Springsteen chases the spirit - He's re-energizing his life both onstage and off

Chicago Tribune, 1992-08-23, by: Greg Kot
In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of pop music, five years is a lifetime. No one knows that more than Bruce Springsteen, who has gone from being one of the most celebrated rockers of the last 15 years to a guy who now inspires respectable entertainment publications to run major stories that question his validity. "What Ever Happened to Bruce?" one cover headline blared recently. "Playing for a year and a half and then disappearing for three years is a strain," Springsteen acknowledged as he wrapped up a band rehearsal a few days ago at the Centrum arena in Worcester MA. "This particular time, I did a lot of work, not just musical, but just kind of getting my whole life together."

Since his last album, the 1987 release "Tunnel of Love," the rocker has indeed been busy sorting out his public and personal affairs. He broke up with his first wife, actress Julianne Phillips, and married a singer in his band, Patti Scialfa, with whom he has since had two children. He also revealed that he has been in therapy since 1982, a period when he began experiencing a personal emptiness, "a floating feeling, like I had gotten lost," as he told one interviewer. He also divorced his longtime group, the E Street Band, and wrote and recorded two albums without them, "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town." They were released simultaneously last March by Columbia Records, and while they received generally favorable reviews, they drew more critical broadsides than any performances since Springsteen's career skyrocketed in 1975, when he made the covers of both Time and Newsweek in the same week. Both of the new albums have sunk into the lower reaches of the pop charts after debuting at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, and nagging questions have arisen about whether Springsteen's moment has passed. "Springsteen, for the first time in his career, sounds like a bystander," wrote critic Greg Sandow in Entertainment Weekly recently.

Now he's out on the road for the first time since 1988, on a tour that will bring him to the World Music Theatre in Tinley Park on Sept. 2 and 3 with a new 10-piece band and something to prove: that he's as vital as ever. "You're always afraid to go out on tour," he says, "You're exposing yourself by saying 'This is where I stand, this is what I think, this is the music I believe in.'... "It's probably the single thing that I do best, I suppose, but that first night with everybody yelling and screaming, you think, 'Geez, what am I gonna do, I better be good.' It's always a little scary, particularly if you're off the road for a length of time. You forget that it's a really intense emotional, physical, spiritual experience that calls on everything you've got. And if you're doing it right on any given night that's gotta come pouring out... "The idea is you're in a room and you're sort of chasing something during the night. You're chasing a certain feeling, a certain spirit. You wait for that moment when you raise yourself up, you feel yourself go, and then everybody else will be there too, hopefully."

Recent three-hour concerts at the Brendan Byrne Arena in his native New Jersey and at the Centrum in Worcester make clear that Springsteen is still putting on one of the great shows in rock, E Street Band or no E Street Band. Keyboardist Roy Bittan, the lone holdover from the old lineup, stands out more than ever as the one indispensable cog in Springsteen's cinematic sound, while five backup singers, including soul veteran Bobby King and multi-instrumentalist Crystal Taliefero, have revitalized - and in some cases radically altered - Springsteen's older material and given the new songs a buoyant, gospel-soul twist.

The interplay between guitarist Shane Fontayne and Springsteen recalls the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood at their scrappiest, and Springsteen is playing more solos than at any time since the galvanic 1978 "Darkness on the Edge of Town" tour. But longtime saxophonist Clarence Clemons and drummer Max Weinberg are notably absent. Clemons' parts, so integral to the songs from "Born to Run" and "Darkness on the Edge of Town" especially, have generally been written out. And while newcomer Zachary Alford (formerly of the B-52's) is a solid drummer, Weinberg's thunder is missed during such E Street staples such as "Born in the USA" and "Badlands."

Springsteen bristles a bit when it is suggested that perhaps his new band's rhythm section isn't quite up to par. "I just disagree," he says, raising his eyes from his scuffed, steel-toed motorcycle boots. At 42, Springsteen could pass for a man a decade younger. His dark hair is longer and curlier than it was on his last tour, and triple-loop silver earrings frame his unlined, cleanshaven face. His build is sturdy and muscular, if no longer built up to the Adonis-like proportions he sported during the "Born in the USA" tour. "I think the E Street Band, we were one of the best bands in the world for 15 years," he continues, "I'd been with some of the guys for 20, and I love all of them. We had a good time, and you couldn't have asked for better people. But it was time to push the edges out a little bit, and I've got confidence in every player on that stage now. It's a good band."

Springsteen says he began feeling somewhat limited by the E Street Band, particularly as he explored more intimate, textured music in the wake of his biggest success, the 1984 arena-rock tour de force, "Born in the USA." The new band "is an expansion and extension of what we've done in the past," he says. "I think if you're a fan and you came down to the show, I believe you'll feel comfortable with what you'll see, and also hopefully see us push it out in places where we hadn't before... "I wanted to maintain the richness in the sound and the color, and I wanted to retain the R&B feel," he says. "But I also wanted to push it out a little bit into gospel music, and a little harder rock edge, a little more of a guitar thing. "I just wanted to see how it felt to play with different musicians and what that brought to the music. We're really just scraping the surface of what we can do; it's only been 26 shows since we've been together."

In that brief time, the band has sharpened up considerably since its energetic but sloppy performance on "Saturday Night Live" last May. One senses that the current show, musically and thematically, is still taking shape, that Springsteen hasn't quite refined and filtered all he wants to express. That sense of a work in progress was in evidence throughout the New Jersey run, where Springsteen and the band played 57 different songs over 11 nights. "I was just pulling everything out of the hat that I could," Springsteen says with a laugh. "It was sort of like a family reunion. It really expanded our repertoire, learning twice as many songs as we knew while we were there. "It's just intuitive, what feels right, as people respond to it. I try to recontextualize it a bit with the new material. I'm pulling a lot more from 'Darkness' and that particular period. It just seems like that stuff fits in really well at the moment, particularly with the mood of the country being what it is."

If there's a theme, Springsteen pinpointed it during one of those cornily compelling monologues that he has patented over the years, which he delivered at both the Jersey and Massachusetts shows. "We got a sponsor tonight, and we gotta do some advertising right now," he said, as the audience laughed along with his carnival-barker inflections. "Tonight, out sponsor is... love! "So who's been stomped on, beat up and kicked, their dignity trashed, their self-worth really screwed over by love?" Everybody roars. "But we keep coming back," he continued. "And that's called fate. And where there's fate, there's hope, and where there's hope, there's love, and where there's love, there's sex! Good things!"

And at another point, Springsteen took a more serious tack on the same theme in introducing the song "Leap of Faith," in many ways the touchstone of the concerts: "This next song is about finding your nerve again, and you have to keep doing that over and over again," he said. "People keep holding themselves back, holding love back, but no more, no more."

The two interludes hinted at Springsteen's personal troubles over the last decade, and his search for some identity apart from his music. It's a search that he feels is shared by many men raised under the same circumstances during the Baby Boom era. "I think there's a hole there. It's hard to figure out - I know it was hard for me to figure out," he says, referring to the reasons he went into therapy. "In a way, I'm still in the process of doing it. It's hard; if you grew up in my generation, you got a lot of mixed signals, and trying to sort out what it actually takes to lead a full life, a realized life, it takes a lot of work. "And I'm lucky, because being able to do that work is a luxury. Many, many people do not have the time or the finances to be able to put in the work and sort that out. I don't know how most people are keeping above water, let alone getting involved in something like this."

If "Human Touch" is about a man struggling to figure out what a realized life is, "Lucky Town" brings the search full circle, in the arms of a loving wife and family. With its closing song, the stunning "My Beautiful Reward," it suggests that life's fragility and uncertainty are also the qualities that make it worth experiencing. "Lucky Town," which was written and recorded in a few weeks after the year-in-the making "Human Touch" was completed, is the more organic and artistically satisfying of the two albums. Although their simultaneous release probably confused consumers more than enticed them, Springsteen says he only briefly entertained notions of scrapping "Human Touch" altogether. "I thought in the end those records made up a full story that I was trying to tell," he says. "I'm not such a good judge of those things [commercial considerations]. I tend to react a little more intellectually... The music on 'Human Touch' was a little more simple, and I can tend to become disenchanted with the simpler things I write, which is a mistake, particularly in rock 'n' roll."

Together, the albums have already outsold "Tunnel of Love," which topped the 3 million mark, and worldwide "Lucky Town" and "Human Touch" are pushing 8 million sales combined. Springsteen's month-long tour of Europe also sold out, as did his 11-night stand in New Jersey. "Whatever Happened to Bruce?" The evidence indicates he just kept on selling records and concert tickets. Still, Springsteen recognizes the need to re-energize his career. The current tour and his new band are only the first steps.

"What I would like to do is record more frequently, get more albums out, tour more frequently, and have a steadier beat to the whole process than I've had throughout most of my career," he says. "So good luck, you know. I wait for the material, wait until I've got something that I haven't said before, something with new ideas in it, something that's worth coming out and taking up three hours or an album's length of people's time."

Not an easy task for a performer who by all accounts plays an equal role in parenting his two young children, Evan James and Jessica Rae. Scialfa and the kids travel with him, and she joins him for a duet on "Brilliant Disguise." "I've gotta be honest with you," Springsteen says with a grin. "This past set of shows was booked with only a day off in between. I thought 'Great, I've got a day off every couple of days.' But I forgot it's really tiring. So your day off is a rest day and you end up not having the kind of energy you want. So now we've booked the shows where I get more time off in between, so I can deliver what I want to deliver, in both areas."

For Springsteen, the sense of unfinished business, both as a family man and as an artist, brings a vitality to his music that makes him anything but a has-been. "My characters initially were people who got started in the underworld, on the outside, and were trying to work their way in and find a place they could call a home, a place to make a stand, a place to make a life for themselves," he says. "So, I think when I started I wanted to create a document of what it felt like to grow up in America during the time that I was growing up in.

"And I wanted to follow those characters, not just when they were teenagers or in their early 20's, but into the middle parts of their lives, into their 40's, and on. The idea was to draw my own map and maybe help other people draw their maps, and to try to find out where they've been and where they're going."