The highway's jammed with broken heroes
After the show at the Capital Centre in Maryland, Bruce Springsteen walks into the room backstage with a towel draped over his shoulders, like a boxer who’s just gone the full nine yards. He looks different. His hair has been slicked back and it makes him seem leaner but not meaner.
He’s extremely polite and has an almost childlike demeanour. He’s genuinely surprised that he’s popular in Britain.
‘I try to do as much as possible,’ he says, of the gruelling nationwide marathon tour. ‘The kids want to hear Born To Run so I sing it. I’ve got some new numbers so I sing them.
‘We originally started off with a two-hour set. But when the tour got under way, we found it impossible to restrict it to that. It’s hard for me to leave anything out. So now I play as long as it feels right. Some nights it’s too long and others it ain’t long enough. Tonight was one night they were about ready for a double dose!
‘I guess most of the songs are pretty durable -- at least, from the reaction they still get, they seem to be.’
Darkness On The Edge of Town is a lot bleaker musically and the trademark cinematic lyrics make way for blue-collar blues.
‘It’s been a real progression,’ he says, in mellifluous five-o’clock-shadow New Jersey tones. ‘The characters on Born To Run and Darkness could be the same people in the same town only years down the line. You can see the difference. It’s, like, older. Some people have called it a depressing album. That’s untrue. It’s just that when you have one successful album people tend to expect the same format for the next one.’
Ah, now seems like the appropriate time to probe. I wonder if his work is autobiographical.
‘Oh, sure, some of the characters on a track like Rosalita are people I’ve come across in my life. But my songs are fantasies. Should a song reflect imagery or the performer? You can’t get away from the fact that you’re making the statements -- but then again, is it the song that does that? There comes a point where the song becomes more and more like a movie. And when that happens you cease to become its creator and assume the role of director. You have to be so many different characters and it’s better to let them have lives of their own.
‘My songs have a kinda drive-in quality about them. They may be about factories, they may be about something else. I’m just there, quietly directing.’
So all those songs about crazy gangs in city streets and fights and drinking – you never lived any of that?
‘Not really. I was always pretty much on my own. I didn’t hang out with a crowd or anything. See, ever since I was fourteen I was playing. Clubs, YMCAs, high-school dances, you name it. As a result I felt okay playing to people but not actually being with them.
‘And I’m still like that. I am by myself. If there’s one other person around, well, that’s okay. You tend to find that attitude in most rock ’n’ roll musicians.’
Never in a gang. Wow, and I’d always thought this was one hell of a heavy dude. Er, how about the drinking, then, Bruce?
‘I haven’t taken a drink in around two years.’
‘I guess I don’t really have the time. I never did drink much. Oh, there was one time. For a while I used to hang out with this really big guy -- I mean really big, y’know. And together we’d head out to the bars. I was under age but nobody guessed or cared. We’d really shake those bars down. I had a great time with this big guy. But then I never saw him again.
‘I had time on my hands. Now, I suppose if I wanted to get drunk I’d go to a bar on my own. But I wouldn’t want anybody else to see.’
And what about those early sexual − uh – travels?
‘I was fourteen when I first made love. And when I’d done it I didn’t know if I’d done it or not!’ He starts to laugh, all shy and secretive. Well, at least he’s done something he can sing about.
Funny how preconceived notions get their noses rubbed in the dirt. No matter. This guy could never be a letdown. For starters he’s too sincere and, besides, somebody with a show like he’s got could give an interview with a mouth full of marbles and still gain my respect.
The Asbury Park apparition found himself alone in the rundown seaside resort when his parents upped and headed west to California.
‘I was around eighteen at the time and still at high school. I decided I didn’t want to go with them. I had a local reputation as a musician and I didn’t intend losing that. I tried to live there for a very short time but I soon found out the place held nothing for me. Musically I preferred what was going down in New Jersey. I didn’t need a job to get by ’cos I could make enough money playing in the clubs.’
Jon Landau wanders in. He looks a little perplexed. The wrinkles in his brow suggest it’s time for us to head back to the hotel.
The moment Bruce emerges into the chilly night hundreds of kids who’ve been waiting patiently for a glimpse go berserk. ‘Give me a kiss, baby -- sign this, pleasepleaseplease?’
‘I’ll always love you, Bruce. Ain’t he just so damned cute?’’
He signs everything flashed in front of him. And that smile’s not false. He loves it.
We climb on the luxury tour bus that boasts a colour TV, sofas, beds and built-in stereo and head for the hotel. ‘Hey, ain’t it just amazing?’ he says. ‘I came out on this tour ’cos I wanted to enjoy myself again. I never dreamed it would turn out like this. I’ve done eighty-eight shows, we’ve got thirty-three more to do, and everywhere the reaction is the same. You get the young kids from the suburbs and they’re such a great audience. It’s funny . . . At the start the girls would jump on stage, then, after realising what they’d done, just stand there and freeze. But now they’re getting used to it − and so are their tongues!
‘I like running among the audience while I’m playing, and the other night I thought I’d take a little trip up into the balcony. But as I got in the foyer about ten fifteen-year-old girls hit me. They just grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. I guess they’re more demonstrative at that age. They even come around to my house and wait for hours outside. I got a kid sister back in San Francisco and when she tells her friends who her brother is they go wild. Ain’t it just amazing?’
Bruce still lives in Asbury Park. ‘It’s still the same as it always was. If you got enough gas in your car you carry on to Atlantic City. If not, then Asbury will just have to do. But it’ll always be my home. I like Arizona and Holland. London’s pretty cool too. My first show at Hammersmith three years ago was tough but the second one was great. I guess I’ll never leave Asbury, though . . .’
During the long encores at every show, Bruce asks for the houselights to be turned on, and they stay on till the end while he goes through his usual rock ’n’ roll medley fare. ‘When you see all the people, everybody, right up to the back, it’s such a great feeling.
‘It’s their night. You may get sore, you may get hoarse, but when you see all those kids out there it’s like the first show all over again. They may not have seen you before and they may not see you again, so you’ve always got to make it something real special. If you think like that every time you walk on stage you’ve got it made.’
And, boy, has this guy got it made.
Jon tells everybody to look out of the windows.
‘Willya take a look at that?’ shouts Bruce. The coach is being escorted back to the hotel by a convoy of cars stretching as far as the eye can see. And each car is stuffed full of screaming kids screeching horns, singing Springsteen songs and, of course, chanting, ‘Broooce, Broooce, Broooce.’
‘Wow, that’s never happened before,’ says Bruce.
But it's gonna happen again. And again. And leave us running burned and blind chasing something in the night. . .
I start chasing something in the night when I return to London. Tim and I check out an office in Mount Pleasant. We’re weeks away from unveiling the Farringdon Agency.
Next: Devo in Liverpool
Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain
© Barry Cain 2013
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