A Long Road To 'High Hopes': An Interview With Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen walked into SIR Studios in Manhattan with the shearling collar on his chocolate-brown bomber jacket popped up. He cracked a joke about the traffic he encountered on the way from New Jersey, tacitly hinting at the Chris Christie-eviscerating skit he and Jimmy Fallon would perform the next night on the comic's late-night show. In the flesh, he looked exactly The Boss, ready for action in an impeccable grey sweatshirt, black jeans and brown boots, his athletic body moving efficiently into the chair opposite his interviewer. He'd made time for a chat before a rehearsal with the E Street Band, to let people know about the new album, High Hopes, out this week.
Springsteen had some things he wanted to say, about his producers and his bandmates, including new member Tom Morello, and the decade or so of recalibrating his own creative style that has resulted in this collection of re-imagined older material and no-longer-lost tracks (listen to the complete interview, with selections from the album, at the audio link on this page). But he was also quick to laugh and ready to listen. He warmed up while talking about other artists — peers like U2, elders like Dylan, and relative newcomers like Jason Isbell and Savages (at one point he got so excited talking about the musicians he's listening to lately that asked for his laptop so he could read names off his playlists) and gave careful consideration to big issues like mortality and more day-to-day matters, like figuring out which new songs work within his legendary live sets.
Careful while discussing the biographical and musical touchstones of his persona, Springsteen didn't show much interest in shoring up the myth of Bruuuuuce. When this overly enthusiastic lifetime fan compared him to Picasso, he raised his eyebrows and mentioned Abbott and Costello instead; when he mentioned that many of his neighbors were affected by the destruction of the twin towers, I interjected, "First responders," but he reminded me that in his wealthy New Jersey township most people work in high finance. Springsteen is aware that he lives among the elite. Yet as a musician, he's still a skilled worker — maybe more so than ever. Our conversation ended with talk of plans, plans, plans: to maintain a steady stream of new releases; to use the Internet for archival and other purposes, and and to keep the E Street Band on the road, if not forever, for a good long time. Until he drops, Springsteen will pay his audience in sweat equity. Though again, he'd deflate any praise for that. When it comes to music, he reminded me, "musicians don't call it working; they call it playing."
Let's start by talking about the title track and how the title track frames the album in a way. It's a cover; it's a song you've done several times in your career. And the album as a whole, it's a new album through which you reflect on a period of your career which I would sort of mark starting around The Rising, maybe.
Yeah, it's a bit of a mixture of things, you know, where it's just music I had that I liked. And I've always got many, many songs running around looking for homes at all times. And I'm always trying to figure out how to give them one, you know. And you know the process: You make a record, and like I said, over the past decade, we've recorded quite a bit but not quite in the style that we had in the '70s and '80s where there were enormous bodies of work that never saw the light of day or songs that never came out. I mean, there's just so much stuff still in the vault, you know. So, [over] the past decade, Brendan [O'Brien, Springsteen's frequent producer] had a more structured environment. In other words, we didn't record something until we were sure we were going to use it on the record or very, very sure. So we didn't go down, record 30 songs or 40 songs, you know. I might have fooled around — well basically I would demo things at home, see if they were worth bringing to his attention and then I would bring them down to Atlanta where we recorded or he'd come up to New Jersey sometimes. And we would select a relatively small body of songs and decide — and usually anything we selected we already knew we were going to be able to make good records of — so that really changed the process a lot.
I think The Risingwas 15 songs and there may have been a few outtakes, you know, not many. The same thing with Magicand Working On a [Dream]. Those were all records that we just simply didn't have a large body of outtakes. So these groups of songs were songs that sort of, you know, this one would have got on except ... "Down In the Hole" would have got on but "Empty Sky" got on or "Harry's Place" would have got on but — I'm not sure, I think we were considering that for Magic — but you know so these were songs that just sort of, just slightly slipped out.
It's like a parallel universe of Bruce Springsteen music.
Slightly, you know, a little bit. So these were all things that I liked a lot that we were planning to have on records and just missed, you know, for whatever the reason might be.
Some of them you recorded in the past, though, yes?
Yeah and there were a lot of unusual things where like I said we have "American Skin" which I cut live.
"[The Ghost of] Tom Joad," obviously.
The past couple of records I tried — well, on Wrecking Ball, we got "Land of Hope and Dreams" out. If I have a song that I feel is really one of my best songs, I like it to have a formal studio recording because I believe that something being officially released on a studio record gives it a certain authority that it doesn't quite have if it comes out on a live album or is just a part of your show, you know.
"The Ghost of Tom Joad," the version that I do with Tom [Morello], was sort of my original realization of it. I originally wrote it as a rock song for the E Street Band and we didn't quite pull it off and that led to The Ghost of Tom Joadacoustic album, but I always had in my mind that, you know, that was its inception. That was how it was originally conceived, so we started to fool around with it onstage. I came up with a version of it and then Tom walked in one night and just exploded the boundaries of the thing and turned it into just something else. So, OK, we need — I want — that on a formal studio recording and I want "American Skin" on a formal studio recording because I think it may be one of my best songs ever, you know, but it's certainly, it needed to be represented outside of the sort of context it was originally presented in and I just, I just still feel deeply, deeply connected to the song.
Then you have to get very good studio recordings of it because the problem you have then is you probably have very good live versions of those things and so you have to come up with something that equals or betters that in some way and that can be very difficult. We spent a lot of time on "The Land of Hope and Dreams" on the Wrecking Ball album because it was difficult to match or beat the live version. We played with it rhythmically, we played with it arrangementally; didn't know if we were gonna get it; didn't know if we had it. And then Bob Clearmountain came up with a mix of it that suddenly presented it to us and we said, "OK, that's great."
Actually, I've been wondering about that. Like when is the click moment for you? Especially with these songs that you are revisiting or are just demos. When does it become not just revisiting something from the past, but you're like, "I'm in a new place, I'm in new territory with material I've had for a while"?
Well, to make it, it has to sound very fresh. It has to sound like, you can't just sort of copy the live performance because it'll kind of lay there, you know. The live performance has an audience and it has the band firing on all eight and so it's not about going in and performing what you did live. Although the version of "American Skin" is pretty close to our live version but then Tom enters the picture and he just does something slightly different with it, you know, he just creates a certain ambiance. And then also Ron Aniello, who's been my current producer, goes in and there's subtle things in the rhythm and little loops we may use and it just suddenly it begins to breathe a life of its own and I go, "OK, this is going to sound really good on record."
Do you have to let go at some point? I mean do you have to step back? Your own ego has to retreat and allow for these collaborations ...
I never let that happen. [Laughs] But what I have gotten used to doing is I do delegate a lot more in the studio than I used to, which is nice because I don't think I could work the way I did in my 20s when I, we had a little bit of the half-blind leading the blind in that we all went in and just recorded until a record happened.
I remember reading you would be sleeping in the studio in your coat.
Oh, yeah. It was terrible, you know. In truth, it was awful, an awful way to make records but it was the only way we knew how. Everybody simply suffered through it and the endless, endless, endless hours I can't begin to explain.
We thank you for those hours.
But it was just what it took at the time, you know, I was just very, very much more controlling at the time so I was always there and I always had my hand in everything. Where today, now, you know it's very similar even with the live show, where I, over the years, have gathered a team of people, where you find people who, when you leave, will advance your thought processes and then come up with things you would not have thought of and you can come back then and you can edit what you feel is great and what you feel might not work. Brendan O'Brien kind of invented this for us in the modern era. It was very simple. He was the producer. I was not the producer. I was not the producer because I didn't know how to produce well anymore, you know. I kind of ran out of steam in the '80s and you need people who are making a lot of records with a lot of different groups, young and old, who are very current with the way records are sounding at a given moment and also creative with it. So really when Brendan stepped in, he had an idea about the way that the E Street Band should sound in the studio in 2000.
And you could be open to that? You felt ready?
Well, yeah, because I had no idea where to go next. I had gone in and attempted to record the band in 1998 and it just wasn't very good. The only nice thing that came out of it was the version of "The Wall" that is on this record, you know, that was cut at that time. But everything else just sort of laid there, you know. It just wasn't exciting, you know. And so Brendan was the guy who, he kind of reignited our recording process through a very different sonic landscape, you know. And he brought us back to our roots in that we recorded on 24-track tape with the bass and the drums and he just had a way of recording things that made things sound exciting. And he made you excited then, you know. So then I excitedly went home and wrote more songs to bring back.
Your producer is always your first audience. So, you know, Mr. [Jon] Landau [Springsteen's longtime manager] has been my first and primary audience for many, many, many, many years — he still is — but your producer is also your first audience. He's the first guy you play the song for, he's the first guy you are seducing with the music that you've written — you're trying to get him excited about what he thinks he can do with it — and then it just, you know, it just starts to become cumulatively explosive, you know. So Brendan was a new audience. He was very different than Mr. Landau in the sense that he would rarely, he never asked about any of the lyrics — that wasn't his primary concern. The entire time we cut The Rising, we never mentioned what the album might be about at all.
No. All we did was go in and make the music, you know. He was just, if it was exciting coming out of the speakers ... and he had an instinct for lyric in that he'd say, "No, we need another line here. We need another chorus here. We need something that rhymes with 'orange,' " or whatever, you know. And so he had an internal instinct for what felt right, you know.
I wonder if it's voicing, like lyrics. I find it shocking that you never talked about lyrics, especially on that album which, to me, meant so much for all of us — but also was a shift for you into a new phase of thinking about your main subject matter. But voicing what you're saying, it's not like the written word, it's what's coming from your mouth.
Well, we probably would have talked about them if they were bad, you know. I think generally he would say, "Whoa," you know, "I'm not sure that one's working." It just meant that that part of what we were doing was OK, you know, it was acceptable. He was very performance-oriented. We wouldn't perform a lot. We would play things six or seven times, maybe; maybe less depending on what we had going. You would only sing it that many times, you wouldn't sing it a lot. We made those records in about three weeks.
And you know mixed them in a week. So all of those ...
Like The Beatles or something.
Yeah, most of my early, most of my records of this past decade return to the way that we cut Greetings From Asbury Park.And Greetings From Asbury Parkwas cut in three weeks and that was generally Brendan's style. He could do it another way, but he would grow impatient if something wasn't working out. And rather than sit there and dwell on the myriad reasons and also the simple reasons for our existence on Earth — rather than do that, he would say, "Let's try something else."
It was a practical ...
And we would simply move to another part or another song and then we would come back and revisit it on another day, you know. So it was a very different recording process and it was one that I needed because I had to get out of my own way by the end of the '90s. I just, I simply needed to remove myself from the technical aspect of the recording process, let somebody else do their job, do what they're very good and well-known for. And he'd produced Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine and those were good archetypes for where we were, wanted to go at that time, you know. I felt that I had a band that still had a lot more to say, we had a lot of currency in us, we had a new voice and I needed someone to help me present that. So he was very, very critical both in all the many, many things that we did not do that we had done previously and in new things that we needed to do that we didn't any longer know how to do well ourselves.
Well, just on the subject of The Rising[and Sept. 11], the song "Down in the Hole" on this new album, which to me is one of the centerpieces, I've wondered if that event, I don't know, when you think about artists, there are some times with their careers — Picasso with Guernica,Aretha Franklinwith the death of Martin Luther King — their lives are changed by a moment in history, their artistic vision is changed. And I'm projecting onto you that perhaps ...
More like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, that might be, I think we better take it down a notch.
Fair enough. But do you think the world is different now? I mean, obviously the world is different but how is the change in America after Sept. 11, how has that impacted your writing and the period that this album High Hopesreflects?
I live here, so I was interested. When I was very, very young, I decided that I was gonna catalogue my times because that's what other people who I admired did. That's what Bob Dylan did, that's what Frank Sinatra did, Hank Williams did, in very different ways. You know, The Beatles did, The Rolling Stones did. So I enjoyed artists that engaged in their worlds and then created some reflection of it that people could meditate upon and think upon. So that was just, to me, I was just continuing along doing what I was doing. But I also happen to come from an area that was very hard hit in 9/11. Monmouth County lost a lot of ...
A lot of good folks that worked up there and so it was very, very present. And you know, you knew women who lost their husbands and these were people who I'd known quite regularly and so it was very, very much a part of our area, you know, it being an area where so many people commuted. And so that had, I'm sure that had something to do with it also. And I mean, you know the day the twin towers were burning, I drove, you know, 10 minutes from my home and I stood on the Sea Bright Bridge and they sit right in the middle of that bridge when you stand in the middle of that bridge and there it was and you know the entire skyline turned yellow and gray and you know it was a very ... it was just something, you were there.
I was there. I was in Brooklyn so I totally remember. On "Down in the Hole," your kids are credited as singing backup on the song.
This is hilarious. My daughter, the other day — she had to sign a release. Of course, I doubt she remembers even [singing]. I think she was 8 years old when she did it, she's like 20 now. But she said, "What is this?" I said, "You're a recording artist. You have to like sign this." "Really?" "Yeah." "Oh, cool." Patti [Scialfa] sings fabulously on that track, first of all, she just did amazing things with her voice on it. And the kids did some sort of very ghosty part behind her or with her and they were very young and I, at the time, I recorded them on several things, some of which haven't been released but were just, they had a beautiful sound the three of them when they sang together at that time. And occasionally they still do and so I just brought them in and said, "OK, try this," and they put the big headsets on and they took a swing at it and they're on the record.
I mean, to me it worked so well because it's a song about, I mean, is that person searching for a family member? It brings your own family into it, I think. It's very powerful.
Yeah. It was just, it was a nice thing for them. And she was excited. She said, "Oh, boy." I'm not sure she gets paid.
In this day and age, who knows. Let's talk about your other family, the band, and I mean the band has grown to many, many members now. And one of the interesting things about this project is it is in a way a conversation with yourself about past material, a conversation with Tom, but also across all the members of your band. And I'm just wondering about that dynamic right now and thinking about how it has evolved over the past decade.
It's the best it's ever been, you know. And we're very lucky. You know, most bands don't work out. A small unit democracy is very, very difficult. Very, very difficult. And as you can see, there's very, very few exceptions. I think U2 are perhaps the other version where it works, I've seen it work. And they're all exceptional people, you know.
For U2, I think there is a way that the band is a sacred unit and keeping it going ...
There was a bit of a Christian streak that ran through what they did and just, they're a different bunch of guys than you usually run into. And so they've managed, they've had the temperament to make that work. And also they're very interdependent, and that's a key. The wonderful thing about rock music is even if you hate the other person, sometimes you need him more, you know. In other words if he's the guy that made that sound, he's the guy that made that sound and without that guy making that sound, you don't have a band, you know. And sometimes that keeps bands together in a way that's nice for us, [but] probably very hard for many of them.
I think of The Everly Brothers, you know, fighting, feuding.
Well everybody. The Everly Brothers, Sam & Dave, Simon & Garfunkel. I mean, it's the rule, not the exception. You're not really family, but you're kind of, it's almost worse, you know, because not only do you live together, you have to work together. The only way I can explain it is imagine if the people you went to high school with, you have worked with those same five people that were in your math class and you're 60 and those are the same exact people that you've worked with every single day of your life.
And sleep with them on a bus.
Yeah. Or in the same bunks or same beds for many, many years. So the opportunity for overfamiliarity is very great. But it's kind of wonderful the way that different groups work it out, you know. And it's difficult but it's just, that's what a band is; a band is that thing. Whether it's Creedence Clearwater [Revival], whether it's The Rolling Stones, whether it's The Who, or the two young guys, the guys from Oasis. You know, it's like, it makes for very — The Kinks — there was something that each guy did that was not replaceable, it was not replaceable.
Is that why you definitely included Danny [Federici] and Clarence [Clemons] on this recording, too? The voices had to be there?
No, they just happened to play on those records, you know. And our band was pretty lucky in that, you know, we, I signed as a solo act. We weren't a democracy. We were kind of a relatively benevolent dictatorship where you could hear other voices and take them into account but at the end of the day it was kind of, it was OK with everybody that sort of, that the decision always came down to what I felt was right. And even then, you know, we had our own difficulties. And we stopped playing together for 10 years, partially because I had run out of ideas as to exactly where to take the band next but also, I think people were a little tired of one another. Which was just a normal thing to have occurred. And we were still in our late 30s and there's so many small things that enter into it. So when we took the decade off, when people came back, people realized, oh, this was like one of the best things of my life and this guy over there — you had new respect for everyone. I had new respect for the band. I had experienced playing without them and I said, "Well, these guys are elemental to something that I do." And I think it went all around. Everybody looked at the other guy and said, "Oh, I think we need that guy." People gave each other more room and at the same time, a lot of the smallness disappeared because everybody realized it was just unnecessary. And we had the greatest, we've had the greatest 10 or 12 years, in my opinion, you know, as far as just a living, working band that we've ever had. That's why the band is as good as it is onstage.
And you know, when Clarence passed away, it was obviously very sad but I know that he was very, very happy the last decade that we played. He loved playing, he loved performing. And that we were able to get back to do it and do it for the 10 years that we did it was, it was a wonderful thing for the two of us. And I know that he was always just concentrating on the next gig and how he could make it. So we've been very, very fortunate. Part of it was by design in that we were not a democracy, but we were not a solo act either. We were something in between, you know, and that in-between thing has been what's made us special and it's been very exciting.
The thought of an in-between space makes me want to talk about gospel music. And I know that you had an idea of doing a whole gospel project. We heard some of it on Wrecking Ball and we hear some of it on this album with "Heaven's Wall." I'm a great student of gospel music and I can see where that kind of call-response thing [is] really like the preacher leading a choir.
Well, sure. That was where James Brown came from. The preacher, he's the original frontman. It's the shaman. If you go back, that was the original unit that functioned like that, whether it was in church or whether it was tribal. So the frontman kind of grew out of that thing and so it all gets thrown back to roots in blues and gospel music in church.
But what was your idea for a gospel project? Because I know you've talked in the past about getting this religious impulse to work in a way that it's not restrictive or judgmental, you know. We talked about U2. They do a similar thing. And I hear that in songs like "Heaven's Wall" and even in some of your protest music, the version of "41 Shots" that's on the album, there's a lament quality to it, you know, and a trying-to-transcend quality.
Without overusing the word, you know, there's a Christian element that runs through it because I grew up Catholic and so I was indoctrinated in religious language between eight o'clock and nine o'clock every single morning for the first eight years of my schooling. Five days a week, every single morning, the first thing you did was religion. And so you grew up with that language and it was, of course, distorted, and screwed me up terribly, but at the same time, it made for good writing. And it was a wonderful source of metaphor when you went to write about the world and about your inner life and it served me. I suppose looking back on it, I would like to change some things but I wouldn't have had that any other way in that it's served me very, very well and continues to do so. I have a very deep connection to gospel music. I understand the language — I feel I understand the essence of the music itself.
Jay Z and I performed together for President Obama in Ohio and we were both on the same bill. I was playing acoustic and he had his group, you know. And the audience was filled with some of his fans and some of my fans. And his was a big arena — it was like 20,000 people. There were actually some people who'd probably come to see the president, right? So I'm coming out first and I'm gonna play acoustically and it was, you know, I thought "Promised Land" and I thought maybe "Land of Hopes and Dreams." And it was fascinating as I watched the crowd who — I knew a lot of them had not heard my music before — but who understood the language I was speaking in because it was very gospel-based — you know, "Promised Land" — and the issues that were involved. So that was a fascinating afternoon. It was a great afternoon for me because I got to stand onstage and there were young black kids and there were some older black folks. It was very, you know, multiracial and it was just a great afternoon. And I got to watch people sort of experience some of this, my songs in their bare bones for the first time.
Well, you were talking earlier about how you and Brendan have worked with beats or I know on some of the songs [the credits read] "loops by Bruce Springsteen." This shows an influence perhaps of hip-hop or at least of the technology of hip-hop and I wonder if at some point in your listening, because I know that you listen to everything and one of the things I treasured about your South By Southwest talk that you gave was how you erase genre and you said, "We should embrace everything that sounds right to our ears," and I wondered if hip-hop was something at some point that kind of, the light went on for you and you got it or how does that work in relationship to you?
Well it was so present, you know. At one moment particularly you had "White Lines" and this was stuff that was talking about what was going on in the streets and in the inner cities with people who were struggling. And that was something that, I mean, I had my own context for that, you know, that I wrote about it in my own way. But it was the music that came along and gave voice to those things outside of what was then considered a protest music context, you know, and did so really beautifully. And so, you know, I'm not well-versed in it but I have listened over the years. You know, Public Enemy, Notorious B.I.G., I listened to Tupac, I listen to Kanye West. Kanye West is incredible, you know. I mean, the record-making facility, you know, there's a lot of hours in those records and they're ...
He's a perfectionist like you.
I mean some of these, there's like, just the production. And I saw him on television, he did the song called "Blood on the Leaves" on the Later...With Jools Holland — it was fantastic, you know. He's a very, I still find him very interesting. I'm not necessarily driving [to] it in my car, you know. I probably fall back on the stuff that I listened to as a kid or something if I'm driving around. But I do listen. I listen to a lot because there's a lot of information in it and it's just fascinating record-making.
Well the dual side or the flip coin of hip-hop might be country. And you know "Hunter of Invisible Game" for some reason, that song gives me a Hank feeling, a Hank Williams feeling.
The loneliness, you know, I don't know but I know you love that kind of roots country and I wondered if there was a way you were still feeling that. There was a particular period in your history too, I know, when you turned to that music.
Well, country music is kind of where rock music has gone really at this point, you know. It's basically kind of pop-rock music, you know. It's where rock music continues to have a certain currency.
So it's kind of fascinating to hear country music now because, with the exception of the twang occasionally in the guitar and the voice, it's really, it's very much sort of '80s rock music or something. And it's an interesting genre because bad country music is some of the worst in the world, you know, but great country music is some of the best. My daughter got into a lot of new country music and she would kind of play it on the way to school on occasion and I got into a lot of some of the new guys. I like some of the Toby Keith records, Kenny Chesney.
Toby's got that workingman's thing.
Yeah and when he gets the song, when he's at his A game, it's really good, you know. When it's done, you know, I'm still back with George Jones and Conway Twitty and Lefty Frizzell. That's sort of my go-to, but there's a lot of good young country guys out there. Let me get my computer because I have all my stuff and I don't remember everybody's name. I have a lot of different playlists and things.
I would love to know what you're listening to now. But I'm wondering, [in the meantime about] that sort of sense of loneliness in that song particularly, "Hunter of Invisible Game." I wonder how you cultivate that mood of like solitariness that's always been such an essential part of your music for me.
That's not hard to do, you know, that's my fallback position in life in general.
Is it really? I would have thought you were kind of a team player in some ways.
That took me a long time. The team wasn't so interested in me.
[He pulls laptop out of his bag and sets it on the table next to his chair. It drops on the floor.]
Whoops. I'm crashing my computer now. So it took a long time to sort of go there. I had to get used to being good company for myself for a long time, which is good because every artist begins as an angry, isolated outsider in one way or another. I don't know anybody who's started some other way that I can think of. I mean, maybe there is.
I'm thinking about R&B and soul. Sometimes that, the people who come out of ...
You're right. I think that might be, those roots might be different because they come up out of community and church. So I think that's a very different context. But I think for a lot of young — certainly blue collar — but young rock musicians ...
And male musicians. Let's just point out, I mean, that's a very, the solitary male, you know, that's definitely an icon in rock music.
Yeah, I've worked that one as hard as I can, you know.
I'm really curious about the song "Harry's Place." Can I just ask a specific question about that? It's about the production. To me, it strikes me as almost psychedelic. It's a fantasy song to me.
And people always talk about Bruce Springsteen as a naturalist, you know, telling the real stories.
Maybe they should check out Greetings From Asbury Park.
I love the dream aspect of what you do. And I'm wondering if you can talk about the role of what dream and fantasy play in what you do.
It's everything, of course. I mean, that's all we're doing, really, we're living in the world but it's all sort of dreams and it's all illusion. It's theater; it's not real. We're making up stories, you know, and people tend to run into you and believe you are your characters. And I suppose the funny thing is the longer you go, you do become sort of some version of them. You both diverge from them, you know, you live, but you also permanently inhabit that geography and that mental space and so you do morph a little bit. We do become what we imagine. And certainly this was the place, America was the place where you go and do that. And I mean really, my thing was very, very new. The characters in my songs were really my father's life. I mean, it's not my life. My life was, it was Inside Llewyn Daviswith a happy ending, you know. I was, you know, I was that guy. I was the guy sleeping on the couch in midtown and taking the subway to Greenwich Village and I kind of caught the last tiny bit of the folk boom and you know I auditioned for John Hammond at The Gaslight [Cafe] and met David Blue. David Blue took me to meet Jackson Browne at The Bitter End when he was promoting his first record. And then he took me out and I met Odetta and I opened for Dave Van Ronk at Max's Kansas City. So I caught the very tail end of that thing you know with John Hammond.
But what about the punk side?
And I caught the beginning of that because I would open for Dave Van Ronk and if I missed my bus back to New Jersey, I had to go back to Max's. And when I went back to Max's, at 1 or 2 a,m., the New York Dolls were playing upstairs.
And I'd never seen anything like it. They were great, you know. And so it was, I sat in this strange fulcrum between both something that was at its very end and something that was really just beginning. And so I saw the Dolls, this was 1973 I think. It had to be because I was playing solo acoustically. I mean, it was very, very early, you know. Or  or somewhere in there, you know.
That's the right period, I think.
And so that was all going on downstairs. I never became a part of the downstairs scene at Max's. I just sort of took my bus in and went and did my gig and then I would run to get on the last bus back to New Jersey.
What about Suicide and covering "Dream Baby Dream" in a way that I think Alan Vega never would have done. I mean, let's be honest.
Well, I just loved them when I first heard them and I loved him, you know. I still think, he was a cross between sort of, it was futuristic and visionary and yet it was completely authentically rockabilly. And he was like Elvis if Elvis had been, you know, been sort of born in the mid-'70s or something. So they were always very, and he was incredibly, really, I don't know. He just manifested something that was always very mystifying and raw.
And very sexy and very, very rebellious and they were very brave because, you know, they were very provocative in their day and the audiences I'm sure you know took it out on them from time to time. So they were just gutsy. It was just the real thing for me. And I wasn't gonna, you know, that wasn't where I was making my day but it was something that when I heard it, it really moved me a lot. And like I said, I think they should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Hopefully it will happen.
And I think they're very, I think they're becoming more influential as time passes. I think this group Savages just did a cover of "Dream Baby Dream" also.
You know, you were talking about how artists become their own fictions. But then, thinking about "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and especially "41 Shots," and thinking about the Trayvon Martin story of this past year, you were also talking about people who don't have a chance to transcend their fictions. And I wonder if that, those kinds of stories interested you more in these recent years? It seems to.
I just think that when you kind of grow up, I believe everything that I've written about kind of comes from the psychology of my childhood in the sense that I lived in an interesting house, you know, and I've said this many times. I lived in a house where somebody was very fulfilled by their work and a house where somebody was very lost in the workplace and struggled very hard to keep their head above water. And it was a house that, you know, it was the finance company that kept us floating month to month just barely, you know.
So I saw that happen and it was a bit of, you know, sons and fathers. It's the old thing. Somebody asked T-Bone Burnett once what was rock 'n' roll: "Daddy," you know, somebody crying, "Daddy!" The whole sons and fathers thing — it'll never stop. I suppose it's somewhat boring at this point in time but the bottom line is it just is. Funny, when I went to work, you know I've said in the past, what did I do? I put on my father's clothes, really. I didn't put on my clothes. You know, when I began to craft a larger image than the one I started with in the early '70s, I very much crafted it. I used to have a funny dream, you know, where I would be in the audience while I was playing and I would somehow end up wandering down the aisle and I would come to my father's seat. And he would be sitting there with my mother alongside of him and this would be in the middle of the arena while the show was going on and I remember kneeling down and I would say, "Dad," I would point and say, "That's you. That's you." I said, "That's how I see you."
That's a very classic American literary [thing] — I've been reading John Updike lately and I feel like it's in that kind of midcentury novel as well. Trying to figure out your place in the lineage. But the songs on this record, the political songs, especially working with Tom, who's so political, I wonder if you've changed to think about broader identities beyond this one focus on your own.
You know, Tom's very active — much more than I am. And he's just a fascinating character. But Steve [Van Zandt], Steve had a whole stretch of where he made nothing but political records.
Now the funny thing is, Steve and I have gone full circle. Steve in the '70s, on the Southside records, says, "No politics in music. That's a mistake," he says. And then, the guys have often credited our first trip to Europe and Steve is often credited as turning him around politically because together we went to East Berlin, you know, and this was in 1980 and it was pretty grim. And Steve has always said that that trip, going through Europe in the 1980s, affected him and he then made political music for a decade and continues to be very, very active — more than myself.
Recently the death of Nelson Mandela reminded us of what he did, you know.
And "Sun City." So I've had that around me for a long time, really. I had Steve and then of course Tom so it just means we fit well together and we find a place where we, you know, have a lot of commonality and we draw from that. And I mean Tom suggested "High Hopes" which really kind of sits in with a lot of that music. I think he dug out "Hunter of Invisible Game," too. I think Brendan had played that for him at some point when I wasn't in the studio. You know, Brendan produced Tom also. And then, just, those are places where he and I naturally gathered, you know.
And I gather in different places with different members of the band, which is why the band is so nice at this point. It's lovely, I have so many places to go to. Everybody is underutilized. I have to apologize to the guys. I mean, we have four great guitar players. Everybody — really with the exception of me — subsumes their ego to the greater whole.
Soozie [Tyrell] has some great moments on this record.
Oh, yeah. And Patti, you know Patti's records have been completely, in my opinion, completely underrated. If people go back and listen to the last record she made, Jesus, I thought that the writing was like Dusty in Memphis. You know it was just a lovely, lovely record and great singing. And so everybody sort of is, and I have to thank them for it because everybody comes out and they work as an ensemble at my service and it's a gift that they give me and it's very nice.
I wanted to ask you also about "Frankie Fell in Love" as a potential live highlight, you know, because it's just such a fun song. It's that classic, I can just see the crowd rocking to it and everything.
I'm hoping so, yes.
Are there songs like that that you know you're gonna bring them into the room and it's gonna become a moment?
Yeah. And sometimes that doesn't happen.
Have you been disappointed by [the reaction to] your own songs?
"This one, people are gonna love this one!" And you go out and you play it and it's like, "Eh, OK, that was all right." You're not always right. I had some songs that I thought were gonna become part of the body of the set and sometimes they did and sometimes they didn't. It didn't mean that they weren't great songs. Maybe I didn't present [them correctly]. And then also songs have lives where they don't truly reveal themselves [until] 10 years later.
Like what? What's one?
"The Ghost of Tom Joad," [which] suddenly became a really large song on our last couple of tours. So the songs reveal themselves at different moments and when you maybe have a chance to interpret them better. But sometimes you go in and you go, "Oh this one's gonna kill live! I can't wait 'til we get out and play this thing live!" And sometimes that happens; it doesn't happen all time. Sometimes you get out there and you're playing, playing and it's just, you go, "Well."
You see a dull look in the eyes of the audience?
Well, it's just, you don't see sort of the explosion you thought was gonna occur. But we'll see, you know, so, we'll see what happens.
The Saints' song that you covered — you were in Australia when you made this. So, the Saints. I loved it because I have a friend that has a son named Bailey after Chris Bailey. No one ever knows who he's named after. I was like, "Yes, you're covering the Saints!" But I also wondered — that's a band that's very influenced by Bruce Springsteen. When you cover a band who's influenced by you, are you in dialogue with yourself?
I don't think they were, you know. I mean, they started out as a pretty hardcore punk band with "(I'm) Stranded." And then later, they made lovely record that "Just Like Fire Would" was on. That never reminded me of me, I just thought it was great and I loved that song, you know. So but you know, everyone steals from everyone else.
That's the business.
And stealing well is, there's a genius to it. And you know, when it's done well, I mean, I can hear groups that have been influenced by us but they're themselves, you know, who do beautiful work.
And Brian, I know Brian Fallon from The Gaslight Anthem, he was a fan but he does something, he just manifests something that's completely his. I've played with his band onstage a few times and I love doing it. It's just wonderful. We played in Asbury Park at Convention Hall one night and we did "American Slang" and it was just great. You hear little bits of [your music in other songs] but then they take it to another place. They take it to a place where you wouldn't have taken it, you know. And that's what you hope for. When you're playing, you hope that somebody hears your voice, is interested in what you're doing and then gathers whatever they think might be of value in it and then moves it down the line. And we're all part of sort of that, being a musician is, as Patti and I often discuss, it's a wonderful thing. You're a part of a long, long line of the continuity and of wonderful things and people who've made magic and enlightened people and excited people and changed the way people thought, looked, dressed, acted, behaved, thought about themselves, thought about their country, thought about their town, thought about how they wanna be who they wanna be.
You know, Against Me! I just heard a song they did, "Black Me Out," it's a fantastic song, you know. And so, any time where you feel you may have dropped a seed or two that someone picked up in any way is, it's just a pleasure. I mean it's like, "Oh yeah, I did that little part of my work well," in that this was an assistance and someone went and made something beautiful of their own or crazy of their own about it or whatever, however it comes out.
It's that gospel impulse that we were talking about, that connecting, making a line through history.
Yeah, I mean, you go down, I'm sure you know, the Seeger Sessions Band, I could see doing a gospel record with that group of musicians. You know, with "O Mary, Don't You Weep," and "Jacob's Ladder."
I'd love it.
I'd love to do a project like that at some point. And you know so it, you never know where something's gonna go and it comes up in places where you least expect it and that's where it's always the most fun. You know, it's always quite wonderful.
[Looks down at his laptop]
My computer's still working after I crashed it. OK, "Traveling Alone," by Jason Isbell. I believe he was a part of the Drive-By Truckers. He's got a lovely solo record out himself. There's a gal called, hold on, let me see here. I'm gonna plug some people here because I love their records.
I love that Jason Isbell, it's one of my favorite records of the year.
Slim Dunlap, Slim Dunlap is fantastic. He was a part of The Replacements and he made two fabulous rock records that were just really, deeply soulful and beautiful.
I think he had a stroke not long ago.
Yeah I don't know what his health condition is at the moment but I know some folks were cutting some things of his. I hope I get a chance to cut one of his songs because he's, it's just, this stuff, check out the two Slim Dunlap records because they're just so beautiful, they're just beautiful rock 'n' roll records. I found them to be deeply touching and emotional. Kristina Train: very Dusty Springfield. There's a song called "Dark Black" that's fantastic. I love that. And let me see who else I can plug here while I'm rolling.
Yeah, yeah! My kids thought it was hilarious. "Dad! There's like a song, like your name is in it!" And it was a good song, too, so it was nice. And I wrote him a letter, I said we all got a kick out of it, you know. It was a lovely song. It was fun.
What's cool about that song is it did use your name but it wasn't like a tribute to you. It was just about how they listened to you while they made out, you know.
That's as good as it gets, you know. I mean the verses were really lovely, wonderfully done. So you're thinking of a guy in the '80s and you're making that music and you know that's what you want, to be the music someone's making out to, you know, at least, that's what you hope to be.
They've been indie mainstays. Jersey! They're from Jersey!
How about if you wanna give us any like classic, soul, R&B stuff you've been listening to that you love. I mean, I know that we could name the expected but can we go off the beaten track?
Yeah, I'll find something that's a little different. Alright, 8th Day. Check out 8th Day. "She's Not Just Another Woman." "You've Got To Crawl Before You Walk." I like, of course, I've got, I have a thing here somewhere that is ...
When you listen to blues, do you tend to like like Bobby Bland style urban blues? Are you into the country blues? Or is there a mix?
I like both. Yeah, I like both of those things a lot. It depends on the mood you're in, you know.
What else have I got here?
I feel that you've become a more soulful singer as you've gotten older.
I'm still a pretender but I'm getting better at it and my voice has actually gotten better. I can sing a little more in tune as I've gotten older. I think the older you get, the deeper you slip into some of those roots but perhaps you just with age, you gain more in common with actually the people who made some of those records. Because occasionally, if I get the right song, I can do OK with it. We do this song called "Back In Your Arms" — there's a nice version we did on the last tour where I'm like, I'm getting pretty close, that sounds pretty close.
I feel like "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" was a song like that too. It had such a classic sound.
Oh yeah, that's just a fun you know, my Spector, pop [song]. That's a song I thought people were gonna love, you know. And a lot of people did I guess, but it didn't become a very big part of our show. It was one of my favorites of recently, you know.
Yeah, what else you got there, kid? Anything else? Or am I gonna go rehearse?
Anybody, shout out questions. That's why we're here.
We talked about gospel, we talked about the band, we talked about the religious stuff I wanted to ask you about. You know, I have serious questions and I have fun questions, you know. I like the fun questions a little better.
Let's do those.
I love The Fleshtones. They're awesome. I mean I guess one thing I'd ask you, you've talked about you and Tom having this thing, it's like he's inspired you, but I mean a lot of it just seems like you're having fun with him and, like, he's an unpredictable performer. What's been the most surprising thing, or was there a moment onstage where you were like, "Where are we going with this?"
Yeah. Well, you know, musicians don't call it working; they call it playing. There's a reason. You haven't actually worked an honest day in your life, you know, or you may play very hard and perform very hard, but don't kid yourself. And so it's, and Tom just comes on and yeah he'll start and sometimes I don't know where he's going. Jackson Browne came backstage and said, "Hey, Tom Morello, that's funny," he says. "Well the E Street Band builds a pretty big house when we get out there at night." And he says, "Yeah when Tom Morello comes out, he builds another room on it." And I think, yeah, that's what he does; he builds another room. In other words he just brings things sonically in that we haven't had and don't have and those things are surprising. And you know he's a visionary guitarist, you know.
You also let him sing on the record.
Well, he sings real good. He's got a nice baritone. He's not a tenor, he's a baritone voice and when you catch the right thing, he's a powerful vocalist. He really, you know, makes it work, you know. So he kind of takes the band sonically some place [new]. Really the reason the record exists is I had that material. He came along and he kind of brought something to it that moved it to another level and made it feel like, "Oh yeah, this is current and this is something I'd like my fans to hear." It just brought it into a tighter focus and made it very exciting.
Is there something on this record that's sparking the next project for you or are you not in that head space yet?
Everything is always doing, I have, you know, five or six different projects I'm working on. Some of it's archival, some of it's new, some of it's kind of in the vein of songs, like on this record, that I've had that I'm trying to find a home for. And it depends on what I'm able to realize next, you know. Sort of like what we do next depends on what is bringing itself to conclusion or fruition. [For] some things I need to write some songs. It depends on what comes up as you go. You know, things'll happen on this tour. I don't know what's gonna happen yet but we may at one point have the entirety of the E Street Band onstage, possibly in Africa, which would be fun because that's a mighty unit at this point. Now we have an open-door policy where people have other lives and do some things.
Television stars, things like that.
And that's worked well but we may, we're gonna, we'll see. You never know what's really, where it's all gonna go until you get out there.
And Jake [Clemons] is working out well on the horn?
Yeah, he came in very gracefully. Took an impossible position and it was partly, because he understood what Clarence was, what he meant, what those solos meant. And you know, he's who people felt who he was the minute he stepped out. He's a very smart but also very soulful young guy who makes lovely music of his own but deeply understands the band and the stakes that we try to play for. And that was very important because I got DVDs by a lot of guys that could play circles around the moon and I sat there one morning and Patti was sitting there and I was going, she was going, "Nope, nope, nope, nope." It had nothing to do with the playing. The guys were playing their asses off, you know. And I knew what she was saying. She was saying it somehow has to remain family in some way, you know? And particularly I think Clarence would have — he mentioned Jake to me a few times and he said, "I have a nephew. He plays very well." And he brought Jake with him on tour. [He] didn't play; he just kind of hung with Clarence and I think he might have, looking back on it now I think he might have had him there — I think it was when Clarence wasn't feeling that well. So it was just, we were ... somebody up there likes me, that's all I can say.
Well it's that lineage thing. And I guess this is sort of how I'd like to wrap it up, asking sort of a hard question, which is that you have said, I think in that Rolling Stone interview you did, in certain recent interviews you've given, you keep mentioning this image of the light at the end of the tunnel.
Why would you not.
Now I have to say, you are one of the more fit performers that I have seen.
It's like the guys that keel over during the marathon. They're fit, too, I'm sure. It's like, hey man, no one knows what tomorrow brings. That is the only thing I know. And once you're my age, there's quite a few folks missing already, alright? And from 50 on out it only increases as time passes by. I lost my two great-aunts this year — my mother lost her two sisters — they were our living, breathing connection to the old world in Italy and they were a core, you know, it's, I can't explain it. It was an enormous loss; they were amazing people. Not to mention friends, not to mention people who are struck with really serious and often debilitating illness. It's just like you reach a certain part of your life and it becomes a part of your life. I lived with Clarence for the last decade and he struggled to get along. And Danny also. It's just a part of the day and so I always, I use that image as motivation for sort of, I'm a bit more interested in working.
I believe the band's gonna be playing for a great deal longer, all right, but not forever anymore, as you felt when you were 32 years old. You realize, OK, there's a finiteness. There's a moment now when we go to Europe and there's a new group of 16-year-old kids who I know are seeing the band for the first time, or people in their mid-30s and 40s never saw the band until 2000, who, you know, I've seen at 50 shows already. So now when I go and we get these really young kids and we get a lot of them overseas, you know, I realize, these kids will have never seen the band with Clarence or will have never seen the band with Danny and they will outlive us by many, many years, you know, and so tonight is our night with them. And so you're playing for an audience who will significantly outlive you now which is kind of both wonderful and bittersweet and I look forward to doing that a lot longer.
Leonard Cohen is still going.
Yeah and he's fantastic.
Oh my god. He's better than he was. I mean, I count three-hour shows! He might top you in terms of length!
Yeah, you know. I played with The Stones last year and I had a wonderful night and they played great and it was just lovely having them onstage and seeing them there. It meant a great deal to me. It's just, it's part of the landscape, you know. And it's nice, it gives you a little extra motivation. And also my kids have kind of all slightly moved out of the house now so you know you have a little bit more time.
So the rehearsals could go all night long now? You're not keeping the kids up.
It could if we wanted to. I don't think anybody wants to anymore. And we don't need to. But I think that it's like, "Wow, I have all of these things I'm interested in." I would like to put something out every year at this point. There's no reason [not to]. The first contract I signed, I was supposed to put an album out every six months. Those were the days.
That's how it was, right? I mean, The Beatles.
An album out every six months. And that's what you were supposed to do! I signed, I agreed. And you know the first year I did! And so I would certainly like to put a project out a year.
Do you look at Pearl Jam, bands like that that do a lot of things on the Internet. I know you talked to someone about that, bootleg series type stuff.
Yeah, we're looking into doing more of that also. I think I'd like to get an archival series going in some way. I'd like to make things more available through the Internet. The Internet has become our friend, you know. We went to South America — hadn't been to South America in 25 years — we played for a lot of people. And I guarantee you very few of them had ever seen us before but I was shocked by how knowledgeable they were about the band. The first night we went into Santiago, Chile, and I realized after a few songs: "I got it. The Internet." In other words, if you're anywhere today, you're everywhere. There's no such thing as having not gone someplace anymore. We sold 40,000 seats like the first day in Johannesburg. We've never been there. But you've been there somehow, because someone wants to come and see you. So the Internet now is something that I'm becoming very interested in and trying to find ways of just, you know, getting more music out there. I mean, I'm not gonna be, you know I'm not gonna be tweeting. Somebody tweeted — I think I have someone that tweets for me, you know — "Real men don't tweet" or something. I don't know, something. But someone has tweeted in my name.
Do you have concerns? Some musicians are concerned about piracy or issues around that with the Internet but you seem to be very eager.
I knew that when the smartest man in the music business that I knew was selling headsets, I knew that you were going to have to stop worrying about that completely. It's like my buddy, "Jimmy [Iovine], what are you gonna do about music?" "I'm gonna sell headsets." You're always concerned about it. And look, I think for somebody like me, it's a lot less of an issue. I have a friend who didn't have their own label, put their records out and if they sold 50,000 of those records it kept them in breakfast cereal for a couple of years. And so I think, you know, those were the guys that got hurt by the decrease in record sales from Internet piracy. And I remain being one of those guys that believes you should get paid for your work so I'm old-fashioned in that. And but at the same time, it's there and it has many benefits and the idea of, I think we live more in a Grateful Dead touring idea that everything you do is recorded now. And that's OK with me, you know. As a matter of fact, I believe on this tour, we're starting to do something like you can come in, you can buy a [wrist]band, you can get a copy of the night's show. So hopefully we're gonna do that at a really nice-quality level.
We came from the polar opposite. We started out as being very, very controlling. Now it's just a different playing field and so it's exciting: We have our little website and we've been throwing some things from the last tour. If there was a great performance that night, somebody can mix it quickly. We got a guy who directs the show great. And suddenly, we caught a version of "New York City Serenade" from Rome that I was just so glad we had, you know? It was one of those things like it was just a perfect night; we had a string section and the guys played it beautifully. And when I saw it, I said, "I'm so glad this exists." And it wouldn't exist if we weren't thinking about getting it out that way and doing those things. So I'm looking forward to expanding and using more of that in the future and hopefully our fans will enjoy it and it'll give us another canvas to paint on.
But there's still nothing like being in the room with you, Bruce Springsteen.
Well, you know, the nice thing about that is that is something that you know any film performance and a recorded performance, there's something about a live performance that like when I asked someone, I wanted to go see Bob Dylan at Monmouth College in Long Branch, my old neighborhood, I just was enjoying being in the room with him. You know, it was just fun. I just enjoyed being there. And that's something that's not replicable. It's recordable, but not replicable.
I agree. I feel that way about Aretha. If I can be in the room with Aretha, I'm happy.
It's nice. I saw Elvis in his very last days when he wasn't doing so well. I saw Elvis twice. Once when he was doing great at Madison Square Garden, the first time he played in New York and very close, a few weeks from the end when he played in Philly. And there were moments of brilliance and moments where he wasn't doing that well but occasionally something would happen where you'd go, "That's Elvis Presley," you know, "and I'm sitting here." And I still remember it, so.
You've got a rehearsal. Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.
Thanks, everybody out there. Enjoy the record and we'll see you on the road.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.