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'Fresh Air' Favorites: Bruce Springsteen


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Today we're continuing our series of staff picks of favorite interviews from the past decade. This one is with Bruce Springsteen, and it's special not only because of the conversation itself and the music we hear but also because Terry visited Springsteen at his home studio in New Jersey to record it. The rare on-location interview took place in 2016, when he was publishing his memoir, which shares its title with one of his biggest hits, "Born To Run." We'll start by hearing a demo recording of his song "Growin' Up" from the album "Chapter And Verse."



(Singing) Well, I stood stone-like at midnight, suspended in my masquerade. I combed my hair till it was just right and commanded the night brigade. I was open to pain and crossed by the rain, and I walked on a crooked crutch. Well, I strolled all alone through a fallout zone and came out with my soul untouched. I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd. They said, sit down. I stood up - ooh, growing up. Well, the flag of piracy flew from my mast.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: 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 forward of your book. It's really a fantastic book, and I'd like our listeners to just hear a little bit of your writing.

SPRINGSTEEN: OK, my pleasure.

(Reading) I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I. By 20, no race-car-driving rebel, I was a guitar player on the streets of Asbury Park and already a member in good standing amongst those who lie in service of the truth - artists with a small a. But I held four clean aces. I had youth, almost a decade of hardcore bar band experience, a good group of homegrown musicians who were attuned to my performance style and a story to tell. This book is both a continuation of that story and a search into its origins. I've taken as my parameters the events in my life I believe shaped that story and my performance work. One of the questions I'm asked over and over again by fans on the street is, how do you do it? In the following pages, I'll try to shed a little light on how and, more importantly, why.

GROSS: 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?

SPRINGSTEEN: (Laughter) That's actually - not having to perform it onstage is a good one. But it's a little different. You know, it's - 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 the 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, and it was - 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 is a good voice. This is a good feeling. It feels like me. But then once you get into the book, you've got to constantly find your - the rhythm of your prose. And it ends up being quite a musical experience either way.

GROSS: Well, that's one of things I love about the book - is that there is rhythm and music in it even though it's not a song. So many of your songs, particularly the early ones, are about, you know, like, searching for a dream and running to, like, bust out of the confines of your life. And in some ways, you know, I get the impression from your book that that was your father's story, except he never found the dream. It's kind of like - a little bit like the story that you describe in your song "The River."

SPRINGSTEEN: Right. Well, my dad was young. He went to work, but he had been to war. He'd seen some of the world. It wasn't like he was going to be an extensive traveler or something. That didn't seem to be in the nature of - in his nature or in the nature of his parents or many of the folks in my family, really. There were - we had a cousin that went to - off to Brown University. It was like a nuclear explosion took place.


SPRINGSTEEN: You know, it was just incredible for everybody. So 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.

GROSS: 'Cause when you were 19, he moved to California.


GROSS: Yeah.

SPRINGSTEEN: They moved out west, which was a huge undertaking because no one - it's like - 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 they - 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 their stuff packed on top. It was a really go-for-broke decision, and it did pay off for them, you know? They - 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...

GROSS: You're talking about mental illness?

SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah - difficult to manage. But I believe he did feel like he found something there that he couldn't have found at home.

GROSS: Do you think the song "Born To Run" is in part about him and in part about you?

SPRINGSTEEN: Well, someone mentioned that to me the other day. I always thought it was just about me (laughter), but what do you know? And looking back on it, my parents lived out quite a bit of that story themselves.

GROSS: So you had a dream in a way that your father maybe didn't have a dream that he could articulate.

SPRINGSTEEN: It certainly wasn't one he could articulate. It was just, I got to get out of here.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. 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 (reading) 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, 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.

SPRINGSTEEN: (Laughter).

GROSS: So that timidity and shyness that you wore on the outside - it's kind of like the opposite of your stage persona.

SPRINGSTEEN: (Laughter) Yeah, it was bizarre.

GROSS: Can you tell us a little bit more about the timidity and shyness of your youth?

SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah. Well, T Bone Burnett once said that much of rock music is simply someone going wahhh (ph) daddy.


SPRINGSTEEN: So I've got to take my - I've got to take some blame for that myself, I guess. But, yeah, just it was - when I was young, you know, 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.

GROSS: So do you think that your stage persona draws both from, like, the angry and uninhibited side of you and the more inhibited, timid side of you?

SPRINGSTEEN: 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 can read - you know, it's pretty alpha male - you know? Which is - is a little ironic because, you know, it's - 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. I was looking for - 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 the result of wanting to emulate him so I felt closer or whether it was - I wanted - as I say in the book, I wanted to be the reasonable voice of revenge for what I'd seen his life come to, it was all of these things. And 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 - they're trying to create something that solves a series of very complex problems inside of them or in their history.

And I think when I - unknowingly, 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.

BIANCULLI: Bruce Springsteen speaking with Terry Gross in 2016. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2016 interview with Bruce Springsteen. He'd just published his memoir called "Born To Run," and Terry Gross visited his New Jersey home studio to ask him about his book, his songs and his life. It's one of our staff picks for best interviews of the past decade.


GROSS: 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 (laughter), you know?


GROSS: And the - you know, Madame Marie and all of the - like, all of the boardwalk regulars, 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?

SPRINGSTEEN: It was just my location at the time. I didn't move to Asbury with the thought of - you know, it wasn't an anthropological (laughter)...

GROSS: But you connected in some way.

SPRINGSTEEN: ...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 till 5 a.m. There were gay clubs. In even the late '60s, it was a bit of an open city. So as young ne'er-do-wells, we fit very...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SPRINGSTEEN: You know, we fit very comfortably in that picture. And then when I went to write, I just wrote about what was around me. It fired my imagination. It was - 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 in 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. There wasn't anyone else writing in this way about these things at that time. So it was something I did very intentionally in the sense as creating a certain very, very specific and original identity.

GROSS: And that's one of the things that really interests me in comparing you to Dylan because when you first started, people comparing you to Dylan, one of the new Dylans...


GROSS: ...And everything. In some ways, like, persona-wise, you're the opposite. He changed his name. He surrounded himself in mystery. His lyrics are very obscure. Your lyrics tell stories. You're all about a place. You reveal so much about yourself and the world around you in your songs that - you know what I mean? Like, I know...


GROSS: I know that you're more than what you literally tell us about in the songs. But still, you have an identity and try to tell us something of who you are in your songs.

SPRINGSTEEN: 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. That's - 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 the 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'd come out of a somewhat different circumstance. And shoes - the clothes just didn't fit.

GROSS: 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 this was - at some point you realized, too, that although you had, like, the most popular bar band in (laughter) Asbury Park, that there was a bigger world. There was a lot of...


GROSS: ...Talented people. And in order to, like, 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, you know, 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?

SPRINGSTEEN: When I thought about signing a record deal or writing something that might put me in the position - because I'd 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 realize, 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. 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 the motivation to - or I understood it was - I was going to have to make my mark that way.

BIANCULLI: Bruce Springsteen speaking with Terry Gross in 2016. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2016 interview with songwriter and performer Bruce Springsteen conducted at his home studio in New Jersey. He had just published his memoir called "Born To Run." This interview is one of our staff's favorites of the past decade.


GROSS: 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? And...

SPRINGSTEEN: (Laughter) Doesn't count for that much at the time.

GROSS: Yeah, right.

SPRINGSTEEN: (Laughter) You know, but - you know, people see you on stage and yeah, I'd want to be that guy. I want to be that guy myself very often.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SPRINGSTEEN: You know? I get plenty - I have plenty of days where I go, man, I wish I could be that guy. And...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SPRINGSTEEN: ...You know, it's not quite - there's a big difference between what you see on stage and then my general daily - (laughter) my daily existence.

GROSS: You write about - I'm sorry?

SPRINGSTEEN: No, I'm talking to myself.

GROSS: Oh, OK (laughter).

SPRINGSTEEN: Don't let that bother you. It's part of my illness. I do it all the time. (Laughter).

GROSS: You write about how being on stage is almost like medicine for you.


GROSS: You know, does it get you out of yourself? Does it...

SPRINGSTEEN: Oh, of course. You're immediately pulled out of the - your - the inside of your head, and it immediately changes your frame of mind. I've never been on stage where I've - no, that's not true. I have been on stage on a few occasions where I felt I couldn't escape the interior of my - my interior thoughts. But Peter Wolf once said, what's the strangest thing you can do on stage? Think about what you're doing.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SPRINGSTEEN: 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 going to 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 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 jump in and join all those people that are out there enjoying what you're doing together.

GROSS: 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?


GROSS: Did that contribute to the depression because you couldn't be on stage, and you couldn't have that kind of cathartic experience?

SPRINGSTEEN: Yeah, I tend to be not my own best company. 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.

GROSS: As you mention in your book, you wanted to write songs that you wouldn't outgrow, that you could sing as an adult...


GROSS: ...That weren't just kids' songs and...


GROSS: ...You know, done, accomplished.


GROSS: 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?

SPRINGSTEEN: We just had a series of concerts where the show was very interesting because we'd start out with my earliest material. And we played about half a record off of our first record and then half or three quarters off of the second record, so I 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? There was a - they sort of gather the years up as time passes, and you can revisit - the wonderful thing about my job is 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 they're 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.

GROSS: What's an example of a song that's taken on a different meaning or more meaning for you?

SPRINGSTEEN: 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 to - even 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, you know, to see people that intensely singing your song.

GROSS: As someone who grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in Philadelphia, I love that you've continued to live in New Jersey - not only in New Jersey, but not far from where you grew up. Why have you stayed close to the home that your father left? Your father went to the opposite coast...

SPRINGSTEEN: It's ironic, yeah.

GROSS: ...When you were a teenager.

SPRINGSTEEN: (Laughter) It's rather ironic, but I just felt very comfortable here. And I was uncomfortable with city 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 wanted to continue writing about the things that I felt were important, and those things were pretty much here. I feel 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 - it was essential to who I was and continues to this day to be that way.

GROSS: Bruce Springsteen, I can't thank you enough for...


GROSS: ...Inviting us into your studio and allowing us to do this interview.

SPRINGSTEEN: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Thank you so much.

SPRINGSTEEN: Very enjoyable. I appreciate it.

GROSS: And I really love the book.

SPRINGSTEEN: Thanks a lot.

BIANCULLI: Bruce Springsteen speaking to Terry Gross at his home studio in New Jersey in 2016. He had just published his memoir, called "Born To Run," and their conversation was one of our staff picks for favorite interviews of the past decade.

On Monday's show, our guest will be Todd Phillips, who wrote and directed the new film "Joker," a realistic origin story on the Batman comic book villain. The Joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a troubled man with a history of serious mental health problems. Phillips also directed "The Hangover" films. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) The screen door slams. Mary's dress waves. Like a vision, she dances across the porch as the radio plays Roy Orbison signing for the lonely. Hey; that's me, and I want you only. Don't turn me home again. I just can't face myself alone again. Don't run back inside, darling. You know just what I'm here for. So you're scared, and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore. Show a little faith. There's magic in the night. You ain't a beauty, but hey; you're all right, oh, and that's all right with me. You can hide 'neath (ph) your covers and study your pain, make crosses from your lovers, throw roses in the rain, waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets. Well, now, I ain't no hero. That's understood. All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood. With a chance to make it good somehow, hey; what else can we do now except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair? Well, the night's busting open. These two lanes will take us anywhere. We got one last chance to make it real, to trade in these wings on some wheels. Climb in back. Heaven's waiting on down the tracks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.