Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches and Encounters (Chicago Review Press; 432 pages, softcover; $27.95) isn’t a typical biography or autobiography. Although it tells the story of the singer-songwriter primarily through words from his own mouth, it’s not a straight-ahead, linear account of his life’s work. Rather, it’s a collection of interviews, speeches and encounters over the course of The Boss’ career, which makes for a textured read featuring attitudes garnered from different periods and historical contexts that affect the meanings of each excerpt.
Not only does this collection take the reader through all eras of Springsteen, the entries directly reflect the period they’re drawn from. Early quotes come from a pre-fame Springsteen who doesn’t make enough money to pay rent. Later quotes touch on issues spanning depression to family life to thoughts on gay marriage, providing readers a more well-rounded view of the musician than most biographical accounts can deliver.
In March 1973, Bruce Pollock became one of the first rock journalists to interview Springsteen. “I’ve been playing music since I was about 14,” the songwriter, then 23, said. “I was really terrible at everything else.”
Pollock talks about the relationship between Springsteen and his band, the power of Clarence Clemons and the synergy of the group, saying they “relate like they’ve been playing together for years. . . shared the same vision forever.” These prophetic early entries are solidified later when the reader jumps from 1973 to 2010—and writers are still harping on the same factors that continue to affect audiences and reviewers today.
Parts of the book also reveal a vulnerable side of Springsteen, one that might not be so liberally revealed otherwise. “I first started to play because I wanted to. . . feel good about myself,” he told Kurt Loder in a 1984 interview for Rolling Stone. “And I found the guitar, and . . . it gave me my sense of purpose and a sense of pride in myself. . . it was my lifeboat, my lifeline—my line back into people. Kids used to tease me, call me ‘dreamer.’ It’s something that got worse as I got older, I think. Until I realized that I felt like I was dying. . . ” Springsteen talks early on about his disdain for “big” venues (at the time, referring to those housing about 2,500 people) while today he rarely plays anything smaller than an arena. He talks about sneaking into Graceland to get a glimpse of Elvis, and getting busted because the security guards didn’t recognize the face of a man newly plastered on the covers of Time and Newsweek. He talks about dealing with fame, losing and regaining the E Street Band, the deaths of bandmates and what it’s like to influence people around the world.
However, some of the most telling interviews aren’t those that harp on the Springsteen who bounds across stages, even at age 63, or writes some of the most well-known anthems in rock history. One is an interview conducted by Judy Wieder for The Advocate, an LGBT magazine, in 1996. Interviews like this speak loudest about who The Boss is at the core.
Springsteen, who arrived to the interview alone (no publicist, no entourage, which is typical of the artist), spoke with Wieder openly about his support of gay marriage (keep in mind, this was in 1996, when even LGBT leaders were timid when it came to suggesting such a bold step) and the purpose of art in society with regard to his song “Streets of Philadelphia,” which was written for the AIDS movie drama Philadelphia.
“I would never have thought in a million years it was going to get radio airplay. But people were looking for things to assist them in making sense of the AIDS crisis, in making human connections. I think that is what film and art and music do; they can work as a map of sorts for your feelings.”
The book is a fascinating time warp that takes readers not only through the changing attitudes of the artist, but through the changing attitudes of the time periods those conversations took place within. Also fascinating are the attitudes that don’t change—the perspectives that remain pure and truly at the core of Springsteen. The personality that remains steady even as his reality has shifted around him: the blue collar Jersey-born and -bred beliefs that continue to define him even today.
It concludes with the full transcription from Springsteen’s keynote address at the 2012 South By Southwest Music Festival. The keynote makes for an ideal end to the book.
“Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn’t drive you crazy, it will make you strong. And stay hard, stay hungry, and stay alive. And when you walk onstage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it’s all we have. And then remember, it’s only rock and roll.”