Bruce Spring­steen’s

ex­clu­sive in­ter­view

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

IT’S 60 sec­onds be­fore show­time. Bruce Spring­steen, the E Street Band and al­most a dozen ad­di­tional mu­si­cians are hud­dled in a cir­cle be­hind a stage in Ana­heim, Cal­i­for­nia. A stone’s throw from Dis­ney­land, the full house holds al­most 20,000 fans mak­ing a hel­luva noise in an­tic­i­pa­tion of Spring­steen’s ar­rival.

Hold­ing hands, the band leans in to hear Spring­steen of­fer a few rous­ing words of en­cour­age­ment. Mug­ging for the oc­ca­sion, Spring­steen looks se­ri­ous and fi­nally comes out of a long pause and gri­maces.

‘‘ Twenty-six years ago, Lit­tle Steven [Van Zandt] and I came here to visit the hap­pi­est place on earth — and they kicked us out for wear­ing ban­danas.

‘‘ Tonight . . . we take our re­venge.’’ And that’s what Spring­steen pro­ceeds to do: the arena is alight as the man who re­cently tipped his hat to James Brown by re­fer­ring to him­self as the hard­est work­ing white man in show busi­ness de­liv­ered the great­est rock ’ n’ roll show on earth.

Spring­steen has pledged his pro­fes­sional life to his prom­ise and his au­di­ence: ‘‘ night af­ter night af­ter night’’. His ticket is his hand­shake and as the old soul song goes, ‘‘ ninety-nine and a half just won’t do’’. It’s a sen­ti­ment echoed by his long-time man­ager Jon Lan­dau:

‘‘ Bruce al­ways gives 100 per cent of what he has, ev­ery day.’’

In his dress­ing-room a cou­ple of hours be­fore show­time, Spring­steen is re­laxed in a pale T-shirt and dark jeans. Sun­tanned and in an up­beat mood, he’s strum­ming an acous­tic gui­tar and be­ing asked to ru­mi­nate on some­thing he has spent al­most five decades try­ing to achieve: cre­at­ing magic with the songs he has writ­ten in front of an au­di­ence look­ing to be up­lifted.

‘‘ You don’t want to over­think it,’’ Spring­steen muses on what may lie ahead once the tour man­ager rings the prover­bial bell.

‘‘ It’s all about com­plete com­mit­ment when the moment ar­rives. You can be back here [in the dress­ing room] feel­ing like: ‘ I don’t feel so good’; for the show it­self, you need to use your mind, but that’s not the moment to be in­tel­lec­tual. I’m out there just try­ing to see what catches fire. I’m try­ing to set my­self on fire while I’m at it.’’

A high-oc­tane show, the set lists on his Wreck­ing Ball tour run the gamut of the artist’s ca­reer. As the core E Street Band is joined on stage by a small army of brass play­ers and ad­di­tional singers, Spring­steen’s range of ma­te­rial goes back to his 1973 de­but Greet­ings

from As­bury Park, New Jersey through to his lat­est al­bum, this year’s Wreck­ing Ball. As at any time dur­ing Spring­steen’s ca­reer, no sin­gle show is the same.

As he says, over so many nights on tour, Spring­steen wants his au­di­ence to exit the arena with ‘‘ your back hurt­ing, your voice sore and your sex­ual or­gans stim­u­lated’’.

‘‘ If you’re will­ing to let things hap­pen ... you don’t know what you’re go­ing to find out there on any given night,’’ says Spring­steen as he’s re­minded of a moment two nights ear­lier in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, when a fan in the crowd held up a sign that sim­ply read ‘‘ Dance with a Hun­gar­ian Girl’’. The Boss com­plied.

To a man, the E Street Band refers to it­self as a bar band. It’s just that the rooms kept get­ting big­ger. Af­ter play­ing sta­di­ums through­out the year in Europe, the bulk of the venues the band will per­form in on their up­com­ing Aus­tralian tour are com­par­a­tively cosy.

‘‘ It’s all rel­a­tive,’’ Spring­steen ex­plains. ‘‘ Af­ter play­ing in Europe for three or four months, an arena feels like you’re back in the club. The bot­tom line and the me­chan­ics are the same wher­ever you are. There are some sub­tle dif­fer­ences in the way you have to ap­proach your pre­sen­ta­tion.

‘‘ Small­ness al­lows for more in­for­mal­ity, though we’ve got­ten very good at cre­at­ing an enor­mous amount of in­for­mal­ity, even in the big­gest places. We have a 16 or 17-piece band up there that turns on a dime. It plays like a three-piece band.’’

As a child Spring­steen flirted briefly with folk mu­sic. A cousin taught him some rudi­men­tary chords; then he saw Elvis Pres­ley on The

Ed Sul­li­van Show in 1956 and his world changed. If ever there were a big bang in Spring­steen’s youth, that was it. Just as the boy who grew up in Free­hold, New Jersey, was in­spired to move by Elvis, later he had his mind freed by Bob Dy­lan.

Now 63, Spring­steen has had a long ca­reer fus­ing those twin pow­ers, adding other in­flu­ences — his own twist — and coming up with some­thing unique. Soul mu­sic, rhythm and blues and early rock ’ n’ roll are part of Spring­steen’s bedrock. As a writer with a gift for de­tailed por­trai­ture, he’s an Amer­i­can great rank­ing along­side Dy­lan and John Stein­beck. As a per­former, there’s no other artist in the world like him.

‘‘ Next year I’ll be do­ing it for 50 years,’’ he con­sid­ers. ‘‘ That’s 50 years of not just do­ing it but study­ing it and watch­ing — I still watch ev­ery­thing that comes along. It’s an on­go­ing, an end­less work in progress.’’

Mu­si­cally, he’s par­tial at the moment to the likes of the Gaslight An­them and Against Me! He jams with the Roots, and Rage Against the Ma­chine’s Tom Morello is called on­stage, tonight, as is So­cial Dis­tor­tion’s Mike Ness. Soul mu­sic re­mains a pas­sion and a few nights later he’ll barn­storm the crowd to find an empty seat next to the great Sam Moore (Sam & Dave) to en­gage in a lit­tle call and re­sponse.

Back­stage the con­ver­sa­tion moves to Elvis Pres­ley. Whereas Pres­ley en­gaged his au­di­ence but, largely, kept a re­gal dis­tance, Spring­steen is one of us: the every­man who kicked down the fourth wall; the gun for hire, both the loner and the leader of the gang and myr­iad other ideals his au­di­ence wants to project on to him. Spring­steen first saw Pres­ley in con­cert, be­fore his own fame, in New York City, a few years be­fore jump­ing the wall at Grace­land to of­fer the King, who was ab­sent, a song.

‘‘ By the time I saw him in the 70s, I was study­ing ev­ery­thing I saw,’’ he of­fers. ‘‘ I can be there both as a fan and as a stu­dent. When he came out on stage my rec­ol­lec­tion was he was great. [But] the Ed Sul­li­van per­for­mances were a clas­sic ex­am­ple of how some­body can con­vert a cool medium into some­thing that de­liv­ers an enor­mous amount of heat. It’s very hard to do. That’s why we stayed off tele­vi­sion for a long time. We weren’t on tele­vi­sion un­til 1994, live, be­cause it’s fun­da­men­tally a cooler medium and we bring the heat. Elvis was hot; but the Bea­tles were quite cool and clas­si­cal. It was all in the math and the beauty of their songs and tal­ent.’’

Dur­ing the sound check Spring­steen ar­rives on stage bust­ing slow mo­tion dance moves that wouldn’t be out of place on Soul Train. His laugh is in­fec­tious and it fills the empty arena. It’s here Spring­steen fur­ther fine-tunes an ar­range­ment or two.

Un­like any other band with sim­i­lar sta­dium draw­ing power, back in his dress­ing-room with his note­books, lap­top and lozenges, pre-show, Spring­steen hand­writes a list of songs to be per­formed that night, which is es­sen­tially a ‘‘ guide’’ for how the con­cert will play out. The E Street Band calls the miss­ing links ‘‘ au­di­bles’’, which means Spring­steen will pull a song out of thin air, or he may spot a sign re­quest­ing a tune that’s held up by a mem­ber of the au­di­ence and launch into that.

It’s seat-of-the-pants stuff, as gui­tarist Van Zandt says: ‘‘ Bruce tells me, I tell Roy [Bit­tan] and ev­ery­one else fends for them­selves.’’ That’s when the band catches Spring­steen’s sig­nals and turns on that dime. When it hap­pens, it’s a thing of won­der.

‘‘ What peo­ple are paying for is the in­ten­sity of your pres­ence,’’ Spring­steen says. ‘‘ They want to hear their favourite songs and all that stuff, but I al­ways be­lieve what they really re­spond to is the in­ten­sity of your pres­ence on any given night. If the set be­comes too rote you can sort of rest on its lau­rels [or] you can rest on its form and its for­mula. I don’t want the band to be rest­ing on any par­tic­u­lar for­mula. We have a gen­eral blue­print. Some songs ap­pear in the be­gin­ning, some songs ap­pear to­wards the end. I may switch that com­pletely. Lately we’ve been start­ing with Land of Hope and Dreams, which we’ve been end­ing the shows with for the past bunch of years.

‘‘ Some­times you just turn it all com­pletely on its head and sud­denly ev­ery­thing is new again and the band and my­self are pushed into the moment, which is where you want to be and what peo­ple are coming to see.’’

Like the Rolling Stones, the E Street Band is a mag­nif­i­cent unit built on the sum of its parts. Max Wein­berg is a pow­er­house on drums. Bit­tan is vir­tu­osic on pi­ano. Nils Lof­gren, in Spring­steen’s words, ‘‘ is the great­est, most overqual­i­fied’’ sec­ond gui­tarist in the world, and there’s rock-solid Garry W. Tal­lent on bass. Spring­steen’s wife, Patti Scialfa, plays when fam­ily life per­mits and Van Zandt re­mains Bruce’s best pal and con­sigliore while earn­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as a DJ and an ac­tor in The So­pra­nos and Nor­we­gian drama Li­ly­ham­mer. Sadly miss­ing are or­gan­ist Dan Fed­erici, who died from melanoma in 2008, and Spring­steen’s on-stage foil and soul brother, sax­o­phon­ist Clarence Cle­mons, who died last year. ‘‘ My re­la­tion­ship with [Clarence] fired my imag­i­na­tion and my own dreams,’’ Spring­steen said when Wreck­ing Ball was launched in Paris. ‘‘ It made me want to write for those sax sounds. Los­ing him is like los­ing rain or air — it’s el­e­men­tal. It’ll take a vil­lage of men to re­place the Big Man!’’

And in­deed it has. Apart from the four-piece horn sec­tion on stage each night, Spring­steen has called on Clarence’s nephew Jake Cle­mons to play with the en­sem­ble while tak­ing his un­cle’s sig­na­ture parts in con­cert sta­ples such as Bad­lands, Jun­gle­land and Thun­der Road.

A key theme of the tour is deal­ing with loss, hon­our­ing the past and walking along­side your own ghosts. Friend­ship, faith, spir­i­tual re­ju­ve­na­tion and per­sonal re­newal are threads that pep­per Spring­steen’s on­stage di­a­logue. The ex­pe­ri­ence is height­ened by the shared ex­pe­ri­ence of the songs be­tween the song­writer and his au­di­ence. For Spring­steen, the Wreck­ing Ball con­certs also al­low his au­di­ence to say good­bye to Fed­erici and ‘‘ the Big Man’’.

‘‘ We’ve been on the road for a while now,’’ Spring­steen con­tin­ues, ‘‘ but ba­si­cally we’re go­ing to ev­ery place for the first time. If peo­ple have seen the band be­fore they haven’t seen us since Clarence was gone, so we’re try­ing to help them in just deal­ing with that ex­pe­ri­ence. I knew [this ac­knowl­edg­ment] was go­ing to be a per­ma­nent fix­ture of the show for cer­tainly this tour. Peo­ple need a chance to say hello again and good­bye. They need to feel Clarence, both his ab­sence and his per­ma­nence. We try to bring that into the show on a nightly ba­sis.’’

While Char­lie Giordano now plays or­gan in the band, Spring­steen’s troupe features ad­di­tional per­cus­sion, vi­o­lin and four heav­enly singers who bring a lit­tle more gospel to the cho­ruses. In a way Spring­steen has moved the band for­ward by look­ing over his shoul­der.

‘‘ If you go back to the band I had in 1971, be­fore I made records, I had a 10-piece band and I had singers and horns in it. I didn’t have as big a vo­cal sec­tion or horn sec­tion but it was ba­si­cally this set-up. Steve played the gui­tar, Garry played the bass, and I think Davy San­cious was the or­gan­ist at the time. We car­ried that band — couldn’t carry it too long be­cause it was so many peo­ple. So in a funny way it’s a very sim­i­lar set-up that I had when I was very young at one time. It’s a band that can play so many dif­fer­ent types of mu­sic, from hard-rock mu­sic to gospel and soul and some jazz, tra­di­tional jazz, New Or­leans, it cov­ers so much ter­ri­tory.’’

Al­ready eight-odd shows into the Wreck­ing Ball Tour, Spring­steen is show­ing no signs of slow­ing down. At the mu­si­cal core of the night are Spring­steen clas­sics and ma­te­rial from the crit­i­cally ac­claimed Wreck­ing Ball al­bum. Tak­ing its han­dle from the few tonnes of mon­grel metal that brought down New Jersey’s Giants Sta­dium, Wreck­ing Ball ru­mi­nates on much that has gone sour with the Amer­i­can, and more broadly, the West­ern dream in re­cent years.

When writ­ing the al­bum, the fire in Spring­steen’s belly was stoked by the fall­out from 2008’s fi­nan­cial cri­sis; in par­tic­u­lar the ef­fect it had on in­di­vid­u­als, the loss of jobs and dig­nity, fail­ure of the sys­tem to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for that col­lapse and the even­tual for­ma­tion of the Oc­cupy move­ment.

A high­light in con­cert, the rous­ing We Take Care of Our Own, which opens Wreck­ing Ball, is cru­cial to the writer’s ap­proach in se­quenc­ing an al­bum.

‘‘ If you look at my records, say The River, for ex­am­ple, it starts out with The Ties that Bind and the rest of the record deals with that idea,’’ Spring­steen told me be­fore the tour be­gan. ‘‘ If you lis­ten to Dark­ness on the Edge of Town, the al­bum starts with Bad­lands and the rest of the record deals with philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions that come up in Bad­lands. Born to Run starts with Thun­der Road, which is two peo­ple off on a jour­ney of some sort, and the rest of the record tries to fig­ure out where they’re go­ing. I do it very of­ten in many of my records.

‘‘[ We Take Care of Our Own] in that sense, it was sum­ma­tional, but it also pos­tu­lated what I was think­ing about at that par­tic­u­lar moment

Bruce Spring­steen to­day; be­low left, on

stage in 1995

Bruce Spring­steen on the Obama cam­paign trail this year, above, and left, with his wife, Patti Scialfa; op­po­site page, with the E Street Band



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