Heart of Darkness

Newsweek, 1996-04, by: Karen Schoemer
Don't scream and shout.
Springsteen's serious about getting serious.
Bruce Springsteen is about to put on a very intense performance for a very demanding audience: himself. At 6 on the night of his solo acoustic show in Stockholm, he walks out onto the stage for sound-check at the Cirkus, an 1.800-seat hall on the European leg of his "Ghost of Tom Joad" tour. The stage is bare. The only props are a mean little army of black Takamine guitars, lined up 13 strong behind a curtain, each tuned differently, yet each with an identical polish on its identical hollow body. Springsteen's guitar roadie and keyboardist, Kevin Buell, places four or five in a neat, protective semicircle around the microphone. Springsteen picks one up. He strums it a few times. Then he softly finger-picks the opening notes of "The Ghost of Tom Joad." About halfway through the song, he stops. "There is a different sound in here," he muses. "It's kinda cool." He listens intently to the fading notes, to the empty room, to the silence.

He plays a couple more songs, trying out the different guitars, sorting out the different reverberations they make. A photographer creeps along the far reaches of the loge. He's been instructed not to get too close to the stage; the clicks of the camera will distract Springsteen's obsessive quest for perfection. He plays "Sinaloa Cowboys," another harsh, strained breath of a song. Midway through the first verse, the guitar emits a honk of feedback. Springsteen tries it again, and the feedback honks again. He tries playing the second verse, and it honks at the same place in the chord progression. "It's a funky note," Springsteen mumbles. "See if I can isolate it." He moves the capo on the guitar's neck, changing the key. Then he changes the key again, and a third time. "It's just one E flat, for some reason," he says. The false note is banished. This isn't just a sound-check; it's an exorcism.

These days, Springsteen is in severe heavyweight mode. With "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and its accompanying tour, which returns to the United States this summer, he knows he has a lot to prove, "Tom Joad" is his way of asserting that, at 46, he still has something important to say. He seems worried that people won't listen, because in each show he instructs them to. "This is a community event," he tells the crowd in Stockholm. "If anybody's making too much noice, feel free to band together and tell them to shut the f- up." It's a new twist on rock psychology: tell your audience to be quite and not get too excited. The Swedish crowd was supportively attentive, but in the United States, "Tom Joad" is proving both a commercial and a critical risk. It's the only album in his catalog not to be certified gold or platinum, and the first U.S. shows received less-than-jubilant reviews last winter. (But another of Springsteen's brutal acoustic songs, the title track from the film "Dead Man Walking," was up this week for an Oscar.) If Springsteen was once the savior of rock and roll, right now he's its Puritan minister, taking America to task for its sins.

Underneath all the messages, Springsteen is sending an odd, barely audible little SOS of his own. In recent years something has been missing from his music, and he wants it back very badly: relevance. Not just social relevance, but relevance to his audience, relevance to himself. His 1992 albums "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town" were commercial and critical letdowns. You have to go back to 1987's "Tunnel of Love," the heartbreaking chronicle of his failed first marriage, for vintage Springsteen; some might argue you have to go back to "Born in the U.S.A.," the 1984 runaway career train that sold 15 million copies and made him a household name. " I had very high goals for my band when we started," he says, backstage after the Stockholm show. He's every bit as intense and methodical in his speech as he was onstage. "We didn't go just to make music, we went out to make essential music. It was fun and entertaining and hopefully enjoyable, but at the core there was something serious and essential that tied into the experience of living in America. I think that the criticism of some records I made in the late '80s or '90s centered around that idea."

Today Springsteen's personal life has never been more fulfilled. He's happily remarried, to singer and bandmate Patti Scialfa, and they're raising three kids: Evan, 5; Jessie, 4; and Sam, 2. But he's decided that happy home stories aren't what his audience craves. "Before I did 'Tom Joad' I had another record that was based more on relationships and things," he says. "I finished maybe three quaters of it, and I invested a good bit of myself in it. But one night I said, 'Gee, I'm not sure this is what I want to hear from me right now.' So I sat back and said, 'Well, what would I want to hear?'" The answer was: essential music. "I had a couple of things guiding me. One was 'Streets of Philadelphia,' which had gotten a tremendous response. It was a small song that I wrote in a few days, but I was addressing outside issues. ['Tom Joad'] is in that tradition. It's music that fulfills the promises that I made when I began. That's what I'm interested in doing right now. That's who I think I should be."

Yet that evening after the show, when Springsteen and his tour party head out to dinner, a very different guy emerges. This isn't Springsteen, the retrofitted model; it's plain old vintage Bruce, the storyteller, the cutup, the local kid. Prompted by his longtime agent Barry Bell, he switches into tourstory mode. "We're playing Lincoln Center," Bruce recalls, "and it's a big night. Max [Weinberg, E Street drummer] was sick. And he blew his lunch in the middle of 'Born to Run.' But he didn't stop playing. Extra merit for Max. Then in the middle of 'E Street Shuffle' I hear what sounds like a trumpet. And I,m going, 'Damn. What the hell is Clarence [Clemons] doing with that saxophone?' And I look, and next to Clarence is a trumpet player. So I said, 'Clarence, what's he doing over there?' Clarence goes, 'He said you said it was OK!' I said, 'Well, it's not OK. Get him off!' Then we come out for an encore, and all of a sudden I notice the stage is rising. I think, 'Jesus, this can't be happening.' And then I realize, no, the stage isn't rising, the audience is sinking. There's an orchestra pit that they put about 100 seats on, and a kid spilled beer into it, short-wired the ting. The monitors are crashing in after them. It was unbelievable. Our Lincoln Center debut."

The Boardwalk: Springsteen never leaves that Jersey guy far behind. He grew up - it's a famous story - in Freehold, a small town near the shore, on a street with a church, a rectory, a convent and a Sinclair gas station. " Me and my parents lived in my grandparent's house," he says. "Then there was my cousin's house, my aunt's house, my great-grandmother's house, my aunt's house on my mother's side with my other grandmother in it. We were all on one street, with the church in the middle." By his teens, Springsteen was outsider, watching things happen, remembering them. "The drummer I had then, Bart Haynes, and this fellow Walter Shoeshone, they both died in Vietnam when we were in our teens," he says. "I can still see them in their uniforms. Those are very powerful images. The factories. It still finds its way into my work."

People think Springsteen is an uppercrusty L.A. guy now, but he and his family still spend most of the year in New Jersey. He has a "big, beautiful farm" that he bought a couple of years ago, plus his house in tony Rumson. And every summer, they visit the Boardwalk. Jersey is "a place I've never left," he says. "I've tried many times, and never done it. A part of me did leave, but a part of me always stayed. I still enjoy the way it smells and feels in the summertime."