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Bruce Springsteen Talks Politics, Marriage and Why He Won’t Write an ‘Anti-Trump Diatribe’

This is part two of Variety’s two-part cover story with Bruce Springsteen. For part one, click here

If you ran for governor of New Jersey, you’d win — is that ever a temptation?

Pssht, nooo. I would have no business in politics. I’m just not interested in policy-making enough. I know people in entertainment who are interested in those things, but I’m a musician.

Many people wondered why you didn’t come out in support of Hillary Clinton’s campaign earlier. Was there a reason for that?

Um… I don’t think I’m necessarily that essential a factor. And I still tend to be a little bit ambivalent about getting involved directly like that in political campaigns. I’ve done it when I felt it was really necessary and that maybe my two cents might make some small bit of difference. But the more you do it, your two cents becomes one cent and then no cents whatsoever, so I think your credibility and your impact lessens the more you do it. So I’ve been hesitant to overplay my hand in that area, and I generally come to service when I feel it’s kind of necessary and it might help a little bit.

Danny Clinch for Variety

I guess that was the case when you played at a rally for 32,000 people in Philadelphia on election eve?

Yeah. I thought she would have made an excellent president, and I still feel that way, so I was glad to do it.

Midway through “The River” anniversary tour you stopped playing the nearly 90-minute album in its entirety. Were you tired of it?

No, it was actually very enjoyable on a nightly basis because that record was well built, well put-together, so it gave a formal but very satisfying experience. I’m hoping to have something similar occur with [the Broadway shows]. But the reason we stopped is because we were going to play outside [stadiums] and, particularly, we were going to Europe, where I just didn’t know if it was going to ring and play as well. The few times we did it in Europe it played very well, but I wanted to have the freedom once we went outside to these bigger shows to just play whatever I wanted.

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And sometimes that meant playing your first two albums, “Greetings From Asbury Park” and “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” almost in their entirety, which you did later in the tour?

Yeah, when we’re in that mode, [the show] varies on a nightly basis, and I think we got in a place toward the end of that tour where we were playing a little bit chronologically. I think the whole first hour or more of the show was the first and second records, which was a lot of fun because I hadn’t done that in quite awhile. It was the band before it was a hard-rock band, which we didn’t really become until “Born to Run.” Previous to that we were a rock and soul band, a swingin’ little club band; the music had a lighter touch to it. Once we fired on all eight with “Born to Run,” that’s when the rock started.

You’ve done so much looking back recently, between the book and “The River” anniversary tour and now this Broadway run. Any thoughts on what’s next?

I suppose the [solo] record that I haven’t released. It’s not topical at all — topical writing at the moment doesn’t hold a lot of interest to me. I really got out a lot of what I had to say in that vein on “Wrecking Ball.” I’m not driven to write any anti-Trump diatribe; that doesn’t feel necessary at the moment.

Why, because so many people already are?

Yeah, because it’s everywhere and all over, ya know? It feels a little redundant to me at the moment. And, once again, I always try to look at what I can deliver that’s personal to me and of most value. The audience has a wide variety of needs; whatever you’re writing, you’re trying to meet your own need, and as I’ve said in other interviews, Marty Scorsese once said, “The job of the artist is to make the audience care about your obsessions.” So I hope I write about the things that obsess me well enough for my audience to care about them.

“I’ve never known him to not have the outline of some idea in mind. It’s part of his DNA.”
Jon Landau, manager

But don’t you think your opinions about Trump would matter to your audience?

Well, if you read Charles Blow in The New York Times, he carries the flag pretty well. I’m ambivalent about … sort of getting on a soapbox. I still believe people fundamentally come to music to be entertained — yes, to address their daily concerns, and yes, also to address political topics, I believe music can do that well. But I still believe fundamentally it’s an affair of the heart. People want you to go deeper than politics, they want you to reach inside to their most personal selves and their deepest struggles with their daily lives and reach that place; that’s the place I’m always trying to reach. I’d never make a record that’s just polemical, I wouldn’t release it if I did. To me, that’s just an abuse of your audience’s good graces. But if I’m moved, I’ll write, say, something like “American Skin” [inspired by the 1999 shooting death of Amadou Diallo by New York City Police officers — who were later acquitted]. That just rolled very naturally for me, and that’s as good a topical song as I’ve ever written. And when it comes up, I write ’em. If I felt that strongly, I’d do it now. But I watch myself, because I think you can weigh upon your audience’s indulgence in the wrong way.

What do you mean?

I never wanted to be just a proselytizer for an ideological point of view. That’s not my job; that’s somebody else’s job. And if you even look back to Woody Guthrie’s material, he didn’t do that. He wrote these very full character pieces that, whether you were there in the Depression or not, they live today. They weren’t hollow, they weren’t one-dimensional; they were these very full character pieces about the times. I still aspire to that, really, and if it has political implications that’s fine and if it doesn’t that’s fine too.

His songs are about those times but aren’t bound to them.

Yeah, that’s what I mean. That’s the target; those are the kinds of works that you aspire to. It’s like if “The Rising” was only about 9/11, it would have been hollow. But you can listen to it today and it’s a record that has a spiritual resonance that, whether it was connected to that event or not, it retains its life and its poetry. If you delve deep enough into yourself —and that doesn’t mean it’s autobiographical, it means if you’re reaching deep enough into your own humanity — it becomes universal. And that’s a guiding light that I use when I write.

“Born to Run” had an impressionism to the storytelling that you never really went back to; your writing became much more direct. Have you ever wanted to bring back that style?

“I like the storylines in his songs and his genuine delivery of them. And as a performer, he goes on forever — and the audience loves it.”
Paul McCartney

I don’t think you can really recapture what you did in your youth. It’s tricky; if you try, it can feel like a cardboard copy of something you [formerly] did naturally. So I don’t think I’ll make a record quite like that ever again, where there’s a blizzard of words coming at you — I was havin’ fun throwin’ all those words around, and I imagined myself quite the poet at the moment. But later on I was interested in a more colloquial way of speaking through the songs, and a more direct approach. Also, at the time there were the comparisons to Dylan, so I moved away from that style — although now I go back and realize, gee, it really wasn’t like Dylan much at all. We could have taken that a little further, but I was interested in creating my own identity at the time.

In the book you say that after you’d finished touring behind “The River” in 1981, you’d earned enough money that you’d essentially “made it.” Then you made “Nebraska,” your darkest album. Why?

I dunno… you have to look back later at some of the psychological elements that led you to tap a particular creative vein at a certain moment. Looking back, I was very interested in this sort of American gothic form of writing. Flannery O’Connor was very influential, the [1973] Terrence Malick film “Badlands,” the [1981] movie “True Confessions” with Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall that didn’t get much attention but I really loved. And then the noir writers I’ve mentioned many times in the past, James M. Cain and Jim Thompson. I wanted to write something that felt like these films and stories, and that also connects to the youngest memories I have of my life, between, say, when I was born and 13 or 14, in a little town surrounded by relatives that were very old-world Irish and first- or second-generation Italian. I always thought “Nebraska” felt like my childhood at that time, and what it felt like around here in the mid-’50s. Then I had my own psychological issues, I suppose, that led me to that place, some unresolved things I was struggling with. The music was all very lonely. I suppose that was me at that moment.

What have you been reading lately?

I just read a bunch of true-crime things…  The last thing I read that jumped out like “man you gotta read this” was “Moby Dick,” which I’d never read, and which ended up not being as intimidating as people claim — it was actually a boys’ adventure story that was particularly well told. And then I read a lot of Russian writers — I really enjoyed [Dostoyevsky’s] “Brothers Karamazov” … I went on a big Elmore Leonard stretch, which was fantastic, particularly the “Western Stories” … a couple of books on Isis. I’ve been wandering a bit with my reading.

Danny Clinch for Variety

How about TV?

Like everybody else, I was nuts about “Mad Men.” I watched “Breaking Bad.” I thought “Westworld” was incredibly realized.

Is it difficult being married to someone you work with?

Actually, no. We’ve kind of developed natural boundaries. Some places we have a more professional approach, like if I walk into the studio while she’s working, I have certain boundaries where if she requests my opinion or asks for my help, I give it on a very professional level. When she comes onstage with the E Street Band she’s an E Street band member, and when we walk offstage we’re husband and wife.

What are your favorite songs to sing with her?

I like “Brilliant Disguise,” “Tougher Than the Rest.” Those are songs we’ve sung together for a lotta years, and they encapsulate our relationship in a very universal but personal way. We sing “Fall Behind” together, “Mansion on the Hill” — Patti can have a really gothic voice when she wants to. She’s a very distinctive, underrated singer and songwriter. She’s made some excellent records that I think, because of her connection to me, have gone a little under-noticed and underrated. She’s got a great record she’s making now.

Was she in your life when you wrote “Tougher Than the Rest”? When you sing it together it almost feels like it was written for her.

Um… maybe it was! I might not have known it. It’s one of those songs that really feels like it’s hers and mine now.

Most of your major relationships have lasted for decades: wife, band, management, label, even your main guitar. Are you seeking a family vibe in all areas of your life?

I like consistency. I don’t like change. I change reluctantly, particularly with the people around me. And then when you find the right people, you hold onto them. There’s been some attrition over the years and sometimes I chose well and sometimes I didn’t, but the times I chose well I really stuck with. My relationship with Jon [Landau, Springsteen’s manager since the mid-1970s] is one in a million and one of the most important relationships in my life, and it’s maintained its creative edge since the day we got together. I still feel an excitement when we get on the phone together — like something could happen! We might learn something together that we haven’t known the other 10,000 times we’ve talked. That possibility is always there, similar to my experience with Patti — when we get together on any given day, I might learn something.

 

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