Into the Fire
Uncut, 2002-09, by: Adam Sweeting
In one of the most revealing interviews of his career, Bruce Springsteen talks exclusively to Adam Sweeting about his new album, The Rising, much of which was written in the aftermath of September 11, and which reunites him with the E Street Band for their first studio album since Born to Run (sic), 18 years ago.
If all you?ve ever seen of New Jersey is Newark airport of the bits they show you in the opening sequence of The Sopranos, you will have assumed it?s a grimy jungle of factories, warehouses and shopping malls interspersedwith toxic waste dumps. It?s the kind of place where they?ve given up trying to count the number of corpses stirred into the concrete buttresses holding up the freeways. But keep driving for a couple of hours away from Manhattan and, eventually, you discover why cars in Jersey have ?The Garden State? stamped on their number plates. Once the dismal miles of urban blight have receded into the rear-view mirror, it?s startling to find the landscape opening out into undulating acres of woodland and lush green grassland, with the occasional picturesque lake thrown in for good measure.
Whatever mythology may surround New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen has been a substantial contributor. He was born in Freehold, NJ on September 23, 1949, a few miles inland from the seaside resort of Asbury Park which would become the laboratory for his songwriting and the birthplace of the E Street Band. One of his earliest songs was titled ?Garden State Parkway Blues.? The last song on his new album is called ?My City Of Ruins,? and you?d imagine it was about New York in the aftermath of September 11. In fact, he wrote it a couple of years ago about Asbury Park, a bedraggled and down-at-heel town living in hope of investment and redevelopment. Asbury Park now has a street dubbed Boss Boulevard, and the New Jersey legislature was grateful enough to one of its best-known sons to annoint ?Born To Run? as the state?s official rock anthem.
In the early Nineties, Springsteen and his family ? which now comprises wife Patti, two sons and a daughter ? shuttled between homes in Jersey and California, where Springsteen?s parents had gone to live in the late Sixties, but lately they?ve shifted their centre of gravity back east. Most of the time, home is a farm in Colts Neck, nestling in the midst of gymkhana country in rural Jersey but not far from either Asbury Park or Freehold. As he once put it, ?Where you come from is like your family and your best friend.? Most of the farm?s acres of parture are screened from the main road by trees and hedges, though locals can sometimes catch a glimpse of Mr and Mrs Springsteen out horseriding.
As we turn in through the gate and scrunch up the gravel driveway towards the house, Springsteen saunters out across the front lawn to say hi. In a loose-fitting shirt, jeans and motorcycle boots, he looks more like the guy who?s come to grease the gearbox on the tractor than the neighbourhood rock?n?roll superher. The sun is searing down under a perfect blue sky, so he leads the way indoors where the climate is controlled and the fridge is packed with cold drinks.
?My friend, you are experiencing a classic Jersey summer?s day,? he announces with proprietorial bonhomie.
We settle back in a couple of chairs in the living room, with mineral water and an ice bucket on the table. The room is cool and comfortable, furnished in down-home Jersey Rustic rather than designer minimalism or arthouse chic.
?This area has been quite a sanctuary for me over the years,? Springsteen reflects. ?I?d say we have as relatively normal a life as possible under the circumstances ? where everybody knows your music and knows who you are ? but you can go to the carnival, you can go to the circus and nobody really bothers you. You can go to the boardwalk on a jammed Saturday night where there?s a thousand people there and it?s fine. People will look and say ?Hello, how you doing?,? it?s all just? it?s all very do-able without much hassle, y?know??
The upstanding citizen, he?s happy to be on call for collecting the local kids from school and ferrying them home or to sports meetings. He plays coach to his eldest son Evan?s baseball team. Sometimes on Halloween, he and Patti invite the Boy and Girl Scouts around to their house. ?It?s just regular stuff, y?know,? he shrugs. ?It?s nothing unusual.?
Even when his fame reached hysterical dimensions during the Born In The USA period in the mid-Eighties, Springsteen always tried to keep at least one boot planted on the ground. In Los Angeles at the shrieking zenith of Bossmania, he once amazed Tom Petty by strolling down to Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard to load up with a few new waxings. He even paid for them himself.
?I think you have to make a point of behaving like a human being,? ponders the mature tunesmith. ?I understand people who feel very uncomfortable at a certain point with the amount of notoriety and attention. On one hand, obviously, you go out and you ask for it, you shake your butt in front of 20,000 people and part of the artist thing is that artists are narcissistic and self-involved and ego-driven and bottomless to some degree in their needs and what they want. That comes with the turf, I believe.?
This prompts one of many outbursts of wheezy laughter. When Springsteen?s funny bone gets tickled, he can sound incongruously like Dick Dastardly?s dog, Muttley.
?So the question is, ?OK, that?s me, but how do I manage those things? Do I manage them well?? In the end it?s the measure of your ability to deal with the whole thing. I?ve met people who are nervous about going out for one reason or another, but what we did was always kind of ?Hail brother!,? You know? I think it transferred over to some of the people who listen to us and so they give you a reasonable amount of space. There?s really nothing to it. You may have to insist on it slightly ? ?I?m gonna do this no matter what? ? but particularly in the past decade or so, when I?ve been less in the limelight, it?s just very easy and very manageable.?
Naturally, there?s a little sleight of hand involved. There?s a discrete security cordon around the Springsteens, and nobody gets close to the house without submitting to a brisk once-over from the guards. The estate is also protected by any number of unseen electronic safeguards. After recent events in America, precautions are mandatory.
Does he worry about kidnapping or terrorism?
?Well, it?s one of those things. A little girl was kidnapped near here not long ago. It was some people who?d moved down from the city and she was on the lawn and luckily they got her back, and it had been done by somebody who was very? misguided, y?know? But it comes with the job a little bit. There?s a certain level of security condiousness, and I do take extra precautions that a normal guy doesn?t when it comes to my family and that sort of thing.?
The reason Springsteen has allowed Uncut to cross his perimeter is to put the word out about his new album, The Rising. While it would be an over-simplification to say the disc is exclusively ?about? the events of September 11, what happened that day and the aftershocks that continue to ripple out from it delivered a powerful jolt to Springsteen?s creative processes. Among the album?s themes you can pick out loss, faith, incomprehension, fear and hope, and even some all join-hands celebration. As much as anything, the songs reflect the effort involved in trying to adjust to a world where the things you thought were stable and unchanging might suddenly split open to reveal a howling void beneath.
?To me, it feels as rocky as any time since the Cuban missile crisis,? Springsteen reckons. ?I don?t know if we?ve lived in as volatile a moment since that time, a moment where it feels like there?s a lot of forces loose in the world that could go either way. There?s a tremendous need right now for good leadership and I?m not sure that I see it out there, so it?s a very, very volatile moment in world history without a doubt.
?I?m certainly concerned, and I know my kids are frightened. They go ?The terrorists! The terrorists!? They take it in, and it?s become as much a part of their childhood language as the atom bomb was for us in the Fifties, and diving under the school desk, y?know? My son?s always saying, ?What if there?s a terrorist at the movies?? I?d have to go back there to remember a particular time in recent history when it?s felt like this.?
The perilous and lopsided state of the planet had a galvanising effect on his working methods. The man who once ground hisway through 5000 interminable studio hours while dragging Born In The USA to completion, and who recorded 60 songs en route to whittling down to the final 20 which made it onto 1980?s The River, found himself galloping ahead at breakneck speed.
?With the exception of two or three songs that I had already, the body of the record was probably written between September and? we finished up in May ? about five or six months,? he recalls. ?The songwriting itself was not time-consuming. The songs formed themselves pretty quickly and I had a process where I?d demo them pretty fast because I have a studio set up ? a room like this, a living room ? and it enabled me to see if it was a good song. That really helped me weed through a lot of different ideas I had. But the songs were written quickly.?
For Boss-o-philes, the big news is that The Rising is the first studio album he has made with the E Street Band since Born In The USA in 1984, although combinations of E Streeters appeared on 1987?s Tunnel Of Love. Aside from a couple of isolated episodes, band and Boss didn?t perform together between the end of 1988 and spring 1999, with the reunion preserved on last year?s Live In New York City. After such a protracted separation, Springsteen knew they had to take at least one step up from where they?d left off. Where the live album, The Ghost Of Tom Joad (1995) and 1998?s archive-trawl Tracks were all credited to the co- production duo of Springsteen and long-serving studio sidekick Chuck Plotkin, this time he felt the need for fresh thinking and some different hands on the tiller.
Enter Brendan O?Brien, whose production and mixing skills have made him studio guru du jour for a swarm of cutting-edge hard rock bands, from Pearl Jam and Soundgarden to Korn, Limp Bizkit, Rage Against The Machine and Stone Temple Pilots. Not to mention the more lived-in likes of Bob Dylan, Aerosmith and Mick Jagger.
?I?d heard Brendan?s records in the mid-Nineties,? says Springsteen, ?and they were just powerful rock records, y?know, like Pearl Jam. I just thought they sounded really good. I?d probably been thinking about working with somebody else for five or so years. After the tour, I?d recorded with the E Street Band for a couple of weekends in the studio. Everybody sounded great, but it wasn?t quite what I felt was gonna be called for if I was gonna make a record with the band again. I felt it had to live up to the history of work we?d done, and I knew I didn?t know how to do that.?
Bruce kicked it around with his manager and sometime co-producer Jon Landau, who also felt he wasn?t sufficiently well versed in current studio techniques to clumb back into the producer?s chair.
?We just got to a place where my abilities as a producer had reached their limits,? Springsteen admits. ?I was not in the studio regularly enough or recording enough different kinds of music. The sound of things changes every eight to 10 years, just the sound of records on the radio ? the was the drums sound, the way the voice is treated ? and those were the things I didn?t know a lot about. I said I can?t do justice to the band at this point by producing this thing myself or with Jon, so we said let?s meet some other people. We knew we?d do a fine job on our own if we ha d to, but let?s meet some other people and see what their ideas are.?
A meeting was duly set up with O?Brien, and Springsteen dug out some demos of a couple of unrecorded songs, including ?Nothing Man? and ?Further On (Up The Road),? which would both eventually find their way onto The Rising. Both had been written prior to the unwelcome arrival of Al Qaeda over lower Manhattan. O?Brien listened, liked what he heard, and began to form a mental picture of what a Springsteen/E Street album ought to sound like in 2002.
?Really, it just came down to,?We?d like to record some good songs if we can and we?d like it to be exciting,? says Springsteen, ?and basically he said ?Yeah.? He said, ?I have a studio down south and I like to work there, but I can work anywhere,? so I said,?Let?s work where you work and where you?re comfortable.? We made a date. He came back one other time and I?d demo?d ?Into The Fire,? I had a funky little demo of it at the time, and I had ?You?re Missing,? and together we demo?d that and we worked together. It was something I hadn?t done in a long time, to really collaborate over the structure and creation of one of my songs ? I was used to doing all that myself. So we?d say, ?Oh, how about this in the bridge? How about this chord? How about we move this here? How about we wait this long?? Brendan is a musician himself, he?s very musical and he had a lot of good ideas, so we went down south to Georgia and went into the studio.?
?I had no practical skills and I wasn?t book-smart, so I?d managed
to learn this craft that was keeping me afloat. That excited me?
Before you could say ?Rosalita,? the sparks started flying on E Street. ?We played ?Into The Fire? two or three times. We came out, sat down, and in about 20 seconds I realised this was my guy, y?know? The band sounded like the band, but not like I?d heard them before, and that was what I was looking for. I wanted it to be like ?this is the way we sound right now,? something that my audience who have been following me for years will recognise and it will also be new for them. That was it, it was what I was looking for. I said, ?Well, as long as I can write some songs?? and I had two good ones there. I?d also written a couple of good ones on the last tour, ?American Skin? and ?Land Of Hope And Dreams,? so I said, ?Well, y?know, I think I can find my rock voice.? For a while I wasn?t sure if I could find that voice again, because I knew I didn?t want it to be the voice from Born In The USA, which was really the last time I sang that way.?
As the sessions developed and they began to feel at home in Southern Tracks Recording in Atlanta, Springsteen found he didn?t really need to worry. The songs he was writing arrived carrying their own sets of instructions about how they wanted to be performed and arranged. In the weird atmosphere of trauma and disorientation in the post-September 11 fallout, he found himself acting virtually as a receiver of messages flashing in from his own subconcious or from out of the disturbances in the collective ether.
?I think the second or third week in September I?d written ?Into The Fire? for a telethon [America: A Tribute To Heroes] they had here in the States after 9/11, and I was gonna sing it on the telethon, but instead I sang a song I already had called ?My City Of Ruins.? Then I wrote ?You?re Missing,? then after that I woke up one night and I had this song, ?The Fuse,? and so all of a sudden youhave elements of thestory you?re compelled to tell at a certain moment. That you?re kind of asked to tell. Then you look at it and listen to it and it begins to say, ?y?know, there?s just a wide variety of emotional elements to make it thoughtful and complete, and the songs kind of present themselves as such and in that fashion.
?It?s not necessarily linear and it?s not necessarily directly literal ? in fact, hopefully it?s not really literal. That was something I was trying not to do. I wanted to feel emotionally in that context but not directly literal, though on some songs I was gonna be more literal than onothers. Those songs kind of anchored the theme of the record, so when you get to the other ones you start to look into it and check the verses and realise it?s a piece of the whole thing. That was pretty much how it developed, very instinctively. It wasn?t over thought-out.?
In other owrds, it was the polar opposite of the songs on The Ghost Of Tom Joad, which were long, evolving narratives painstakingly assembled from fine detail and closely-observed characterisation. The only one of the new songs vaguely in that vein is ?Nothing Man,? apparently a vignette of a small-town character who becomes a local hero after some unspecified act of heroism.
?Right, and that I wrote in 1994,? Springsteen nods. ?This album is the opposite end of the lyrical spectrum. There?s detail, but it was a different type of writing than I?ve done in a while. It was just sort of pop song writing or rock song writing, y?know? I was trying to find a way to tell the story in that context. One of the things I learnt on some of my earlier records where I tried to record the band? for instance, on Nebraska, immediately the band played those songs they overruled the lyrics. It didn?t work. Those two forms didn?t fit. The band comes in and generally makes noise, and the lyrics wanted silence, y?know? They make arrrangement, and the lyrics wanted less arrangement. The lyrics wanted to be at the centre and there was a minimal amount of music. The music was very necessary but it wanted to be minimal, and so with The Rising I was trying to make an exciting record with the E Street Band which I hadn?t done in a long time, so that form was kind of driving me.?
With O?Brien a reassuring presence in the control booth, Springsteen felt able to focus on writing and performing. ?Brendan had a particular, distinct aesthetic point of view where he said, ?Yeah. I think this is working on this, but this makes it sound like that,? y?know? So this was a situation where I trusted his viewpoint very intensely, and I had a lot of faith in where he thought the thing was going to go soundwise.
?The guitars were brought way up front, the keyboards were put in a different spot, things sounded a little different. We used a variety of different tape loops, and we had a lot of different found sounds going on ? everything to sort of not go to the normal thing that we?d done in the past. The essential thing was to get the band to feel sonically fresh. He knew exactly what to do there, so I got to kind of sit back and do the singing and the playing and the songwriting.?
Althought on occasions Springsteen has seen his music being claimed by politicians from either end of the spectrum ? Ronald Reagan and his Democratic rival Walter Mondale both tried to steal some of his Born In The USA thunder in 1964 ? his focus has remained resolutely on the personal and the particular. On that occasion Springsteen was careful to distance himself and his work from both candidates. Eighteen years later, he feels no more inclined to take political sides, and earlier this year he rebuffed efforts by an activist group called Independence For New Jersey to put his name forward as a candidate for the US Senate. He quoted General William Tecomseh Sherman, who refused to seek the presidency in 1884. ?If nominated, I will not run,? declared The Boss, tongue presumably in cheek. ?If elected, I will not serve.?
Hence, his new songs deal with individual emotions and spiritual concerns rather than American foreign policy or the disastrous incompetence of the FBI. Besides, he?s well aware that nothing will go out of date more quickly than an album picking over the debris of yesterday?s news. However, he has made an explicit gesture of looking beyond the US with ?Worlds Apart,? a song with a pungent Eastern flavour thanks to a guest appearance by the Pakistani qawwali musician Asif Ali Khan and his band. Under Chuck Plotkin?s supervision, they recorded their contribution in a Los Angeles studio hooked up to the sessions in Georgia via an ISDN link.
?I came up with ?Worlds Apart? and I started to fool with some mid-Eastern scales in some of the background parts,? Springsteen explains. ?Asif Ali Khan happened to have a record coming on Def Jam, and they happened to be in L.A. Via the ISDN line we were able to have a session across country, and they sang and played beautifully. It was very exciting to hear that sound in the middle of a rock song. I was trying to look outside the United States and move the boundaries of the record in some fashion. I thinkthe song started when I saw a picture of the women in Afghanistan with the veils off a few days after they?d routed the Taliban out of Kabul, and their faces were so beautiful.?
Doesn?t he fear that hawkish commentators might accuse him of giving comfort to the enemy?
?Anybody can say anything,? he says with a what-the-hell gesture. ?I don?t know, nothing surprises me at this point. People interpret things all different kinds of ways ? it was just great Pakistani musicians and they sang beautifully. Who knows? Like you say, people come at things six ways from Sunday, but I think if someone listens to it, it just worked really well musically and they were great people and great musicians.?
The album opens with the stormy rumble of ?Lonesome Day,? which Springsteen conceived as a curtain raiser and scene-setter for what follows. Right away, you can hear what he means about O?Brien?s effect on the band?s sound. Where there could sometimes be an end-of-the- pier quality about the E Streeters in the old days, this time the guitars bite like chainsaws chewing through a stack of pine logs, while the bass and drum bottom end is built like St.Paul?s Cathedral. And no sign of that in-house favourite, the glockenspiel?
?Actually, there is a clockenspiel on the album,? says Springsteen, triumphantly. ?Brendan played it on ?Into The Fire? and ?Waitin? On A Sunny Day.? He was going,?I?m doing a Springsteen record! Damn right I?m gonna play the glockenspiel.??
For ?Lonesome Day,? however, the trusty glock was deemed surplus to requirements. ?If you look at the first verse, it feels like it?s a guy who?s talking to his girl,? the author points out. He sings the words quietly, fast-forwarding through them in his mind ? ??Baby once I thought I knew everything I needed to know about you? it?s gonna be okay if I can just get through this lonesome day.? Then bang, the second verse ? ?Hell?s brewin? dark sun?s on the rise, this storm?ll blow through by and by,? so I switched right out of this personal thing to this sort of overall emotional mood and the feelings that were in the air here in the States around that time. But it works, because one thing works with the other and the second verse can actually come in on what was said in the first verse. The secret of the songwriting was to get personal first, then you sort of shade in universal feelings. That?s what balances the songs. All experience is personal so you have to start there, and then if you can connect in what?s happening with everyone, the universality of an experience, then you?re creating that alchemy where your audience is listening to it, they?re hearing what they?re feeling inside and they?re also feeling ?I?m not alone,? you know? And that?s what you?re trying to do.?
Despite the turbulent context in which most of the songs were written, it?s only intermittently that Springsteen allows specific references to come looming out of the fog of battle. ?You?re Missing? is a forlorn itemisation of loss, measured out in mundane household details (?Coffee cups on the ocunter, jackets on the chair / Papers on the doorstep, but you?re not there?), while ?Into The Fire? sounds as though Springsteen might have had the New York Fire Department in mind when he wrote it (?I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher / Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire?). ?Further On (Up The Road)? and ?The Fuse? are both steeped in dread and a sense of gathering threat, though there?s no attempt to locate them in a particular time or place. ?Got my dead man?s suit, and my smilin? skull ring / My lucky graveyard boots, and a song to sing,? runs the second verse of ?Further On,? evoking an image of The Boss as a kind of spectral balladeer stalking the margins of consciousness. In ?The Fuse,? as an ominous drumbeat tolls out the time, the singer restlessly shuffles images of death, religion and sex.
Binding many of the songs together, over and above any details of their subject matter, is a powerful sense of religious faith, with religious imagery cropping up in any number of them. ?Paradise? deals with a life-after-death experience, and Allah even gets a name-check in ?Worlds Apart,? ?The Rising? itself, probably the most unabashed lump-in-the-throat rock anthem he?s written since ?Born In The USA,? amounts to Springsteen?s own Easter humn with its repetition of the phrase ?a dream of life? and its closing invocation- ?Come on up for the rising / Come on up, lay your hands in mine? Come on up for the rising tonight.? I found an Italian translation of the lyrics on the Internet, and the Italians call it ?la Resurrezione.? Then there?s ?My City Of Ruins,? not so much a song as a prayer- ?I pray for your love, Lord, with these hands??
?I?ve had ?My City Of Ruins? for a couple of years almost,? Springsteen explains. ?I was going to play it in Asbury Park for a Christmas show. Asbury, of course, has been strugglingfor a very long time, and the town?s now on the verge of being redeveloped, so there was a moment when there was a lot of hope and excitement about it. It?s a beautiful city, its basic design is really quite lovely, so there was an excitement about it. I was playing in Convention Hall in Asbury or doing something for some different organisations in the town, so that was when I wrote it. Then when I played it on the 9/11 telethon people made a connection with that event, but it was written quite a bit before. It felt appropriate to sing it that night, but it was written quite a bit previously.
?It?s a gospel song. It?s like a lot of my things, like ?The Promised Land,? or I had a song on the live album called ?Land Of Hope And Dreams?? they?re all fundamentally gospel-rooted, or blues and gospel-rooted. It seemed like that element was going to be a significant element of the record in some fashion. I didn?t sit down and set out to write this or that but just as it unfolded, as I say, the story you?re telling asks for certain things, and it asks for help in discerning meaning from chaotic or cataclysmic events. I think people are asking themselves, ?Where do I fit into this? What happened? Where did my husband go? Where did my wife go? What?s that about? What can I do about it? What do I do now? Where are they?? I think all those questions, if you go through any sort of real shattering loss, become a constant part of your life.
?I?m sure, for the rest of your life, those are questions that you?re answering every day, and that never completely goes away. So the songwriters and the storytellers in general are people who attempt to assist people in contextualising some of that experience. And not explaining, really, because I don?t know of an explanation, but sorting through things emotionally and locating ties that people have that continue to bind even in the face of the events of that day. I think I went in search of those things on many of the songs.?
I wondered what it had been like in the Springsteen household on that Tuesday, as the news unfolded. ?I?m sure it was the same every place, everybody tells the same story to some degree. Sitting around the television. We?re about five minutes from a bridge that you cross over where these two rivers meet, and there?s a bridge where the Twin Towers stand right in the centre of it, and it?s only 10 or 15 miles by water from here so it?s quite close. The whole horizon line goes red and hazy if the wind?s blowing in this direction and the towers are always there, and on that particular day they were gone, y?know? I think what was unusual about living here at the time was? I think it was 150 people from Monmouth county [where he lives] or a little more who died. People knew people. In the surrounding communities there were quite a few people affected. You knew this woman and her husband, someone else?s son, someone else?s brother.
?In the following weeks if you were driving towards the beach or something, if you drove by the Catholic church there was a funeral every day. Then people got together and there were some shows done and benefits and candlelight vigils and a wide variety of ways that people were trying to sort through what happened. I don?t know what it was like in the middle of the country or on the West Coast, but here it was very real.?
If ever there was a rock star who embodied the values of community, dependablility and a continuing dialogue with his audience, it?s Springsteen, so he and the band were happy to get stuck into some morale boosting projects.
?Yeah, we did shows in Asbury and in Redbank near here, and a couple of places in the area. Garry Tallent [E Street bassist] put on a two-night show, it was fun- I played, Joan Jett, DJ Fontana came up with Sonny Burgess from Memphis and it was just a wide variety of people who came up and played and chipped in. It was a very interesting show. Then the last couple of years we?ve done Christmas concerts in Asbury where I front Max Weinberg?s band [E Street drummer] and a lot of the E Street guys show up, and we get the horn section from Southside Johnny and some singers and we have a big 30-piece band onstage and we throw a big Christmas party basically. This year that was a part of it. Garland Jeffreys played, Elvis Costello came and sang a song, Bruce Hornsby- it was a lot fo fun. I met many of the survivors and the wives, they?d come out and wanted to dance and have fun. They?d say,?Thanks, we had a great time.??
This instinct to band together and try to find something to be hopeful about was another dimension Springsteen wanted to build into the new album. Despite the sombre nature of much of the subject matter, he has managed to smuggle in a couple of tracks that are as poppy and commercial as anything he?s ever written. ?Waitin? On A Sunny Day? is an easy- going stroll back to the classic pop Springsteen soaked up in his youth, with ?a little Phil Spector and a little Rockpile? in the mix. ?Let?s Be Friends? he describes as ?a combination of Sly Stone and Virginia beach music. Yeah, that?s a nice groove, it?s like a kids? singalong. What really makes it work is the Alliance Choir who are singing on it along with Patti [Scialfa, aka Mrs Springsteen] and Soozie Tyrell. When the chorus hits, it?s just a very classic sound.?
Talking about music, he stresses, isn?t the same as hearing it. ?I think listening to me sort of propound my ideas of what went into the songs is not the same, may I mention, as the listening experience!? he argues, amid laughter. ?The band is playing hard, loud and with intensity, and the music itself is very bright for the most part. For the first time I made a record with the E Street Band in 18 years I wanted a record that was gonna be fun for people to listen to, and exciting, that people used the way people use rock records, which is either to clean your house to or to change your life if you want to, y?know? That was an essential element. Without that, the lyrics as they stand would not work. They work because they?re embedded in music that is very life-affirming. That balance has been something I think I?ve struck in all my best songs, like my verses are always the blues and my choruses are gospel. You go to ?The Promised Land? or ?Badlands,? they?re based on the idea that your feet are grounded in the everyday, in the real world, but your spirit is reaching high.?
The idea was the album wouldn?t duck ?all the hard questions,? but it needed to stir listeners physically, too. ?That?s something the band and I do well and that had to be a part of it,? he reasons. ?The record needed to be filled with a certain sort of hopeful energy but the hope had to be earned, y?know? It couldn?t just be platitudes or ?Everything?s gonna be all right? or ?Things are gonna be better.? So if you look at a song like ?Mary?s Place? ? we?re gonna have a party.? Then you go back to the verses and see all the other stuff is in the verses, somebody trying to sort through what happened, and ?What?s my place and where do I go tonight and how do I deal with this minute by minute and day by day???
?Mary?s Place? is where the bar-band spirit of the E Street squad emerges most vividly on the album, but it acknowledges that decades have passed since the rowdier, less self-examining days of ?Where The Bands Are? or ?Out In The Street.? It sounds like a celebration, but it isn?t very far away from being a wake, either.
?I think that?s what you saw at the time, people were making that effort to celebrate and it was helpful,? says Springsteen. ?The idea of the song was to capture that thing. I wanted it to really feel like home. It?s a throwback to ?Rosalita? almost, and I wanted the band to feel the way people remembered that it felt at a certain time and I was singing a certain way. It comes up about three-quarters of the way through the record, right after ?The Fuse,? which is really sonically different for us, and all of a sudden people would feel like, hey, that?s your own pals putting their arms around you and you?ve got a place to go and somebody to talk to and be with. That?s kind of what our band has been for people and what we?ve wanted to be for people over the years. The song comes up at a particular place on the record, it?s that open-arms-of- home feeling.?
Forensically-minded listeners may find it interesting to consider the piece as another of Springsteen?s ?Mary? songs. Since ?Mary Queen Of Arkansas? on his debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., Marys- or is it just Mary?- have cropped up consistently down the years. In ?Thunder Road,? it?s Mary who ?dances across the porch as the radio plays,? while the narrator ?got Mary pregnant,? in ?The River.? She?s back again in ?Straight Time? from The Ghost Of Tom Joad- ?Mary?s smiling but she?s watching me out of the corner of her eye.? Time for a doctoral thesis on ?The Name Mary In The Works Of Bruce Springsteen,? perhaps?
So who is she this time, Bruce? Mary from ?Thunder Road?? The Virgin Mary?
?Yeah, I?ve used that name a lot of times,? he grins. ?I?m sure it?s the Catholic coming out in me, y?know? That was always the most beautiful name. I used it in ?Thunder Road,? I used it on Tom Joad, and what happens is if you kind of set up a continuing? it?s not necessarily the same person, and there?s a little continuum that occurs for the people who are watching or listening. The name drifts through your body of work and leaves a trail of its own about where you?ve been and where you?re going. It comes up in ?Mary?s Place? and really, you?re right, it?s like, ?Well, where?s the party actually being held?? It could be here or there, and who is actually saying meet me at Mary?s place? That was part of it, too. Whose voice is that?
?It comes up again at the end of ?The Rising,? ?I see you Mary in the garden of a thousand sighs.? Once again, that?s like someone?s wife, or it could be a religious vision. I think that the songs call for a blurring of those ideas. They had to meld in a certain way, the religious with the everyday, because that?s one of the only emotional responses to that experience, I think. So it floats through the record in a lot of ways.?
These are daunting issues to address on a rock album, and Springsteen set himself his sternest examination on the title track. Above the roaring blowtorch blast of the new O?Brien- ised E Street Band sound, they lyrics are part mantra, part prayer, part mystical contemplation and part horrified onlooker.
?I think it?s a natural image of sacrifice,? he reflects. ?Once again moving towards religious imagery to explain some of the day?s experiences. It?s unavoidable to some degree because of the nature and the type of sacrifice that occurred. I got down towards the end of the record and I think I was searching for the voice of someone who died, and I wanted to have a voice that addresses the living. So I just sort of imagined the main character basically? I dunno, speaking to his wife. Who would you want to speak to? Your wife, and you?d think of your children. And then just those left at large, I think. The different verses move slowly towards that kind of crossing-over point. ?The Rising?- that was it, that was the moment when the souls rise.?
His voice has been growing steadily quieter as he takes the measure of his subject. The weight of it is starting to bear down on the entire room, even on this pristine summer afternoon. He pauses to drink some water. Sometimes he?ll rephrase his sentences two or three times, as he searches for the exact nuance of meaning.
?In the beginning, the first verse is kind of disorientation and ?Where am I?? It starts, ?Can?t see nothing in front of me, can?t see nothing coming up behind? All I can feel is the chain that binds me? ? the links with whatever you might wanna call it- duty, love, comradeship, the fear- that keep people going. The song moves on. The second verse is just where the person came from, ?Left the house this morning? wearin? the cross of my calling.? Well, that?s just ?this is your job,? y?know? It?s the same one you?ve worn every day and today these are its responsibilities and this is what it?s asking. The bridge of the song is a moment when I think the singer realises that his mortality is at hand, and then in the last verse I imagine him speaking to his wife or a religious vision of some sort, ?See Mary in the garden?? It seemed to me that?s one of the things you?d be thinking about, and the desire for a return to a physical intimacy- ?Feel your arms around me?- the physical self. The fear of losing that physical self. ?May I feel your blood mix with mine,? the desire to sustain the physical intimacy.
?Then, ?A dream of life comes to me like a catfish dancin? on the end of my line.? That was a funny line- the catfish line popped out of my head, ?cos I fish out here once in a while and there?s that moment when bing!, y?know, you?re suspended between life and death, incredible life and a moment of death, and really I think the rest of the song turns into this mantra, ?Sky of blackness and sorrow, sky of love.? It?s sort of the yin-yang of just what is. ?Sky of mercy, sky of fear, sky of memory, sky of emptiness, sky of fullness.? I think it?s the awareness of what is about to be lost. ?A dream of life, dream of life, dream of life?- repeat that over and over atgain. Just the magnitude of what you?re leaving behind, what you?re giving up, and a last chance to speak to people that matter to you. So that came up towards the end of the record. It was kind of a curtain on the whole thing. I think a lot of the other songs were moving towards that direction.?
The bearded, frizzy-haired Springsteen who would hang around Madam Marie the fortune- teller?s on the Asbury Park boardwalk probably never dreamt he?d end up writing his own version of the St Matthew Passion, but the roots of his new songs can be clearly discerned in his past songwriting. His willingness to engage with the spiritual and the metaphysical will probably be what strikes listeners most forcefully about The Rising, but it isn?t a development which has sprung unexpectedly out of nowhere.
Ten years ago, the Lucky Town album concluded with ?Souls Of The Departed? and ?My Beautiful Reward,? two songs distinctly preoccupied with the afterlife. ?Well this is a prayer for the souls of the departed / Those who?ve gone and left their babies brokenhearted,? he sang in the former. The nuns who taught the young Bruce Frederick Springsteen at the St Rose Of Lima School in Freehold might consider they did a pretty good job of instilling Holy dread and the mysteries of Catholic ritual into the boy.
You can also trace a clear line between ?My Beautiful Reward? and the new song, ?Paradise.? ?Yeah, they share some of the same issues. That transition point between life and death. When I wrote ?Paradise,? I was looking for something kind of really quiet, and I think it was the week there?d been the teenage girl suicide bombers. It was devastating, and so the first verse came out of thinking about that, the loss of life and the false paradise. Then I?d met a woman who had lost her her husband at the Pentagon, and she came to Asbury one night, and they were just long time fans I guess. I think I was thinking of that woman when I wrote the song, which is why it switches from Virginia because I wanted something that was outside the United States, the larger feeling of the effect of what?s going on in the world outside the States. Again I thought, ?What do you miss?? You miss the physicalness and the ability to touch somebody.
?I?ve had people close to me who died. I remember when I was young, that aching to touch the person again was very, very strong and it was very painful to realise that it just couldn?t happen. And the last verse is a survivor?s verse, where I think your desire to join the people you?ve lost is very strong. You have the situation where the person goes to that river, it?s the river of transition between life and death and they wade into it and they take themselves underneath.
?Somewhere in that nether world they see the person and it kinda comes up with that last line- they?re searching for the peacefulness that people feel comes with death and passing on, or with an imagined version of paradise that you?ll attain, and they get close enough and they just see emptiness. There?s a lot of different way speople could interpret it. I always felt it was, ?Hey, life is here. It?s all you have and it?s here and now.?
?In the last couple of lines the person swims to the surface and feels the sun. That was my last song of the record.?
One of the trademarks of Springsteen?s career has been the way it has advanced by careful, logical steps. If he?s been through chaotic or depressive episodes in his life, he has made sure he did so away from microphones and beyond the reach of the paparazzi. His shrewdest creative device has been to use his own life as the raw material of his work, so as he gradually changes over the years, so do his songs. He has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and if he sometimes seems to have been hamstrung by excessive caution, his approach has ensured that he has avoided making a prancing buffoon of himself in the manner of a Rod Stewart, a Mick Jagger, or even a George Michael.
Hence, despite the immediate circumstances of their composition, Springsteen is well aware that the new songs are ?outgrowths of stories that I?ve written all along,? as he puts it. ?I?ve written about the everyday for a long time, and a certain sort of? for lack of a better word, heroism or nobility that I?ve felt that I witnessed in my life as a child among people in my neighbourhood and in my house. That was something that I felt wasn?t being sung about at the time when I started to sing about it, and also it was just what mattered to me. It felt real, and those were the things I was moved to sing about. We?re living at a time in the United States of certain events, y?know, and as a writer you respond to the events of the day.
?What happened last September was a very natrual thing to write about, and there were a lot of obviously inspirational things happening at the time. You?re trying to contextualise the event for yourself. I think that?s where it starts. It starts with you trying to do it for yourself, and then in the process, because I learnt the language of songwriting and music, I try to communicate and hopefully do it for other people. I?m just doinw something that?s useful for me, and then hopefully in some fashion it?s gonna be useful and will provide some service to my audience.?
It seems incongruous that Springsteen?s huge career should have grown from such unassuming, almost humdrum, acorns. The way he puts it, he almost makes it sound as if he?s a musical plumber who comes round, with a pen behind his ear and a clipboard, to make sure you?re getting you?re regular supply with no leaks or air blockages. But it?s been his achievement ot take the routines and small details of regular non-rock-star lives and sieve through them until he can separate out a hint of the epic.
Punk bands always used to drone on about removing the barriers between band and audience, but somehow Springsteen was able to persuade his audience, even after they?d been herded into a football stadium with people chucking firecrackers and mooing ?Brooooooce!?, that the bond they thought they felt to him and his music was real. Even after becoming the biggest white rock star on earth, he found ways to keep the relationship alive, whether it was through high-profile benevolent gestures or Amnesty International tours, or perhaps more tellingly, by showing up unannounced at small clubs and thrashing out a few old rock?n?roll chestnuts, just because he wanted to.
A natural conservative (by character, rather than politcally) in a medium which was, at one time at least, associated with anarchy and insurrection, Springsteen was always in it for the long run. Not the burn-out-and-fade-away type of guy at all.
?No, no!? he insists. ?I wanted to live to be old, old as hell, y?know? I?m glad The Who can get onstage and still sing ?My Generation? now. I like seeing Marlon Brando alive and kicking. I understood the cult of death was always a very, very integral part of rock?n?roll myth, and possibly because there was this whole idea of the edge and the idea that music felt like life and death. It did feel like life and death, it still does feel like life and death to me, y?know, but it was something that for me and our band I interpreted differently. I didn?t discount it and it?s a part of a lot of my music, but I interpreted it differently and I think in an integrated fashion as a part of the work that I was doing, and fundamentally our story has always been, ?Hey, look, all we have is this, let?s see what we can do with it,??
He attributes his work ethic and his penchant for self-denial to his mother, Adele. A staunch Catholic from a Neapolitan family, the Zerillis, Mrs Springsteen was a hard-working secretary who shouldered the burden of keeping the household running when her husband was enduring his frequent periods of unemployment. When Spreingsteen talks about her, his face is lit by an expression of child-like amazement.
?I took after my mom in a certain sense. Her life had an incredible consistency, work work work every day, and I admired that greatly. I admired her ability to present herself. She would get up in the morning and the bathroom was near my bed, and I could hear the sound of her in the bathroom. The faucet would come on, the make-up kit come out, things clicking on the sink, and I just sat and listened to my mother in the act of getting ready to present herself to the world. And then her high heels, and thesound they made when they left the house. I had a little balcony I used to sleep out on sometimes, and I?d hear her heels going up the street towards the office.
?The office was about two blocks into the centre of town and that was the sound of my mom walking to work, y?know, walking to work. I?d visit her at her job sometimes, and it was filled with men and women who seemed to have a purpose. They were presenting themselves in a certain fashion, and I found a lot of inspiration in those simple acts. It was part of what you gave to the town you lived in and your society and your family, and it was not necessarily easy to do. My mother had little babies. We needed breakfast, we needed dinner at the end of her eight-hour working day. We needed somebody to do our homework with us and the day was endless, y?know, and it was just simply performed daily, day in day out, without complaint. As I grew older I began to look at this as a noble thing, and I realised that there were many of these things going on constantly in my little town.?
You?d have to guess that this idealistic, stained glass vision of Adele Springsteen provided at least one template for her son?s various Mary figures. It might surprise his mother to learn that she was also a role model for the E Street Band. ?The work part of what we did was intensely modelled on what she did, and the way she conducted herself on a daily basis,? Springsteen insists. ?It was like, ?Hey! We can?t be terrible one night and good the next night. We?ve got to be good every night.? When somebody buys your ticket, it?s your handshake, it?s the old story, and they only have this night. They don?t care if you?re great the next night. What about tonight, y?know? I thought those things were real, and we took our fun very seriously.
?We went out there to throw a big party to make you laugh and dance and the band would act crazy onstage, but behind it was the idea also that you?re providing an essential service of some sort. That unspoken promises are made between an audience and an artist, whether you say them or not, they?re a part of the dialogue that comes with the turf. And it?s a valuable dialogue, a valuable occupation, a valuable thing to do, and on top of that, hey, it?s great fun and the pay is fabulous and we?ve had a lifetime of satisfying work. On our last tour, somebody came up to me and said ?Hey, I saw you in ?75, there was a show you did at this college.? I thought, why would somebody remember one night in 1975? And I said, ?Yeah, that was the idea, I was trying to make that night memorable.?
?That consistency, I felt, was a part of what we were about and what I wanted to be about. I wanted to be something you could depend upon, as best as I could. I was gonna have my screw-ups and make my mistakes and I was probably gonna do things you didn?t want me to do, but fundamentally I was gonna be at least out there searching for that road.? He pauses for another eruption of Brucian laughter. ?And so it continues.?
But when he was, say, 25 and about to make Born To Run, did he have a clear idea of where he was heading and how he would develop? ?Well, I?d had success locally and I liked that. You got the attention from the girls. I made a few bucks, not much but I didn?t need much, and I beat the 9-to-5 thing which I was very interested in doing. I had no practical skills and I wasn?t book-smart at school, so I?d managed to learn this craft that was keeping me afloat. That excited me, and I knew I wanted to be a musician.
?Then, as time passed, we played to a lot of people and people applauded. We were pretty good. As we travelled around I said, ?Yeah, we?re not only pretty good, we?re better than a lot of these other guys I?m seeing,? and I?d put the radio on and I?d say, ?And I?m as good as a lot of these guys that are on the radio, too, so why shouldn?t I be on the radio? Anyway, I got to New York and I met Mike Appel [first manager], and it set the next series of things in motion where I was going to be a recording musician now. After my first album came out, I remember Mike called me and I said, ?How did we do?? He said, ?We didn?t do very well, we sold about 20,000 records.? I said, ?20,000 records! That?s fabulous! I don?t know 20,000 people. Who would buy a record by someone they have no idea about???
Gradually, it dawned on him that whatever success he was going to achieve would be determined by his own efforts. He was gripped by a single-minded will to succeed.
?I think I just wanted to be great, y?know, I wanted to be really as good as I could be, and I wanted to live up to the people who had been my heroes. It?s like when Reggie Jackson got put into the Baseball Hall Of Fame, he says ?It was great to be there that day, you don?t care if your name?s called first or second or tenth, but it?s nice that somewhere on that long day when the list gets read off, somewhere in there they come to yours.? I think that was kinda my feeling- ?Gee, I?d like to be a part of this somehow.?
?When I think back on it, I thought I just wanted to play rhythm guitar. I didn?t want to play lead guitar. You just want to be in the band and be part of that thing moving along, but then somewhere along the way that becomes intertwined with, of course, raving ambition, and you?re trying to make the best, greatest rock record that could ever be made. You?re trying to be the best and your ego pushes you, which is okay, that?s how things roll. I think as long as all those things are managed in a fashion that allows you to survive and continue, and keeps you on a reasonable path, you know?
It was the arrival of Jon Landau as his manager that guaranteed that Springsteen?s potential would be converted into copper-bottomed, platinum-plated results. Landau declared that he had seen ?rock?n?roll?s future,? but when he saw Springsteen he knew he?d seen his own future too. Left to his own devices, it?s very possible that Springsteen might have allowed his heart to rule his head. In Landau?s case, the equation is emphatically reversed. Doing business deals with Landau is reportedly like sticking your head in a bucket of piranhas, but there?s no doubt he has played a pivotal role in sustaining Springsteen?s credibility and creativity.
?The main thing about Jon was he was somebody I could trust,? Springsteen reports. ?There were a lot of things I hated doing, business things, which I had proven terrible at before I met Jon. I wasn?t even terrible at it, I just couldn?t have cared less. I just wanted to be able to do what I wanted to do. Particularly when I was younger, I was really alienated by that part of it and I felt that any involvement in it was somehow not being true to my original ideals. So when Jon came along that whole thing was taken care of. I had a long period of time when I was pretty estranged from it, probably until well into my thirties, and he kept the boat afloat. He was a writer himself, and he managed because I needed a manager.
?We had a lot of discussions over the years about these issues, and where people went right and where people went wrong, and it was always based around, ?How do we do the best job this time out with the record?? It was so simple. He would say ?Well, you can do this and play a hall this size and it can still be great.? He was constantly pushing the boundaries out for me a little bit, which I needed to do because I was fearful, I was very self-protective, and not unwisely so because you need to be. You need to protect your work, your music and the identity that you?ve worked hard to present.?
It was this belief that drove Springsteen to go to court in London in 1998 to prevent Masquerade Music from releasing a collection of his old demos and outtakes- ?I?m not losing sleep at night over it, but I?m protective of it where I can be,? as he puts it- and it also informs his attitude to seeing his work traded for free across the Internet.
?My take on that as a musician is I know what it takes to write a song, and it?s hard and you don?t write that many and you pour your blood and sweat into it. I do think it?s theft, y?know. I do feel like that about it. Where it?s going I don?t know. The music business is in a big state of transition at the moment. I don?t know anyone who does know where it?s going to go. Wherever it goes, I?ll be working somewhere.?
Perhaps some of his inclination to look back and take stock has been prompted by the death of his father, Doug, in 1998. In between stints as a factory worker, prison guard and bus driver, Springsteen Snr frequently found himself out of work. Bitterness and disillusion caused him to clash frequently with the bohemian ?inclined Bruce during his adolescence, and Doug?s Irish- Dutch background was probably the worst possible combination when it came to defusing overheated emotions. Their fratious relationship was charted in several songs, notably ?Independence Day,? ?My Father?s House,? and ?Adam Raised A Cain.? There was a period during which Springsteen would often talk about his father during his lengthy onstage raps.
Passing time had improved father-son relations considerably, to the point where they were rubbing along pretty well by the end. ?I probably went through a few changes when he died,? Springsteen ponders. ?It?s a big moment, I think. It?s like ?OK, you?re the daddy now.? When your father?s gone, I think your own adultness and your sense of responsibility and the role you play in your family at large increases. But he had a pretty peaceful passing and we knew it was coming for a good while, so I had time to go and spend some time and just sit. Big thing, of course, for my mother. They were married for 50 some years. It changes the way you see yourself.
Does he see Doug in himself now? ?Oh yeah, all the time,? he says slowly. ?All the time. It?s funny, as I?ve gotten older, I?ve started to look more like him. I used to look more like my mom, but if I? I?m a little down in weight now, but if I go up another 10 or 15 pounds he?ll be looking right back at me in the mirror. I go ?There you are!,? y?know? Your features change. When I was young I looked Irish, when I was a little kid I had the little Irish features, as my children have had, up until around 12 or 13 and then zoom! Your face lengthens out and you see the Italian features. I had that for most of my life, it?s kinda how I got used to looking at myself. Then as you get a little older, for some reason I see a little bit of the Irish creeping back in. Your face gets a little rounder, your forehead gets a little higher and occasionally I?ll look in the mirror and he?ll just be looking back at me.?
Generations keep changing inexorably, and Springsteen can feel gravity?s pull. ?Of course, there?s the behaviour you inherit from your parents. Over the years I?ve done a lot to sort through a lot of that. Obviously all your initial responses to things, you respond the way they responded, y?know? Some of those are okay, and some you want to leave behind. My attitude was the way we honour our parents is we hold on to the good things that they taught us and we lost the things that were their mistakes. That?s the way we honour them after they?re gone, and when we become parents ourselves. That?s your life job. That?s what people are supposed to be out there doing in some fashion.?
Apart from making albums and touring, of course. ?I?m coming up on being a 53-year-old guy, and the music business tends to be a little hostile at this time,? he says, with a chuckle. ?That?s OK, because my take is I believe this is one of my very best records. I feel down in my soul that it?s as good as any record I?ve made with the band. I feel like I did my job, and I don?t know the way that radio responds, and I?m not comfortable with a lot of the ways that music is disseminated at the moment. I?ve got a working band, we?re gonna go out and we?re gonna work very hard playing, and we?re gonna play this record every night. I?ll do my best to help it find a home and a place in the world, and then let the chips fall where they may. So!?