At Bruce Springsteen’s first-ever South by Southwest keynote address on Thursday, he offered the packed audience a revealing glimpse into his artistry, inspiration, and what it means to be a human being in troubled times. His funny, moving and candid address kept the audience captivated and served as a great reminder of why this New Jersey boy is such a gifted chronicler of the human condition.
Arriving a few minutes late for his noontime address, the Boss marveled at the sheer number of bands and types of music showcases at SXSW. “It’s great to be in a town with 10,000 bands,” he said, exaggerating a little, adding, “It would’ve been a teenage pipedream.” He then rattled off a ridiculously long list of musical genres including country, pop, rock and folk to deathcore, slowcore, “Nintendocore” and electronica, pointing out that the number of performing musicians and musical genres has increased exponentially since he started making music in the 1960s.
Waxing poetic about how he can now carry his entire music collection in his breast pocket and the fact that his catalogue has been converted into zeroes and ones in this digital age, he pointed out that what really matters is just getting out there and playing. “There’s no pure way of doing it, there’s just doing it,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s the power and purpose of your music that matters.”
The 63-year-old rock icon, whose new studio album “Wrecking Ball” hit No. 1 on the charts earlier this week, reminisced about the first time he saw Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956. “Elvis was the first modern twentieth-century man, creating fundamental outsider art that would be embraced by mainstream culture.” He told the audience how thrilling it was for him to see Elvis shock the world with the “passion in his pants.”
Springsteen eloquently went on to chronicle the evolution of popular music in the latter twentieth century and how it affected him, touching on Roy Orbison, Phil Spector’s “wall of sound,” the British invasion, and lingering on the Animals. Grabbing an acoustic guitar, he played a haunting version of the British rock group’s “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” emphasizing the song’s message of discontent and yearning for something bigger and better. He then paused, and said, quite honestly, “That’s every song I’ve ever written,” and the crowd erupted. “I’m not kidding. ‘Born to Run,’ ‘Born in the USA.’…that struck a chord in me so deep. It mirrored my whole life, my childhood.”
He also talked about Woody Guthrie, a cornerstone of folk and protest music, and led the audience in a sing-along of “This Land is Your Land.” He called out an obvious influence, Bob Dylan, “the father of my musical country now and forever,” as well as soul greats Sam Moore and James Brown. Before wrapping up, Springsteen imparted a message that he religiously puts into practice. “Young musicians, learn how to bring it night after night and your audience will remember you.”
Springsteen’s speech followed a surprise appearance at the Austin Music Awards the night before and preceded his highly anticipated performance at the ACL Live at the Moody Theater later that evening.