This will become a definitive article on the Boss. A look at how age is taking its toll on the band, the impact of the deaths of Danny Federici and – in particular – Clarence Clemons on the dynamic of the band, Springsteen’s relationship with his father, the fate of the E Street Band’s first drummer, a portrait of Springsteen’s manager, Springsteen’s darker thoughts and life on the road.
It is mammoth 16,000 word piece, and one of my favourite articles ever. Full stop.
• The New Yorker: We Are Alive – Bruce Spingsteen at sixty-two
…unlike the Rolling Stones, say, who have not written a great song since the disco era and come together only to pad their fortunes as their own cover band, Springsteen refuses to be a mercenary curator of his past. He continues to evolve as an artist, filling one spiral notebook after another with ideas, quotations, questions, clippings, and, ultimately, new songs.
His style in performance is joyously demonic, as close as a white man of Social Security age can get to James Brown circa 1962 without risking a herniated disk or a shattered pelvis.
So the display of exuberance is critical. “For an adult, the world is constantly trying to clamp down on itself,” he says. “Routine, responsibility, decay of institutions, corruption: this is all the world closing in. Music, when it’s really great, pries that shit back open and lets people back in, it lets light in, and air in, and energy in, and sends people home with that and sends me back to the hotel with it. People carry that with them sometimes for a very long period of time.”
The E Street Band members are not Springsteen’s equals. “This is not the Beatles,” as Weinberg puts it. They are salaried musicians; in 1989, they were fired en masse. They await his call to record, to tour, to rehearse. And so when Springsteen sprang out of his chair and said, “O.K., time to work,” they straightened up and watched for his cue.
Although more than half the show will be the same from night to night, the rest is up for grabs.
“The essence of the way this band moves is one of soul. It’s supposed to be overwhelming. You shouldn’t be able to catch your breath. That’s what being a front man is all about—the idea of having something supple underneath you, that machine that roars and can turn on a dime.”
Clemons was a colossus—six-four, a former football player… He was not a great improviser, but his solos, painstakingly scripted over long hours in the studio with Springsteen, were set pieces in every show…. Clemons gave Springsteen a mythic companion who embodied the fraternal spirit of the band. “Standing next to Clarence was like standing next to the baddest ass on the planet,” Springsteen said of him in tribute. “You felt like no matter what the day or the night brought, nothing was going to touch you.”… Clemons’s life style was considerably less disciplined than Springsteen’s, and, in recent years, his body had been breaking down, requiring hip replacements, knee replacements, back surgery…. “C lived a life where he did what he wanted to do, and he let the chips, human and otherwise, fall where they may.”… “Losing Clemons was like losing “the sea and the stars”
“The band is a little community up there,” Springsteen said, “and it gathers together, and we try to heal the parts that God broke and honor the parts that are no longer with us.”
“My dad was very nonverbal—you couldn’t really have a conversation with him,” Springsteen told me. “I had to make my peace with that, but I had to have a conversation with him, because I needed to have one.”
“T-Bone Burnett said that rock and roll is all about ‘Daaaaddy!’ It’s one embarrassing scream of ‘Daaaaddy!’ It’s just fathers and sons, and you’re out there proving something to somebody in the most intense way possible. It’s, like, ‘Hey, I was worth a little more attention than I got! You blew that one, big guy!’ ”
“Remember, we didn’t go into this life because we were courageous or brilliant,” Van Zandt said. “We were the last guys standing. Anyone with a choice to do something else—be a dentist, get a real job, whatever—took it!”
The Springsteen Lopez describes was a young man of uncommon ambition who was also prone to bouts of withdrawal.
…the new, seventeen-piece version of the E Street Band…
Springsteen has to do so much—lead the band, pace the show, sing, play guitar, command the audience, project to every corner of the hall, including the seats behind the stage—that to wing it completely is asking for disaster.
“We got some old friends, and we got some new friends, and we’ve got a story to tell you . . .”
Springsteen will never again have huge sellers like “Born in the U.S.A.,”…What makes Springsteen an economic power at this point is his status as a live performer.
Landau has been getting a healthy cut of the Springsteen business for more than thirty years.
I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time. . . . He is a rock ’n’ roll punk, a Latin street poet, a ballet dancer, an actor, a joker, bar band leader, hot-shit rhythm guitar player, extraordinary singer, and a truly great rock ’n’ roll composer.
Springsteen started to think in larger terms than cars and highways; he began to look at his own story, his family’s story, in terms of class and American archetypes.
…both an artist and an entertainer on a large stage.
Springsteen “is the smartest person I’ve ever known—not the most informed or the most educated — but the smartest…”
As Springsteen grew more worldly, he became far more political… A political consciousness could be felt on “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and it grew in the years that followed… Springsteen knew he had run out of things to say about desperate nights on the Turnpike; he wanted to write songs he could sing as an adult, about marriage, about being a father, and about larger social issues… He was singing now about Vietnam veterans, migrant workers, class, social divisions, deindustrialized cities, and forgotten American towns…
By the mid-eighties, Springsteen was the biggest rock star in the world, capable of selling out Giants Stadium ten shows in a row… With the “Born in the U.S.A.” album, Springsteen combined political virtue and popular appeal, protest and party time… “Born in the U.S.A.” went platinum and became the best-selling record of 1985 and of Springsteen’s career.
The E Street Band is an ensemble of characters…
“Now I see that two of the best days of my life were the day I picked up the guitar and the day that I learned how to put it down.”
Springsteen has been faulted for taking himself too seriously, and the microworld around him takes him so seriously that to an outsider it can occasionally seem like a cocoon of piety.
“A Springsteen show is a lot of things, and it’s partly a religious experience.”
“…you are driven by your needs out there—the raw hunger and the raw need of exciting people and exciting yourself into some higher state.”
“Remember, we’re also running a business here, so there is a commercial exchange, and that ticket is my handshake. That ticket is me promising you that it’s gonna be all the way every chance I get. That’s my contract. And ever since I was a young guy I took that seriously.”
“We hope to send people out of the building we play in with a slightly more enhanced sense of what their options might be, emotionally, maybe communally. You empower them a little bit, they empower you… That’s what we do for one another.”