The evolution of Bruce Springsteen as 'Born to Run' turns 40
Published 26/08/2015 | 13:16
Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run album is 40 years old in August 2015. Springsteen, who was born in New Jersey, has given hundreds of interviews during his half century as a musician. A brilliant book published in 2013, Springsteen on Springsteen, re-printed the best interviews, going back to 1973. Martin Chilton looks at how Springsteen has evolved.
Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen (born on September 23, 1949), attended Freehold Borough High School. His father, Douglas, was a bus driver and also worked in factories. In the book, the singer speaks of a troubled adolescence, describing himself as "a dreamer", "one of the town freaks", and "a misfit who was pretty ostracised by my hometown". He says he was a "sensitive kid" who had the "devastating experience of not being accepted by my father". He said of his father, "he was a pretty good pool player and not much else".
He said he was not a literary child and "went through a year and a half of college, which I don't remember a darn thing from". His mother, an Elvis Presley fan, bought him his first guitar at 13, changing his life. Although he started as a guitarist only, he later said: "I never felt I had enough personal style to pursue being just a guitarist."
He refers to himself as "an isolated" teenager, saying "from when I was 17 until I was 24 I never had a record player, so I never heard any albums that came out after, like 1967. And I was never a social person who went over to other people's houses and got loaded and listened to records – I never did that. And I didn't have an FM radio."
His musical influences were Chuck Berry, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Van Morrison's Them and Bob Dylan – but it was his own desire to make music that drove him on. Aged 24, he had already started playing in a band with lifelong friend Steve Van Zandt, but they were struggling to make a real breakthrough (they were booed as the support act to Chicago) and scraping by day-to-day. "I was living on like a dollar a day. Some chick was helping me out . . . and I haven't paid the band for three weeks," Springsteen said in 1974. "But this is for me, you know. I got no choice. I have to write and play. If I became an electrician tomorrow, I'd still come home at night and write songs."
The "only real job Springsteen ever had, as a gardener, ended quickly," the book says.
The superstar, who has reguarly played large venues such as Wembley Stadium, was dismissive of large rock venues, saying, in 1974, that big arenas drove him "insane" adding: "I won't go to those places again, we won't play any place over three thousand. I am always disappointed in acts that go out and play those places . . . I don't know how Joni Mitchell can do it."
After the breakthrough of Born To Run in 1975, Springsteen was a worldwide success. In 1978, he said: "Now all of a sudden . . . There's more money than we can spend."
It was a period of intense work. He said he was "self-conscious" about his lyrics and worked like a demon to hone them, going to bed at eight in the morning, sleeping until four and writing all night. "For at least an entire winter, I suffered from severe light deprivation," Springsteen admitted. He was widely known as 'The Boss' but insisted: "The name 'Boss' started with people that worked for me ... It was not meant like Boss, capital B, it was meant like 'Boss, where's my dough this week?' And it was sort of just a term among friends. I never really liked it."
As he released Darkness On The Edge of Town, his own music taste broadened to country music, especially a passion, which remains to this day, for Hank Williams. "He's just incredible," said Springsteen. For relaxation, Springsteen would play softball with saxophonist Clarence Clemens, adding: "We used to play hard. We had to stop, though, when Clarence and myself used to get too battered up."
As he entered his thirties, he considered himself as hard-working as ever, saying in 1981: "When you get fat and lose your hunger. That is when you know the sellout has happened." He looked back on his sudden success in the mid-Seventies and said: "When I was 25, I was much more insecure . . . I've seen all sides of the music thing and now – whatever happens now is only gonna be a shadow of that moment."
The decade started well – with Born In The USA and the magnificent acoustic album Nebraska – and he said, "I feel better than I have ever felt before – I'm kinda at peace with the whole thing."
The late Eighties was a more tumultuous time. Springsteen met and married actress Julianne Phillips but they divorced in March 1989, less than four years into their marriage. Some of his emotions were channelled into the album Tunnel Of Love. He then fell in love with singer Patti Scialfa, with whom he went on to have three children. He wrote of this period: "You have to understand the limitations of your own life and keep pushing through it."
He retains a great rapport with his fans and recalled many happy encounters including the time when "I was down at the beach, this little kid called Mike who was about eight came up to me and said, 'You want me to show you my Dancing in the Dark moves?' so I said OK."
Springsteen released two albums (Human Touch and Lucky Town) on the same day in March 1992. He said that life had not turned him into "a cynic" but said he understood as a middle-aged man that "we all live with our illusions and our self-image, and there's a good percentage of that that's a pipe dream."
He also talked about having therapy at this stage of his life, admitting: "It's very difficult for me to connect up with anything. From my youth, I had a tendency to be isolated psychologically". Psychoanalysis would not have been part of his upbringing, but he said therapy was "a tool that helps you centre yourself" and described it as "one of the most healthy experiences of my life ... It demands a leap of consciousness".
The man who once lived on scraps, moved to a $14million Beverly Hills estate. He called having young kids "a blessing and a work out". He had parted from the E Street band and played a series of solo concerts after releasing the superb Ghost Of Tom Joad album in 1996, saying the introspective songs were bringing the "fullness of my experience to the audience".
He was also getting more overtly political, having written an introduction to book Journey To Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass. He said he was concerned at "people we write off" adding that his own dad "had a difficult life . . . I've always felt like I'm seeking his revenge".
He said he drinks the occasional Jack Daniels whiskey but asked whether he had ever taken drugs, replied: "No, I never did".
In 2003, Springsteen released The Rising, his first album with E Street band in 18 years. "When I hit 50, I became very prolific," he said of a decade in which he released four new albums and won 13 Grammy awards in a decade.
His work was increasingly political, as he wrote about 9/11 and helped raise money for Democrat candidate John Kerry. He later campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008 saying: "I want my country back. I want my dream back. I want my America back," and spoke out in favour of gay marriage.
His musical tastes were broadening (he did a folk album called The Seeger Sessions) and said he had started listening to the jazz of Louis Armstrong. Springsteen, his second wife Patti and children Evan, Jessica and Samuel, moved back to New Jersey in this decade, with Springsteen exclaiming: "God bless the Garden State".
THE 2010s . . .
Springsteen in his sixties has lost none of his work ethic. He keeps a folder of successful past sets to make sure his concerts are vibrant and started playing festivals, including Glastonbury in 2011. His children are growing up (when they saw video footage of him as a 27-year-old, he said: "I've been informed by my kids that we simply look ridiculous") and one is following him into the music business.
He does power walking and weight-lifting to keep fit and said he was "a lot less uptight and a lot less self-conscious" than ever before. It's been a time of loss, too, with Springsteen writing a moving eulogy to Clarence Clemons, who died in June 2011 aged 69. He said what still mattered was playing concerts. "The long conversation with my fans has been one of the most valuable experiences of my life."
In March 2012, he gave the keynote speech to SXSW Festival in which he said: "We live in a post-authentic world. And today authenticity is a house of mirrors . . . at the end of the day, it's the power and purpose of your music that matters."
In 2014, Springsteen appeared in an episode of the Netflix drama Lillyhammer (starring and directed by Steven Van Zandt), playing the gangster Giuseppe 'The Undertaker' Tagliano. "He's really acting," Van Zandt told AP. "It's not some cameo. He's not playing himself. It's a real thing."
In August 2015, Springsteen performed Born to Run on the final episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters (edited by Jeff Burger), Published by Chicago Review Press ($27.95)