Ambition, Lies, The Beautiful Reward
Musician, 1992-11, by: Bill Flanagan
Bruce Springsteen's family values
At the World Music Theatre, a big new shed sitting out in a corn field an hours south of Chicago, Bruce Springsteen and his new band are playing "Better Days" to an empty room. It's afternoon soundcheck for the first of two nights at the World. when Springsteen finishes the song, distant cheering comes from somewhere beyond the grassy embankment that rises behind the last row of seats. "There's people out there!" Bruce calls into his mike and another distant roar answers. It's the sound of early-arriving fans, camped out beyond the gates. Bruce's wife, Patti Scialfa, approaches from the wings, slips on her guitar and she and Bruce practice their "Brilliant Disguise" harmonies three or four times. But Patti's got something on her mind more pressing than practice. She confers anxiously with her husband while the band stands in place. He listens, answers, listens again, then nods. Patti rushes offstage, a big smile on her face, saying "Where's the E-man?" A minute later she comes back carrying Evan Springsteen, two years old and wearing protective plastic ear muffs. Evan is psyched. Patti puts him down next to his dad and Bruce takes Patti's vocal mike off its stand, says in an Elvis voice, "Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to introduce a special guest," and puts the mike in Evan's hand.
Bruce starts playing "Johnny B. Goode," mouthing the words for the little boy like "come on son, you know this one". Evan's inherited his father's onstage stance - he plants his little feet far apart, puts the mike to his mouth and - when Dad gets to the "go go"s Evan sings, "wo wo!" Bruce is playing, the band is tapping along, Uncle Roy Bittan comes down from the keyboard riser to clap Evan on and Bruce is smiling at his kid and insisting, "Go! Go!" and Evan is insisting "Wo! Wo!" Go, Johnny, Wo, Johnny Wo Wo, Johnny B. goode. Bruce shifts to a Bo Diddley beat and tries to get Evan to sing, "Papa gonna buy you a mockingbird" but Evan won't let go of the wo-wos.
The band, laughing (and not minding one bit that this means supper is on the table), slips away. Patti sits down on the stage chatting with bandmember Crystal Taliefero. Evan's little sister Jessica finds her way out and Bruce scoops up both his babies and walks around the drums with a kid in each arm. It could be the living room of any young family, except for all the musical equipment. These are Bruce Springsteen's better days.
"It's a big change," Bruce says when asked about traveling with this new family. "In the past I think one of the ideas of the road was the idea of escape. The idea is the search for adventure or experience. For me, part of it was throwing off whatever your daily life is. Even when you're traveling in a van with six other guys, it's all-consuming. It's not that particular thing for me anymore. So the trick now was to make it all work together. It's been going good.
"If I have any knowledge about the way that relationships work - whether it's partners or kids - it's, you gotta be there. That's what kids want - to see you on a steady basis. That's the most fundamental thing that you communicate. Particularly when they're real young. The first five or six weeks everybody was adjusting to it. Particularly because at the time the schedule was tighter and the show felt so exhausting. That took a little reorienting. 'I can't play this many shows this close together ' cause then when I go home all I'm going to do is sleep.'" Springsteen laughs. "I'm not going to be any good to anybody. So we sorted it out, the spacing is slightly better, and it's been great. I've got plenty of energy, we all travel together. I really, really enjoy it. Part of what Patti does with me is say, 'Get out there and work! Get out there! Say what you've got to say.' And if you feel what you have to say has some value, that's what you want to do."
On "Local Hero", one of the cornerstones of his concerts and his Lucky Town album, Springsteen tells the story of a man who finds his way home from a debilitating life of fame and travel. He is rescued by a "gypsy girl," he settles down with her, but lying in bed he still hears the highway call. It's a funnier version of the story he told in "Cautious Man" on Tunnel of Love. No matter how happy domestic life gets, the character still hears temptation whispering.
"Oh yeah!" Springsteen says. "You got to! You don't ever not hear that. That never goes away. That's the point. That's what makes your choice mean something." Maybe what Springsteen's figured out that the Local Hero and the Cautious Man haven't is that it's a false choice: When the family man hears the road calling he go to it - and take the wife and kids along.
Springsteen is closing most of his shows with "My Beautiful Reward", a song of vague dislocation, in which the narrator surveys everything he has and wonders why he still has not found complete satisfaction. In the final verse, in an unusual flight of poetry, the singer turns into a black bird and soars over gray fields and rivers, still searching.
"I think I saw the image somewhere in a book," Springsteen says. "When I started I planned to write a nice song about my kids. It just took a funny turn. It was one of those songs like 'Highway Patrolman' in that there was a certain inconclusiveness to it that always made me feel like it wasn't finished. I kept trying to make it nice and neat, to tie up the ending and make it more concrete. After I recorded it I thought, 'I didn't quite get it on this one.' But then it started to come out and I realized it was right the way it was. It's one of those songs you don't consciously write - it comes up out of your unconscious or subconscious. That's why it's better than the stuff you slave over. I haven't tried to really interpret it. It was dealing with death in some fashion."
It suggests both the possibility of finally finding your beautiful reward, and also the chance that even when your soul is floating out of your body you'll still be looking for it in vain.
Springsteen answers, "I think it's that there is no concrete it, that idea that you reach a point where a) everything's okay, b) you're going to be happy now forever, c) you figure out everything. That's not the way life is lived, that's not the human experience. I think that when you begin to deal concretely with your own mortality and your family and your partner, death becomes a big part of that equation. You see your children. Well, your children are your afterlife, there they are. And your love with your partner is, too. That lives on through your kids. That's your afterlife.
"Forty-two is still really young, but it's old enough to see the whole picture, and it's old enough to stop living completely for yourself and to start seeing the lines that you're leaving, how things start to spread out in front of you. That was a good song to finish the record with because I wasn't trying to make and Everything's Coming Up Roses kind of record. I was trying to make a record that was really strongly positive and had a feeling of real love in it and real hope. Because I've felt and found those things in my own life. But I wasn't trying to present it as a blueprint. I was trying to stay away from all the fairy tale stuff. That song expresses a little bit of the part of everybody that's always alone.
"It's not like any of my early road songs, it's not about escape. It's about coming to terms with different realities. Sort of a confrontation with your own individual soul or spirit. But I think it was an important end for that record. I was trying to write about - like in 'Big Muddy' - moral ambivalence and moral ambiguousness. Hey, morality is something a lot of people can't afford."
One of the reasons "Beautiful Reward" come as a surprise is that while his early songs contained great bursts of poetic language, Springsteen has for years pared his lyrics down to basics. On this tour, when he performs "Growin' Up" or even "Thunder Road", the change in his songwriting over the years is striking. He says that the change was premeditated.
"There were two reasons. I altered the language of music. And I wanted to get away from the Dylan comparisons at the time. Which, really, I go back now and the songs has a lot of imagery in them but they weren't like Bob's songs at all. But at the time I was self-conscious about it and trying to find my own voice. I just felt like I wanted to speak more directly. I liked the way Robbie Robertson was writing at the time with the Band. Sort of colloquial. It sounded like people telling stories and talking about themselves, as if you were sitting on the couch. So I started to go in that direction. In the end I'm not sure what difference it makes in communicating, but at the time it was something I wanted to pursue and I've gone that way ever since. I tend to opt for simplicity and clarity. I like the images to be clear."
Singing songs like "Growin' Up" now, Springsteen says, "They all had funny imagery and a lot of humor in them. And I got some of that back on Lucky Town. That humor's sometimes the toughest thing for me to get into my music."
What's changed a lot on Lucky Town, though, is the degree to which Springsteen is writing in the first person - his new songs are sung by "me" to "you". There's no Magic Rat, no Highway Patrolman, standing in.
"You get more comfortable with who you are and you create less of a persona," Springsteen says. "I was concerned about the music being that. That's what I was looking for. That's what I waited for when I was off: to find something that felt like the music I should be singing now. Something I felt would be defining to my audience, that would help people get a fix on where I'm standing and who I am. I waited for quite a while for that stuff to come out and for me to be able to get to it. I initially tried to write more genre-like, Some of the better examples of that ended up on Human Touch. I always say, 'Oh, I'll make this album 10 rock songs or 10 this or 10 that, get away from searching, searching all the time.' If I put more records out maybe I'd have an opportunity to do that. I'd like to put more records out, but I always say that and never do.
"I had been through a lot of changes and a lot of experiences through the '80s. I think people listen to my music to find out about themselves. I've got to press to find out about myself before I can broaden it and present it. So it took a while. But it felt good."
I tell Springsteen that it's surprising to hear how much his writing is affected by his expectations of how it will be heard. In the '70s he worried about irrelevant Dylan comparisons, in the '90s he sweats over what his audience expects.
"I guess," he says softly. "Yeah, yeah. I believe everybody who writes has an audience in his head, whether it's an imaginary audience or your real audience. I had a feeling who my audience was most of the time and why people came to my music or bought my records or came to my shows. I felt I knew what I was delivering that drew people to those things. At least a core of the people that have come. I always write with an audience in mind. Not in terms of if it'll be a big hit, but in terms of what the music's delivering. It's pretty simple - I try to write really well, I try to write emotionally. And if I feel that coming back at me then I feel like I'm doing my job. That's why people come to my music - for some emotional experience or a perspective, either on their own lives or on the world that they're living in, or on their relationships. For a perspective.
"Until I get some perspective on it, I can't find it. Once I find a point of view, that's where I'm standing and that's when the records are released. That's what gives me the motivation to come out and travel and tour and work and try to stay a part of the thread of people's lives, just by doing my job." Bruce lets out a laugh. "It feels like a big job a lot of the time. I'm historically ambivalent at this point; it's just always been a part of my personality that I say, 'Gee, maybe I should've been a truck driver.' It's baloney but everybody does it. Maybe it's a way of escaping whatever you feel the responsibility of your job is.
"I've tried to keep my eye on the ball, to keep a clear view of those things. And I try to be consistent with the characters. The guy on 'Beautiful Reward' is the guy on 'Born to Run'. Hey, that's where life has taken these people. I always try to make sure the stuff I'm writing is inclusive in that sense. That it's broad enough. It's partly about me but for it to work right it's got to also be partly about you. If it's just one or the other something's missing."
Springsteen moves around his dressing room. Outside the fans are coming in. "I'd like to do more experimental things," he says. "Things where I step out of that specific chronology. I feel like I need to find an outlet that will sort of allow me to take a side road here and a side road there. If I made more records I'd be able to do that, even if they were less consistent in some fashion."
Like Neil Young?
"Yeah! he goes over here and over there. I like the idea of that freedom. I don't tend to do it on my own. At some point I'd like to find some place to move like that."
Out in the backstage corridor is Roy Bittan, the happiest man in Illinois. I've never seen Roy this happy. He's been Springsteen's keyboard player for 18 years, he's been a top session pianist, he's the only member of the E Street Band still playing with Bruce, he co-produced the Human Touch album and even co-wrote two songs, he's got a beautiful wife, a wonderful son, a beach house in Malibu, but that's not why Roy is so happy. "I just got the R&R numbers!" he tells the other musicians, who may or may not know that Radio & Records is a broadcasting tipsheet. "We're the second most added record in the country! Only Bobby Brown is ahead of us!" Roy is bouncing off the walls. No, it's not a Bruce Springsteen he's so excited about. It's "Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough" by Patty Smyth with Don Henley, a single from a new Patty Smyth album produced by - (drum roll) - Roy Bittan. Roy has been trying to establish himself as a record producer for years (Springsteen says he is especially fond of an album Roy produced last year for singer/songwriter Will T. Massey). The fact that Bruce made Roy co-producer of his album was a huge boost - but as all Springsteen albums are produced by a team that includes Bruce, manager Jon Landau and engineer Chuck Plotkin, it did not necessarily establish Roy as a first-call record maker in the eyes of the industry. Getting at hit for Patty Smyth does.
I mention to Roy that I could call a friend at Billboard to find out next week's chart position. Toy's eyes light up. We go to a pay phone and Roy stand there saying (or praying), "Let it go to number nine. Nine, nine, nine, nine."
"It's number seven, Roy."
"SEVEN! IT'S NUMBER SEVEN!! I'M TOP TEN!" Roy goes off to share the good news with Landau, co-manager Barbara Carr, the crew, the cook, the security guard....
Roy is the link between the glory days of the E Street Band and the risky new course Springsteen's set out on. Chances are the E Street Band will play again (as he started this tour Springsteen surprised his old bandmates with a generous and unexpected gift - royalties on all the albums they made together), but Springsteen talks about wanting the freedom to make any kind of album with and different musicians. He talks about making a whole album with the sort of bass-driven, dense sound of the re-mixed "57 Channels", or an album that builds songs to accommodate his guitar playing, instead of the other way around. He has a lot of ideas and this band is only the first of them.
This band started with Bruce and Roy and a young trio - guitarist Shane Fontayne (ex-Mick Ronson, Mick Taylor, Lone Justice, with Jimmy Page hair, stagger and British accent), Tommy Sims (a session bassist for everyone from Divinyls to Garth Brooks who has never before gone on the road) and Zachary Alford, the young drummer of the New York band Bodybag. That was the band that did "Saturday Night Live" and played a private showcase at New York's Bottom Line. At that Bottom Line show Bruce brought up singer Bobby King to duet on a couple of the more soulbased songs from Human Touch. After the show, King was invited to do the whole tour.
Back in Los Angeles, with the first date of the tour breathing down their necks and a live nationwide radio broadcast even closer, Springsteen started auditioning background singers. To save time he had them come in and sing in groups, eliminating vocalists one by one until there was no one else he could bear to cut. That's how Bruce ended up with four backup vocalists beside King - Cleopatra Kennedy (ex-Diana Ross and James Cleveland), Gia Ciambotti (from the Graces), Carol Dennis (longtime Dylan backup) and Angel Rogers (Stevie Wonder, Paula Abdul). Five days before the radio broadcast they made one more addition - Crystal Taliefero, a singer/guitarist/percussionist/sax player who has become Bruce's main onstage foil.
All these musicians took a little time to become a band. Some of them weren't even all too sure who Bruce Springsteen was and were startled at the size and fervor of his audiences. During an 11-show stand at the Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey in July and August the band found itself. Initially Bruce was carrying the whole show without the safety net the E Street Band had always provided. Early concerts felt a little too careful, as if the players were more scared than enthused, which sometimes forced Bruce dangerously close to the line where great showmanship slips into shtick. Afternoon soundchecks were spent with bruce teaching the band more and more songs from his catalog, which they'd perform in public that night. No wonder some of them looked a little shell-shocked. But over the course of those 11 Jersey concerts the musicians relaxed, got to know the songs and each other a lot better, and found their confidence as a unit. By the last night, when Bruce pulled out "Sandy" and "Rosalita", the new group seemed to have learned the lesson of the roller coaster - how to have fun with terror.
They rolled into Massachusetts with what some longtime fans dared to call the best Springsteen concerts ever. Band consensus is that they topped those in Philadelphia. Tonight in Illinois, they are sailing. The balance between new material and old, which tilted backward in New Jersey, is moving toward the new stuff again. "57 Channels" has grown from the Albert- Ayler-learns-guitar version of "Saturday Night Live" into a raging indictment of Republican policy with police sirens wailing and a throbbing chant of "No justice, no peace." "Souls of the Departed" has become one of several guitar blow-outs where Springsteen challenges his usual limits. Tonight he takes it into Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner". "Soul Driver" has lost its gospel lilt and become a slow, moody piece a little like something from Van Morrison's Veedon Fleece. Springsteen rewards the attention his fans pay to this new material with lots of his hits, as well as crowd-pleasing bonuses like "Working on the Highway" and "Darlington County".
Bruce explains, "I had a variety of theories before I started the tour about what I was going to do, but you don't know until you get out there. I thought I was gonna be playing a shorter show." He laughs. "That's almost always wrong. The minute you step in an arena... An arena is a funny thing. Just the word itself: the stadium, the coliseum, the forum. The scale of the places generally calls for some large heroic or anti-heroic action. I think the size of the show over the years expanded to meet that particular thing I felt in air. That's kinda what people come for. The arena is a bigger-than-life experience. I think once you step out of the theater it's a different ball game. So I'm probably playing longer than I thought I would be and playing more old things than I thought I would be as the result of playing longer. As the show expanded I followed the line of the way the thing moved and felt and what resonated best. About 60 per cent new stuff and 40 pe cent old is what feels good on a nightly basis right now."
Springsteen was always a cautious man about how to present his live shows. He played clubs until long after he was big enough to fill theaters, he stayed in theaters when arenas made more sense, he stuck to arenas when stadiums were beckoning, finally moved to stadium with great success in 1985, and then - for the 1988 Tunnel of Love tour insisted on going back to arenas. "I was always paranoid of expansion," Bruce says. "What was I going to lose? That's how I approached life in general: I couldn't imagine what I'd gain, I could only see what I'd lose."
It's between sets and I settle into the backstage hospitality room when a horde of people with guest passes pour through the door en masse and start stripping the buffet. It's like the stateroom scene in Night at the Opera, they fill the place and keep coming. Ah, I figure, radio contest winners! No, I'm corrected, Crystal Taliefero's guest list. Crystal - a fireball on and offstage - grew up in nearby Indiana and played in local hero John Mellencamp's band. Everyone she ever met called her for tickets to this. After the show, at a private party at a chic restaurant that's been opened just for the band, I'm introduced to Crystal's dad Charles, a real nice man. He asks what I do and I tell him I work at a music magazine, that I got a call yesterday at suppertime asking if I could be in Chicago the next morning to spend three days with Springsteen. It was a mad rush, I say, but you know, I gesture to the fancy surroundings, there are harder jobs. "Yeah," he says. "You could work in an oil refinery. Like me."
We get the word that soup's on and choose tables while waiters pile up our plates. Bruce and patti arrive like the bride and groom at a wedding reception and go around the room saying hi. During some shows Bruce tells the crowd that since h's not selling records anymore, he's had to take on a sponsor this tour. The fans boo and he tells them, "But it's not a beer! It's not an athletic sneaker! This tour is sponsored by LOVE!" Not it's not my place to say this, but I think the company that might be able to overcome Springsteen's historic aversion to corporate sponsorship is Chef Boy-ar-Dee. Because, let me tell you, this tour is the pasta express. There's noodles cooking in the hospitality room, there's angel hair steaming in the catering room, before Bruce goes on stage he sits in his dressing room chowing down on spaghetti, and tonight - for a special treat - he's leading everybody through a fancy 2 a.m. multi-pasta dinner. In spite of his Dutch name, Springsteen is of Irish and Italian heritage. If his father's Irishness sometimes emerges in the black fatalism that underlines even his most joyous music, his mother's Italianness sure dominates Bruce's menu.
Bruce and Patti take a seat at a table with Zack, Shane and Gia and Bruce regales his new musicians with tall tales of the E Street Band's adventures. There was the Jersey club owner who thought an amp was too loud, so he pulled out a gun and shot it. there was the time when the band reached football stadiums that Roy Bittan and Nils Lofgren were so engrossed in a ping-pong game that they didn't know the rest of the band had gone on. The musicians who were onstage could not get the attention of an excited Springsteen, who looked out at the mass of humanity and screamed "ONE TWO THREE FOUR!" Instead of Roy's majestic synthesizer hook opening "Born in the U.S.A.", he heard the dink dink dink of Danny Federici playing the line on the high end of the piano. Bruce laughs and says, "I looked down and saw 80,000 people going huh?
That story gets a big laugh from the new musicians, but it sends a chill through crew members who were there. They remember Bruce coming offstage at intermission and looking for the guy whose job was to collect the band before the show. Bruce held up his hand and asked, "How many fingers? Five? How many with this hand, too? Ten? Now how many people in the band? How high do you have to be able to count?"
There's a lot that's fun in hitching along on Springsteen's ride, but there's a lot of responsibility, too. Jon Landau is Springsteen's manager, his record producing partner, probably his best friend. Landau is considered to be one of the shrewdest and toughest powers in the record business. But it would be a mistake to think of Springsteen as the friendly guy, Landau as the tough one; Bruce as the pal, Jon as the boss; Bruce as the music, Jon as the business. They're both both. They work together so well because they are a lot alike.
Over at his table, Landau talks quietly about Spingsteen's relationship with Columbia Records, the subject of a lot of scrutiny and gossip. First, it was widely perceived that Landau's public expression of lack of faith in the former Columbia boss Walter Yetnikoff helped bring Yetnikoff down. Second, other record labels have made little secret of their hunger to sign Springsteen, which would be an embarrassment to Columbia. Third, the two new albums Springsteen released last spring, Human Touch and Lucky Town, did not sell in the multi-platinum numbers that were expected. One might think that Landau would have doubts about the current Columbia regime led by Tommy Mottola and Don Ienner. But Landau says nothing is further from the truth. In fact, he brings up the subject in order to dispel it. Sure, he says, there was some tension before the albums were delivered. Mottola had been waiting for three years - who cold blame him if he was impatient? And Ienner had come over from Arista; who could blame him if he said, hey, if a Bruce Springsteen album is a smash I won't get the credit, Yetnikoff will. But, Landau insists, since the albums have not done as well as expected, Mottola and Ienner have been incredible. They have refused to give up, they have kept working for the records, they have been wonderful. Landau says he and the Columbia chiefs are closer now than they ever were before.
One place Springsteen and Landau do part company a bit is in how much each cares about commercial success. Virtually everyone who knows Bruce well - even those with hard feelings about other things - says he is motivated by devotion to his art; the marketplace does not much interest him. Now that Bruce is on the road, playing the music he loves to the audience who loves him, Jon has had to twist Bruce's arm to get him to agree to do any promotion at all. Tonight Jon is relieved that he just finished the exhausting task of convincing Bruce to do an acoustic television concert for MTV's "Unplugged." He says that like every such decision, it was a huge tug of war. "And now that Bruce has agreed to do it he'll spend the next three weeks - two of which are his vacation - obsessing over it. It will occupy all his thoughts until it's done."
The next afternoon I ask Bruce about it. I find him in his dressing room two hours before show time, strumming an acoustic guitar.
"Yeah, I'm gonna take a stab at that," he says. "A lot of the new songs, particularly on Lucky Town, are pretty folk-based. It's all stuff I can sing by myself or with a band. They work a lot of different ways. I have some ideas for some small arrangements that'll push the songs themselves out front and give me a chance to present the material in a different way.
"At some point I want to do an acoustic tour by myself and play in theaters. It's something I've been wanting to do for a long time. When I did the Christic Institute benefit I said, 'Oh, I can do this.' I'd like to work more steadily now if I can get myself to do it. And Patti's got her record coming and she's going to be working in some fashion, so we're trying to figure a way to make it all work out. Theoretically I'd like to work more, whether I have a new record out or not. Just go out and play. There's so many things I could do that I haven't done yet, so many ways of presenting the music that I haven't done that I'm anxious to do. I'd like to do something out of this particular rhythm I've gotten into. I think that's in the cards. In the '90s I want to do a lot of different things. I feel freer to branch out."
Springsteen mentions that at the Christic Institute benefit concert in 1990 he got to sit down and do some songs at the piano, something else that vanished when his shows moved from theaters to arenas in the late '70s. Although Bruce had spent the '60s playing in local New Jersey rock bands, he only got discovered when he went up to Greenwich Village in the '70s and played folk clubs.
"It was a funny time, '72, '73," he says. "I used to come down to Max's Kansas City and play by myself. Paul Nelson would bring some people down. I used to open for Dave Van Ronk, Odetta, all those people were still around. David Blue came down one night and as I was walking offstage he said, 'Hey man, that was great! Come with me.' We got in a cab and went downtown to the Bitter End where I met Jackson Browne. He had his first album out. I auditioned for John Hammond at the old Gaslight. And the late at night the New York Dolls would play at Max's. They'd play at 2 a.m. Max's was still really thriving at the time, the whole downstairs scene was going on. It was the cusp of those two things. I was opening for, like, Biff Rose but there was that whole other scene starting to come in."
I ask Springsteen when he realized that he could compete with Dylan, with Robbie Robertson - when did you know you could work at that level?
Springsteen answers slowly. "I just thought I was gonna be a guy who was gonna have to... work really hard." We both crack up laughing. "I wanted to have my own vision and point of view and create a world of characters, which is what the writers I admired did. It was a world unto itself, a world you slipped into, and yet a world that felt connected to the real world in some very important ways. I knew when I was very young I wanted to do that. Dylan's writing - that's just what felt exciting. So I took off in that direction. Hey, everybody shoots for the top! You don't know where it's gonna lead you. I just took it a day at a time. I had real serious dedication to it, but I always felt I'd have to really sweat it out, to work really hard at it.
"I think I wrote ambitiously. From the beginning I wrote wildly big with the idea of taking the whole thing in and being definitive in some fashion. I think the show took on that approach also. I was ambitious." He laughs. "I was ambitious. I was shooting for the moon."
He adds quietly, "And I guess somewhere inside I felt like I could hit it."
Tonight is the last night of the summer tour. Everyone has two weeks off before reconvening. During "The River" a bright half moon shines through an opening in the roof next to the stage. Springsteen pulls out all the stops. The show climaxes with an electrifying version of "Light of Day", the song Bruce wrote for Paul Schrader's movie about a rock band. Springsteen has played "Light of Day" on other tours, but it didn't lift off the way it was meant to - it seemed to try too hard to be joyous and came off as a sort of weaker "Out in the Street". This tour, though, he's brought out what he must have known was inside the song, 'cause it's the high point of the concert. Springsteen hurls the band through "Light of Day" in a wailing frenzy, drives the audience completely crazy, and then freezes in place as the music slams to a stop. This is not a new trick but Bruce really milks it, standing rigid as a statue while flowers, hats, and other objects fly past him (I ask later how he avoids flinching when an object comes sailing out of the dark and just misses his eye. Bruce: "That would be bad form!"). Then he screams and the whole band slams back into action. This may be repeated once, twice, even three times during the song, the crowd getting wilder each time. Sometimes Bruce fills the silence between stops with Dirty Harry's "Are you feelin' lucky, punk?" speech. Usually he flicks his eyes from one side of the house to the other, creating eruptions of cheering wherever his glance falls. Tonight he falls over flat on his back. The singers rush to prop him up by the mike stand and after a dramatic, James Brown-like pause Bruce screams and kicks it in again. From that point on all bets are off. He doesn't even bother leaving the stage between finishing the usual hour of encores numbers and pulling out the bonus "Working on the Highway".
It's midnight as that song plays. Outside in the moonlight, Patti Scialfa is doing donuts in the parking lot in the promoter's 1960 El Dorado convertible, a beautiful machine with tail fins you could shave with. "Working on the Highway" ends, the crowd explodes, and out the back door comes the running, sweating, laughing, toweling band. Last show! Last Show! Standing in the parking lot they hug and say goodbye to each other, to Patti, to Landau, to Barbara Carr. They break into small groups and climb into the waiting vans. Inside they give each other handslaps and... uh-oh... Where's Bruce? Roadies come running out the back door yelling, "He's back onstage!" The musicians whoop and pour out of the vans, race up the steps, in the back door, down the backstage corridor, through the stage doors, into the wings, across the ramps and back onstage as Bruce kicks into "Bobby Jean". By the time he starts "Hungry Heart" and climbs up on top of the speaker columns, it's clear nobody in this audience is going to work in the morning.
As a police car leads the speeding vans through the crowds and traffic and back toward Chicago, Roy Bittan, the old vet, congratulates the young recruits on finishing their first campaign. "We made it, boys! Thirty-eight shows! Half the tour?" All are exhausted, elated, delighted. The cop leading the vans hits his siren and Bobby King says, "Oops, I thought it was the intro to '57 Channels'! I almost started chanting 'No justice, no peace!'" Tearing up the highway toward Chicago, Roy talks about how strange it was to be told the E Street Band was ending, live with that for three tough weeks, and then be invited by Bruce to get back together - to collaborate on songwriting and production as well as playing! When the E Street Band ended he took it as a sign that it was time give himself fully to producing. He was in L.A., he got management - and then Bruce called back. Did he hesitate at all before reenlisting? "Are you kidding?" Bittan asks. "No! Artistically, Bruce is the best. I hope to always work with him. And the fact that we were writing together meant our relationship was progressing. That was important to me."
As we drive down Michigan Avenue, past the jutting castle tower of the Chicago Waterworks, Roy tries to explain to undomestic Shane why every building, every house, must have a small pipe coming through the roof to accommodate water pressure. Shane stares at Roy with polite incomprehension. Roy says, "Think of it as a parametric equalizer for your toilet." He is the man they call "professor."
Bruce lands in the hotel bar and raises a glass of champagne to his bandmates. I compliment him on the guitar solo he took on "Human Touch", a keening, almost whistling lead quite different from his usual playing. Bruce says he's been working on his guitar playing a lot lately, and often thinks that if he'd stuck with that - his first vocation - instead of switching his concentration to songwriting he might have become a really good guitarist.
"In my first band I was hired as the lead guitarist," Bruce says. "I couldn't play much lead but I could play a little more than everybody else. Like any at all! There was a time when the general playing ability in the local bands was really rudimentary. And it seems like everybody learned a lot slower. I think these days kids pick up a guitar and in a year or two they've got Eddie Van Halen licks goin'!"
I tell Bruce we shouldn't have this discussion in the bar. Let's go up and get the tape recorder out. Bruce Springsteen is a cautious man. He wants to work this out. It's quarter to two. Bruce wants to go get a massage, which he reckons will take until quarter of three. Then he wants to get some dinner. He asks if it would be okay if he came by my room to tape some more interview at 4 a.m. Sure, I say, great, see you then. For the next two hours I discover the truth in "57 Channels and nothing on". At 4:15 Bruce calls and says, let's wait till the morning. Fine, I say. I close my eyes and it seems like about two seconds later I hear "shave and a haircut" knocking on my door. I open it and there's Bruce. He comes in, sits down and starts talking. An hour, two hours, three hours. The phone rings, he's going to miss his ride to the airport. Bruce doesn't stop.
"I didn't sing in the Castiles, my first band," he says. "I basically played the guitar. Everybody in the band felt that I couldn't sing at all. I think I got to sing one Dylan song. Over the years I started to sing a little bit more, eventually I think we ended up splitting a lot of the vocals. And after that I went off and had my own bands.
"I put together a real Hendrix/Cream three-piece group called Earth for quite a while. That was the Day of the Guitarist. Alvin Lee and Jeff Beck and Clapton and Hendrix. And locally I was the guitarist, I was the fast gun at the time.
"When I got my record deal I was in a place where I'd said, 'Gee, there's a lot of guys who play really well. There's not a lot of guys who write that well.' I think I'd decided that if I was going to create my own point of view, my own vision, it wasn't going to be instrumentally - it was going to be more through songwriting. So I put a lot of my energy into that. I had no band for awhile, I just wrote a group of songs that felt unique to me, and that was when I went up and met [Columbia's] John Hammond - that was the stuff I played for him.
"Then I was typecast as an acoustic act for a while. Locally I took a tremendous amount of heat. When the first record came out people were incensed that there was no electric guitar on it! It was like I screwed up. All I heard everyplace I went was 'Where's the guitar, man? What happened?' I had such a big local reputation in the Jersey area - and a little bit down south, 'cause we'd play in Virginia and Carolina - as a hard-rockin' guitar band that when the first record came out people were sort of, 'What happened?'
"But I felt like I knew what I was doing, I stuck with it, I put the band together after that record. I became more arrangement-oriented, I got more interested in how the thing was going to function as an ensemble. If there needed to be a solo I tended to give it to Clarence. I'd like to play a little bit more now, but I still relegate it to the song. I always felt the song was my fundamental means of communication. It would be nice to do something that was out of that context, something that was less immediately song-oriented. More texture-oriented or abstract or something."
When you were playing in Earth, were you playing like Alvin Lee and Hendrix?
Did you have better chops in 1969 than you had in, say, 1975?
"Because I played so much more, I probably had a wider range of things that I played. Right now I'm playing pretty well in a sort of limited vein. It's the old story, you gotta play a lot. I have sort of an area that I'm playing in. There was a lot of fast guitar playing at the time because that's what was going on. Eventually I moved away from that idea. I got more into what B.B. King was doing, I liked the idea of less notes. Yeah, I probably had a little more flexibility or dexterity at the time. But it doesn't really leave you that much, it doesn't go that far away. Generally I haven't created a context where I allow myself the freedom to stretch out and play and investigate ideas more instrumentally. But maybe I'll get to it."
You do have a very distinct, emphatic guitar style which you use to convey strength, anxiety, joy - but you very rarely use guitar to convey tenderness or melancholy. You tend to go to harmonica for that.
"Yeah. I played a little bit on 'If I Should Fall Behind' and in the early days I had 'Sandy'. A little bit, not that much. I was probably more confident of my voice in my songs than I was in developing a distinct voice on the guitar. And when you're leading the band, singing, and writing the songs eventually you've got to make some choices. I choose to go away from a long, jamming sort of style, even though I did it for a long time when I was younger. As I got older I wanted to be more direct, clear, immediate and not waste a lot of time."
The talk turns to his new work. On "Real World", a central song on Human Touch, Springsteen sings, "I still got a little faith but what I need is some proof." On Lucky Town the birth of his son brings him "Living Proof."
"Yeah," Bruce smiles, "that's what people do for each other. My relationship with Patti - she just somehow managed to bring to me a lot of self-acceptance. Just the way she looked at me or the way she was with me. People can come in and help center you and pull out the best of you and tell you when you should cut yourself some slack and when you ought to be working a little harder. That's what we do for each other when it's working right. Kids do it too. Kids make you rise above yourself."
Some successful musicians discover that when they find the secure love of a family, they no longer need the love of an audience.
"There's people who feel the other way, too. There's people who feel, 'I get what I need when I go onstage and I don't need the rest.' I felt like that for a long time. I always got to a point in relationships where if it got too complicated or there was too much pressure, whether it was right or not I'd say, 'Hey, I don't need this!' That's the classic line. I don't need this. The only thing I've been able to figure is, that's never true. You do need it.
"But I figure it can work the other way, too. The connection with your audience is something you want and you need. I guess I feel that's how I impact upon the world. I didn't see any reason why both of those things couldn't nurture each other. That was the idea anyway. And the tour is when you experience it the most. Both things are happening: My family's here and the audience is out there. It's a balancing act. Some days you do it poorly and some days you do it really well.
"But I can understand that feeling. Because I think if you develop a real happy family thing you're always tempted to take refuge in it. Which is part of why it's there. Just like you can take refuge in your work. That's partly why it's there. But if you hide in either one of those things, maybe you're cutting off a part of yourself.
"The idea is that you and the audience learn together. You ferret out your own illusions. That's what my work is about - people stumbling across their own illusions, letting them drop to the wayside, then trying to move on a little further, finding something that's real. And then you bump into your deeper illusions." Bruce laughs. "You try to let some of them slip. And through it all you try not to get lost in the distortion of fame or success, or the different things that the job brings along with it." Bruce looks up and smiles and says, "It's a trip."
It's hard for anyone who's not famous to talk about what being famous does to you, but it sure does seem that Springsteen's been working to dismantle his superstardom ever since the Tunnel of Love album and tour.
"I feel less famous at the moment!" Bruce says and he lets out a big laugh. "And it's good. The zeitgeist is... All I know is, I feel able to get on with my own life, it's just a little easier. Things are really good right now. I don't know what my intentions were. Your intentions are always complicated. On one hand, it's fun to have a big smash and you want your music to be powerful and to reach as many people as possible. But there's all sorts of different issues, and none of them are clear. A big audience may not be your best audience. I don't know. How you feel about it can vary any given night. The main thing I was concerned with was taking the whole thing down, making it feel more human-scaled, less iconic and more about everyday issues, which I thought the Tunnel of Love record and my new records dealt with. That's basically what it did.
"Outside of that, your control over the thing has a life and dynamic of its own. You have some control over it. But I don't try to exert that much. I thought Born in the USA would be a popular record; I didn't think it would be the thing it ended up being. That's just what happened. I thought Tunnel of Love or these records would be more popular, but that's what happened there. Hey, you ride along with it."
So fame's not so bad?
"While there's a lot of stress and tension involved, a good part of me enjoyed the whole thing. Except for '75 - I was kinda young and pressed at the time. But hey, I could have not been on those covers of Time and Newsweek if I didn't want to! I didn't have to do those interviews. I remember sitting in a room saying, 'Gee, do I want to do this? It seems scary.' 'Yeah, but I don't want to be sitting on my porch when I'm 60 saying, Oh, I shoulda, I coulda, I woulda!' Hey! You got one ride. So I said, Let's go!"
Like giving up your freedom to get married - every time you give up one thing you gain something else.
"Yeah. I think that I was real protective over my music. Probably too much so. The stuff isn't so fragile or precious. But that's how I felt. Maybe I was trying to protect myself at times. The world is threatening. You can feel that big breath on the back of your neck right before you step into those particular decisions. You go, 'Hmm, I think the heat's gonna get turned up here.' And it does Part of it can make you miserable, but part of you also may just ride with it and go Woooo! You're flying by the seat of your pants. So it's sort of both those things. It's been a good ride, you know.
"Like you say, you tend to not have an idea what you're going to get, even in painful experience. Some of the best things I learned were learned from getting beat up, making mistakes. And if you're afraid to do that, to step out and fall, that's living in fear. If you can't take the pain you're not going to get to that higher place. My fear of failure always held me back in dealing with people and relationships. I always stopped right before I committed to the place where if it failed it would really hurt. 'I'm okay up to here but there, no.' It wasn't until I stepped out into that other place that I realized what the stakes were, what the reward where, the pleasures. The past eight years have been a tremendous time of learning for me. One of the best times of my life. Really difficult but definitely..." Bruce stops and thinks about it. "To be sitting here with the kids, patti, my music - it's a nice seat."
Bruce's new albums are full of songs about being set free by having your lies exposed - as opposed to Tunnel of Love, were songs like "Two Faces" and "Brilliant Disguise" talked about how hard it is to live with getting away with lies.
"Everybody lives with their illusions," Bruce says, drumming his fingers on a water glass. "Nobody's who they think they are. Not completely. There's a limit to how much you can know yourself. Or all the little things we do on a daily basis to live with ourselves. I guess what I've found satisfying is that if you try to strip away as much of this stuff as you can and find out what you're about - whether it's pretty or ugly or what - you do find some sort of freedom. But no matter how much you're doing it you feel you're still being cowardly with it. You can always push harder. But I think just singing the song is an act of self-awareness. Those people in the songs, they know. Whether they do something about it, the characters are copping to it. They're saying, 'This is how I see it, this is what I'm doing.' That's always the step. But it's tough."
Listen to some of the lines on the new albums: "A little sweet talk to cover all the lies," "Chippin' away at this chain of my own lies," "I had some victory that was just failure in deceit," You get paid and your silence passes as honor and all the hatred and dirty little lies are written off the books..."
"Everybody lies in some fashion or another," Bruce says. "Big ones, little ones. Really, if I was trying to capture anything on those records, it was a sense of a less morally certain universe. Perhaps in some of my earlier music - though those ideas are in 'Prove It All Night' - people may have felt a greater degree of moral certainty. I think it might have been one of the things that attracted people to my music. That's obviously not the way the real world is. I guess on these records I was interested in trying to paint is as I saw it. With your own weaknesses and the places where you fail and get caught up in the Big Muddy. I was interested in taking a less heroic stance. I think that, despite my protestations over the years in some of my lyrics, there was a heroic posture to a lot of the music I created. You try to do the right thing, and as you get older you realize how hard it is to do the right thing.
"When you isolate yourself of in the world of music it allows you a flexibility and control that the real world just doesn't allow. If you step outside that and begin to engage with people, it's gonna get messy. Painting the mess was part of what I wanted to do on those records. Because that's the way it really is. But that can also be less appealing or less compelling for some people. That moral certainty is attractive in a world that's so fundamentally confusing. That's why fairy tales are popular. That's why so many action movies are big. The first thing people want to know when they hear about any conflict is, 'Who's the good guy? Who's the bad guy?' Tabloid entertainment, TV news all comes down to 'Who's the good guy? Who's the bad guy?' It's rarely as simple as that. particularly in 'The Big Muddy', that's what I was tryin' to get to: Your moral certainty is a luxury. What passes for 'family values' or gets twisted under the umbrella of 'family values' is a luxury for a lot of people It's something that a lot of people can't afford. 'The Big Muddy' wrestles with that. It's not here, it's not there, it's somewhere in the middle and you're down in it."
As Bruce and I are talking, president Bush's latest surge in the polls has collapsed and Bill Clinton is pulling away. Maybe with so many Americans financially strapped, the Family Values crusade of the G.O.P. is ringing the national bullshit meter.
"And they know that's what it is!" Bruce nods. "First of all, Bush just isn't as good, he can't present it like Reagan presented it. Plus, hey - we've heard that last time! And that sounds like bullshit. People are really saying, 'Hey - that's BULLSHIT. It's too real out here!' That's not gonna work. I really don't think it's gonna work."
Springsteen sighs. "Most of popular culture is based on childhood fairy tales. It just continues. That's what a lot of political discourse became. There's a real patronizing aspect to the whole thing. I just think people at this point have become fundamentally skeptical and cynical - in a good way. The answers are complex. Even though some part inside of us yearns for a morally certain world, that world doesn't exist. That's not the real world. And at some point you've got to make that realization, make your choices, and do the best that you can."
Interview conducted September 1992