Beats, 1992-08, by: Mans Ivarsson
On the eve of his world tour, Bruce Springsteen sat down in Stockholm, Sweden, to discuss his new band, his new albums and his new life -- no longer a frustrated kid aching to get out on the road, he's now a family man with a new sense of his place in the world.
In spite of the less than spectacular sales of his two latest albums, in spite of the ignominy of being elbowed out of the charts by backwards- dressing youngsters Kris Kross, in spite of the fact that a lot has happened in the music world since Born ln The U.S.A. -- in spite of all that, Bruce Springsteen is still Bruce Springsteen, and his live show is still a major event. Springsteen's current world tour kicked off in Stockholm, Sweden, on June 15. On the eve of the first show, Springsteen sat down to talk about his new albums, his new tour, his new band and his new life, as a happily married husband and father of two.
During the tour rehearsals Springsteen had 10 musicians surrounding him, as well as a large team of light and sound technicians. At all times he seemed very aware of every tiny detail of how each and every one of all those people performed their tasks. He's in control, and has very firm opinions on just about everything - from what color the spotlights should be to every beat on the hi-hat. Afterwards, in the dressing room, however, he downplayed that aspect of himself.
"What happens is, the whole thing up there is an organism," he explains. "I'm standing up there letting the whole thing roll over me, and I feel instinctively if something isn't right -- like a spotlight, for example. I mean I know these songs -- I wrote them! -- and if you listen closely enough, the songs will tell you what the character is like, how it ought to be lit and so on. "But songs tend to change with time. Like 'Born to Run,' for example. To me today it has turned into a song about spiritual things, like how you find some place that feels like home to you."
Why start the tour off in Stockholm?
"Stockholm and Sweden have been fantastic to us," he says. "I will never forget the Konserthuset in 1975. That was my first tour outside the States. We had started off in London, which was pretty tough going; the audience was sheer ice. Then we came to Stockholm and the audience went completely wild. It was the first time that I had stood in front of a truly enthusiastic audience. Unforgettable.
For the first time since their breakthrough to mass popularity, Bruce will be touring without his legendary E-Street Band. "It was time for a change, time to move on," is his brief explanation. The result is that Springsteen has created his biggest group ever, consisting of 11 people, seven of whom are black and five are women. That makes for a most unlikely collaboration: a rock group and a gospel choir. For the first one or two numbers the combination is a little strange. But hearing the choir accompaniment to the classics "Born In The U.S.A." and "Glory Days" makes it clear that Bruce Springsteen has had a stroke of genius.
How do you get the audience lo forget the old, beloved E Street Band? You replace it with a gospel choir that gives the choruses such power that everyone in the hall stands up to sing along. The latest recruit is Crystal Talifero on voice, guitar and percussion, whose performance is likely to make her Bruce's most visible companion onstage.
Is there any significance in the fact that nearly half the band is female? "Quite a lot, in fact," Springsteen replies. "My wife Patti joined the E Street Band back in 1985 and around that time, 1984-6, I discovered things in life that no school had ever taught me to cope with. I had never learned how you get on with women! And with this new band I felt, hey, I don't want to work with a boys' club any longer, you know, rock groups tend to be some sort of macho street gang, very masculine. And I thought of bands like Sly & the Family Stone which broke all traditions: guys and gals, family and relatives. All for one and one for all. Apart from all that, all I have to say is: women are exciting!"
Bruce laughs his hoarse laugh. "People think it was rock that brought me to the music scene. But that's all wrong. What got me playing, in fact, was soul, and the way soul bands used to operate. Mainly the way they can create an almost spiritual experience. Not exactly in the religious senses of the word, but a human spiritual mood where the band succeeds in carrying the audience up with them, all the way."
He gestures towards the heavens and continues, "My new band and my new music reflect that search, which I have been making these last few years. And I don't know whether I want to call what I've found 'religion,' but it is, in any case, a kind of spiritual experience born out of life itself, having kids, being together with Patti. I discovered, nonetheless, that it took me back to my roots in soul. And I don't know, we're still at the rehearsal stage, but when we get up steam with the band, the whole shape of the landscape will change."
Is Springsteen's enormous fame and the attendant media attention a problem for him? "Not really. People have a mistaken impression of what it really is like. And I've actually managed to live relatively anonymously in the last few years. It's possible in a city like Los Angeles; that's one of the reasons why I moved there. There's always so many other games going on in that town that keep people occupied."
Over the years Springsteen has talked to his audience quite a bit about his troubled relationship with his father. Has becoming a father himself helped? "Yes," he says. "Actually, during the time we were expecting our first child my father started coming around a lot. And he who never used to talk talks a lot now. Something really happened when I became a dad. Maybe it takes some hard times to get to see the best of each other.
"The thing is, kids take you out of your own head. My job is all about me, all about self- involvement. And all around you people just stand saying, 'Yes, yes, yes.' To them every idea you have is just fantastic. Well, actually, the people I work with aren't like that, but that's what it's like in this business in general. Anyway, kids don't react like that. You can no longer spend the afternoon thinking about whether you should wear white or brown shoes. Because kids need you there with them. They take you out of your own head and into the real world."
Before his children were born Bruce says he went through the toughest time of his life. "When the last [Tunnel Of Love] tour ended in 1989 there were so many things going on in my life and somehow it was like my old ways had caught up with me," he says. "I needed to do something new but I didn't have the nerve. I went through a very confusing time, a depression, really. I began to reassess everything I'd gone through. Like the success I'd had with 'Born in the U.S.A.' Did I like it? Did I want to do something like that again? Was I misunderstood? "I also thought a lot about the iconic status that my music had attained. Sure, my music had always had a mythic edge to it, but, well, I just fell overwhelmed by the whole thing. I felt dehumanized."
He reveals that he went into therapy to solve his emotional problems. "It really did help," he says. "I feel more open and free now. At last I managed to break free from my past, I stopped chasing old ghosts. I needed to live in the present. In the end I was forced to drive down a road I had never traveled before. And I found love, children, and a new faith in my place in the world."
Bruce seems willing to turn his back on the past on all levels. The folk hero of his home state, New Jersey, has moved out. "I really have tried to distance myself from my past," he agrees. "It was time to move on, find something new, and I also wanted to get away from the image which had been created around my person, which felt like a burden. People had very clear expectations. And the point about moving to L.A. is that L.A. is a place where the present counts. My music is rooted in the here-and-now. This is me today, this is what I am thinking, what I'm doing -- I only hope people like it."
Springsteen says that after the Tunnel Of Love tour he also found it very difficult to write songs - in fact, he didn't write anything at all for more than a year. "And when I finally did, I kept coming up with songs like the stuff on Tunnel Of Love, but not as good," he recalls. "Or stuff that reminded me of Nebraska. I felt like I had said it before, and had said it better. So I finally called up Roy Bittan."
Keyboardist Bittan is the only member from the E Street Band who's included in the new group. He'd written some instrumental music that Bruce took to his garage apartment to work on. "And the words started coming to me," Springsteen says. "It became 'Roll Of The Dice,' and the start of the Human Touch album. I remember I was so happy when I finished it that I ran into the house and woke Patti up to get her to listen to it. It was three o'clock in the morning. In that song I suddenly felt some sort of energy, and it was like, 'Yeah, this is what I've been searching for.'
"'Human Touch' became some sort of soul album; certainly my most soul-influenced work since 'The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle' a long way back. I finished the album, then I realized something was missing. I hadn't told the story about my life today. My life had really changed a lot, with Patti and the kids. So I wrote the song 'Living Proof' about it. And I felt like, 'Yeah, this is really me, with my feet firmly in the present."
That breakthrough led to the quick writing of a whole new album. The lyrics to that one, Lucky Town, are very private and read almost as an open diary. "Well, people tend to believe that everything an artist sings is self-experienced, but in reality that's only a part of what you're singing," he explains. "But yeah, I guess my whole work is an emotional diary. The guy in 'Living Proof' is the same guy as the one in 'Born To Run,' except he's covered a lot of miles in between."
Discussing the track "My Beautiful Reward," Bruce says, "It just came out! The best stuff is generally the stuff that you don't know how you did, like 'Highway Patrolman' on Nebraska. It just came to me; I felt it coming, I started to write it down... You tend to try and make some changes afterwards, but it never gets as good."
Springsteen saw the riots in Los Angeles at close quarters. In fact, the corner shop across the road from his studio was looted. "Three blocks from here you can find the ruins of burnt-out buildings," he says. The riots made an obvious impression: for the new single, "57 Channels," Little Steven made a collage of TV voices which changed the song into a commentary about the riot. "You get frustrated," he comments. "The inner cities have been neglected for a decade now. It comes as no surprise that this has led to rioting. What is surprising is that they didn't occur sooner."
Bruce then begins to talk about politicians and the forthcoming presidential elections ("It's just like a cartoon, completely crazy") and what he's listening to now. "There's a guy called David Baerwald who does some terrific writing," he enthuses. "I like the band Social Distortion; they have a song called 'Born To Lose' that's really good. And Dylan, of course. I still like the Oh Mercy album, and some of the stuff on his CD box set is really great."
Later I am standing among an audience of 11 at a rehearsal for the tour. In true Springsteen style, what was planned as a 50-minute concert becomes 2 1/4 hours. The small audience notwithstanding, he plays all 21 songs with the same enthusiasm as if he were standing in front of of 50,000. Starting with "Better Days" and "Born In The U.S.A.," he ends with "Dancing In The Dark" and "Bobby Jean." In "Glory Days" he takes the opportunity to joke about the fact that his two discs have not been selling as well as expected, and exhorts his choir with "Soon we'll overtake both Kris Kross and Def Leppard!"
Then he quips about his divorce and his new marriage by yelling: "take a piece of advice from a man who's stepped down the aisle time or two." And before "Leap Of Faith," which gives the clearest idea of what the new band sounds like, he throws in a dedication: "This is for my two kids, the miracle of which helps me cope with living in the world of today. And to my dearest Patti." The rock star who thought happiness was a car and an open road has gone. Bruce Springsteen has been reborn as a family man.