- 05 Jan 23
50 years ago today, Bruce Springsteen released his debut studio album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. – which went on to be considered one of the greatest albums of all time. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting the sunny 2012 afternoon Hot Press' Stuart Clark spent in Paris with The Boss...
It’s one o’clock on a sunny Parisian Thursday and the ladies and gentlemen of the world’s media are gathering in Sony France’s palatial Rue de Chateaudeun offices for a playback of Bruce Springsteen’s new Wrecking Ball album followed by a Q+A session with Long Branch, New Jersey’s favourite son. Yours truly is feeling a bit shaky having just fought off a gang of marauding muggers at the nearby Gare du Nord railway station with a rolled-up copy of Hot Press. Actually, it was just one spotty 16-year-old oik who tried to relieve Le Rosbif of his Gio-Goi bag – 48-year old man + trendy designer label = male menopause – but it was still reason enough to down a restorative double Napoleon brandy in a pavement café. A legitimate journalistic expense for which, underlying their pathological stinginess, the HP Accounts Dept. has yet to reimburse me.
But I digress. A hundred or so multinational hacks and hackettes assembled, we’re herded onto a series of coaches for a Magical Mystery Boss Tour that after some nice panoramic views of the Seine, Louvre and Eiffel Tower eventually brings us to La Lucide Marigny, a palatial Olympia-style theatre located next to Nicolas and Carla Sarkozy’s equally palatial private residence. The lobby is lined with photos, the only one I recognise being that exponent of le jeu beau Eric Cantona who made his stage debut here a few years ago to universally merde reviews.
After a feed of champagne and macaroons – like the French Ferrero Rocher Ambassador, Mr. Springsteen knows how to spoil his guests – it’s into the main auditorium for a listen to Wrecking Ball through a massive PA, which is more suited to one of Bruce’s outdoor extravaganzas than an intimate belle époque space, which you can imagine Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier having revelled in.
It’s obvious after the first couple of deafening songs that it’s an angrier, more politicised and personal album than the last couple of E Street Band outings.
I’m not overly-surprised then when Broooce, clad Johnny Cash-style all in black and looking far healthier than any 62-year-old rock ‘n’ roller has a right to do, reveals that Wrecking Ball started life as “a solo folk record” in the vein of Nebraska and The Ghost Of Tom Joad, which he kept adding layers to – so many that he eventually realised it was a job for Steve, Nils, Clarence, Patti and the rest of the E Street Band.
“You can never go wrong with being pissed off in rock ‘n’ roll,” he tells Antoine de Caunes, the Eurotrash man who it turns out is a big pal of Bruce’s and is taking care of public interview duties. “I have spent my life judging the distance between American reality and the American dream – how far is that at any given moment? If you go back to the work that I did beginning in the late ’70s, I’m always measuring that distance: how close are we, how far are we, how close are we? Everything from Darkness On The Edge Of Town, The River, to Nebraska, Born In the U.S.A., The Ghost Of Tom Joad, those are all records that were always taking the measure of that distance. ‘Wrecking Ball’ was something that seemed like a metaphor for what had occurred over the last 30 years. It’s an image where something is destroyed to build something new, and the flat destruction of some fundamental American values and ideals.
“The Wall Street Crisis acted as an enormous fault-line that cracked the American system wide open and its repercussions are just beginning to be felt. There was really no accountability for years. People lost their homes and nobody went to jail. People lost enormous amounts of their net worth.”
Reflecting that “there’s a real patriotism underneath the best of my music, but it’s a critical, questioning and often angry patriotism”, Bruce goes on to praise the new wave of activism sweeping the Disunited States of America.
“The Occupy Wall Street movement has been powerful about changing the national conversation,” says Springsteen whose version of ‘This Land Is Your Land’ and own ‘Tom Joad’ became clarion calls for the NYC financial district protest. “The Tea Party set the conversation for a while but now people are talking about economic equality. That’s a conversation American hasn’t had for 20 years. Previous to Occupy Wall Street there was no push back saying this was outrageous – a basic theft that struck the heart of what America was about, a complete disregard for the American sense of history and community. Thanks to Occupy Wall Street people are talking about economic inequality. Suddenly you’ve got Newt Gingridge calling Mitt Romney a vulture capitalist! That’s impossible! That would never ever have occurred in ten million years without Occupy Wall Street.
“A big promise has been broken. You can’t have a United States if you’re telling some folks that they can’t get on the train. There’s a cracking point where a society collapses.”
As with the aforementioned Nebraska and The Ghost Of Tom Joad, Wrecking Ball is almost a series of one-act plays.
“Every song introduces you to a slightly different character, and then at the end I’ve got to find a way to mesh their stories together, and not necessarily to answer the question that I asked, but to move the question forward. It’s a very delicate dance and you don’t want to alienate the people you’re speaking to.”
It’s not all gloom, doom and “let’s line every banker up against the wall and shoot the fuckers” though.
“The record has to expand emotionally, spiritually,” Bruce reflects, “and it’s got to throw you a good time.”
Another reason this isn’t your typical E Street Band album is that there’s a new guy, Ron Aniello, in the producer’s chair.
“Ron had worked on a few of Patti (Scialfa)’s records previously, and I was actually working on another record before this record. I spent on-and-off about a year on that one before I threw it out, which is something I do every once in a while. He came in to help me finish that one, and as we went along, a few of the songs started to come up for this record. He had a lot of fresh ideas about the music, and he had a large library of sounds — alternative and hip-hop elements — and we used quite a bit of different looping techniques. It was just a very different experience, really, with the two of us in the studio. Each one of the songs started off as kind of a folk song, with just me and the acoustic guitar, and then everything else got slipped on.”
Asked whether he clocks in and clocks off like the ‘60s Brill Building songwriters he’s so in awe of, Bruce observes: “I don’t set aside any time in the day. I write when the fire gets lit, and then I do it in spare time. I work at home, so there’s always something going on — somebody needs to be picked up from school, somebody needs to be dropped off at school. But it doesn’t take me long, like it used to. ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, ‘Shackled And Drawn’ and ‘Rocky Ground’ came along for almost a gospel album package I was thinking about. And then the other things came very quickly, one after another, as soon as I found the voice that I was going to use. The inspiration thing, if that’s what you’d call it, it’s like a visitation. Something happens where suddenly it’s like the planets aligning. The times, what’s in the air, what’s inside of you, there’s your craft, your skills... and suddenly they go ‘click!’ and ‘zoom!’ and then ‘bang!’”
Wrecking Ball’s most uplifting moment is supplied by ‘Land Of Hope And Dreams’, a 6min 48sec epic during which its author promises that, ‘I will provide for you/ And I’ll stand by your side/You’ll need a good companion for this part of the ride/Leave behind your sorrows/Let this day be the last/Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine/And all this darkness past.’
If that’s not enough to put a lump in your eye and a tear in your throat, it also happens to be the last song Clarence Clemons got to blow up a storm on before passing away last June. The bond between him and the musical family he spent just shy of 40 years with was evident when Bruce said at his funeral: “Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.”
Asked about his friend today, Bruce proffers: “We were lucky to get him on ‘Land Of Hope & Dreams’, which was essential — really essential. When he comes up, it’s just a lovely moment for me. I met Clarence when I was 22. That’s my son’s age. I look at my son, and he’s still a child, you know? Twenty-two is... you’re just a kid. And I guess Clarence might have been 30 at the time, so it goes back to the beginning of my adult life. And we had a relationship that was, I would say, elemental, from the very beginning. It wasn’t about anything we necessarily said to one another, it was just about what happened when we got close. Something happened. It fired people’s imaginations – it fired my own imagination and my own dreams. It made me want to write songs for that saxophone sound. Losing Clarence is like losing something elemental. It’s like losing the rain, or air. And that’s a part of life. The currents of life affect even the dream world of popular music; there’s no escape. And so that is just something that’s going to be missing.”
One of the people who’ll be occupying the space stage-left where The Big Man used to stand is his 24-year-old nephew Jake Clemons who’s played in the past with Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová.
“Clarence mentioned him to me a few years ago,” his new gaffer reveals, “and he was on the road with us a bit during the last tour, and he plays very well. He’s also been around the band and understands what it’s about. We were together with Clarence the week he passed away, and there’s a good musical and spiritual connection to Jake. So I’m excited about it.”
Does he think it’ll change the on-stage dynamic?
“I don’t know. It could change a little bit or a lot, you know? The music will still be what it is but it’s a big loss And we lost Danny (Federici, E Street Band organ ‘n’ glockenspiel man) the year before that. You’ve enjoyed these guys just being there for 34 years, but you move on. Life doesn’t wait.”
Explaining why it’ll be Jake + 3 on horns, Bruce laughs: “It takes a village to replace The Big Man. It takes many men! So, we’ll do the best we can.”
Does he still go into the studio with the intention of making the best album in the history of rockdom?
“Yeah,” he nods, “you try to be an honest broker with your fans. If I ask them to listen to it, I have to know it was everything that I had, at least at that moment. That’s why my relationship with my audience remains so vital and so present. You’re always out there shooting for the moon in different ways, that hasn’t really changed. Our intentions on this album were the same as on Born In The USA or Nebraska. My intention is to do what Bob Dylan did for me, which is to kick open the door to your mind and your body and make you want to move and think and experience and get angry and fall in love and reach for something higher than yourself and grovel around in something lower than yourself. That’s your job description, that’s what people are paying you the money for. It’s for something that can’t be bought. That’s the trick and what you’re supposed to deliver. It can only be manifested and shared. That’s when you’re doing a good job.”
Perhaps more so than any other living American musician, Springsteen’s work is informed by his childhood years – the yearning for family, romance and making your mark in a world that has a tendency to swallow people up whole.
“I think something powerful comes out of psychology, and psychology is there in your formative years,” he ventures. “I grew up in a house where my mother was the primary breadwinner; she worked very hard every day. My father struggled to find work and I saw that was deeply painful and created a crisis of masculinity for him, and that was something that was irreparable at the end of the day. Those conditions are present in the United States right now where you have a service economy overtaking a manufacturing economy. A lot of guys who work in manufacturing have lost their jobs and they don’t have the skills to move into the economy world, it’s a different world and so you have quite a few homes where the man is no longer the primary breadwinner. Lack of work creates a loss of self. Work creates a sense of self.
“My mother was an inspiring, towering figure to me in the best possible way, and I picked up a lot of the way that I work from her. She was my working example, just steadfast, just relentless. But I also picked up a lot of the fallen from my father in a house that turned into a bit of a minefield. I kind of lost him and I think a lot of the circus of writing music comes out of that particular scene. As I got older I looked towards not just the psychological reasons in my house but the social forces around me and that kind of fed me into a lot of the writing that I’ve done.
“I’m motivated, by the events of the day – what America is about. The reason I ask those questions comes out of the house I grew up in and the circumstances that were around us. In the United States, nobody can get up right now. It’s devastating. The country should strive for full employment and a sense of self and self-esteem and a sense of place and belonging.”
With the fascinating pre and post-fame life he’s led, has Bruce ever considered writing his autobiography?
“I wrote a little bit and I stopped for a couple of years. I haven’t looked at it for quite a while. It’s one of those things – you open up the paper and everyone else is writing one! I don’t want to be another fish in the bowl, you know? Pete Townshend, he’s writing one, Neil Young has got one coming, so I thought, ‘Fuck it!’”
If he gets around to completing it, what would the title be?
“The Handsomest Man In Showbusiness,” he chuckles. “My Story According To Me. I Believe… I may call it that.”
Along with its political polemicising Wrecking Ball is awash with religious references and the coming to terms with a childhood where the local Parish Priest exerted almost as much authority as his parents.
“You get kind of brainwashed as a child with Catholicism,” he grimaces. “It’s like that Al Pacino quote (from The Godfather III) – ‘I keep trying to get out, but they keep pulling me back!’ Once you’re Catholic, you’re always a Catholic. You get involved in these things in your very, very formative years. I took religious education for the first eight years of school. I lived next to a church, a convent, a rectory and a Catholic school. I saw every wedding, every funeral, every mass. Life was filled with the smell of incense and of priests and nuns coming and going. It’s given me a very active sense of spiritual life and made it difficult sexually. But that’s alright!”
While the magic ebbs from some rock ‘n’ rollers as they get older, there’s little difference apart from a grey flecks between the Bruce sat before us today and the cocksure 23-year-old who announced his arrival in 1973 with Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ. In fact, he arguably sounds better now than he did then.
“For some reason when I got around 40, I was able to sing high all of a sudden,” he laughs. “I’m not sure why. I used to have a harder time when I was younger. I have a little bit of a falsetto now that I didn’t have. Look at Tony Bennett – he’s 85 and he’s still singing. He still sings great. So I think you need a little bit of luck, and then you have to have something you’re dying to sing about.”
To demonstrate his new-found abilities he treats us, like someone else recently, to a snatch of Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together.’
“I’m not as good as Obama,” he admits. “Did you see that? He’s better than me!”
While Monsieur de Caunes still has several hundred things he’d like to ask him – “35 years passionately following Bruce’s path, he’s become the soundtrack to my life” – it’s time for the interviewer’s microphone to be turned over to us hacks. First up is an enquiry from the Guardian’s man in Paris vis-à-vis whether he’ll be gigging again this year in support of Barack Obama.
“I got into that sort of by accident,” Bruce says referring to the mass ‘Vote For Obama’ rallies of four years ago. “The Bush years were so horrific that you couldn’t just sit around. I never campaigned previously for politics before John Kerry. At that point it was such a blatant disaster occurring at the top of the government that you felt if you had any cachet whatsoever you had to cash it in. So I campaigned for Kerry and Obama. I’m not a professional campaigner – I don’t pick a guy every four years and say, ‘I’ll go for him.’ I prefer to stay on the sidelines. As an artist you’re supposed to be the canary in the coalmine. You’re better off with a certain distance between you and power.”
What’s Bruce’s nearing the end of term report on the Pres?
“I think he did a lot of good things – he kept General Motors alive, which was incredibly important to Detroit, Michigan. He got the healthcare law passed, though I wish there had been a public option and that it didn’t leave citizens the victims of the insurance companies. He killed Osama bin Laden, which I think was extremely important. He brought some sanity to the top level of government. He’s more friendly to corporations than I thought he would be, and there aren’t as many middle-class or working-class voices heard in the administration as I thought there would be. I would have liked to see more active job creation sooner than it came, and I’d like to have seen some of these foreclosures stopped or somehow mitigated. The banks have had some kind of a settlement, a partial settlement, but really, there’s a lot of people it’s not going to assist. I still support the president, but there are plenty of things — I thought Guantanamo would have been closed by now. On the other hand, we’re out of Iraq, and hopefully we’ll be out of Afghanistan soon.”
Has he ever thought of running for office himself, asks an earnest Norwegian lady.
“I’d never be a politician,” Bruce states. “I just don’t have the skills. Everything that I’ve studied has been about learning how to do my job as a musician and to try and understand the arc of my life and my family’s life. I have no interest in any other job really and I have no other skills whatsoever. I’m hoping to continue doing what I do for as long as I can.”
Springsteen’s trumpeting of Obama couldn’t have been any more public – he ended up playing half-a-dozen voter registration gigs – but a lot of his activism is under the radar.
“There’d be organisations in every city and in my local area that we’ve worked with for 25, 30 years,” he explains. “You have to remain alert and constantly interested in listening to what’s going on every day. You have to be interested in life, awake and listening. I write in the same way that you’re hungry for food. That’s the writing impulse. It’s the same as the hunger for sex. It’s not one that’s related to commercial fortunes. I’m glad they’re paying me but I’d do it for free. Tom Stoppard, the playwright, once said he was envious of Václav Havel because he had so much to push up against and he wrote so beautifully. I’d prefer to stay out of prison if I can, but I know what he was talking about. You tend to do your best work when you’re up against something.”
There must be times when being the spokesperson for a generation weighs heavily on the Springsteen-ian shoulders.
“Actually, I’m terribly burdened, and at night when I’m sleeping in my big house, it’s killing me,” he deadpans. “It’s a rough life. It’s brutal, brutal, brutal! No, it’s a blessed life. These are just things I’m interested in having a conversation with my audience about. I enjoyed artists when I was young who one way or another tried to take on the world – for better or worse, you know? And artists who were involved in the events of the day as well as entertaining people. I have a big audience that’s filled with Democrats and Republicans. I’ve got people who come to dance and enjoy themselves and people who are interested in the social aspects of what I’m writing about and I’ve really just enjoyed it all. If I have something to say at any given time I can write a song about it.
“I write to process my own experiences,” he elaborates, “and I figure if I do that for me, I do it for you. You write for yourself initially, just trying to understand the world that you live in, and if you do that well enough it projects to your audience. It’s not like being in elected office, you don’t have to come up with a plan every day. It’s pretty much a charmed life.”
The music playing in the bar when we arrived an hour-and-a-half ago was a mixture of classic soulsters like Ben E. King, Otis Redding and Ray Charles and such whippersnappery types as The Gaslight Anthem. All of which the nice young lady from Sony France informs me were personally selected by Bruce and his entourage. My potentially Pulitzer Prize-winning question being what are his magical moments as a punter?
“As a music fan?” he says dazzled by the brilliance of my query. “Oh gosh… I hate to speak it aloud! One of the greatest things about being a music fan is if you have another person who’s as fanatic about it as you are. So that would be Steve (Van Zandt) for me. Steve and I have shared an insane and intense love affair with rock ‘n’ roll music since we were teenagers. If a guy changed the way he combed his hair, if he changed his outfit… It’s a world of symbolism and you live and die by that sword for better or worse. The most important thing is that you’ve got to have a friend who’s alongside you in your insanity. I remember being on a bus to New York City with Steve and arguing for three hours whether it was Led Zeppelin or the Jeff Beck Group who were supreme. Old Elvis, young Elvis… it goes on forever, it goes on to this day. That’s a great blessing. I wish all of you a good rock ‘n’ roll partner!”
I’m thinking that’ll be the end of Bruce and I talking fandom but, nope, whilst enjoying a post-Q+A glass of champers – I’m still trying to get over that attempted mugging – who should suddenly materialise beside me but The Boss. After a shake of hands (he has a very firm grip does Bruce) I decide to indulge in some shameless name-dropping.
“I was talking (clang) to Mick Jones recently and he said that Joe’s widow and the other guys in The Clash were extremely touched by you opening up with ‘London Calling’ when you were in England last. He also mentioned you doing it at the Grammys shortly after Joe died.”
“Really?” he says clearly overwhelmed at meeting me. “That’s great! I ran into Joe in a bar in LA in 1990. What a guy. We were from very different backgrounds but singing I think from the same hymn-sheet. That Mescaleros record with ‘Coma Girl’ on it, Streetcore, was so amazing. Like Johnny Cash, he went out on a high. I really miss having Joe around.”
If the 13-year-old me had known that I’d one day get to chat to Bruce Springsteen about Joe Strummer he’d have exploded. We may never get to shoot the breeze again, but The Boss and I will always have Paris!
Revisit Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. below: