The Boss's back
Vox, 1993-03, by: Bill Flanagan
...may feel a few knives in it these days. 1992's albums met with mixed responses, and questions were raised over the live shows. With British summer dates on the horizon, Springsteen considers the way forward for the 1990s
"It's a big change," says Springsteen, legs swinging casually off the edge of yet another stadium stage. Behind him the band that escorted The Boss back to his people in 1992 is finishing one more sound check in one more cavernous American shed. On the horizon, the tour dates trickle into another year, and behind the backline with Patti Scialfa is attending to their two-year-old son, Evan. He's wearing protective ear muffs.
The change Springsteen refers to, as he looks past 1992 to the year ahead, is this new way of travelling adopted by the world's biggest local hero. En famille. Much testy comment was passed on Patti's contributions to the concerts last year, largely by critics who seemed to take Springsteen's 'appointment' of his wife to the band almost as a personal slight. To the unconverted, Springsteen's fervent followers have often seemed like so many members of an exclusive men's drinking club, and in 1992 Springsteen committed the ghastly faux pas of bringing his woman to the bar. The rest of the boys crouched round their pints in a disgrunted circle and attempted to be polite with the backs of their necks. In 1993, regardless as ever, Springsteen carries on.
"In the past I think one of the ideas of the road was the idea of escape," he explains of his decision to rock out with kin. "The other is the search for adventure or experience. For me, part of it was throwing off whatever your daily life is. Even when you're travelling in a van with six other guys, it's all- consuming. It's not that particular thing for me any more. So the trick now was to make it all work together."
The first five or six weeks was a particular tough piece of adjustment for everyone - the band feeling their way around The Springsteens, and the scheduly, by general admission, too tight and too exhausting. The show have been opened out now, and will stay that way. "Otherwise, when I go home, all I'm going to do is sleep," Springsteen admits ruefully. "So we sorted it out, the spacing is slightly better, I've got plenty of energy, we all travel together. I really, really enjoy it. It's been going good."
What perhaps didn't go quite so well was the two supposed 'comeback' albums Human Touch and Lucky Town, released last year, designed to convince the world the Boss had been revived, renewed, reinvented. Reviewers willed them to be good, but went into print with only cautious praise. By the end of the year the public's wallet had cast its own, rather less enthusiastic vote.
Springsteen, as ever, is ready to convert a possible disappointment to a positive boon. "I feel less famous at the moment!" he laughs, "and it's good. All I know is, I feel able to get on with my own life, it's just a little easier. 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 a big audience may not be your best audience. 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 humanscaled, less iconic and more about everyday issues, which I thought the Tunnel Of Love record and my new records dealt with.
"Outside of that, your control over the thing has a life and dynamic of its own. 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."
Springsteen's vision of his audience is, he says, still clear, even if that audience's view of Springsteen is less pellucid than it once was. People come to him for emotional experience and perspective "either in their own lives, or on the world that they're living in, or on their relationships."
Until Springsteen forms his own outlook on any subject, discussing it with six strings is pointless. You sense that's partly behind his decision to take the family on tour. The listeners who grew up with the Boss in the last decade want him there singing about their problems in this one - kids and nurturing them. Springsteen can't do that whitout raising kids, and he can't raise kids without the family being in front of him every day.
"If I have any knowledge about the way that relationships work," he says, with mild understatement, "whether it's partners or kids, it's, you gotta be there. That's what kids want - to see you on a steady basis. 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.
"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.
"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. 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." Springsteen grins widely at the description. "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."
Certainly the world has had high expectations of its musical saviour, but the 20- 30somethings of the 1980s are now the 30-40somethings of the 1990s. How much more complex is it to satisfy them? "Forty-two is still really young," comments Springsteen wryly, "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.
"My Beautiful Reward' was a good song to finish Lucky Town with because I wasn't trying to make an '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 love in it and real hope. Because I've felt and found these 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 stuff. That song expresses a little bit of every 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 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' - more ambivalence and moral ambiguousness. Hey, morality is something a lot of people can't afford."
Lengthy reflection over Lucky Town in particular has left many Bruce pundits convinced that he's looking for more personal voice as he steps lightly into '93, and more firmly into his early forties.
"You get more comfortable with who you are and you create less of a persona," he reflects on the more direct songs he is producing now. "I was concerned about the music being that. 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 initially tried to write more genre-like. Some of the better example ended up on Human Touch, I always say, 'Oh I'll make this album ten rock songs or ten this or ten that, get away from searching all the time. If I put more records out maybe I'd have an opportunity to do that, 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 tried 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."
But taking those characters to his audience has shown Springsteen no further forward in his constant war with size - size of repertoire, size of reputation, size of venue.
"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 the scale of the place 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 the air. That's kinda what people come for. The arena is a bigger-than-life experience. I think once you step out of the theatre 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. About 60 per cent new stuff and 40 per cent old is what feels good on a nightly basis right now."
The recent, acoustically-arranged Unplugged session for MTV - a mixed succes by several accounts - has rekindled Springsteen's dreams for a smaller show sometime in the future. "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 the band. They work a lot of different ways. At some point I want to do an acoustic tour by myself and play in theatres."
What he has learned, he says, not for the first time, is to feel less threatened about the fate of his music. He was over-protective, but it's not as fragile or precious a thing as he once believed. Perhaps he was holding his guard too high. "The world is threatening. You can feel that big breath on the back of your neck right before you step into those particular decisions. 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.
"My fear of failure always held me back in dealing with relationships. I always stopped before I commetted to the place where if it would hurt." But not this time, perhaps.