A fan's eye view
The Observer, 2005-07-17, by: Nick Hornby
Nick Hornby has always been a Springsteen fan, and listened to his music every day while writing his latest bestseller. But he never had the chance to meet his hero - until The Boss came to london for his recent Royal Albert Hall shows. In this OMM exclusive, the star reveals how he keeps abreast of modern music via his son, and why the likes of 'Born to Run' continue to inspire
Earlier on in the week that I met Bruce Springsteen, and before I knew I was going to meet him, I'd decided I was going to send him a copy of my new book. I got his home address off a mutual friend, and signed it to him, and the book was lying around in my office in an unstamped Jiffy bag when the editor of this magazine asked if I'd like to do this interview. So I took the book with me.
I wasn't expecting him to read the bloody thing, nor even to keep it, and yet even so it seemed like something I needed to do. A Long Way Down was fuelled by coffee, Silk Cuts and Bruce (specifically, a 1978 live bootleg recording of 'Prove it all Night', which I listened to a lot on the walk to my office as I was finishing the book). And Springsteen is one of the people who made me want to write in the first place, and one of the people who has, through words and deeds, helped me to think about the career I have had since that initial impulse. It seems to me that his ability to keep his working life fresh and compelling while working within the mainstream is an object lesson to just about anyone whose work has any sort of popular audience.
The first time I met him was after his Friday night show at the Royal Albert Hall, at a party in an upmarket West End hotel. He talked with an impressive ferocity and fluency to a little group of us about why he demanded restraint from his fans during the solo shows. The following afternoon I went to the soundcheck for the Saturday show, and sat on my own in the auditorium while he played 'My Father's House', from Nebraska. It wasn't the sort of experience you forget in a hurry. I interviewed him in his dressing room, and I was nervous: I have, in transcribing the questions, made them seem more cogent than they actually were.
He looked younger than the last time I saw him, and he's clearly incredibly fit; he changed his shirt for the photographer, and I could tell that he does a lot more two-and-a-half hour shows than I do. He was pleasant and friendly, but though he asked after a couple of younger musicians who both he and I know, there wasn't much small talk; his answers came in unbroken yet very carefully considered streams. He is one of the few artists I've met who is able to talk cogently about what he does without sounding either arrogant or defensively self-deprecating.
I gave him the book, and he thanked me. I have no idea whether the cleaner took it home, but it didn't matter much to me either way.
Nick Hornby: I was thinking when I was watching the show last night that maybe when you play with the band you can at least say to yourself, 'I know why people are coming to see us. We're good at what we do, and there's this dynamic between us.' But when it's you on your own, you can't tell yourself that any more. How does that feel? Have you got to a stage in life where it doesn't feel weird that so many people come to see only you?
Bruce Springsteen: I performed like this in different periods of most of my playing life before I made records (1) [for footnotes see below]. It just so happens that I didn't do it on the Nebraska tour, maybe I was feeling unsure about ... I hadn't performed by myself in a while. It feels very natural to me, and I assume people come for the very same reasons as they do when I'm with the band: to be moved, for something to happen to them. So I think the same things that make people plunk down their hard-earned bucks for the tickets, it works both ways. You're looking for an experience and something that contextualises, as best as possible, a piece of the world. I'm just taking a different road to it out there at night. It's the same thing, you know?
NH: It's always struck me that you work very hard on the stage side of things, that you have a theory of stagecraft. Is that right?
BS: Well, I don't know if I've worked hard at it. It's always felt natural, because I'm generally very comfortable with people. That's probably genetic in some fashion (laughs). There is a presentation and I think being aware of the fact that there's a show going on is a good idea (laughs) (2). I think it fell into some disrepute when the idea of the show became linked to falseness in some fashion, which is a superficial way to look at it. It's actually a bridge when used appropriately. It's simply a bridge for your ideas to reach the audience. It assists the music in connecting and that's what you're out there for. I think if you do it wrong, you can diminish your work, but if you do it right you can lightly assist what you're doing. It can be an enormous asset in reaching people with what might be otherwise difficult material. I have a large audience coming to see this kind of music, an audience which in other circumstances would not be there. The audiences are there as a result of my history with the band but also as a result of my being able to reach people with a tune. I have my ideas, I have my music and I also just enjoy showing off [laughs], so that's a big part of it. Also, I like to get up onstage and behave insanely or express myself physically, and the band can get pretty silly. But even in the course of an evening like this there's a way that you sort of attenuate the evening. Your spoken voice is a part of it - not a big part of it, but it's something. It puts people at ease, and once again kind of reaches out and makes a bridge for what's otherwise difficult music.
NH: I think that's right. Those shows where you borrowed things from James Brown ... I think some people did find it troubling that this music is supposed to be real and authentic and yet there's this stagecraft, this messing around, at the same time (3). I think the people who get the shows always see that there's not a contradiction.
BS: Plus, you know, when I was young, there was a lot of respect for clowning in rock music - look at Little Richard. It was a part of the whole thing, and I always also believed that it released the audience. And it was also a way that you shrunk yourself down to a certain sort of life-size (laughs) but I also enjoyed it, I had fun with it, and I never thought that seriousness and clowning were exclusive, so I've approached my work and my stagecraft with the idea that they're not exclusive. You can go from doing something quite silly to something dead serious in the blink of an eye, and if you're making those connections with your audience then they're going to go right along with it.
NH: What have you been listening to the past couple of years?
BS: I listen to all kinds of things, you know? Take your choice. [He reaches into a bag and pulls out a whole heap of home-made CDs.] I've made all this music for walking ... A lot of this is a little acoustic-oriented but I hear everything. I hear all the Britpop stuff, the Stone Roses and Oasis, and I go on to Suede and Pulp. I'm generally interested in almost everything.
NH: For the benefit of the tape I'm looking at CDs which feature Dylan and Sleater Kinney and the Beach Boys and Jimmy Cliff and Sam Cooke and Bobby Bland and Joe Strummer; pretty much the whole history of recorded music.
BS: I left a lot of my more rock things off, because this is my walking music. But I listen to old music; some Louis Armstrong stuff recently. And then I'll listen to, I don't know, Four Tet or something. I do a lot of curiosity buying; I buy it if I like the album cover, I buy it if I like the name of the band, anything that sparks my imagination. I still like to go to record stores, I like to just wander around and I'll buy whatever catches my attention ... Maybe I'll read a good review of something or even an interesting review. But then I go through long periods where I don't listen to things, usually when I'm working. In between the records and in between the writing I suck up books and music and movies and anything I can find.
NH: And is that part of the process of writing for you?
BS: I don't think it has to be. I tend to be a subscriber to the idea that you have everything you need by the time you're 12 years old to do interesting writing for most of the rest of your life - certainly by the time you're 18. But I do find it helps me with form, in that something may just inspire me, may give me an idea as to the form I'm going to create something in, or maybe the setting. Ten or 12 years ago, nature writing struck my imagination and it's seeped into my work a little bit here and there ever since.. It's all kinds of things. I heard this live version of 'Too Much Monkey Business' by Chuck Berry and it sounds so close to punk music. So when you go to record with your band, you have all those sounds, you've created a bank. I like to stay as awake and as alert as I can. And I enjoy it too, I have a lot of interest in it ... I like not being sealed off from what's going on culturally.
NH: Have you got to the stage where your kids are introducing you to things?
BS: Yeah, my son likes a lot of guitar bands. He gave me something the other day which was really good. He'll burn a CD for me full of things that he has, so he's a pretty good call if I want to check some of that stuff out ... The other two aren't quite into that yet. My daughter's 12, 13, and she likes the top 40. So I end up at the Z100 Christmas show, sitting in the audience with my daughter and her friends watching every top 40 act ... I'm all over the place.
NH: How did that Suicide thing come about (4)?
BS: I met Alan [Vega] in the late Seventies. I was just a fan. I liked them, they were unique. They're very dreamy, they have a dreamy quality, and they were also incredibly atmospheric and were going were others weren't. I just enjoyed them a lot. I happened to hear that song recently, I came across a compilation that it was on and it's very different at the end of the night. It's just those few phrases repeated, very mantra-like.
NH: It's especially striking in a show that's built almost exclusively on narrative.
BS: Right, but it's the fundamental idea behind all of the songs anyway (5). (Laughs) It's just a different moment at the end of the night, where you go to some of the same places with virtually very few words. I like narrative storytelling as being part of a tradition, a folk tradition. But this envelops the night. It's interesting watching people's faces. They look very different while that's happening. It's a look of some surprise, and that's part of what I set the night up for - unconventional pieces at the top to surprise the audience and to also make them aware that it's not going to be a regular night. It's going to be a night of all different things and the ritualistic aspect of the night is dispelled. As long as it's not something that I've done before ...
NH: How do you think of your relationship with your own material? Because when you were here with the band a couple of years ago, you were playing stuff from the first three albums and some of those you were doing solo as well. And yet last night I think there was one song from the first four albums ...
BS: Is that right? On certain nights I'll play more. I think I played 'For You' for a while ... It depends. My only general rule was to steer away from things I played with the band over the past couple of tours. I was interested in re-shaping the Rising material for live shows, so people could hear the bare bones of that. And the new material and [The Ghost of] Tom Joad and Nebraska gets a nod, and I think 'Tunnel of Love' comes up. I play 'Racing in the Street' ... I haven't played much off Born to Run. It's predicated on anything that doesn't have a formulated response built in.
NH: Does it feel like young man's music to you now, the first three, four records?
BS: I would say that it is, you know, because a lot of young people actually mention those records to me. I remember I was playing over here a while back and I was staring down and there was a kid, he couldn't have been more than 14, 15, he was mouthing every word to us, Greetings From Asbury Park, literally word for word and this kid - forget about it, his parents were the glimmer in somebody's eye [laughs]. In some ways I suppose it is, but also a good song takes years to find itself. When I go back and play 'Thunder Road' or something, I can sing very comfortably from my vantage point because a lot of the music was about a loss of innocence, there's innocence contained in you but there's also innocence in the process of being lost [laughs]. And that was the country at the time I wrote that music. I wrote that music immediately preceding the end of the Vietnam war, when that feeling swept the country. A part of me was interested in music which contained that innocence, the Spector stuff, a lot of the Fifties and Sixties rock'n'roll, but I myself wasn't one of those people. I realised I wasn't one of my heroes, I was something else and I had to take that into consideration. So when I wrote that music and incorporated a lot of the things I loved from those particular years, I was also aware that I had to set in place something that acknowledged what had happened to me and everybody else where I lived.
NH: I presume that's where the emotional connection with your music came for so many people at the time. Because all those people had grown up loving that music, but it wasn't doing the job any more.
BS: I think we were a funny amalgam of things at that moment. There was so much familiarity in the music that for a lot of people it felt like home; it touched either your real memories or just your imaginary home, the place that you think of when you think of your home town, or who you were, or who you might have been. And the music collected those things, so there was an element that made you feel comfortable. And yet at the same time we were in the process of moving some place else, and that was acknowledged in my music also, and that's why I think people felt deeply about it.
I think that it made some people comfortable, and there were stylistic things that caught people's ears, that they were used to hearing ... but that alone wouldn't have made people feel very deeply, it was the other stuff. That's why 'Born to Run' resonates and 'Thunder Road'; people took that music and they really made it theirs. I think I worked hard for that to happen. I am providing a service and it's one that I like to think is needed. It's at the core of trying to do it right, from year to year. It's the motive when you go out there. You want that reaction: 'Hey, I know that kid. That's me!'. Because I still remember that my needs were very great, and they were addressed by things that people at the time thought were trash, popular music and B-movies ... But I found a real self in them that helped me make sense of the self that I grew up with - the person I actually was.
1. A few years ago, a friend gave me a DVD of early Springsteen performances, bootleg stuff taken from the internet, and on it there's shaky black-and-white film of Bruce performing solo at some folk club, probably in 1970/71. And, of course, there's a difference between performing solo as an unknown artist and performing solo when you're one of the biggest acts in the world. Back then, it would have been very hard for Bruce to kid himself that anyone in the crowd had come to see him; they'd come to see the headline act, or they'd come for a drink. And if in those circumstances you can delay one person's retreat to the bar, then you're doing well. At the Royal Albert Hall, people had paid ?50-?60 to watch Springsteen's every move, for over two hours. That must focus the mind.
2. This sounds like a throwaway remark, but how many shows have you been to where the band pretend to be unaware that there's a show going on? All that tuning up and talking to each other, while the audience waits for something to happen. Springsteen's simple recognition of the fact that people pay for every onstage second separates him from almost every single other act I've seen.
3. Every now and then, No Nukes, the film of a big 1979 anti-nuclear concert in Madison Square Garden, turns up in the middle of the night on Sky Movies. Springsteen is one of the artists featured: he sings 'The River', 'Thunder Road' and then 'Quarter to Three', the old Gary US Bonds hit that he used to play as an encore. In 'Quarter to Three', he does the whole hammy James Brown thing; he collapses on the stage, the band attempts to lead him off, he suddenly pulls away from them and does another couple of verses, stripped to the waist. It's electrifying, and funny; but what's remarkable, looking at it now, is that Springsteen's uncomplicated showbiz gestures seem way more 'authentic' than all the smiley, gleaming-teeth sincerity that James Taylor, Carly Simon and the rest of the performers are trying to project. What, after all, could be more sincere than a performer performing - and acknowledging that he's performing?
4. Springsteen closed the Royal Albert Hall shows with an extraordinary cover of 'Dream Baby Dream'. an old song by the scary punk-era experimental duo Suicide. He got some kind of echoed loop going out of his pump-organ and strolled around the stage singing the song's disconnected phrases; there were no beats, of course, but it was as hypnotic and as hymnal as Underworld's 'Born Slippy'.
5. 'All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,' said the critic Walter Pater. As it turns out, even musicians aspire towards the condition of music - something less wordy, less structured, more visceral.
Those other fans ...
Dave Marsh Music critic
'The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle is still, to me, one of the greatest records that anybody's ever made. It just left you feeling more alive.'
Tony Blair Prime Minister
'I like Bruce Springsteen tremendously. Cherie and I used to listen [to him] together. I had this extremely grotty flat in St John's Wood [in north London], just around the corner from where she used to live, and we would play Bruce there.'
Eric Alterman Author of 'It Ain't No Sin to Be Glad You're Alive: the Promise of Bruce Springsteen'
'He's the only iconographic figure in my life who ultimately didn't betray me. He keeps growing and changing.'
Stephen Merchant Comedy writer
'Initially, when I first heard Born to Run it didn't grab me. Later, though, the romanticism of 'Thunder Road' got to me. It sounded like the soundtrack to a teen movie that one day I'd hope to make. When the sax comes in, that's the guy running through the rain at the end to get the girl.'
Ronald Reagan Former American President (misreading 'Born in the USA' in October 1984)
'America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts. It rests in the message of hope so many young people admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen.'
Danny Jones McFly
'When I came home from school, instead of watching The Tweenies, I'd roll my sleeves up like him, put a band around my head and watch Springsteen live.'
Damon Gough Badly Drawn Boy
'It took me a long, long time to decide that I was going to be a songwriter myself, but 'Thunder Road' started the process.'
Greil Marcus Author
'It's amazing how much he can do in just a few lines ... you know exactly where you are and you can follow the story.'
Billy Bragg Singer
'Springsteen makes me keep faith in America