Fresh Air's summer music interviews: Bruce Springsteen
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. We're going to conclude our series of interviews with musicians from the FRESH AIR archive with Bruce Springsteen and hear the interview I recorded with him in his home studio in New Jersey not far from where he grew up. It was back in 2016 when his memoir had just been published. The book shares the title of his most famous song, "Born To Run." The theme of that anthem is escape. But in much of the book, Springsteen reflects on how he and his music were shaped by home, roots, blood, community, freedom and responsibility. We started with a track from his album "Chapter And Verse" that serves as an audio companion to his memoir with a selection of songs that span his career. It includes this demo version of his song "Growin' Up."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GROWIN' UP")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK, take two.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Well, I stood stone-like at midnight, suspended in my masquerade. I combed my hair till it was just right and commanded the night brigade. I was open to pain and crossed by the rain. And I walked on a crooked crutch. Well, I strode all alone into a fallout zone and came out with my soul untouched. I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd. They said, sit down. I stood up. Ooh, growing up. Well, the flag of piracy flew from my mast.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Bruce Springsteen, welcome to FRESH AIR, and thank you for welcoming us into your studio. I'd love it if you would start by reading the very opening from the foreword of your book. It's really a fantastic book, and I'd like our listeners to just hear a little bit of your writing.
SPRINGSTEEN: OK. My pleasure.
(Reading) I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I. By 20, no race-car-driving rebel, I was a guitar player on the streets of Asbury Park and already a member in good standing amongst those who lie in service of the truth - artists with a small A. But I held four clean aces. I had youth, almost a decade of hardcore bar band experience, a good group of homegrown musicians who were attuned to my performance style, and a story to tell. This book is both a continuation of that story and a search into its origins. I've taken as my parameters the events in my life I believe shaped that story and my performance work. One of the questions I'm asked over and over again by fans on the street is, how do you do it? In the following pages, I'll try to shed a little light on how and, more importantly, why.
GROSS: Thanks for reading that. So what's it like for you to write something that doesn't have to rhyme and that you don't have to perform on stage?
SPRINGSTEEN: (Laughter) That's actually - not having to perform it on stage is a good one. But it's a little different, you know? It's - I'm used to writing something; it becomes a record; it comes out. Then, I go perform, and I play it, and I get this immediate feedback from the audience. So that's been the pattern in my life. But the book has been a little bit different, you know? I mean, you get feedback from the press, and the fans are just starting to get a chance to read it. So I'm looking forward to that.
But you still had to find the music inside your language, you know? It was - that's a big part of what sort of moved me to begin writing the book. I wrote a little essay, and I felt, yeah, this is a good voice. This is a good feeling. It feels like me. But then, once you get into the book, you've got to constantly find your - the rhythm of your prose. And it ends up being quite a musical experience either way.
GROSS: Well, that's one of the things I love about the book, is that there is rhythm and music in it even though it's not a song. So many of your songs, particularly the early ones, are about, you know, like, searching for a dream and running to, like, bust out of the confines of your life. And in some ways, you know, I get the impression from your book that that was your father's story except he never found the dream. It's kind of like - a little bit like the story that you describe in your song "The River."
SPRINGSTEEN: Right. Yeah, my dad was young. He went to work, but he'd been to war. He'd seen some of the world. It wasn't like he was going to be an extensive traveler or something. It didn't seem to be in the nature of - in his nature or in the nature of his parents or many of the folks in my family, really. There were - we had a cousin that went to - off to Brown University. It was like a nuclear explosion took place.
SPRINGSTEEN: You know, it was just incredible for everybody. So you're correct that my parents did really sort of live out a big part of that story. And to a certain degree, he did find his little piece of what he was looking for in California.
GROSS: 'Cause when you were 19, he moved to California. Yeah.
SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah, they moved out west, which was a huge undertaking because no one - it was like moving to another planet for them. But I think that's what my father wanted to do. He wanted to move to another planet. And they had very little. They had $3,000, and they - I think they had an old Rambler. And they slept two nights in the car and a night in a motel. And they had my little sister with them with all this stuff packed on top. It was a really go-for-broke decision. And it did pay off for them. You know, they - I think they enjoyed the West Coast and their California life quite a bit. You know, my father still had periods of illness that were...
GROSS: You're talking about mental illness?
SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah, difficult to manage. But I believe he did feel like he found something there that he couldn't have found at home.
GROSS: Do you think the song "Born To Run" is, in part, about him and, in part, about you?
SPRINGSTEEN: Well, someone mentioned that to me the other day. I always thought it was just about me.
SPRINGSTEEN: But what do you know? And looking back on it, my parents lived out quite a bit of that story themselves.
GROSS: Except you had a dream in a way that your father - maybe he didn't have a dream that he could articulate?
SPRINGSTEEN: It certainly wasn't one he could articulate. It was just, I got to get out of here.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. So you write, too, about your father, that he was kind of very - let me quote you 'cause you put it so well. You write that - (reading) he loved me, but he couldn't stand me. He felt we competed for my mother's affections. We did. He also saw in me too much of his real self. Inside, beyond his rage, he harbored a gentleness, timidity, shyness and a dreamy insecurity. These were things I wore on the outside. And the reflection of these qualities in his boy repelled him. I was soft, and he hated soft. Of course, he'd been brought up soft, a mama's boy just like me.
GROSS: So that timidity and shyness that you wore on the outside - it's kind of, like, the opposite of your stage persona.
SPRINGSTEEN: (Laughter) I know. It's bizarre.
GROSS: Yeah. Can you tell us a little bit more about the timidity and shyness of your youth?
SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah. Well, T-Bone Burnett once said that much of rock music is simply someone going, (singing) wah (ph), Daddy.
SPRINGSTEEN: So I got to take my - I've got to take some blame for that myself, I guess. But, yeah, just - that was - when I was young, you know, I was very shy, and that was my personality, you know? I was a pretty sensitive kid and quite neurotic, filled with a lot of anxiety, which all would have been very familiar to my pop, you know, except it was a part of himself he was trying to reject. So I got caught in the middle of it, I think.
GROSS: So do you think that your stage persona draws both from, like, the angry and uninhibited side of you and the more inhibited, timid side of you?
SPRINGSTEEN: I think it's both there. I think if you just - you know, I think that plenty of folks - if you just looked at the outside, it can read - you know, it's pretty alpha male, you know, which is - it's a little ironic because, you know, it's - that was personally never exactly really me. I think I created my particular stage persona out of my dad's life, and perhaps I even built it to suit him to some degree. I was looking for - when I was looking for a voice to mix with my voice, I put on my father's work clothes, as I say in the book, and I went to work, whether it was a result of wanting to emulate him so I felt closer or whether it was I wanted to - as I say in the book, I wanted to be the reasonable voice of revenge for what I'd seen his life come to. It was all of these things. And it was an unusual creation.
But most of these - most people's stage personas are created out of the flotsam and jetsam of their internal geography. And they're trying to create something that solves a series of very complex problems inside of them or in their history. And I think when I - unknowingly, when I went to do that, that's what - I was trying to integrate all of these very difficult things that I've been unable to integrate in my life and in my life with my parents.
GROSS: We're listening back to my 2016 interview with Bruce Springsteen. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN SONG, "O MARY DON'T YOU WEEP")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Bruce Springsteen in 2016 in his home studio just after the publication of his memoir, "Born To Run."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: During your early years as a musician, you were in Asbury Park - boardwalk, carnival atmosphere. What did you love about that kind of urban beach, you know?
GROSS: And the, you know, Madame Marie and all of the - like, all the boardwalk regulars - you made great stories out of those characters, great songs out of those characters. But what appealed to you about knowing them and writing about them?
SPRINGSTEEN: It was just my location at the time. I didn't move to Asbury with the thought of - you know, it wasn't an anthropological...
GROSS: But you connected in some way.
SPRINGSTEEN: ...Reason. But I went, and I just fit in there. Asbury was down on its luck but not as bad as it would get. And so there was a lot of room to move. You know, clubs were open till 5 a.m. There were gay clubs. In even the late '60s, it was a bit of an open city. So as young ne'er-do-wells, we fit very - you know, we fit very comfortably in that picture. And then when I went to write, I just wrote about what was around me. It fired my imagination. It was - of course, it was a colorful locale. The city was filled with characters and plenty of people at loose ends. And so it just became a very natural thing to write about.
I didn't give it too much thought at the time, but I did think that it gave me a very individual identity and that if I was going to go out into the musical world on a national level, I was very interested in being connected to my home state. There wasn't anyone else writing in this way about these things at that time. So it was something I did very intentionally, in a sense, as creating a certain very, very specific and original identity.
GROSS: And that's one of the things that really interests me comparing you to Dylan because when you first started, people were comparing you to Dylan, one of the new Dylans and everything.
GROSS: In some ways, like, persona-wise, you're the opposite. He changed his name. He surrounded himself in mystery. His lyrics are very obscure. Your lyrics tell stories. You're all about a place. You reveal so much about yourself and the world around you in your songs. You know what I mean? Like...
GROSS: I know that you're more than what you literally tell us about in the songs, but still, you have an identity and try to tell us something of who you are in your songs.
SPRINGSTEEN: You just go where your psychology leads you. I think, you know, I've always loved the fact that Bob's been able to sustain his mystery over 50 or 60 years. That's - in this day and age, that's quite a feat in itself. And, you know, the things that I loved about Bob's music - and I describe him in the book as the father of my country, which he really is - were things that just didn't fit when I went to do my job. You know, I had come out of a somewhat different circumstance, and the shoes - the clothes just didn't fit.
GROSS: I want to quote you again. So you write - this is toward the beginning of your career.
(Reading) I wanted to be a voice that reflected experience and the world I live in. So I knew in 1972 that to do this, I would need to write very well and more individually than I had ever written before.
And this was - at some point, you realized, too, that although you had, like, the most popular bar band in Asbury Park, that there was a bigger world, there was a lot of talented people...
GROSS: ...And in order to, like, be someone in that world - to have a career, to make a difference - that you had to figure out what was unique about you, and you had to write great songs. And in fact, you achieved that. You wrote great songs. But, you know, how did you go about trying to write the best songs that you could, I mean, when you knew that a lot of this was going to depend on the songwriting?
SPRINGSTEEN: When I thought about signing a record deal or writing something that might put me in the position - 'cause I'd had already had plenty of things that had fallen through with my rock bands - I looked at myself, and I just said, well, you know, I can sing, but I'm not the greatest singer in the world. I can play the guitar very well, but I'm not the greatest guitar player in the world. What excites me about a lot of the artists I love? And I realized, well, they created their own personal world that I could enter into through their music and through their songwriting. There's people that can do it instrumentally like Jimi Hendrix or Edge of U2 or Pete Townshend.
I didn't have as unique a purely musical signature. I was a creature of a lot of different influences. And so I said, well, if I'm going to project an individuality, it's going to have to be in my writing. And at the time, for one of the few times in my life, I didn't have a band; I just had myself and the guitar. So I was going to have to do something with just my voice, just the guitar, and just my songs that was going to move someone enough to give me a shot. So I wrote songs that were very lyrically alive and lyrically dense. And they were unique. But it really came out of the motivation to - or I understood it was - I was going to have to make my mark that way.
GROSS: We'll hear more of my 2016 interview with Bruce Springsteen after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN SONG, "BORN TO RUN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Bruce Springsteen in 2016 in his home studio just after his memoir, "Born To Run," was published.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: You started going to therapy in 1983. And at some point - you say in your 60s you had a really bad depression. And I'm wondering if you thought about, during that period when you were very depressed, how many people in the world really wanted to be you and...
SPRINGSTEEN: Doesn't count for that much at the time.
GROSS: Yeah. Right.
SPRINGSTEEN: (Laughter) You know? But, of course, you know, people see you on stage and - yeah, I'd want to be that guy. I want to be that guy myself very often, you know?
SPRINGSTEEN: You know? I get plenty of days where I go, man, I wish I could be that guy.
SPRINGSTEEN: And, you know, it's not quite - there's a big difference between what you see on stage and then my general daily - my daily existence.
GROSS: You write about - you write - I'm sorry?
SPRINGSTEEN: No, I'm talking to myself.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
SPRINGSTEEN: Don't let that bother you.
SPRINGSTEEN: It's part of my illness. I do it all the time.
GROSS: You write about how being on stage is almost like medicine for you, you know.
GROSS: Does it get you out of yourself? Does it...
SPRINGSTEEN: Oh, of course. You're immediately pulled out of your - the inside of your head, and it immediately changes your frame of mind. I have never been on stage where I've - no, that's not true. I have been on stage on a few occasions where I felt I couldn't escape the interior of - my interior thoughts. But Peter Wolfe once said, what's the strangest thing you can do on stage? Think about what you're doing.
SPRINGSTEEN: There's just nothing weirder you can do. If you're up there thinking about what you're doing, you're just not there, and it's not going to happen, you know? So trying to learn how to overcome those, which is a normal thing to do. You're in front of a lot of people. People are going to get very self-conscious. So you have to learn to sort of overcome that tendency towards self-consciousness and just blow it wide open. And you jump in and join all those people that are out there enjoying what you're doing together.
GROSS: During the depression, there was a period of a year and a half when you weren't on the road. You were home with one of your sons. I guess with your youngest?
SPRINGSTEEN: Mmm hmm.
GROSS: Did that contribute to the depression because you couldn't be on stage and you couldn't have that kind of cathartic experience?
SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah, I tend to be not my own best company. I can get a little lost when I - if I don't have my work to occasionally focus me. But at the same time, you've got to be able to figure that out. The year and a half I was home, my son was in his last year of high school, and it was kind of my last opportunity to be here with him in the house, and I wanted to get that right.
GROSS: As you mentioned in your book, you wanted to write songs that you wouldn't outgrow, that you could sing as an adult...
GROSS: ...That weren't just kids songs and...
GROSS: ...You know, done, accomplished (laughter).
GROSS: But when you sing some of your early songs now, as you still do, like "Born To Run," does the song have a different meaning to you than it did when you first started, you know, performing it?
SPRINGSTEEN: We just had a series of concerts where the show was very interesting 'cause we'd start out with my earliest material, and we played about half a record off of our first record and then half or three-quarters off of the second record. So I was going back to my earliest music and re-singing my earliest songs that I wrote when I was 22. And it was funny that they just fit perfectly well. You know, there was a - they sort of gather the years up, as time passes, and you can revisit. The wonderful thing about my job is you can revisit your 22-year-old self or your 24-year-old self any particular night you want. The songs pick up some extra resonance, I hope. But still, they're there, and I can revisit that period of my life when I choose. So it's quite a nice experience. And the songs themselves do broaden out as time passes and take on subtly different meanings, take on more meaning, I find.
GROSS: What's an example of a song that's taken on a different meaning or more meaning for you?
SPRINGSTEEN: A lot of the ones that are people's favorites. You know, "Born To Run," that expands every time we go out. It just seems to - you know, more of your life fills it in, fills in the story. And when we hit it every night, it's always a huge catharsis. It's fascinating to see the audience singing it back to me. It's quite wonderful, you know, to see people that intensely singing your song.
GROSS: As someone who grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in Philadelphia, I love that you've continued to live in New Jersey, not only in New Jersey but not far from where you grew up. Why have you stayed close to the home that your father left? Your father went to the opposite coast...
SPRINGSTEEN: It's ironic, yeah. They...
GROSS: ...When you were a teenager.
SPRINGSTEEN: (Laughter) It's rather ironic. But I just felt very comfortable here. And I was uncomfortable with city life. I was more or less a kid that came out of a small town, and I was a beach bum and loved the ocean and loved the sun. And I liked the people that were here. I liked who I was when I was here. I wanted to continue writing about the things that I felt were important, and those things were pretty much here. I felt like a lot of my heroes from the past lost themselves in different ways once they had a certain amount of success. And I was nervous about that, and I wanted to remain grounded. And living in this part of New Jersey was something that was - it was essential to who I was and continues to this day to be that way.
GROSS: Bruce Springsteen, I can't thank you enough for...
SPRINGSTEEN: Thank you.
GROSS: ...Inviting us into your studio and allowing us to do this interview.
SPRINGSTEEN: Well, thank you very much.
GROSS: Thank you so much.
SPRINGSTEEN: Very enjoyable. I appreciate it.
GROSS: And I really love the book (laughter).
SPRINGSTEEN: Thanks a lot.
GROSS: My interview with Bruce Springsteen was recorded in his home studio in 2016 after the publication of his memoir, "Born To Run." And that concludes our series of interviews with musicians from the FRESH AIR archive. We hope you enjoyed it.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be tennis great John McEnroe, known for his epic matches with Bjorn Borg, his outbursts at umpires and his new careers as a TV tennis analyst and as the narrator on the hit Netflix series "Never Have I Ever." McEnroe is the subject of a new Showtime documentary. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THUNDER ROAD")
SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) The screen door slams. Mary's dress sways. Like a vision, she dances across the porch as the radio plays. Roy Orbison singing for the lonely. Hey, that's me, and I want you only. Don't turn me home again. I just can't face myself alone again. Don't run back inside. Darling, you know just what I'm here for. So you're scared, and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore. Show a little faith. There's a magic in the night. You ain't a beautify, but hey, you're all right. Oh, and that's all right with me. You can hide underneath your covers and study your pain...
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THUNDER ROAD")
SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair. Well, the night's busting open. These two lanes will takes us anywhere. We got one last chance to make it real, to trade in these wings on some wheels. Climb in back. Heaven's waiting down on the tracks. Oh, oh, come take my hand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.