This is part one of Variety’s two-part cover story with Bruce Springsteen. For part two, click here.
The woodsy rolling hills and vivid green pastures of central New Jersey are about as far from the proverbial bright lights of Broadway as one can get, both spiritually and psychically. But that’s where Variety is headed on a lovely September afternoon for a meeting across the river with Bruce Springsteen to discuss his career and his forthcoming 18-week-long residency at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre, which begins Oct. 3. His sprawling, 500-acre farm is just 10 miles — but a world away — from the gritty former factory town of Freehold, where he grew up and which inhabits so many of his songs.
We’re greeted by friendly staffers — and, later, by Patti Scialfa, E Street Band singer and Springsteen’s wife of some 26 years — and ushered into the lounge in his home studio before the man himself arrives. He’s clad in a blue flannel shirt, patched jeans with white paint stains on them, work shoes and aviator shades (which he removed immediately), along with his trademark small hoop and cross earrings, and beaded necklaces and wristbands. He’s warm and friendly, with a firm handshake and a clear, direct gaze, if a bit reserved. After all, there’s a stranger in his home (me), and Springsteen’s life and career are based on decades-long, familial relationships with his band, his management, his label, his staff — even his guitar.
|Danny Clinch for Variety|
Despite his proclivity for stability, the Boss is no fan of stasis, and stylistic left-hand turns are a hallmark of his long career. Notwithstanding the familiarity of his songs and his sound, each album and tour is strikingly, often drastically, different from what came before, and now is no exception. He says of his long-awaited, completed solo album, which still has no title or release date: “It’s connected to my solo records writing-wise … but it’s not like them at all. Just different characters living their lives.” His upcoming Broadway run, a solo performance of songs and storytelling in a 960-seat theater, serves as an intimate counterpoint to the stadium-filling, four-hour-long shows he performed on the 89-date, 13-month-long “The River” anniversary tour, which ended earlier this year and, according to Pollstar, grossed some $306.5 million globally.
Variety caught Springsteen at an unusually retrospective point in his career. On stage, he’s spent the past couple of years reflecting on a roughly 35-year-old album; and in his compelling 2016 autobiography “Born to Run,” which will frame the songs and stories during his Broadway dates, he’s examined his entire life. And yes, at 68, with some 65.6 million albums sold in the U.S. alone (according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America) over the course of a career that began in the early-1970s, and untold millions of concert tickets sold, there’s a lot for him to recall.
Yet his restless nature persists. Just hours after this interview ended, he was onstage at Madison Square Garden with Paul McCartney; four days later he held the first invitation-only rehearsal for his Broadway set at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J., near his beloved Asbury Park; six days after that he was performing with Jackson Browne and “Little” Steven Van Zandt, his longtime band mate and friend of five decades, in nearby Holmdel. “I’m always looking for something new,” he says. “A great song is always inspirational — it makes you want to be great. So I’m always on the lookout.”
Your upcoming Broadway show sounds retrospective in nature. Is it based on your autobiography?
|The New York/New Jersey Issue|
Yeah, there’s a loose connection to the arc of the book, in that it sort of starts at the beginning and goes from there. I read a little bit from it, I tell some stories and play some music — that’s basically the show. Back in the early ’70s, when we played smaller places, there was a lot of time for storytelling; people were up close and it was fun, so it’s a bit of a return to some of that. We needed a place that was very small, so that’s how we ended up on Broadway, where all the beautiful small theaters are. I had been thinking about doing something that combined the book and music for a while, and I performed it once. In the last few weeks of the Obama Administration, I played at the White House in the East Room for about 300 people, and I brought this idea down there and it felt really good. I haven’t really played a venue of that size in probably 40 years.
“Bruce took the poetry of Bob Dylan, the soul of Stax records, laid it over a rock ’n’ roll beat and inspired a generation and a nation.”
Are you playing the same basic set every night?
It’s pretty scripted in the sense that it will be very close to the same every night. I’m sure things will shift a little as I go, but it’s pretty set and that’s what makes it a little bit different. It’s not just a random collection of songs on a nightly basis.
Are you playing any Castiles songs? [Springsteen’s first real band]
No, I don’t think there’s any Castiles songs in it yet!
Are you pleased with the way ticket sales worked with Ticketmaster’s Verified Plan program, which is intended to weed out scalpers?
Yeah, I thought it worked out pretty well. According to the information I’ve gotten, we were relatively successful at keeping the tickets out of the secondary market, where the prices skyrocket. It’s always difficult to curtail scalping, but I thought we did a pretty good job.
How do you feel about playing the same venue every night for four months?
Yeah, it’s new — I don’t know what it’s gonna feel like. But once we decided to do something that small, we knew we were going to have to take a different approach. The Walter Kerr [Theatre] kinda feels like you’re inviting people into your living room, and it’s gonna allow for a different type of communication with the audience. Whether there’ll be more [shows added after the initial 16-week run] I’m not sure, we’ll have to see how I feel. I haven’t worked five nights a week consecutively in a long time. I have a show that’s not physically rigorous but it takes a lot of mental energy, as any time you’re trying to be really, really present does.
Do you have a sort of psychological workout regimen to prepare for this kind of show?
That just comes from your desire to be there and to take the opportunity to have this very intense communication with the people who are there, with the idea that you can bring something of quality for the evening but also something that will stay with them. You’ve gotta have respect for your own ability and for the audience’s investment in you, and it’s always driven me to be very present when I walk out on a stage on any given night. I can’t imagine coming out on any stage and not giving everything I have.
“Bruce was the first person I ever met who believed in what he was doing to such an extent. He wouldn’t compromise the vision: You couldn’t rent him, you couldn’t buy him. He’s been that person since the day I met him.”
What drives you to do or not do something creatively at a certain time? For instance, Neil Young talks about his muse like it’s a dictator — “She is my boss.” What’s that voice for you?
Well, you do follow your inspirations; there’s times you write and times you don’t write. And after a long work life you’re OK with the ebb and flow of your creativity. The thing that drives me most is what I can do that would be of most value to my audience, and I think I put together something unique when I played this show [at the White House]. That’s what I’m always looking for — to do something that’s essential for my audience. We’ve made many more records than we released. Why didn’t we release those records? I didn’t think they were essential. I might have thought they were good, I might have had fun making them, and we’ve released plenty of that music [on archival collections over the years]. But over my entire work life, I felt like I released what was essential at a certain moment, and what I got in return was a very sharp definition of who I was, what I want to do, what I was singing about. And I still basically judge what I’m doing by the same set of rules.
Do you still plan to release the solo album you’ve been talking about since before “The River” anniversary tour?
Oh yeah, I’ve just been caught up in other projects. It’s kind of waiting for its moment. Good music doesn’t go away!
Someone who’d heard it said it sounded like Aaron Copland.
I don’t know if anybody made that particular connection. Really, that record is influenced by Southern California pop music of the ’70s.
Like the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac?
No — Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach, those kinds of records. I don’t know if people will hear those influences, but that was what I had in my mind. It gave me something to hook an album around; it gave me some inspiration to write. And also, it’s a singer-songwriter record. It’s connected to my solo records writing-wise, more “Tunnel of Love” and “Devils and Dust,” but it’s not like them at all. Just different characters living their lives.
What kinds of songs have you been writing lately?
I haven’t been writing lately. I think you have to process through your projects. In other words, if I have some songs that I haven’t released, once they’re released, then the machine starts turning for, ‘OK, now I’m gonna write for the band’ or whatever I decide to come up with. But unless something comes along — “Oh, I’ve gotta write this,” which hasn’t happened lately — I have to feel what I’ve just done is realized before [I start something new].
Was this solo album your most recent burst of writing?
Yeah, I would say so, which is unusual because I wrote most of that before [2012’s] “Wrecking Ball,” and I stopped making that record to make “Wrecking Ball,” and then I went back to it. So it’s been awhile since I’ve written, but that’s not unusual. That’s occurred plenty of other times in my working life.
For many people, living 10 minutes from the place they grew up would be punishment. What do you love so much about this area?
Well, I like living 10 minutes from Freehold, 20 from Asbury Park. The main thing that grounded us here is we had a huge family, like an 80-member-or-more Italian-Irish family, and when we had our kids, we brought them back here because we wanted them to grow up around family. We were lucky enough to have them all in one area at a certain moment — that’s unusual these days — and they all basically grew up here around their aunts and cousins and grandmoms: how I grew up. And, I just still like it here. I think Jersey Shore is a great place to live, we have this beautiful farm and yet we’re only 25 minutes from the ocean … and I’m still a beach bum so I’ll swim until November. It’s just still a place that we love, man.
|Danny Clinch for Variety|
I’ve heard the community is very protective of your privacy.
Yeah, I have a very free existence down here. I go where I wanna go, I do what I wanna do, I live a really relatively normal life. There’s the rare occasion where some fuss might be made, but that’s one of the reasons we came back here with the children — it’s where they would be able to have the most normal childhood, and they did. I always wanted to stay out of the bright lights of the city; I was uncomfortable with that. I wanted to be someplace where you were a little hidden, where your privacy was respected and maintained, and I’ve had that down here for all these years, so I appreciate it. The locals have always been good to me.
Does the small-town Jersey you grew up in still exist?
Yeah! It still exists in my town [Freehold]. It’s very different than it was when I lived there in the ’50s, but if you drive through Jersey it’s all still out there. I take my motorcycle on the back roads and there’s a million little towns where I have a feeling kids are, despite all the modern tech and the internet, having a similar emotional experience. You’re a creature of your environment and there’s something that’s … inimitable, I suppose, about a certain place and time. In other words, when I’m gone and the E Street Band is gone, that thing is gonna be gone. There’ll be other things and other people doing fabulous things, but that particular thing won’t be there. But at the same time, somebody will be writing about it down the road.
You’ve done so much to spur the area’s revival. But now Asbury Park even has a designer hotel!
Yeah! It’s nice!
Has it gotten to the point where it feels too gentrified or invasive?
I think they’ve done a pretty good job with Asbury’s development. I never thought I’d live to see the day when it came back to life in such a vibrant and strong fashion. Also, it’s maintained its art base. It could easily have become a mini-mall or a wall of condos but it didn’t, and there’s still a place there; it’s still unique in its own right. That didn’t get erased, and that’s what really matters. It’s not gonna be the place that I grew up in — a little blue-collar resort, or the place that was the genesis of our band — but it’s a lovely, vibrant community right now, and I love going there in the summer now and seeing that beach jammed. I never thought I’d see it again.
When talking about your sister in the book, you make a reference to “Jersey Soul.” What is that?
It’s just a sort of hard-working, never-say-die, never-give-up, salt-of-the-earth essence that I find in my favorite Jersey people and in our family. My mother and her two sisters, no matter what happened, were always able to find joy in life. They had plenty of tragedy in their own right, but they always came back, they always found something to be joyful about. And that’s one of the things our band has done well over the years. There’s a lot of bands that are good at playing hard or playing cool, but there aren’t a lot of bands that do joy very much. And one of the things the E Street Band aspired to was a certain joyful feeling that I particularly got from the Italian side of my family, which I was always able to communicate to a big crowd.
[Springsteen talks politics, marriage and Trump in Part 2 of the interview here.]