How Bruce Springsteen tackles truth, in song and memoir
JUDY WOODRUFF: He was proclaimed rock's next big thing in 1975, and he became the real thing with albums like "Born to Run," "Darkness on the Edge of Town," "Born in the USA," and many more.
Now Bruce Springsteen tells his own story in a memoir.
Jeffrey Brown paid him a visit to hear first-hand.
JEFFREY BROWN: In his new memoir, Bruce Springsteen looks back at his young, struggling and then little known self and writes: "I wasn't modest in the assessment of my abilities. Of course, I thought I was a phony. That is the way of the artist. But I also thought I was the realest thing you had ever seen."
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: That's right. Most artists I know consider themselves to be phonies, along with the feeling that there's something that you're doing is essential, essential to communicate, and deeply, deeply real.
JEFFREY BROWN: Springsteen has been rocking his way through marathon, arena-sized concerts for decades, a kind of working-class rock 'n' roll hero to millions of devoted fans.
In the recording studio he built at this rural New Jersey home, we talked about becoming Bruce Springsteen, the story he tells in his book, "Born to Run."
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: It was a very different type of writing from songwriting.
JEFFREY BROWN: In what way?
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: A pop song is a condensed version of a life in three minutes, whereas, when you go to write your prose, you have to find the rhythm in your words, and you have to find the rhythm in the voice that you have found and the way you're speaking.
JEFFREY BROWN: What about that voice, though? Because in songs — I think of writers I have talked to, or poets, and there's always the question of, how much of that is you?
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: I would say, in your memoir, it's you.
I think that, when you're writing your songs, there's always a debate about whether, is that you in the song? Is it not you in the song?
JEFFREY BROWN: What's the answer?
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: So, every song has a piece of you in it, because just general regret, love. You have to basically zero in on the truth of those particular emotions.
And then you can fill it out in any character and in any circumstance that you want. If you have written really well, people will swear that it happened to you.
JEFFREY BROWN: Springsteen grew up in the working-class town of Freehold, New Jersey, of Italian and Irish stock, adored and spoiled by his mother and grandparents, ignored and denigrated by a brooding, drinking, distant father, a figure who would obsess him personally and musically.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Initially, I had my conversations with him through my music. And that was the most effective, not the greatest way to do it, but it was certainly — it was the most effective for us.
JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, but you write early on, "When my dad looked at me, he didn't see what he needed to see."
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Yes. Now…
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you're going, yes, now, but I mean, that's hard when you're a young boy.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: It is hard. It is hard.
I think that it's a natural thing for parents to look for reflections of themselves in their children and feel a certain pride there. So if your child is very, very different, or perhaps if he's very, very similar, it makes you uncomfortable.
So, there was a lot of that when I was young, and it took a long time to get through.
JEFFREY BROWN: Reconciliation would come later, along with an understanding of the role of depression in his father's and his own.
From the beginning, though, the young Springsteen showed a ferocious drive and sense of his own mission, first as a king of the bar bands in Central and South Jersey.
I started to make a list of the clubs you played early on. These are not high-rent places, right? The Angle Inn Trailer Park, Cavatelli's Pizza, the I.B. Club, Surf and the Sea Beach Club, Long Branch Italian American Club, the Pandemonium Club.
You probably remember each and every one of them.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Yes, I remember those a lot more than some of the Madison Square Garden and other things.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is that right?
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Of course. They were all so distinctive in their own way, and they all drew their own little clique of kids.
And it was such a formative moment in your life that, you know, you were just coming into being.
JEFFREY BROWN: You write about your voice. You say, about my voice, "First of all, I don't have much of one."
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Right? But you worked at it.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Initially just sounded awful, just so terribly awful, but there was nothing I could do about it. So, I just kept singing and kept singing and kept singing.
And I studied other singers, so I would learn how to phrase, and learn how to breathe. And the main thing was, I learned how to inhabit my song.
JEFFREY BROWN: Which means what?
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: What you were singing about was believable and convincing, that's the key to a great singer. A great singer has to learn how to inhabit a song. You may not be able to hit all the notes. That's OK. You may not have the clearest tone. You may not have the greatest range. But if you can inhabit your song, you can communicate.
JEFFREY BROWN: The early songs, though, are what I would call, like, word drunk. They're so many words in there that you're barely catching your breath as you're singing them.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Well, I was influenced by Dylan very intensely. And I had a rhyming dictionary. A man armed with a rhyming dictionary is a dangerous man.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: So, yes, the words came fast and furious.
JEFFREY BROWN: A dictionary and, more important, a great band, the E Street Band, which includes singer Patti Scialfa, his wife since 1991.
Springsteen never liked his nickname, the Boss.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: I had no credit cards. I had no checks. I was cash only until I was probably 30 years old.
JEFFREY BROWN: But the Boss is what he became, deciding early on that, to endure, he would have to treat music like a business.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Well, that has to happen. If you're a band leader, you need that type of discipline and dedication in the guys you're playing with.
We came from where professionalism wasn't a dirty word, as I say. And so we worked like the old soul bands worked, very intensely, and very methodically, in great detail.
JEFFREY BROWN: You even call it a benevolent dictatorship.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: That's what it is.
JEFFREY BROWN: That's what it is.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Small unit democracy, I found early on, didn't work for me. And the band contributes enormously. I wouldn't have gotten anywhere near where I was without them. But it's basically the buck stops here sort of situation.
JEFFREY BROWN: But are you a control freak? That's sort of the what — I think you say that.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Yes, I am, probably less now than I used to be. I think, when I was young, I was — because you're insecure, you really — you're very controlling.
Now I'm moderately controlling, I would say.
JEFFREY BROWN: But you use that word insecure, because, frankly, I'm reading this thing, and it's such a mix of sort of insecurities and sense of self.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: That's the artist's way.
JEFFREY BROWN: That's the artist's way. Explain that to me.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Most artists I know had one person in their life who told them they were the second coming of the baby Jesus, and another person that told them they weren't worth anything, and they believed them both, you know?
And so you go through the rest of your life in pursuit of both of those things, proving that both of those things are true. And you feel like the burden of proof is on you. It doesn't matter what happened last night or the night — or tomorrow night. It's all about what you're doing with this audience right now.
And insecurity, natural part of being an artist.
JEFFREY BROWN: It is always there.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Along with a driving, driving, driving ego, a vanity, and the self-confidence.
So you have got to have both of those things. That's what makes it interesting. That's what makes someone — that's what makes you want to watch someone, or want to listen to someone, are those particular complexities.
JEFFREY BROWN: My conversation with Bruce Springsteen continues tomorrow night with a look at his lifelong bouts of depression, his love of reading, and the election of Donald Trump.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.