique is perpetuated by stories of mammoth concerts that become celebrations, climbing billboards to deface his posters, opening shows with 'Badlands' on the day of Ronald Reagan's election.
And here, coming down the lobby of the Hotel Sofitel in Lyons, France, is Bruce with girlfriend Joyce. "Going out to play golf?" jokes one of the road crew.
Along comes Dave Marsh, Springsteen biographer and husband of tour manager Barbara Carr. "Us guys are going out to have a look around the town right now, but we'll be back later. Catch you then." And off he went to catch up Bruce.
Six-thirty, and still no sign of the tickets for tonight's show, so I head for the bar. Two bearded, muscular technicians wearing Springsteen T-shirts are sitting there.
"What time's the show tonight," I ask.
"There ain't one," says one of the guys. "Least we ain't going to be there if there is." And they burst into laughter.
"What do you mean? I was told tonight."
"Like we said, no show. It's tomorrow. The President's got the hall tonight to make an election speech or somethin'. Gig's cancelled. It's tomorrow."
I get that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I've only got enough money to stay tonight.
Then Dave Marsh walks into the lobby. I explain my predicament.
"Don't worry," said Dave. "Bruce will look after you."
AND THE next night he did. After my first Springsteen concert, still suffering from "the first time you see Bruce glow," as they call it, he welcomes me into his dressing room.
Bruce is wearing a tastefully-embroidered shirt and smells faintly of embrocation; I'm a bundle of nerves. I stall for time and ask him about Robert De Niro.
Somewhere along the line I'd heard they were old drinking buddies. Legend even has it that Bruce gave De Niro the immortal "Are you talking to me?" line from Taxi Driver.
"Nah," says Bruce. "I met him a few times, but Clarence knows him better. You should ask Clarence about him."
It's time to start talking seriously.
How does he feel, in retrospect, about his early albums?
He grimaces. "Ah, I was kind of loose when I made those albums," he says dismissively. "The other day, in fact, I was driving home and 'Blinded By The Light', came on the radio and ..." He flicks an imaginary switch off in mid air.
We move on to the infamous hype period that CBS instigated for his dramatic Born To Run album. An album that simultaneously nearly killed him, but instead set him up as the Great White Hope.
"Well one of the bad things about all that hype business," says Bruce in almost a whisper, "was that it made us look as though we'd come up from nowhere when we'd been playing the bars for years before that."
To get away from the intense pressure that followed, Bruce packed his bags and headed for home: New Jersey, where he was brought up. There, he says, he discovered himself. As a kid he never bothered with reading books or any of that style. Back in Jersey he started reading.
Could he give any titles? Bruce motions to the bags that have been packed and are ready to go back to the hotel.
"I made a list, actually, of all the books that I had read and were important to me, but I guess it's somewhere in there." Currently he's engrossed in The History of the United States.
Also in Jersey he discovered movies. "I started going to see films for something else other than enjoyment."
It was from this period of self-awareness that Darkness On The Edge Of Town was created. Bruce had not only discovered himself, but he'd also seen the lives of those around him. The forces that had affected them.
He agrees now that Born To Run, his previous album to this period of discovery about life and himself, did have "a lot of overblown romance. But it still contained the seeds of realism." The last verse of 'Jungleland', Bruce points to as proof of this assertion.
These seeds of realism flowered on Darkness. His toughest album and most realistic, when it appeared in '78 it locked in perfectly with the mood that punk had created in England. But whereas punk was only starting to address the problems of identity and purpose, Bruce nailed the problem in one.
"Yeah, it's funny that," says Bruce, "because in America I looked around and no-one was writing about this kind of stuff." Later on Bruce describes Darkness as "a guy trying to discover who he is and where he's going to."
Did he think Darkness was optimistic? "Yeah, I think so," he affirms. "'Badlands' – that's optimistic, raising yourself above it all." We move onto the River album He tells me that out of his five albums, this one is his favourite.
I tell him that it seems to me to be a balance between the romance and glory of Born To Run, and the gritty, hard realism of Darkness.
Eagerly he agrees. To him it's so important to have the two. "That's why we put 'I Wanna Marry You' next to 'The River.'
"'I Wanna Marry You' is a guy who sees someone from a corner and as soon as he does it's..." – he motions with his hands to try and articulate that first rush of blood and love. "It's..." he repeats, both of us laughing.
"But 'The River' itself balances that out," he says, getting serious again. "So you have the two of them. And that's important." He goes on to explain further. To him, during the Seventies, because of the things that have rocked nations – "things like Watergate" – "people have lost the ability to dream.
"It's been knocked out of people," he says wistfully. What a part of his music does is to try and re-establish that quality.
One of the reasons that he loves rock 'n' roll so much is because it gives people such a vitality and sense of being alive. From 'Anarchy In The UK' to 'Born To Run', anyone can testify to that vitality. Dreaming is a part of that sense of being alive, hence Bruce's interest and stress on it.
Simultaneously, though, he realise: that songs like 'Cadallac Ranch' and 'Fun' must be balanced by the kin of realism to be found on Darkness. "That's just as important."
There are other matters, too.
Bruce sees himself and fellow E Streeters presenting and representing some kind of Idea. Part of that Idea is to remain as accessible as ever. This is a Very Important Thing.
But how, I wonder, did Springsteen (who may finally be the man to replace all those pathetic wasted songwriting teams of Plant and Page, Richards and Jagger), balance that accessibility with the enormous success he is now enjoying?
On every date of this European tour he has sold out consistently. In Britain, 250,000 people wanted to see him at Wembley. In Amsterdam they wanted to give him platinum records for The River.
He explains carefully and with great deliberation.
"I haven't changed my way of living all that much you know." He's always been lucky enough to eschew the trappings that come with success. It's something he hasn't found hard to do.
"I don't know if I can articulate this properly," he says, frowning. "But this room," – and he gestures to the quite large place we're sitting in – "and money, it's there but it's not important. It's not the end.
"You see, the sell out doesn't occur when you take your first limousine ride. It happens in here," thumping his chest. He thinks he could be sucked into it.
"A lot of good people with something to say have fallen into that trap," he says quietly. "It's when you get fat and lose your hunger," he stresses "that is when you know the sell out has happened."
That's why that trip back to Jersey was so important for him round about the time of Born To Run, when he first walked into enormous success.
Because he knew who he was, where he was coming from and what he was writing about, he could see the dangers inherent in succumbing to the temptations. "Darkness was the first album where afterwards I saw myself as a man at last and not a kid anymore."
Another reason for his ability to be true is the people he surrounds himself with. Good people who guided him and protected him, but not in a cotton wool manner. Honest people.
BRUCE'S writing has changed a great deal now, a fact he readily admits. "I'm not writing for the people I grew up with as a kid," he snorts, "because they're all married with a dog and kids now."
He writes about himself and the way he sees things now. As a man. He hopes that the people who come to see the show are able to feel a two-way thing with the band. Each party can look into each other's eyes.
Did religion ever affect him I wonder? He shakes his head and tells of how, at an early age, he realised that the people teaching it relied on fear to instil it in him.
He looks up at the ceiling when he's saying all this and I tell him that's exactly why I stay in bed on Sundays now. You shouldn't have to look up to anything.
"That's it!" he shouts, grabbing my arm. "It should be like this," and we're face to face.
Time now, though, is running out. People keep entering the dressing room to take things out to the truck and they keep giving Bruce lightning glances.
Sensing this I ask him what else is good about the band and the music he's playing. Putting out his hands he stresses how music has become far too divided.
"It's stupid," he says. "If you like this music you can't like that music. And if you like that music you can't like this music. That's how it's gotten and we aim to smash all that. Transcend those barriers.
"We get all kinds of ages at our gigs and that's great." At this point Dave Marsh enters the dressing room to tell us he's going and clearly, though we've only touched the tip of the iceberg, enough is enough. When Joyce comes in a minute later it really is time to go.
As we pack up our stuff I ask Bruce a last question about a story he had told onstage that night. It had been told as an introduction to Bruce's version of Woody Guthrie's 'This Land Is Your Land', and concerned the time Bruce and Miami Steve had played a gig in Memphis and afterwards decided to visit Elvis's house at about three or four in the morning.
"Was that true?" I asked. "Oh yeah," smiles Bruce.
"Actually me and Steve were hungry and we asked this taxi driver where the best place to eat was. He said Gracelands and I said forget the food, let's go and visit Elvis."
Which is what the boys did. The taxi driver wasn't too keen on the idea, however, and kept warning them about the dogs and guards that surrounded the house. Bruce took no notice and just told him to keep driving.
When they got there Bruce scaled the wall to Elvis' house and started up the driveway. As he got nearer he could see that there was only one light on in the entire house.
Suddenly from out of the woods, out stepped a guard.
"What do you want," he asked, his gun hanging from his hip. "I come to see Elvis," said Bruce innocently.
"He ain't here," the guard replied. "He's in Lake Tahoe."
Figuring that the guard was lying, and glancing once more up at that window with it's light shining bright, Bruce explained he was in a band. They'd played Memphis that night. They were quite a popular band.
In fact, Bruce had been on the cover of Newsweek ("and I never tell anyone that," laughs Bruce, "which shows what a cheapshot it was.").
The guard remained unimpressed. "Well can you tell him I called?" asked Bruce. The guard said he would and Bruce walked back down the drive, glancing over his shoulder at that one room.
"And you know," says Bruce, "that light in that room...it just had to be Elvis.
As long as he keeps thinking that, then the Promised Land is still only just round the corner.
WHAT'S HE really like? On my return to England I heard that phrase more times than I care to mention. And the answer was always the same.
Bruce Springsteen is rare. Rare in that he is totally unlike any rock star – or whatever the phrase is – that I've come across.
He actually is himself, not an image. There's no falseness, no show, no pretensions.
He knows who he is and he isn't ashamed, nor does he try to hide himself. And he's intelligent, immensely likeable, a little vulnerable, moral, strong. And above all, alive.
He refuses to go under, come Watergate or Reagan. Two incidents in Rotterdam last week show the kind of man he is.
After the first gig, a party was held to give Bruce some platinum records. Dick Asher, who is a Very Important Person within his record company's scheme of things, had flown in to make the presentation.
Only Bruce didn't make it. He felt ill. And his first responsibility is to his audience, not to bigshots.
Earlier that night he had stood up and sung 'This Land Is Your Land'. He'd changed one of the last lines to "From California to the Streets of Brixton."