The full interview with Bruce Springsteen, Sunday Times - September 25, 2016:
The Interview: Bruce Springsteen, rock god and American icon
“My fear is that Trump is moving the country beyond democracy into mob rule”
It may come as a surprise to learn that Bruce Springsteen, a man whose lyrics paint gritty portraits of blue-collar American life, hasn’t done a week’s worth of manual labour in his life, and felt a fraud when he started performing in working-man’s clothes. Not only that, but he describes himself in his new autobiography as an “insecure, weird and skinny white boy” who, as a child, was teased about a nervous twitch and acne.
The book, called Born to Run, is a marathon read to match his marathon stage shows — it took seven years to write. When it is published this week there will be few sharp intakes of breath among dockers and lumberjacks. If you have shares in bodybuilding gyms, sell them now. Just as surprising as his admission to being “soft” is that a man who wrote songs such as Tougher Than the Rest and No Surrender should want to share his problems with the world. (Or, for that matter, admit that he can’t read music.)
Springsteen says he wrote the book to shake off demons that have haunted him for years. He craved the approval of his hard-drinking, factory-worker father, hence the way he dressed and his muscly physique. His father died in 1998, but it took longer and a lot of psychotherapy before Springsteen could jettison his unhappy past. “I was faking it,” he explains with a grin and a shake of his head. “I felt like a phoney — but at the same time the realest thing you’d ever seen.”
We’re talking in his backstage dressing room, where Springsteen is getting ready for the final show in a 75-concert tour that started in January. Wiry, is the word for Springsteen, and sharp. He’s easygoing and takes time to answer questions in a measured way.
His stage outfit is black jeans and a natty waistcoat. The proletarian outfit of sleeveless denim jacket and bandana, in which he delivered those sinew-straining renditions of Born in the USA, is long gone. He’s more minstrel than muscle, these days, and, as it turns out, enjoys paddleboarding as much as pumping iron.
“Those whose love we wanted but could not get, we emulate,” he says in the book. “So I, who’d never done a week’s worth of manual labour in my life, put on a factory worker’s clothes, my father’s clothes, and went to work.” He writes of the bandana phase: “Looking back on these photos now, I look simply … gay.”
Outside the dressing room, crowds are filing into the Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, home of the New England Patriots football team, an amphitheatre so vast that when a shower of rain arrives, the seats in the upper tiers are lost in low cloud.
At 67, the Boss still draws audiences of 60,000 and more. This year, he overtook Madonna and Beyoncé to top Billboard’s chart of highest earners from live performances, with $135m (£104m) revenue from 1.1m tickets sold. His shows are longer than ever.
Not all members of the crowd share his lean physique. In the “pit” — a cordoned-off area in front of the stage — some wear XXL-sized T-shirts with slogans such as “Burgers, Beer and BRUCE”.
On the way to the dressing room, I meet some of Springsteen’s road crew; burly bodybuilders who affectionately refer to him in his new, trimmer form as Bruce Stringsteen. Lest that give the impression that Springsteen is unhealthily thin, these are men for whom a normal shape means looking as if a sack of baking potatoes has been injected under your skin.
The timing of the book is interesting, coming as it does just ahead of the US presidential election. White blue-collar workers — Springsteen’s natural constituency — will determine who wins the race for the White House. Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, has tried to woo the disenchanted, poor, white spit-and-grit vote, proclaiming himself to be as one with them. The resounding message of Springsteen’s autobiography is: “I’m coming clean about my working-class credentials; you do the same.” If it prompts a war of words — Springsteen is a longstanding campaigner for the Democrats — then Trump, with his privileged upbringing, will have met his match. Springsteen is happy to fire the first salvo: “Since the whole story of ‘Mexicans are rapists’, he [Trump] has been in the business of stirring up hate. His favourite thing now is that the election is gonna be rigged. In other words, if he doesn’t win, whoever does win is illegitimate. He has a lot of followers out there. You tell them that their government is illegitimate, I personally don’t know what some of them might do. My fear is that he is moving the country beyond democracy into more of a mob rule.”
He’s accusing Trump in no uncertain terms of being a threat to the republic. “It’s not even malevolence, it’s just through sheer stupidity. I don’t think he understands the forces that are in society that can get let loose, and you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. By his language, by the way he approaches his rallies, he’s given people freedom to say things that previously they may have been ashamed to do.”
Trump is in the business of stirring up hate. It’s not even malevolence — it’s just through sheer stupidity
As for Trump’s idea of building a wall between the United States and Mexico, he says: “That’s a stupid idea.”
At times, his book reads more like a political manifesto than a rock history. “This is America,” he writes. “The prescription for many of our ills is at hand — child day-care, jobs, education, healthcare. If we can spend trillions on Iraq and Afghanistan in nation-building, if we can bail out Wall Street with billions of taxpayers’ dollars, why not here? Why not now?”
Is the autobiography a prelude to him entering politics? By disclosing his demons — depression, imposter-syndrome and self-doubt — in the way that he has, he’s denied potential opponents the chance to rake up scandal from his past. Springsteen shakes his head, insisting that being a politician is “the one single job that I would never want — and I’d be lousy at it”.
Yet there is no doubt that the man who has sold more than 120m albums has the power to sway the electorate. He has done so already on issues where his views run counter to those of many working-class voters — rights for the LGBT community, for example. On gun control, too, his views are out of kilter with those of many of his fans, but that doesn’t stop him airing them. Sandy Hook school, where 26 schoolchildren and staff were shot dead in 2012, is not far from the 380-acre farm where Springsteen now lives. Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old with a history of mental illness, used a military-style semi-automatic rifle to carry out the killings. Springsteen wants the weapons banned.
“Obviously, from the outside, America looks like a madhouse on this particular issue. And it looks like that from the inside. I can understand [wanting guns]. We live on a farm, we have guns. We have shotguns and some pistols, and we target shoot and we skeet shoot. No-one is talking about those weapons as being under threat. It’s these new, military-style combat rifles that are available to anybody in the United States that are really frightening. I don’t understand the need to have them. I’ve shot them myself. They are not sporting weapons. It’s very, very distressing and the NRA [National Rifle Association] has been very powerful in squashing any attempt to even minutely do anything about it.”
Springsteen: “Trump has given people freedom to say things that previously they may have been ashamed to do”REX
There’s a knock at the dressing room door. The countdown has started for Springsteen to go on stage. In the stadium seats, families have gathered to watch the show: grandparents of Springsteen’s age, along with their children and grandchildren. As Springsteen points out, when you’ve been making records for more than 40 years, your music represents the soundtrack to many people’s lives. They look at the band on stage and see “themselves, their lives, their friends, looking back at them”.
It’s time for him to get ready, but he wants to go on talking. He pauses when asked about his own mental illness. For years, he relied on antidepressants and still has lapses.
“Depression will steal your life. It will take it right out from underneath you by the things you do. You’re under its sway. So psychopharmacology, for me and for my father, was very, very helpful. Would I have been able to hold things together [otherwise]? I don’t know. Without it, it’s much easier for things to come apart. So I kinda got to it at the right time. It restabilised my chemistry and personality and gave me my life back, which was slipping away between my fingers due to the fact that I couldn’t control my anxieties and my neuroses.”
Springsteen’s is the classic rock star’s angst, but turned up to 11. Reading the more introspective chapters of his book, you wonder whether he may have spent too long on the psychiatrist’s couch. He agonises over the fact that he didn’t fight in Vietnam (he was excused military service because of concussion from a motorbike accident). It was not enough, apparently, that the drummer of his first band was killed in combat. “I wonder who went in my place and what happened to them,” he reflects in one passage.
Then there’s his voice, surely one of the most distinctive and soulful in rock music. That’s not how he sees it: “My voice: I don’t have much of one.” And: “My voice was never going to win any prizes.”
He’s unable even to give himself due credit for his legendary three-hour-plus shows, concluding that his need to deliver extended performances is a display of “manic insecurity”.
The clues lie in his troubled upbringing, starting at school where he was picked on by staff and pupils. He had his “tie pulled till I choked, [was] struck on the head, shut into a dark closet and stuffed into a trash can while being told this was where I belonged. All business as usual in Catholic school in the Fifties.”
His father said “fewer than 1,000 words” to him through most of his childhood, he says in the book. “He loved me, but he couldn’t stand me. He felt we competed for my mother’s affections.”
When he was 19, Springsteen’s parents moved to California, leaving him to fend for himself with only his guitar-playing skills to eke out a living. In search of a substitute family, and inspired by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, he fell in with footloose musicians and taught himself piano and harmonica — but never to read music. He found an audience in the clubs along the New Jersey Shore, playing with small bands like Earth, Steel Mill and Dr Zoom & The Sonic Boom. He stood out for his single-mindedness. While his bandmates took part-time jobs, he preferred to play for just a few dollars, or go hungry.
Always hard up, he slept on friends’ floors, in an old surfboard factory and sometimes on the beach. On one occasion he couldn’t afford the $1 tunnel toll to get to New York to pick up an advance from his agent. He was forced to siphon fuel to keep the band’s truck on the road and got around by hitch-hiking, standing for hours by the side of the road in freezing New Jersey winters.
Playing hundreds of gigs, he learnt early how to please crowds — by getting girls to dance (the boys would follow). The secret was to “play until they liked it, until they could hear it. Once the girls started to dance, everybody got happy,” he writes. It’s these stories that make the book a lively and sometimes joyful rock memoir, providing light relief from the darker times.
He’s discreet about past affairs, revealing coyly that his first proper sexual encounter was with an unnamed girl who inspired one of his most famous songs. “Rosalita was my musical autobiography — a sweet blonde who I believe was the first gal I successfully had sexual intercourse with.”
Springsteen with the “Viagra-taking, love-making, legendary E Street Band”WENN
He got signed to Columbia records, but after lacklustre sales of his first two albums record executives hoped Springsteen and his bandmates would give up and “crawl back into the swamps of Jersey”, not realising “they were dealing with men without homes, lives, any practicable skills or talents that could bring a reliable pay cheque in the straight world”.
Even after the success of Born to Run, his third album, from which the autobiography takes its name, he was still broke from paying agents’ fees and other bills. “Almost a decade after being signed to Columbia, several million-selling albums and extensive touring, I had but $20,000 to my name,” he writes.
When the money finally started rolling in from his bestselling album, Born in the USA, his angst wouldn’t let him enjoy it. “I used to see my rock heroes enjoying their great fortunes and say, ‘Damn, I can’t wait till I get there.’ Then, when they got there … so much of the … materialism of rock’n’roll felt naked and without purpose for me.”
His disillusionment surfaced in a failed first marriage to Julianne Phillips, a west-coast model. Speaking about the 1989 break-up — the first time he’s done so publicly — he says: “I’ve tended to be pretty private over the years and Julianne is too. It was a very painful episode for the two of us and she’s a fantastic woman. What was going on inside of me at that time, that was making our relationship very difficult.”
He credits psychotherapy and medication with bringing him some calm and stability, together with his marriage since 1991 to Patti Scialfa, a fellow New Jersey native and vocalist with the E Street band. He proposed to her one day, on impulse, outside a New York diner, fashioning a makeshift ring from a twig plucked from a roadside bush. He smiles at the memory. “It was kinda spur of the moment. I didn’t have a ring. Things just felt very good that afternoon, and that’s where we were going. So I just left the diner and there was a small bush and we went over to a bench that we always sat on and I said, well, I might as well do this now.”
Having children was a blessing, he says, and while he would “never lay claim to the title Father of the Year”, he has worked hard to spare his daughter and two sons from the turmoil that he suffered as a child. He’s clear that as far as children are concerned, you are their audience, not the other way round. “Rule: when you’re on tour, you’re king, when you’re home, you’re not,” he writes. Sam is a fireman, having dropped out of college. Jessica, the most like him in temperament, has earned recognition as a showjumper. Sponsored by luxury brands, she rubs shoulders with the international equestrian elite. Evan, his eldest son, is a programme director for a radio station and a festival producer. Springsteen says his relationship with him “held its own complications”. He worried that Evan was veering into “vicious-sounding” punk, and rejecting Springsteen’s music because “it was the family business”.
Reconciliation came when Evan took his father to see his favourite punk band, and discovered that the guitarist was such a Springsteen fan, he had a portrait of the Boss tattooed on his arm.
Springsteen on the 1984 Born in the USA tour. “Looking back on these photos now, I look simply … gay,” he saysGETTY
Springsteen’s personal wealth is estimated at between $200m and $345m. “I live high on the hog, yacht around the Mediterranean and private-plane myself between dental appointments,” he says in the book. As well as his farm, there is a seafront home in Rumson, “the richest, most exclusive part of New Jersey”, plus a house in a gated community in Florida.
He gave up living in Los Angeles after the 1994 earthquake. During the aftershocks, he called Tommy Mottola, then president of Sony, demanding, as only a famous rock star can, that Mottola send a company jet to rescue Springsteen and his family. Mottola obeyed. A far cry from hitch-hiking, he agrees. Does he enjoy his wealth: “Yes, I do.” Does he have a yacht? He laughs, “I do not.” It transpires that he is hosted on yachts belonging to the American businessman David Geffen and “another friend”.
The substantial income from his live shows is one reason he keeps touring. The other is to keep his demons at bay. “There is something in the gathering of souls that blows the blues away [and] lets the sun in,” he writes. As long as he’s moving he has a better chance of staying ahead of “Churchill’s black dog”. When he’s not on the road with the band, he gets astride a customised Harley Softail and guns it along at 100 miles an hour (“Anything to get [the] dog’s teeth out of my ass”).
On the day of our interview, he announces a new series of concerts, kicking off in Australia in January — summer in the southern hemisphere. Those could be the last gigs for a while. The band is in need of a rest.
In recent years, age-related illnesses have taken their toll. Some are being held together by miracles of geriatric medicine. Nils Lofgren, guitarist, compares the backstage area to a MASH unit, with ice packs, heat pads and physiotherapists on hand. Springsteen makes a joking reference to their advancing years when announcing the band during his shows: “You’ve just seen the heart-stopping, pants dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-making, legendary E Street Band.”
It’s a touch of black humour masking a grim reality. Of the original E Street line-up, two are dead — one from melanoma, one from a stroke.
Springsteen himself had an operation at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York to rebuild discs in his neck before going on tour in 2014, after his guitar-playing hand was paralysed by nerve damage. “They knock you out, cut an incision into your throat, tie your vocal cords off, get in there with a wrench, screwdriver and some titanium, take a chunk of bone out of your hip and build you a few new discs,” he writes. He couldn’t sing for two “nerve-racking” months.
He throws himself about the stage less than he used to (though he still crowd surfs — against medical advice) and has scaled back his workout regime. “I don’t need aerobics, because I burn thousands of calories,” he tells me. “On days off, when it feels good, I’ll go [to the gym] and move the weights around a little bit from one side of the room to the other, and that’s the extent of my fitness regime, along with trying to eat reasonably well.” He also swims — “I’m still an old beach bum. I was in the ocean yesterday and I’ll be in it till October or November” — and paddleboards, even in choppy Atlantic waters.
He has no intention of retiring, but surely he must slow down. He reveals in the book that “probably since my forties, some physical problem had come along with every tour. One tour it’s your knee, then it’s your back, then tendinitis in your elbow from all the hard strumming.” As Indiana Jones remarked, it’s not the years, it’s the mileage.
During his show, he borrows a routine from one of his heroes, James Brown, the legendary soul singer. Pretending to collapse from exhaustion, he is revived by Steve Van Zandt, his trusty lieutenant and guitarist, and stage hands. A cape is draped over his shoulders and he’s led back to the microphone as the crowd urges him to carry on. Is there a danger, I ask, that one of the paramedics hired to attend an event might fail to grasp that it’s part of the act and rush to give treatment?
Springsteen laughs. “It’s happened already,” he says. There are safeguards, I’m told later. Crew members — those bodybuilders — are alert to the problem and stand ready to pounce on over-eager first-aiders.
Springsteen says he is careful not to push himself beyond his limits. His high-water mark is the Rolling Stones — at 73, Mick Jagger, their lead singer, is nearly six years his senior. In 2012, nearly half a century after a shy, teenage Springsteen played his first guitar solo — from the Stones’ hit It’s All Over Now — he finally got to perform with his idols. It was one of his proudest moments, he recalls. “To hear those riffs come tumbling in and to be with the guys who invented your job and who inspired you so deeply, it was very thrilling,” he smiles.
His father said ‘fewer than 1,000 words’ to him as a child. ‘He loved me but couldn’t stand me,’ he writes
He sometimes reminds himself that when things seem hard, they are harder still for younger musicians. “I wouldn’t want to be trying to come up now. It was a golden age when we came along. Because [there’d been] only 10 or 15 years of rock music, we got to draw on it while it was relatively current. We got to see the people who invented the form. We played with Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. I saw Elvis twice. I saw John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and James Brown.” He pauses, smiling at the memory.
There’s another knock at the door, more urgent this time. The chants of the crowd are getting louder and it’s time for him to go. Our hour is up. After final checks, he bounds towards the stage. Nearly four sweat-drenched hours later, and he’s still rocking.
In his book, to be published with an accompanying album called Chapter and Verse, Springsteen has lifted the curtain on his demons. Is it just another cry for attention from a man who admits he is a compulsive showman? Maybe, but in America it still takes courage to admit your failings.
Memoirs usually rearrange events to suit the author and downplay their shortcomings. Springsteen doesn’t spare himself. What comes across is: it’s OK to be a nervous teenager, or an adult with depression. His most important message is in the doing, though, not the telling. The pensioner on stage says: don’t worry about reaching social security age; I’m there ahead of you and I’m still rocking.
Darkness falls over the home of the New England Patriots. The stadium lights come on, but the crowd won’t go home. They want him to play the longest concert he has ever played in the US — to match the 4hr 4min record he set in Philadelphia earlier this month. He begins to sag; his eyes close. A cape saying “The Boss” is draped over his shoulders. Slumped on the stage, he looks like an exhausted prizefighter. Hovering nervously in the wings is a man with a first-aid bag. He looks around, uncertain what to do. Should he rush to help? He glances at a crew member, who shakes his head. Then Springsteen is back at the microphone, and the music soars. The show must go on — and it does.