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By JEM ASWAD
Despite his proclivity for stability, the Boss is no fan of stasis, and stylistic left-hand turns are a hallmark of his long career. Notwithstanding the familiarity of his songs and his sound, each album and tour is strikingly, often drastically, different from what came before, and now is no exception. He says of his long-awaited, completed solo album, which still has no title or release date: “It’s connected to my solo records writing-wise … but it’s not like them at all. Just different characters living their lives.” His upcoming Broadway run, a solo performance of songs and storytelling in a 960-seat theater, serves as an intimate counterpoint to the stadium-filling, four-hour-long shows he performed on the 89-date, 13-month-long “The River” anniversary tour, which ended earlier this year and, according to Pollstar, grossed some $306.5 million globally.
Variety caught Springsteen at an unusually retrospective point in his career. On stage, he’s spent the past couple of years reflecting on a roughly 35-year-old album; and in his compelling 2016 autobiography “Born to Run,” which will frame the songs and stories during his Broadway dates, he’s examined his entire life. And yes, at 68, with some 65.6 million albums sold in the U.S. alone (according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America) over the course of a career that began in the early-1970s, and untold millions of concert tickets sold, there’s a lot for him to recall.
Yet his restless nature persists. Just hours after this interview ended, he was onstage at Madison Square Garden with Paul McCartney; four days later he held the first invitation-only rehearsal for his Broadway set at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J., near his beloved Asbury Park; six days after that he was performing with Jackson Browne and “Little” Steven Van Zandt, his longtime band mate and friend of five decades, in nearby Holmdel. “I’m always looking for something new,” he says. “A great song is always inspirational — it makes you want to be great. So I’m always on the lookout.”
Your upcoming Broadway show sounds retrospective in nature. Is it based on your autobiography?
“Bruce took the poetry of Bob Dylan, the soul of Stax records, laid it over a rock ’n’ roll beat and inspired a generation and a nation.”Yeah, there’s a loose connection to the arc of the book, in that it sort of starts at the beginning and goes from there. I read a little bit from it, I tell some stories and play some music — that’s basically the show. Back in the early ’70s, when we played smaller places, there was a lot of time for storytelling; people were up close and it was fun, so it’s a bit of a return to some of that. We needed a place that was very small, so that’s how we ended up on Broadway, where all the beautiful small theaters are. I had been thinking about doing something that combined the book and music for a while, and I performed it once. In the last few weeks of the Obama Administration, I played at the White House in the East Room for about 300 people, and I brought this idea down there and it felt really good. I haven’t really played a venue of that size in probably 40 years.
Are you playing the same basic set every night?
It’s pretty scripted in the sense that it will be very close to the same every night. I’m sure things will shift a little as I go, but it’s pretty set and that’s what makes it a little bit different. It’s not just a random collection of songs on a nightly basis.
Are you playing any Castiles songs? [Springsteen’s first real band]
No, I don’t think there’s any Castiles songs in it yet!
Are you pleased with the way ticket sales worked with Ticketmaster’s Verified Plan program, which is intended to weed out scalpers?
Yeah, I thought it worked out pretty well. According to the information I’ve gotten, we were relatively successful at keeping the tickets out of the secondary market, where the prices skyrocket. It’s always difficult to curtail scalping, but I thought we did a pretty good job.
How do you feel about playing the same venue every night for four months?
Yeah, it’s new — I don’t know what it’s gonna feel like. But once we decided to do something that small, we knew we were going to have to take a different approach. The Walter Kerr [Theatre] kinda feels like you’re inviting people into your living room, and it’s gonna allow for a different type of communication with the audience. Whether there’ll be more [shows added after the initial 16-week run] I’m not sure, we’ll have to see how I feel. I haven’t worked five nights a week consecutively in a long time. I have a show that’s not physically rigorous but it takes a lot of mental energy, as any time you’re trying to be really, really present does.
Do you have a sort of psychological workout regimen to prepare for this kind of show?
That just comes from your desire to be there and to take the opportunity to have this very intense communication with the people who are there, with the idea that you can bring something of quality for the evening but also something that will stay with them. You’ve gotta have respect for your own ability and for the audience’s investment in you, and it’s always driven me to be very present when I walk out on a stage on any given night. I can’t imagine coming out on any stage and not giving everything I have.
“Bruce was the first person I ever met who believed in what he was doing to such an extent. He wouldn’t compromise the vision: You couldn’t rent him, you couldn’t buy him. He’s been that person since the day I met him.”
What drives you to do or not do something creatively at a certain time? For instance, Neil Young talks about his muse like it’s a dictator — “She is my boss.” What’s that voice for you?
Well, you do follow your inspirations; there’s times you write and times you don’t write. And after a long work life you’re OK with the ebb and flow of your creativity. The thing that drives me most is what I can do that would be of most value to my audience, and I think I put together something unique when I played this show [at the White House]. That’s what I’m always looking for — to do something that’s essential for my audience. We’ve made many more records than we released. Why didn’t we release those records? I didn’t think they were essential. I might have thought they were good, I might have had fun making them, and we’ve released plenty of that music [on archival collections over the years]. But over my entire work life, I felt like I released what was essential at a certain moment, and what I got in return was a very sharp definition of who I was, what I want to do, what I was singing about. And I still basically judge what I’m doing by the same set of rules.
Do you still plan to release the solo album you’ve been talking about since before “The River” anniversary tour?
Oh yeah, I’ve just been caught up in other projects. It’s kind of waiting for its moment. Good music doesn’t go away!
Someone who’d heard it said it sounded like Aaron Copland.
I don’t know if anybody made that particular connection. Really, that record is influenced by Southern California pop music of the ’70s.
Like the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac?
No — Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach, those kinds of records. I don’t know if people will hear those influences, but that was what I had in my mind. It gave me something to hook an album around; it gave me some inspiration to write. And also, it’s a singer-songwriter record. It’s connected to my solo records writing-wise, more “Tunnel of Love” and “Devils and Dust,” but it’s not like them at all. Just different characters living their lives.
What kinds of songs have you been writing lately?
I haven’t been writing lately. I think you have to process through your projects. In other words, if I have some songs that I haven’t released, once they’re released, then the machine starts turning for, ‘OK, now I’m gonna write for the band’ or whatever I decide to come up with. But unless something comes along — “Oh, I’ve gotta write this,” which hasn’t happened lately — I have to feel what I’ve just done is realized before [I start something new].
Yeah, I would say so, which is unusual because I wrote most of that before [2012’s] “Wrecking Ball,” and I stopped making that record to make “Wrecking Ball,” and then I went back to it. So it’s been awhile since I’ve written, but that’s not unusual. That’s occurred plenty of other times in my working life.
For many people, living 10 minutes from the place they grew up would be punishment. What do you love so much about this area?
Well, I like living 10 minutes from Freehold, 20 from Asbury Park. The main thing that grounded us here is we had a huge family, like an 80-member-or-more Italian-Irish family, and when we had our kids, we brought them back here because we wanted them to grow up around family. We were lucky enough to have them all in one area at a certain moment — that’s unusual these days — and they all basically grew up here around their aunts and cousins and grandmoms: how I grew up. And, I just still like it here. I think Jersey Shore is a great place to live, we have this beautiful farm and yet we’re only 25 minutes from the ocean … and I’m still a beach bum so I’ll swim until November. It’s just still a place that we love, man.
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I’ve heard the community is very protective of your privacy.
Yeah, I have a very free existence down here. I go where I wanna go, I do what I wanna do, I live a really relatively normal life. There’s the rare occasion where some fuss might be made, but that’s one of the reasons we came back here with the children — it’s where they would be able to have the most normal childhood, and they did. I always wanted to stay out of the bright lights of the city; I was uncomfortable with that. I wanted to be someplace where you were a little hidden, where your privacy was respected and maintained, and I’ve had that down here for all these years, so I appreciate it. The locals have always been good to me.
Does the small-town Jersey you grew up in still exist?
Yeah! It still exists in my town [Freehold]. It’s very different than it was when I lived there in the ’50s, but if you drive through Jersey it’s all still out there. I take my motorcycle on the back roads and there’s a million little towns where I have a feeling kids are, despite all the modern tech and the internet, having a similar emotional experience. You’re a creature of your environment and there’s something that’s … inimitable, I suppose, about a certain place and time. In other words, when I’m gone and the E Street Band is gone, that thing is gonna be gone. There’ll be other things and other people doing fabulous things, but that particular thing won’t be there. But at the same time, somebody will be writing about it down the road.
You’ve done so much to spur the area’s revival. But now Asbury Park even has a designer hotel!
Yeah! It’s nice!
Has it gotten to the point where it feels too gentrified or invasive?
I think they’ve done a pretty good job with Asbury’s development. I never thought I’d live to see the day when it came back to life in such a vibrant and strong fashion. Also, it’s maintained its art base. It could easily have become a mini-mall or a wall of condos but it didn’t, and there’s still a place there; it’s still unique in its own right. That didn’t get erased, and that’s what really matters. It’s not gonna be the place that I grew up in — a little blue-collar resort, or the place that was the genesis of our band — but it’s a lovely, vibrant community right now, and I love going there in the summer now and seeing that beach jammed. I never thought I’d see it again.
When talking about your sister in the book, you make a reference to “Jersey Soul.” What is that?
It’s just a sort of hard-working, never-say-die, never-give-up, salt-of-the-earth essence that I find in my favorite Jersey people and in our family. My mother and her two sisters, no matter what happened, were always able to find joy in life. They had plenty of tragedy in their own right, but they always came back, they always found something to be joyful about. And that’s one of the things our band has done well over the years. There’s a lot of bands that are good at playing hard or playing cool, but there aren’t a lot of bands that do joy very much. And one of the things the E Street Band aspired to was a certain joyful feeling that I particularly got from the Italian side of my family, which I was always able to communicate to a big crowd.
[Springsteen talks politics, marriage and Trump in Part 2 of the interview here.]
Bruce Springsteen Talks Politics, Marriage and Why He Won’t Write an ‘Anti-Trump Diatribe’
If you ran for governor of New Jersey, you’d win — is that ever a temptation?
Pssht, nooo. I would have no business in politics. I’m just not interested in policy-making enough. I know people in entertainment who are interested in those things, but I’m a musician.
Many people wondered why you didn’t come out in support of Hillary Clinton’s campaign earlier. Was there a reason for that?
Um… I don’t think I’m necessarily that essential a factor. And I still tend to be a little bit ambivalent about getting involved directly like that in political campaigns. I’ve done it when I felt it was really necessary and that maybe my two cents might make some small bit of difference. But the more you do it, your two cents becomes one cent and then no cents whatsoever, so I think your credibility and your impact lessens the more you do it. So I’ve been hesitant to overplay my hand in that area, and I generally come to service when I feel it’s kind of necessary and it might help a little bit.
Yeah. I thought she would have made an excellent president, and I still feel that way, so I was glad to do it. I guess that was the case when you played at a rally for 32,000 people in Philadelphia on election eve?
Midway through “The River” anniversary tour you stopped playing the nearly 90-minute album in its entirety. Were you tired of it?
No, it was actually very enjoyable on a nightly basis because that record was well built, well put-together, so it gave a formal but very satisfying experience. I’m hoping to have something similar occur with [the Broadway shows]. But the reason we stopped is because we were going to play outside [stadiums] and, particularly, we were going to Europe, where I just didn’t know if it was going to ring and play as well. The few times we did it in Europe it played very well, but I wanted to have the freedom once we went outside to these bigger shows to just play whatever I wanted.
And sometimes that meant playing your first two albums, “Greetings From Asbury Park” and “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” almost in their entirety, which you did later in the tour?
Yeah, when we’re in that mode, [the show] varies on a nightly basis, and I think we got in a place toward the end of that tour where we were playing a little bit chronologically. I think the whole first hour or more of the show was the first and second records, which was a lot of fun because I hadn’t done that in quite awhile. It was the band before it was a hard-rock band, which we didn’t really become until “Born to Run.” Previous to that we were a rock and soul band, a swingin’ little club band; the music had a lighter touch to it. Once we fired on all eight with “Born to Run,” that’s when the rock started.
You’ve done so much looking back recently, between the book and “The River” anniversary tour and now this Broadway run. Any thoughts on what’s next?
I suppose the [solo] record that I haven’t released. It’s not topical at all — topical writing at the moment doesn’t hold a lot of interest to me. I really got out a lot of what I had to say in that vein on “Wrecking Ball.” I’m not driven to write any anti-Trump diatribe; that doesn’t feel necessary at the moment.
Why, because so many people already are?
Yeah, because it’s everywhere and all over, ya know? It feels a little redundant to me at the moment. And, once again, I always try to look at what I can deliver that’s personal to me and of most value. The audience has a wide variety of needs; whatever you’re writing, you’re trying to meet your own need, and as I’ve said in other interviews, Marty Scorsese once said, “The job of the artist is to make the audience care about your obsessions.” So I hope I write about the things that obsess me well enough for my audience to care about them.
“I’ve never known him to not have the outline of some idea in mind. It’s part of his DNA.”
JON LANDAU, MANAGER
But don’t you think your opinions about Trump would matter to your audience?
Well, if you read Charles Blow in The New York Times, he carries the flag pretty well. I’m ambivalent about … sort of getting on a soapbox. I still believe people fundamentally come to music to be entertained — yes, to address their daily concerns, and yes, also to address political topics, I believe music can do that well. But I still believe fundamentally it’s an affair of the heart. People want you to go deeper than politics, they want you to reach inside to their most personal selves and their deepest struggles with their daily lives and reach that place; that’s the place I’m always trying to reach. I’d never make a record that’s just polemical, I wouldn’t release it if I did. To me, that’s just an abuse of your audience’s good graces. But if I’m moved, I’ll write, say, something like “American Skin” [inspired by the 1999 shooting death of Amadou Diallo by New York City Police officers — who were later acquitted]. That just rolled very naturally for me, and that’s as good a topical song as I’ve ever written. And when it comes up, I write ’em. If I felt that strongly, I’d do it now. But I watch myself, because I think you can weigh upon your audience’s indulgence in the wrong way.
What do you mean?
I never wanted to be just a proselytizer for an ideological point of view. That’s not my job; that’s somebody else’s job. And if you even look back to Woody Guthrie’s material, he didn’t do that. He wrote these very full character pieces that, whether you were there in the Depression or not, they live today. They weren’t hollow, they weren’t one-dimensional; they were these very full character pieces about the times. I still aspire to that, really, and if it has political implications that’s fine and if it doesn’t that’s fine too.
His songs are about those times but aren’t bound to them.
Yeah, that’s what I mean. That’s the target; those are the kinds of works that you aspire to. It’s like if “The Rising” was only about 9/11, it would have been hollow. But you can listen to it today and it’s a record that has a spiritual resonance that, whether it was connected to that event or not, it retains its life and its poetry. If you delve deep enough into yourself —and that doesn’t mean it’s autobiographical, it means if you’re reaching deep enough into your own humanity — it becomes universal. And that’s a guiding light that I use when I write.
“Born to Run” had an impressionism to the storytelling that you never really went back to; your writing became much more direct. Have you ever wanted to bring back that style?
“I like the storylines in his songs and his genuine delivery of them. And as a performer, he goes on forever — and the audience loves it.”
I don’t think you can really recapture what you did in your youth. It’s tricky; if you try, it can feel like a cardboard copy of something you [formerly] did naturally. So I don’t think I’ll make a record quite like that ever again, where there’s a blizzard of words coming at you — I was havin’ fun throwin’ all those words around, and I imagined myself quite the poet at the moment. But later on I was interested in a more colloquial way of speaking through the songs, and a more direct approach. Also, at the time there were the comparisons to Dylan, so I moved away from that style — although now I go back and realize, gee, it really wasn’t like Dylan much at all. We could have taken that a little further, but I was interested in creating my own identity at the time.
In the book you say that after you’d finished touring behind “The River” in 1981, you’d earned enough money that you’d essentially “made it.” Then you made “Nebraska,” your darkest album. Why?
I dunno… you have to look back later at some of the psychological elements that led you to tap a particular creative vein at a certain moment. Looking back, I was very interested in this sort of American gothic form of writing. Flannery O’Connor was very influential, the  Terrence Malick film “Badlands,” the  movie “True Confessions” with Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall that didn’t get much attention but I really loved. And then the noir writers I’ve mentioned many times in the past, James M. Cain and Jim Thompson. I wanted to write something that felt like these films and stories, and that also connects to the youngest memories I have of my life, between, say, when I was born and 13 or 14, in a little town surrounded by relatives that were very old-world Irish and first- or second-generation Italian. I always thought “Nebraska” felt like my childhood at that time, and what it felt like around here in the mid-’50s. Then I had my own psychological issues, I suppose, that led me to that place, some unresolved things I was struggling with. The music was all very lonely. I suppose that was me at that moment.
What have you been reading lately?
I just read a bunch of true-crime things… The last thing I read that jumped out like “man you gotta read this” was “Moby Dick,” which I’d never read, and which ended up not being as intimidating as people claim — it was actually a boys’ adventure story that was particularly well told. And then I read a lot of Russian writers — I really enjoyed [Dostoyevsky’s] “Brothers Karamazov” … I went on a big Elmore Leonard stretch, which was fantastic, particularly the “Western Stories” … a couple of books on Isis. I’ve been wandering a bit with my reading.
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How about TV?
Like everybody else, I was nuts about “Mad Men.” I watched “Breaking Bad.” I thought “Westworld” was incredibly realized.
Is it difficult being married to someone you work with?
Actually, no. We’ve kind of developed natural boundaries. Some places we have a more professional approach, like if I walk into the studio while she’s working, I have certain boundaries where if she requests my opinion or asks for my help, I give it on a very professional level. When she comes onstage with the E Street Band she’s an E Street band member, and when we walk offstage we’re husband and wife.
What are your favorite songs to sing with her?
I like “Brilliant Disguise,” “Tougher Than the Rest.” Those are songs we’ve sung together for a lotta years, and they encapsulate our relationship in a very universal but personal way. We sing “Fall Behind” together, “Mansion on the Hill” — Patti can have a really gothic voice when she wants to. She’s a very distinctive, underrated singer and songwriter. She’s made some excellent records that I think, because of her connection to me, have gone a little under-noticed and underrated. She’s got a great record she’s making now.
Was she in your life when you wrote “Tougher Than the Rest”? When you sing it together it almost feels like it was written for her.
Um… maybe it was! I might not have known it. It’s one of those songs that really feels like it’s hers and mine now.
Most of your major relationships have lasted for decades: wife, band, management, label, even your main guitar. Are you seeking a family vibe in all areas of your life?
I like consistency. I don’t like change. I change reluctantly, particularly with the people around me. And then when you find the right people, you hold onto them. There’s been some attrition over the years and sometimes I chose well and sometimes I didn’t, but the times I chose well I really stuck with. My relationship with Jon [Landau, Springsteen’s manager since the mid-1970s] is one in a million and one of the most important relationships in my life, and it’s maintained its creative edge since the day we got together. I still feel an excitement when we get on the phone together — like something could happen! We might learn something together that we haven’t known the other 10,000 times we’ve talked. That possibility is always there, similar to my experience with Patti — when we get together on any given day, I might learn something.