Bruce Springsteen: On Jersey, Masculinity And Wishing To Be His Stage Persona
As a young musician coming up in the early 1970s, Bruce Springsteen played in the bars of Asbury Park, N.J., a hardscrabble urban beach town full of colorful characters. The town fired his imagination and inspired him musically, but still he found himself longing for more.
Springsteen tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he knew that if he was ever going to make his mark on the larger world, it would be through his words.
"I looked at myself and I just said, 'Well, you know, I can sing but I'm not the greatest singer in the world. I can play guitar very well but I'm not the greatest guitar player in the world,' " Springsteen remembers. "So I said, "Well, if I'm going to project an individuality, it's going to have to be in my writing."
Springsteen went on to record the album Born To Run in 1974; its title track paved the way for his mainstream popularity. The album also lends its name to his new memoir, in which Springsteen reflects on how he and his music were shaped by home, roots, family and community.
What follows is the transcript of the conversation Springsteen and Gross had in the recording studio at his New Jersey home.
Terry Gross: Bruce Springsteen, welcome to Fresh Air and thank you for welcoming us into your studio. I'd love it if you would start by reading the very opening from the foreword of your book. It's really a fantastic book, and I'd like our listeners to just hear a little bit of your writing.
Bruce Springsteen: OK, my pleasure.
Thanks for reading that. So, what's it like for you to write something that doesn't have to rhyme, and that you don't have to perform onstage?
[laughs] Not having to perform it onstage is a good one. But it's a little different, you know? I'm used to writing something, it becomes a record, it comes out, then I go perform and I play it and I get this immediate feedback from the audience, so that's been the pattern of my life. But the book has been a little bit different, you know?
I mean, you get feedback from the press and fans are just starting to get a chance to read it, so I'm looking forward to that. But you still had to find the music inside your language, you know? That's a big part of what sort of moved me to begin writing the book.
I wrote a little essay, and I felt, "Yeah, this has a good voice. This has a good feeling. It feels like me." But then once you get into the book, you've got to constantly find the rhythm of your prose, and it ends up being quite a musical experience either way.
But that's one of the things I love about the book, is that there is rhythm and music in it, even though it's not a song. So, we'll talk about this a little later if it's OK with you, but in the book, you write about how in your 60s, you've experienced periods of profound depression.
And I'm wondering if that affected either the motivation for writing the book, your approach to writing the book, what you wanted to write about in the book?
No, it really didn't have anything to do with the book at all. The book was just something that came along after we played the Super Bowl and I wrote a little essay that went online. And I had two or three weeks and I said, "Wow, that essay was pretty good. Maybe I'll try and write some other stuff."
Writing about the depression — I just felt, you know, when you write a book like this you have to open up your life. You have to be willing to do so to a certain degree. And [my wife] Patti [Scialfa] was very gracious in the — to the extent that she allowed me to write the book. You know, there's a lot of it that's pretty personal. And I felt that it was connected to some of the music I had written, and so that was just an important thing to write about.
So many of your songs, particularly the early ones, are about searching for a dream and wanting to bust out of the confines of your life. And in some ways, I get the impression from your book that that was your father's story, except he never found the dream. It's kind of a little bit like the story that you describe in your song "The River."
Right. My dad was young, he went to work. But he'd been to war, he'd seen some of the world. It wasn't like he was going to be an extensive traveler or something. It didn't seem to be in his nature or in the nature of his parents or many of the folks in my family, really. We had a cousin that went off to Brown University — it was like a nuclear explosion took place, you know? It was just incredible for everybody.
So I mean the book, yeah, you're correct that my parents did really sort of live out a big part of that story. And, to a certain degree, he did find his little piece of what he was looking for in California.
Because when you were 19, he moved to California.
Yeah, they moved out West, which was a huge undertaking, because no one — it was like moving to another planet for them. But I think that's what my father wanted to do, he wanted to move to another planet. And they had very little. They had $3,000 and I think they had an old Rambler and they slept two nights in the car, and a night in a motel and they had my little sister with them with all of the stuff packed on top.
It was a really go-for-broke decision and it did pay off for them, you know. I think they enjoyed the West Coast and their California life quite a bit, you know. My father still had periods of illness that were —
You're talking about mental illness.
Yeah. Difficult to manage. But I believe he did feel like he found something there that he couldn't have found at home.
Do you think the song "Born To Run" is in part about him and in part about you?
Well, someone mentioned that to me the other day. I always thought it was just about me. [Laughs] But what do you know? And, looking back on it, my parents lived out quite a bit of that story themselves.
Except you had a dream in a way that your father maybe didn't have a dream that he could articulate?
It certainly wasn't one he could articulate. It was just,"I gotta get out of here."
So, this story I think is really interesting. You tell the story of how in 1967, there's a lot of friction between you and your father, and you're in your teens, you're growing your hair long, you're into music. And long hair then, probably particularly in the working class town where you were, was a pretty —
It was unusual.
It was an unusual thing, it was.
Making a statement. [Laughs]
You were making a statement. [Laughs]
So you were in a motorcycle accident, got thrown, like, 20 feet, really hurt yourself pretty bad. You were in the hospital. You get home, your father calls in a barber, and the barber cuts your hair against your will.
[Laughs] It's funny now. I didn't think it was funny then.
I'll bet you didn't!
But I was lucky I survived the motorcycle accident, because the bike went under the car. I flew out about 20 or 25 feet, I didn't have a helmet on, I hit my head on the pavement and knocked myself out, gave myself a brain concussion, screwed up my left leg. And I was lucky then that I didn't get killed, because I didn't have any protective clothing on whatsoever. And I took a pretty good beating.
But yes, such was the nature of the day when the barber was called in and Samson's locks were trimmed.
But I actually found it an upsetting story, because here you barely survived. You're lying there disabled and your father takes advantage of you and cuts off something that you love that's part of your identity, when you're already so physically wounded. It felt very unfair to me. How did it feel to you at the time?
[Laughs] Such was the lay of the land at the time. I mean, of course I was furious about it at the time. But what can you say — it's water under the bridge.
So you write, too, about your father that he was kind of very — let me quote you, because you put it so well. You write that, "He loved me but he couldn't stand me. He felt we competed for my mother's affections. We did. He also saw in me too much of his real self. Inside, however, beyond his rage, he harbored a gentleness, timidity, shyness and a dreamy insecurity. These were things I wore on the outside and the reflection of these qualities in his boy repelled him. I was 'soft' and he hated 'soft.' Of course, he'd been brought up 'soft.' A mama's boy just like me."
So that timidity and shyness that you wore on the outside, it's kind of like the opposite of your stage persona.
I know, it's bizarre.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the timidity and shyness of your youth?
Yeah, well, T-Bone Burnett once said that much of rock music is simply going "Waaah Daddy!" So I gotta take my, I've gotta take some blame for that myself, I guess. [Laughs]
But, yeah, when I was young, I was very shy and that was my personality, you know. I was a pretty sensitive kid and quite neurotic, filled with a lot of anxiety, which all would have been very familiar to my pop, you know? Except it was a part of himself he was trying to reject, so I got caught in the middle of it, I think.
You say in the book that you were so nervous for a while during your childhood that you'd blink, like, 100 times a minute.
And you chewed your knuckles. Was there a specific cause of that anxiety or was it just, do you think, the way you were wired?
I mean, I never found out, you know. It was just tremendous anxiety, you know. Tremendous feeling of being out of control of your young life.
So do you think that your stage persona draws both from the angry and uninhibited side of you and the more inhibited, timid side of you?
I think I created my particular stage persona out of my dad's life and perhaps I even built it to suit him to some degree.
I think it's both there. I think if you just, you know, I think plenty of folks, if you just looked at the outside, it's pretty alpha-male, which is a little ironic, because that was personally never exactly really me. I think I created my particular stage persona out of my dad's life and perhaps I even built it to suit him to some degree.
When I was looking for a voice to mix with my voice, I put on my father's work clothes, as I say in the book, and I went to work. Whether it was a result of wanting to emulate him so I felt closer or whether it was, as I say in the book, I wanted to be the reasonable voice of revenge for what I had seen his life come to. It was all of these things.
And so it was an unusual creation, but most of these — most people's stage personas are created out of the flotsam and jetsam of their internal geography and they're trying to create something that solves a series of very complex problems inside of them or in their history. And I think, annoyingly, when I went to do that, that's what I was — I was trying to integrate all of these very difficult things that I'd been unable to integrate in my life and in my life with my parents.
So, you also lived near the church and church was a part of your life. And you write about Catholicism, "This is the world where I found the beginnings of my song. In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a language of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward."
Are there particular Bible stories or religious paintings that really made an impression on you?
No, it was more just the basics. I think when you're a child, you just cling to the basics, which is the basic story of Jesus and the Crucifixion and hell and eternal punishment and the flames. This was all stuff that was, when you're young, this is very tangible and is as real as the gas station next door to you.
Maybe especially since the church was just about next door to you.
Exactly! So these things, and also because we lived in the presence of the church and the convent and the rectory and the school 24/7, and this was an enormous cornerstone in the lives of my entire family. They were all pretty serious Catholic churchgoers. And as a child, these things were very, very terrifying.
What things? Were you afraid of hell?
[Laughs] That one too! So, these were stories that were not stories, you know? They were simply facts. This is what occurred. This is what can occur, unless you toe the line, my friend.
So, when you're a child — and you forget that the Catholic religion at the time was much darker and more mysterious. The entire Mass was in Latin. If you go to my church now it's incredibly bright inside, but when I was young, it was very dark inside.
It was just the difference in the way they've painted it since I've gone there and it strives for a very different and welcoming spirit. Where when I was young, it was sort of built to intimidate, even on this very local level and this very small church in this small town, it still held you in the palm of its darkness. And it was something I carried with me, never forgot, brought into my music, and it's been in my music ever since.
So when your father told the family that he had to leave New Jersey and go to California and he was going to do it, he hoped the family came with him, but he was going to go one way or the other. And so he left, your mother went with him, your youngest sister went with him, your sister who was in the middle was 17, she had just gotten pregnant, you say she didn't even know how to make toast.
And your parents left.
I may be a little harsh on her there. I think she knew how to make toast. [Laughs]
And you were 19. And suddenly, there were no authority figures in your life. I mean, your parents were gone, your father wasn't going to — whatever he was doing, he wasn't going to do it anymore. He wasn't going to be around. What did that freedom feel like to you?
By the time I was 19, my parents weren't very authoritative over my life.
You were already gone?
Yeah. At the time, I was already down at the Shore and I was staying out overnight and sleeping on the beach and, you know, coming home at 3, 4 a.m. after having played a show in some club. And so, I was five years into my own life already. It started when I was 14 1/2.
And I didn't have any doubt at that time about what I was going to do or where I was going. I was a musician. I was going to play. I had a band. We were gonna make enough money to survive on.
I was quite prepared for that to occur, whereas my sister was in a very different situation. She just had a newborn and a new marriage and really missed the family when they left.
During your early years as a musician, you were in Asbury Park, boardwalk, carnival atmosphere. What did you love about that kind of urban beach?
And Madame Marie and all the boardwalk regulars. I mean, you made great stories out of those characters, great songs out of those characters. But what appealed to you about knowing them and writing about them?
It was just my location at the time. I didn't move to Asbury with the thought of — it wasn't an anthropological --
But you connected in some way --
— reason, but I went and I just fit in there. Asbury was down on its luck, but not as bad as it would get. And so there was a lot of room to move, you know, clubs were open until 5 a.m., there were gay clubs, in even the late '60s, it was a bit of an open city.
... when I went to write, I just wrote about what was around me, which is kind of something I've done for most of my life.
So as young ne'er-do-wells, we fit very comfortably in that picture, and then when I went to write, I just wrote about what was around me, which is kind of something I've done for most of my life.
And it fired my imagination, it of course was a colorful locale. The city was filled with characters and plenty of people at loose ends, and so it just became a very natural thing to write about. I didn't give it too much thought at the time, but I did think that it gave me a very individual identity, and that if I was going to go out into the musical world on a national level, I was very interested in being connected to my home, my home state, my home base.
And I thought all of these things were very local, and they were very much mine, there wasn't anyone else writing in this way about these things at that time. So it was something I did very intentionally in a sense, as creating a certain very, very specific and original identity.
And that's one of the things that really interests me in comparing you to Dylan. Because when you first started, people were comparing you to Dylan, one of the "new Dylans," and everything.
In some ways, persona-wise, you're the opposite. Because he's always — he changed his name. He surrounded himself in mystery. His lyrics are very obscure.
And your lyrics tell stories. You're all about a place. You reveal so much about yourself and the world around you in your songs. You know what I mean? I know that you're more than what you literally tell us about in the songs, but still, you have an identity and tried to tell us something of who you are in your songs.
You just go where your psychology leads you, I think. You know, I've always loved the fact that Bob's been able to sustain his mystery over 50 or 60 years. In this day and age, that's quite a feat in itself and, you know, the things that I loved about Bob's music — and I describe him in the book as a father of my country, which he really is — were things that just didn't fit when I went to do my job, you know? I had come out of a somewhat different circumstance and the clothes just didn't fit.
I want to quote you again. So you write, this is toward the beginning of your career: "I wanted to be a voice that reflected experience and the world I live in. So I knew in 1972 that to do this, I would need to write very well and more individually than I had ever written before." And at some point you realized, too, that although you had the most popular bar band in Asbury Park, that there was a bigger world, there were a lot of talented people, and in order to be someone in that world, to have a career, to make a difference, that you had to figure out what was unique about you and you had to write great songs.
And, in fact, you achieved that. You wrote great songs, but how did you go about trying to write the best songs that you could? I mean, when you knew that a lot of this was going to depend on the songwriting?
When I thought about signing a record deal or writing something that might put me in the position — because I had already had plenty of things that had fallen through with my rock bands — I looked at myself and I just said, "Well, you know, I can sing but I'm not the greatest singer in the world. I can play guitar very well but I'm not the greatest guitar player in the world. What excites me about a lot of the artists I love?" And I realized, well, they created their own personal world that I could enter into through their music and through their songwriting.
There's people that can do it instrumentally, like Jimi Hendrix or Edge of U2 or Pete Townshend. I didn't have as unique a purely musical signature. I was a creature of a lot of different influences, and so I said, "Well, if I'm going to project an individuality, it's going to have to be in my writing."
I just had myself and the guitar, so I was going to have to do something with just my voice, just the guitar and just my songs that was going to move someone enough to give me a shot.
And at the time, for one of the few times in my life, I didn't have a band. I just had myself and the guitar, so I was going to have to do something with just my voice, just the guitar and just my songs that was going to move someone enough to give me a shot.
So I wrote songs that were very lyrically alive and lyrically dense and they were unique. But it really came out of a motivation to where I understood I was going to have to make my mark that way.
You've lived a lot of your life on the road, and for the first half — well, I'm not going to do the math here, but for a lot of your early years — I mean, you were single, you were in monogamous or semi-monogamous relationships, as you describe it. But you weren't married and you didn't have children. But you had a first marriage and then Patti Scialfa joined the band and you got married and you have three children now.
What did it take for you to see family as something that was a wonderful thing, as opposed to something that was going to harm your sense of freedom and flexibility and creativity?
I think for a lot of musicians, that's a difficult call. Because by nature we're transient. We move on. We're people that — like I say in the book, there's folks that stay and there's folks that go, and we're folks that go.
I didn't have a blueprint from my childhood that I could call on, which is an enormous deficit when you're trying to put together a family life. I didn't see a family life where men were thriving inside of it. My dad tended to blame the family for his inability to achieve what he wanted to achieve, you know?
So, unfortunately, I was coming from that particular frame of mind, and it took quite a bit of work and time and mistakes to begin to feel, to understand the strength that comes along with building a home life, you know? That was very mysterious to me, I was very skeptical of it for a long time, and didn't understand it fully until Patti and I got together.
Was it helpful to be married to somebody in the band? Because she would certainly understand what life on the road was and what being a musician is because she is one.
Yeah, I think so. Patti was an artist and a musician and she was a songwriter and she was a lot like me in that she was transient also. She worked busking on the streets in New York, she waitressed, she just lived a musician's life, she lived an artist's life.
So we were both people who were very uncomfortable in a domestic setting, getting together and trying to build one. And seeing if our particularly strange jigsaw puzzle pieces were going to fit together in a way that was going to create something different for the two of us — and it did.
You write about redefining what it meant to you to be a man, that you'd learned about the rigidity in the blue-collar narcissism of manhood, '50s-style, from your father and you learned to always withhold something — you do not lower your mask. Did you consciously rethink what it meant to be a man?
These are hard questions. Fresh Air is difficult! Let me think.
Well, you know, you're young and you're always in pursuit of your young manhood. You know, you're trying to figure out, what does that mean? There's a lot of pressure on young men to sort that out, and we tend to gravitate towards one-dimensional iconography as far as what it means to be a fully grown man. And part of my onstage creation was someone trying to sort that out.
I think initially, our audiences were filled with young men. Our initial audience was a lot of young guys who you played a bit of a big-brother role for, and were trying to sort out a lot of the same things, right? As soon as "Born To Run" hit, you know. So, it was something that I worked pretty hard on.
You started going to therapy in 1983. And at some point, you say in your 60s you had a really bad depression. And I'm wondering if you thought about, during that period when you were very depressed, how many people in the world really wanted to be you?
It doesn't count for that much at the time.
But people see you on stage and, yeah, I'd want to be that guy. I want to be that guy myself very often, you know? I had plenty of days where I'd go, "Man, I wish I could be that guy." And there's a big difference between what you see on stage and then my general daily, my daily existence.
You write about how being on stage is almost like medicine for you?
Does it get you out of yourself?
Oh, of course. You're immediately pulled out of the inside of your head. I have been on stage on a few occasions where I felt I couldn't escape the interior of my interior thoughts, but Peter Wolf once said, "What's the strangest thing you can do onstage? Think about what you're doing." There's just nothing weirder you can do.
If you're up there thinking about what you're doing, you're just not there. And it's not gonna happen, you know.
So trying to learn how to overcome those — which is a normal thing to do, you're in front of a lot of people, people are going to get very self-conscious. So you have to learn to sort of overcome that tendency towards self-consciousness and just blow it wide open and you just jump in and join all those people that are out there enjoying what you're doing together.
During the depression, there was a period of a year and a half when you weren't on the road. You were home with one of your sons, I guess with your youngest?
Did that contribute to the depression because you couldn't be on stage and you couldn't have that kind of cathartic experience?
Yeah, I tend to be not my own best company. So I can get a little lost if I don't have my work to occasionally focus me. But at the same time, you've got to be able to figure that out.
The year and a half I was home, my son was in his last year of high school and it was kind of my last opportunity to be here with him in the house and I wanted to get that right.
So, I want to ask you about a physical thing that happened to you that you write about in the book. You were getting numbness and tingling in, was it your left hand?
My left hand and arm, yeah.
Yeah, and it was hard for you to play. And it turned out you had a disc problem in your neck.
And you had this, wow, incredible surgery where they make an incision in your throat, push the vocal cords aside and basically rebuild your discs?
Correct. It was probably from thrashing my head around for 40 years or so. But, you know, it was just wear and tear. And I had a pinched nerve and it was causing a lot of electricity down my arm, and I ignored it for about four or five years.
It was just kind of getting worse and worse, but I was still able to get around on the guitar and then, during the end of — that was the middle of the Wrecking Ball tour, it simply became too much. I was having a lot of pain in my neck after the show and my arm was going numb and my fingers were going numb and towards the end of the night, it kind of got difficult to play.
So I said, "Well, I guess I have to do something about it." So I found a doctor and it's kind of an everyday operation, though you wouldn't want to get it wrong, you know? You could lose your voice or lose complete feeling in your arms.
It sounds terrifying! Putting your vocal cords aside?
[Laughs] That was the part that was a little anxiety-creating. I said, "Well, what happens?" and he says, "Well, you know, we kind of slit your throat a little bit, then we go in and we pull your vocal cords and we tie them off to one side and then I get in there with the screwdriver and little tools and some titanium and we make a little basket in there. Then we take some bone off your hip and we stuff that into the basket and we kind of sew you back up and before long that all grows together and you're as good as new."
Amazingly, that is exactly what happened. I spent about three months when I couldn't sing at all, so that was anxiety-provoking. But after that, I went back out.
I sang for two hours in my garage one day to see if I had a voice. It seemed to be okay. And we went to South Africa and we just started playing, did the rest of the tour and it was much improved. So it's remained much improved to this day.
Did physical pain — was that part of the cause of the depression? Did it feed depression?
Physical pain is my friend. I pursue it every night for four hours! [Laughs] That makes me feel good! I'm a good Catholic boy! So no, I don't think so. No, no. It didn't have anything to do with it.
Do you feel like there's an extrovert and an introvert within you that sometimes compete?
Yeah, I suppose everyone has that. In me, it's just a lot more noticeable. The extremes are a lot greater. I mean, if you see me performing, you're going, "That guy is simply the most extroverted guy I've ever seen! What a show-off!"
But if you see me very often on a daily basis, and all the while growing up, I was very introverted. Very introverted. So I have sort of the extremes of both of those characteristics.
As you mention in your book, you wanted to write songs that you wouldn't outgrow — that you could sing as an adult, that weren't just kid songs. And done. Accomplished. But when you sing some of your early songs now, as you still do, like "Born To Run," does the song have a different meaning to you than it did when you first started performing it?
We just had a series of concerts where the show was very interesting because we'd start out with my earliest material and we'd play it about half a record off our first record, and then half or three-quarters off of the second record, so it was going back to my earliest music and re-singing my earliest songs that I wrote when I was 22. And it was funny that they just fit perfectly well, you know?
... the wonderful thing about my job is that you can revisit your 22-year-old self or your 24-year-old self any particular night you want.
I sort of gathered the years up as time passes, and you can revisit — the wonderful thing about my job is that you can revisit your 22-year-old self or your 24-year-old self any particular night you want.
The songs pick up some extra resonance, I hope. But still, they're there. And I can revisit that period of my life when I choose, so it's quite a nice experience. And the songs themselves do broaden out as time passes and take on subtly different meanings, take on more meaning, I find.
What's an example of a song that's taken on a different meaning or more meaning for you?
A lot of the ones that are people's favorites, you know. "Born To Run," that expands every time we go out. It just seems that more of your life fills it in, fills in the story, and when we hit it every night, it's always a huge catharsis. It's fascinating to see the audience singing it back to me. It's quite wonderful to see people that intensely singing your song.
As someone who grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in Philadelphia, I love that you've continued to live in New Jersey. Why have you stayed close to the home that your father left? Your father went to the opposite coast when you were a teenager.
It's rather ironic. But I just felt very comfortable here and I was uncomfortable with city life. I didn't consider myself to be built for urban life. I was more or less a kid that came out of a small town and I was a beach bum and loved the ocean and loved the sun and I liked the people that were here. I liked who I was when I was here.
I felt like a lot of my heroes from the past lost themselves in different ways once they had a certain amount of success, and I was nervous about that and I wanted to remain grounded. And living in this part of New Jersey was something that was essential to who I was and continues to this day to be that way.
I wanted to continue writing about the things that I felt were important, and those things were pretty much here. I felt it kept me in close contact with where I came from, which I was interested in doing. I felt like a lot of my heroes from the past lost themselves in different ways once they had a certain amount of success, and I was nervous about that and I wanted to remain grounded. And living in this part of New Jersey was something that was essential to who I was and continues to this day to be that way.
So we've been recording this interview in your home studio. Would you just tell us a little bit about the studio? I mean, it was built for you.
Patti built this studio. She, with some help. This was just part of our garage.
Yes, because I'm looking through a curtain, the curtain's closed now, but when it was open, there was a big vintage car or truck or motorcycle.
Yeah, there's a lot of motorcycles over there.
Most studios don't have a garage attached to it like that.
We're surrounded by vintage automobiles and motorcycles. But this piece of the garage, Patti said, "Well let's make a studio out of it," because we were using the house across the street to record in for a long time. And I said, "Okay, go ahead, see what it's about," and she just did an incredible job building this facility here.
But it's like, if I had died when I was 15 and went to heaven, this is where I think I would have ended up. We're surrounded by guitars, keyboards, recording decks. It's just a paradise.
Bruce Springsteen, I can't thank you enough for inviting us into your studio and allowing us to do this interview. Thank you so much.
Thank you so much, very enjoyable.
And I really loved the book.
Thanks a lot.
Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.