Story 2020-10-22 Springsteen Residence, Colts Neck, NJ

NPR interview with Steve Inskeep

Steve: Why don’t we just have a conversation here, and I want to begin with a question that just kind of helps people who are coming to this material for the first time. What got you started thinking about your fairly distant past?

Bruce: Uh, I had a friend who was in my very first band, who'd passed away two summers ago. And, he and I were the last living members of my very first rock band. So when he passed away that left just me. And, uh, all the other guys passed away at relatively young ages. And, so you know, it just, just led me to reflecting on what that time in my life meant to me, what I learned through- We were together for three years, which for teenagers was a very long time to be able to stay together, and high- all through high school. And it was also from 1965 to 1968, which were, of course, culturally explosive years in the United States. So it was a sort of an action-packed period of time to be in a rock band and to have the same consistent members, and so it consequently it always stayed with me. And also because I, I learned the majority of my craft, or the, certainly the beginning pieces of it over those three years, you know. How to perform, how to play in front of every kind of audience. We played bowling alleys, pizza parlors, firemen's fairs, Elks clubs, Knights of Columbus, CYO dances, high school dances, weddings, bar mitzvahs. We played in front of virtually every audience you can imagine. And, uh, so it was an enormous school of rock, as I say in the film.

Steve: What kind of a person was George Theiss, your friend?

Bruce: George was kind of a regular guy, you know. George was kind of a regular guy, you know. But actually as teenager he was quite charismatic, you know. He was very good looking, attracted a lot of girls, had a great sort of tenor voice. And was really, initially the frontman for The Castiles. I was simply the guitarist. And so, uh, he was a bit of our local star, you know. And uh, and he sort of locally maintained that reputation for quite a big part of his life in Asbury Park, so. He was an interesting fella. He was a carpenter by trade, and I believe that that's how he made his living through most of his life, and played music on the side.

Steve: Um, this is a hard question to answer without making you feel self-conscious, but do you feel you understand why it is that you became famous and he didn't?

Bruce: Well, there's a lot of reasons, you know? There's some luck involved, there's some choice of path. George was married very, very young - 18 or 19, I believe - and, uh, became a father very young, and uh… So he had a lot of responsibilities. Uh, and then it comes down to also writing. Your ability to write is essential in how you progress. And I really studied and perfected my writing skills very, very intensely. Uh, but it's just different paths, really, you know. I, I don't really have an explanation as to why life takes someone one way or someone the other. I mean, I was, I was a one-track mind, you know, before anything else, before work, girls. You know, I was always just music, music, music, music, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And that had a lot to do with it.

Steve: Can you recall a particular moment when you knew that you had grown beyond this band and that it was time to go on your own?

Bruce: Yeah, I guess I was 18, and George and I had come to sort of, uh… We weren't getting along at the time, and, you know, we, we were, we were all outgrowing the band. We were just about out of high school. And the band had pretty much run its course. And I was starting to sing and front about half, half as much as George was now. So now we were both frontmen in the band and that created some tension. Of course, the direction of the band- just normal things that break bands up. Uh, particularly when you're a, when you're teenager, so.

Steve: Did you keep in touch with him in later years?

Bruce: Uh, I didn’t keep in touch with him for a long time. We would occasionally bump into one another. And, uh, then he, he, he contracted an illness, and in the last several years of his life were pretty close.

Steve: Alright. You mention writing, and your obsession with writing. Uh, and I'm thinking about the songs that are recorded here from your early days. And how they're like some of your earliest kind of Asbury- Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. songs.

Bruce: Hehe yeah.

Steve: And how they're maybe a little different than some of the stories that you told later. How would you describe some of these early songs? What, what was your writing style, what were you going for, and what do you achieved?

Bruce: My, my writing style was Dylanesque - it's how I would call it - in the sense that I was really interested in language, interested in image after image after image. Uh, I suppose influenced certainly by Bob the most, secondarily by like Allen Ginsberg and, uh, some beat poetry, and uh… So I, I wrote for several years in that style, only a small amount of which got released on Greetings From Asbury Park and maybe my second record. A lot of it remained unreleased. The, the music I wrote before my record contract, when I was 22, uh, there was quite a bit of that type of music that remained unreleased, and so I went back to some of it on this record and, and we had some fun with it.

Steve: Were these songs narratives, and they're just so complicated I don’t get the narrative, or was it just imagery?

Bruce: I don’t get the narrative either, so you're not alone.
All I know…..

Steve: Well that interests me though because within a few years you were telling stories with specific characters that you could relate to…

Bruce: Yeah.

Steve: …and events you could follow. What made you change?

Bruce: Well, the, the early songs had an emotional consistency and emotional point of view that made them congeal and work. Uh, I don't know if you could follow a story from A to Z in it, you know, but, uh, they worked as pieces of music, and pieces of whatever you wanna call it. Just, just, they worked as lyrics. And, uh, I changed the style because of all the Dylan comparisons. And I kinda didn't want to get stuck in that. Though looking back now, while they were Dylanesque, they really, they really were- I had a version of it that was my own.

Steve: They were your style, yeah.

Bruce: Yeah, yeah, they really were. And so, consequently, sometimes I regret not holding on to that style a little bit longer just because it was so much fun. And, uh, I, I enjoyed writing with that imagery. But I stopped because I heard the "New Dylan" comparisons and I was very sensitive it to, and so I began to write more colloquially.

Steve: I feel like you're fortunate that you did that. Even if the other style would have been great. I mean, you, you wrote the songs that you're probably best know for because you changed in that way.

Bruce: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. So, I, I found my own way and really created my won identity.

Steve: In this film, you give a little detail about yourself that I didn’t know. You say that, as a boy, it was common for you, even as young as age 6 or 7, to be brought to wakes and funerals. And you'd look at the body…

Bruce: Oh yeah.

Steve: …open coffin. Which is also something that I did growing up and thought of it as totally normal, but then I get older and I realize not everybody does that, not everybody is brought there when they're that young.

Bruce: That's true. It was part of the Italian-Irish culture, you know. They had wakes. And wakes were big events. They went on for days, and, uh, everyone visited. It was a huge social event for the family. Probably only time that the entire family and community got together, uh, was around the body of the dead. And, uh, so it just became a big part of my life. It was a combination of grief and party and- You know, people were excited to be with one another and… And there was just the passing of somebody who- I had a huge family that lived on one street in Freehold New Jersey. We had five or six houses filled with grandparents and great-grandparents.

Steve: Uh hm.

Bruce: And so I got used to people passing away when I was quite young. And it, it's, it's a very funny thing because I lived a lot with death when I was a child, and then you have this big break from it, sort of from your 20's to your 40's, where it's very rare for someone to pass away, to die. And then once you hit your 50's and 60's and 70's, of course, it becomes a big part of your life again.

Steve: Well, let's talk about that. How first do you think it's affected your life or even your art to have been made aware at such a young age that there's an endpoint?

Bruce: I don’t know, you know, uh… It was so natural, and , and… It was so natural to me that I didn't think a lot about it. I thought… Most of my friends, who - you know, I came out of a Catholic school, so - a lot of them experienced something similar. So, uh, I wasn't, it was just something I, I just started to sort of contemplate when we were making this film. And, uh, I, I don't know how it affects the rest of my life, I don’t know if it did really in any deep way, outside of being comfortable with, with the idea of death and, and people passing.

Steve: How does it affect you now to have to get used to that idea and to be aware that there is an endpoint that's not endlessly far away for any of us?

Bruce: Well the past, uh, well the past 15 years, really, is when you notice people starting to check out early, you know, they check out. And, uh, so, uh, that gets, that gets sad, you know, as, as you lose, you lose close friends. You know, I lost Clarence, lost Danny, two guys in the E Street Band. Those are pretty difficult and painful experiences. And, uh, and then a variety of other close friends - George, of course, that I write about on this record. And, and, you realize, you know, you start looking around to see who's taking care of themselves and who's not taking care of themselves. You start worrying about some people more than others. And it's just a daily part of your life now.

Steve: Can I just say that I feel that in some ways you are doing the adult equivalent of those wakes, in that you are keeping the dead close? If I go to a concert, I may see im- see images of Clarence Clemons. Uh, I see you toasting…

Bruce: Oh yeah

Steve: … to Clarence Clemons in this film, even though he's been dead for years. You're still thinking about him.

Bruce: Oh, yeah, yeah. No, we don't get together without, without Clarence in, uh, in the room, and without Danny in the room. The band doesn't get together without that or without a remembrance. So, uh, it's very important.

Steve: Of course, his nephew is in the room.

Bruce: That was a lovely, uh, piece of luck for us that he, that Clarence had a, a young nephew who was proficient on the saxophone and, and also fell in with the band spiritually, and, and uh, in a way that, that really… It was a balm for losing Clarence.

Steve: Hm. What goes through your mind when you have one of those toasts?

Bruce: It's good things, you know. It's a hail to one of our brothers, you know. And it's a, there's a good spirit, you know. The spirit that Clarence worked his entire life to sustain and to be a part of and to build and to ensure its growth, uh, one that he nurtured the whole time he was in the band. And we get a chance to salute him and remind ourselves of that at the same time.

Steve: So let me ask about putting together this album. First, I guess, you went back and, and found these old demo recordings. Old songs that you'd written. How did the older you react to the writing of the younger you when you went back to it and had a look at it?

Bruce: Well, initially, initially when I was young I threw all those songs out because I was self-conscious about them and their style. But the older me goes back, and I just get a kick out of them, you know. I laugh, they're funny, they're quirky, they're crazy, I'm shooting from the hip, I'm totally uninhibited. And, uh, uh, so I got great joy out of going back and digging through the trove of those songs, of which there are quite a few, because I recorded them for the John Hammond demo. The first thing I recorded when I went to CBS was a demo that John Hammond produced, and many of those songs were one them. So, now I just get a laugh out of them, and, and, and they're quite good. I, I may work with them some more.

Steve: They're a lot of fun to listen to. Uh…

Bruce: Yeah.

Steve: … but the, the, the lyrics are different, just in the sheer number of words. You seem now to be a lot more efficient? Disciplined? You tell me the right word.

Bruce: I guess that would be, I just became more restrained and I tried to, to concentrate my power in fewer, in fewer lines and in simpler images. Just because I thought that's the way people speak. And there's something, I had an interesting moment. I, I got to know Luciano Pavarotti a little bit before he died. And I went to his apartment one night and he made me and my wife spaghetti. And, so we're sitting and eating and he invites me to the opera. So I go to the opera, which I've never been to in my life, and I watch him perform. And after the opera, we're out having a drink and he says, "What do you think? Bruce, what did you, what did you, what did you really think of the opera?" You know. I said, "Well, it was incredible." You know, there's no mic. I mean, he came out, his voice was, to me, was still in fantastic shape. And, and he says, "Well, yes, but you know, the popular singer has it over the opera singer." I said, "Really?" I said, "Why is that?" "The popular singer sings the way people speak." And I said, uh, I thought about Frank Sinatra, and I thought about Tony Bennett, and I thought yeah, that's true. They sing colloquially, the way people speak to one another. Nd, that, that had been what I'd been pursuing in my own songs for quite a few years at that point in time. But he sort of made it all make sense to me.

Steve: You've got a reference in one of the songs to putting a penny on a railroad track, with your friend.

Bruce: Of course.

Steve: Four five words and I can see the whole scene, I can see the whole story, I can relate to something in my own life.

Bruce: Well, we had trains that passed through Freehold. And I'm talking about 100-car trains, where you're sitting at the tracks and it just, you know, a half-hour is going by and, and you're still sitting there. Uh, and we also had passenger trains. But one of the big kicks when you were a kid was, of course, to put your penny on the rail, let the train run over it, and when you went to pick it up it was warm from the friction and it was flat. And we did this so many times, it was just a great childhood memory for me and so I slipped it into the song.

Steve: It's very nicely done. Why record in the way that you did? In the studio where you're sitting now, I gather?

Bruce: Yeah. Yeah. We, uh, have this lovely studio at home now that Patti, my wife, really built and designed with some help. And, uh, I've recorded several albums here, by, at this point in time. Western Stars and, uh, Wrecking Ball, and a few other records. And uh, uh… So, uh, when I had this material, I cut a song on the record called "Janey Needs A Shooter" earlier on, for like a one-off, for like a Record Store Day. But when I listened back to it, it was the closest thing the band had ever sounded to Darkness On The Edge Of Town. And I said, "Well, that was interesting." You know, I said- That was because we all played together and sang at one time, and because we relied only on the instrumentation of the band and no overdubs. So I said, well, I'd be interested in making a record where we, where we return to sort of the template of Darkness On The Edge Of Town using only the instrumentation of the band and recording all at once. And so, consequently, I made no demos of the songs. I simply recorded them on my acoustic guitar into my iPhone, waited 'til the band got here, played them the songs on an acoustic guitar and then we went and performed the music. And so it was just, uh, we hadn't, we had not recorded a full album like that ever in our lives. We've recorded certain songs like that, but never a complete album where all the vocals and everything were live. So, uh, and we, and where we relied simply on the playing instrumentation in the band as the song went by. So it was, uh, it was very exciting, it was a lot of fun.

Steve: Meaning that you made the creative decision in advance that whatever happened in those few days was going to be all there was.

Bruce: Yeah, yeah. Or, but, for all I knew it could've taken months. And if it didn't work out, I would have, I would have went in and overdubbed and done whatever I needed to do to get the best out of it. But I could tell early on that we got the best out of it when we just ran it down. And it took us about three hours a song, and there it was, it was sitting in front of us. There was very little to do.

Steve: Now this is interesting too. So you would sit, you would sit with a song, you would go through it, you would work it up, and within a few hours you had a take that you liked and you went away from it again. You didn't even go back to it the next day.

Bruce: Not to do anything to it, we'd go back and listen.

Steve: Hm. Wow.

Bruce: You know. So, uh, it was very unusual. And we, we recorded, really, the whole album in four days. And on the fifth day, we uh, we rested, I guess. We listened.

Steve: I wanna comment that what you seem to be doing is deliberately shoving aside all of the innovations of the last several decades in recording. This is the way that you probably would've had to record it if you were Frank Sinatra and it was 1946.

Bruce: That's true. I mean, we have a state-of-the-art studio. But as far as the way those guys recorded, which was one 2- or 3-tracks, and everybody went out and, and, you know, the orchestra and everything was there and it was a, uh, one take and that was it. So we basically returned to that type of recording and, uh, it's still quite effective.

Steve: Couple of other things. Um, you allude in the film to the idea of hope, which is a nice way to end a film, but it is a set of songs about loss and death and memory. What feels hopeful about this material to you?

Bruce: It's just the drinking in of life, you know. The, the, having the experience of having been here, you know. As I've gotten older, I appreciate that experience more and more each day. I appreciate each sunrise and sunset and… I was in the ocean yesterday, in the middle of October, and, and there was just a moment where I, you know, I just thought about how wonderful that was. And, and, and the fact that I've sustained these relationships in, in my band for 45, 50 years, and that we continue to be a unit that functions at its highest level, uh, this late in the day, you know. Uh, these are all things that I find great hope in. And, and in the love that's in my life. I find tremendous hope in simply the love that I have amongst my band members and amongst my family. And, and, and death is just a part of all those things, you know. So, uh, uh, I feel like a lucky guy.

Steve: When you said in the ocean, did you mean in a boat or in the ocean?

Bruce: No, swimming. Swimming.

Steve: Wow. What is that like in October, off the coast of New Jersey?

Bruce: It's brisk.

Steve: I guess so, I guess so. You mentioned you were looking back in this period of the mid- to late-'60s, when a lot was happening socially. Which means you are reflecting on this time of social upheaval when you grew up during a time of social upheaval that we're living through now. Um, how does reflecting on that past make you think about the present?

Bruce: Well, I suppose what we're living through now would be as close as what we experienced in the late '60s as I can remember in my lifetime, anyway. Though it, I find it completely different also. Uh, and even as such, I can't say I remember a moment where democracy itself felt like it was teetering, uh, or that it was under such stress and, and attack, you know, from, from inside, you know. So, uh, I don't know how that affected the record, I don't know if it did, you know. Uh, there was a line or two that is slightly political, but it's, it's not a political record in that sense. It's basically a spiritual record. And I consider myself primarily a spiritual songwriter. And so, I think that slips in and gives hope to the times. And, and I'm optimistic that, uh, better times are coming. I, I, I believe that our current administration is going to lose and that the country is going to regain its footing. I'm fairly confident of that. Uh, but yeah, there, there, it, it's, it's, we're living through very unusual times, there's no doubt about it.

Steve: I want people to know you've done a little bit of satellite radio during the pandemic. Um…

Bruce: Yeah.

Steve: And there was a program in which you said the United States of America is ultimately a nation of souls. What did you mean by that and why was it on your mind?

Bruce: Well, you know, the folks at the top right now are so inept at addressing the spiritual life of the nation, uh, and the fact that now there's 350 million souls out there, all of whom need to be addressed and nurtured and comforted through the darkest of times. And unfortunately, we have people running the government now who are completely inept at addressing that fundamental essence of, uh, of the American people. And it's a crime, particularly in the times that we're in. And so, a part of that show was sort of, I look at, you know, in my, with my own, in my own small way, I, I try to pick up some of that work, uh, whether it's through my radio show or through this record or this film or performing with my band. That's really a part of the task that we attempt to fulfill at this time.

Steve: Um, I wanna be sure that I'm clear about what you're saying. You're not talking about a government that is incompetent or corrupt. You're talking about some higher need, some higher human need that's not being met, is that right?

Bruce: Yes, that's true.

Steve: And you say you're trying to meet a little bit of it, and you described yourself…

Bruce: Well, you know, in the only way that a guy in a rock and roll band can. And I'm not sure how, how, how great that is. But, but, uh, it is a part of who we are now, and it is, it is, and it is a part of the conversation that we are having with our audience. There's a spiritual dimension to it that I enjoy addressing because, well, if I address it with my audience, I address it within myself. And, uh, it's what I move to do, you know. It's why, it's why I'm interested in creating right now.

Steve: Maybe you mostly answered this question, but I wanna ask it directly. You said you're a spiritual songwriter. What's it mean to be a spiritual songwriter?

Bruce: To be a spiritual songwriter means that you are primarily addressing the soul of your listeners. And, uh, I want people to dance, I want people to be entertained, I want people to do their laundry to my music. I want people to vacuum their floors to my music, to diaper their babies to my music. And, uh, uh, while at the same time I try to insert something that could, can also in certain moments perhaps address your inner life. Uh, you know, by revealing my own inner life. And, uh, that's part of, part of our, a small part of our gig here.

Steve: Do you feel you reveal yourself in your music?

Bruce: Yes, I do.

Steve: Is there some part of you that holds back?

Bruce: Of course, there is.

Steve: I guess if you answered that question more fully, you'd be not holding back anymore.

Bruce: That's right.

Steve: Well, Bruce Springsteen, it's been a pleasure. Thank you very much.

Bruce: Thank you. I appreciate the conversation.

Compiled by: Eddy Wehbe via SpringsteenLyrics.
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