Enter Bruce Springsteen, whistling. He's cradling a couple of leather jackets for a photo shoot and looks a touch tired, probably because he was just on a stadium stage outside Boston 36 hours ago, wrapping up the last in a series of four-hour-plus concerts with the E Street Band. A week before his 67th birthday, Springsteen is back on his farm in New Jersey's Monmouth County, on a cloudless mid-September afternoon lovely enough to justify allegiance to his oft-maligned home state. He has a gray shadow of a goatee, and is dressed as you'd expect him to be dressed: black T-shirt, slightly stretched at the neck; dark jeans; boots.
He's just trekked over from his actual home to his home studio, housed in a garagelike structure made of pristine blond-on-blond wood. It is, overall, a long way from the four-track cassette machine he used to record Nebraska.
The main lounge is filled with memorabilia, most of it devoted to Elvis Presley or Springsteen himself (the couch has a Greetings From Asbury Park pillow, and there are Bruce-and-Clarence outtakes from the Born to Run photo shoot on the wall). The room is overflowing with books, many of them music-themed, from Chuck Berry's autobiography to Gerri Hirshey's soul history Nowhere to Run to When We Were Good, a study of the Sixties folk revival.
Springsteen just wrote a perfect addition to this collection: his lucid, earthy, anecdote-stuffed autobiography, Born to Run. Along with rock & roll tales (no drugs, some sex, precisely one smashed guitar), it offers a psychological recipe for the creation of a self-flagellating superstar: overly worshipful grandmother; withholding dad who turns out to have been mentally ill rather than just a hard-hat hardass; indefatigable mom who adheres to an "ain't no sin to be glad you're alive" ethos.
In a sunny sitting room where windows overlook the green sprawl of his property, Springsteen discusses the genesis of the book, his struggles with depression, the future of his career and much more, staying silent on only one topic. When I mention my horror at the sight of Donald Trump–endorsing New Jersey governor Chris Christie pumping his fist and singing along to the lines "poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king" at a recent concert in Brooklyn, Springsteen laughs until he turns red. When he catches his breath, he says, "I have no comment."
So why do an autobiography?
It kind of happened by accident. I didn't think of it initially as a book. I was writing to pass the time, and I felt if I didn't do anything with it, maybe my kids would like to have it. I wrote quite a bit for about two or three weeks. When I went back and read it, I said, "This feels pretty good." I'd write longhand in some notepads, and then I'd put it away for months. I'd dictate it to Mary Mac, my assistant, and then rewrite it until it felt nice and tight and concise. It just became a project I was working on. When we'd tour, I'd put it away for the entire tour, a year and a half. When I finished what became the first of the three sections, I said, "Well, there's a tale going on there that might be interesting to people."
So you wrote it in chronological order?
I did. I let the third section sit for quite a while. It's the most difficult one, because you're writing about your current life and the people that are currently in your life. There's just a lot of different kinds of judgments to make.
You didn't hesitate to put in facts of your life that were halo-puncturing. Did you want to shatter your aura of saintliness a little?
Yeah, that part of my thing has always annoyed me. It's too much, you know. So any dent in it I can make, I'm pleased to do. I mean, it wasn't something I was intent on doing. It was just writing about a life, and all of its many aspects. But I also decided that it was a book about my music first, and about my life kind of secondarily. If I didn't want to write about something, I didn't write about it. I didn't have any rules, except I wanted what was in the book to relate back to my music. So the revelations I made about my family or my own inner workings, I felt that could be central to understanding where some of my music came from. I didn't write all about myself. Plenty of things, I held back.
At a 1990 concert, a guy shouted, "We love you!" And you said, "But you don't really know me!" Does this book get us closer to really knowing you?
You know, I would say so. But once again, it's a creation. It's a story that I drew from my story. It's one of the stories I drew from my story.
You use the word "misogyny" to describe your attitudes toward women as a young man. That's a striking self-evaluation.
You have to wear the shoe that fits. I was an internal rager. So I had to look back at some of my attitudes when I was young, and that's the only way I can describe it.
What do you know about women now that you didn't understand then?
[Laughs] What do I know about women that I didn't understand when I was a young man? Oh, Jesus [laughs, pauses]. When Mama is happy, everybody is happy. When Mama ain't happy, nobody is happy.
Did you give anyone in your life veto power over the final section of the book? Patti [Scialfa], particularly?
I did have to open up parts of our life. She's an artist, she understands that part of our job. But it was still a really strong and generous thing on her part that I'm deeply thankful for. To go back to the question you asked – what I do know about women, I have learned from Patti. It was knowledge that I was searching for, and she came into my life and just provided me with an enormous amount of vision and love and security that I never had previously. She's the love of my life.
There have been other books written about you. What do you think of them?
I haven't followed them that closely. I mean, I read Dave Marsh's book [Born to Run] a long time ago, in the Seventies. And Peter Ames Carlin's book [Bruce] that came out recently. They're all good, if you're interested in different sides of me and different parts of my story.
I thought it was sort of hilarious that you name-drop your first manager Mike Appel's book, Down Thunder Road, which is pretty negative.
I mean, if you're interested in that, that's there too. I don't have a problem with all the different portrayals of me.
I looked at that book again. There's a caption, "Bruce in 1989. Too old to rock."
[Laughs] I love that.
You used to say onstage that your mom wanted you to be an author. True?
Yes. She did when I was young.
Your talents weren't recognized in school, so what did she see in you that suggested that direction?
I did start to write the songs when I was very young. I was 15 and I was already scribbling some things down, and I suppose to her it was a respectable way to be a writer of some sort. I happened to be good at it. While I wasn't very good at much else in school, in my creative-writing classes or when we had to do some writing in my English classes, I tended to do better at it.
You've had what seems like a pretty serious and rigorous self-education. How did that work for you?
It came very naturally. I never set out to hit the books or anything. I was always curious, but I was too young in school to take advantage of it, and things were presented a little dryly. When I met Jon [Landau], he was a conduit into film and books, and I started to read things that touched my soul. A lot of them were by noir writers – James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Flannery O'Connor. And then I started to read history books. I was curious about the big story. I read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and one by Henry Steele Commager [A Pocket History of the United States]. One thing led to another, and I became quite a self-educator.
These days, I actually find myself more missing college. I missed the chance to live in the world of ideas when I would've been ripe to take advantage of it. A few years ago, my friend Robert Coles had a class at Harvard about Walker Percy, and I sat in. It was fun and I felt very at home. Made me wish I went to college!
What writers shaped the voice you found for the book?
Everything I've absorbed led to finding a voice I was comfortable with. I love all the Elmore Leonard books, for instance. But you can't copy it if you're trying to do something original.
Your paternal grandparents loom large in your story, but you wrote just one, never-released song about them – "Randolph Street (Master of Electricity)."
That was it. I probably don't think the song was very good. But it did capture some of the intensity I felt about them. It didn't enter my mind to write other songs about it, and I work from the inside out. I don't take a topic and decide to write about it. I write about what grows out of me.
You've said that Nebraska connected back to your childhood in some spiritual and emotional way.
I would say that it did. If you were looking for a record that connected to my grandparents, that's the record. It's just setting the tone of the time in our household.
Did the emotions stirred up by Nebraska open the door to the depression that hit right after you made it?
It could be. I was 32 at the time. I had just finished Nebraska, literally. I don't think it was out yet. And that was a pretty lonely record. It may have struck home. But my own biological clock may have been ticking toward that point. You carry your baggage, and if you don't start unpacking, your bags get heavier as you move along. So at some point, the weight becomes impossible to carry and you look for some way to unpack those bags. And it can get pretty messy. That's what happened to me.
Where do you see the depressive side of your nature in your songs?
In my songs? Every other record, probably [laughs]. And obviously, you look at The Ghost of Tom Joad and Nebraska and there's plenty of it in Tunnel of Love. I address it on Tunnel of Love, in the song "Two Faces." It's something I addressed as I've gone along by seesawing between what might be considered band records and what might be considered solo records. If you go to Darkness on the Edge of Town, there's plenty of it there.
The other side of it is that the dark material helps us believe the lighter stuff.
That was part of making a good song. You got to have friction and tension, something to push up against. Every writer needs that. I think it was Tom Stoppard who once said he envied Václav Havel.
Right, talk about something to push up against.
So if the triumphant part of the song was going to feel real and not just hacked out, I had to have something I was pushing up against. I just understood that balance. It comes out of gospel music, which is the music of transcendence. I wanted my music to be a music of transcendence.
When you sing, "I believe in the faith that can save me," maybe we believe you because it feels like it's coming from someone who might not have believed it the day before.
Yeah! Or maybe barely believing right now, you know?
Interestingly, one of the only concerts that you describe in detail in the book is the overhyped Hammersmith Odeon show that was so rough for you in 1975, your first trip to England.
Something heavy to push up against. It was a nightmare of a mind-fuck, so it remained with me for a long time. These days, I think you go onstage with a lot of confidence, because you've had so many years behind you. And I tend to try to move to that place every night, to that moment where suddenly it's just you and the audience; everything else has kind of fallen away, time, space. Some nights it's easier than other nights. But I pretty much always get there. You're just in this very kind of lovely place where you're really communicating. But it's always something you have to do on a nightly basis. Even after all the years, you still have to.
You talk about being able to control time onstage. How does that work for you?
You're doing a lot of things. You're compressing time in your music. You're compressing years into moments, an enormous amount of experience into just a few minutes. You're shifting between youth and maturity, so time gets warped and flipped around a lot during the evening. People are going back and forth in their lives. Time ceases inside of any creative piece. It creates its own time and space.
The depression you write about suffering in your early sixties, how did it affect your working life?
Not very much. I couldn't give you an answer to why that is. But I'd be way out on a limb and then I'd come into the studio and I'd just go to work. I'd write, record.
How often have you toured while you were in that state?
I had it come up on tours on occasion. And generally, it doesn't affect me onstage or the choices I make, but it may affect me offstage a little bit. I may feel down or confused at a certain moment. It's very rare, because touring is so emotionally and physically cathartic. If you work yourself physically to the point of near exhaustion, you're too tired to be depressed, and that may be one of the reasons I've done it my whole life. Your mind is not on overdrive – it doesn't have the energy to start looking for trouble in the weeds. Instead it's a very mind-clearing, centering experience, and you don't have the kind of space that depression thrives in.
You used to have an element of self-punishment in those long shows.
I was a good Catholic boy. So there was an element of the purification ritual.
But have you come around to where now you're doing the same thing from a healthier place?
I'm not sure myself [laughs]. Why does a man play four hours a night? I'm still not exactly sure, you know. And I would have to say it still hearkens back to some of those original impulses and the fact that I need to go all the way, all the time.
There's a passage where you describe dinner with your mom's family in terms that sound just like your concerts.
There would often be a level of hysteria that perhaps is not uncommon in Italian families, and mine was certainly no different. People were shouting and yelling. But also, there was a tremendous amount of joy and this unusual excitement about life – over nothing, except living itself.
You mention a dream where you say to your dad, "That guy onstage, that's how I see you." What does that mean?
They say that those you can't get close to, you emulate. So I was basically a bum who never worked outside of scratching on my guitar. But when I went to work, I put on the clothes of my father and I slipped into his roles in a lot of ways, in order to be close to him, in order to understand him. I didn't realize this till much later. So that dream was just me trying to explain to my dad, "Look, this is where all this took us. This is where you took me, and it's how I see you in my heart of hearts."
You chose to universalize your dad's story into something it wasn't. Was the reality too messy for a rock & roll song?
Perhaps. Or perhaps I was just influenced by East of Eden and those kinds of archetypes, and I cast the two of us in those roles. That's why in the book I say I was a little unfair to my dad, 'cause our lives were much more complex.
You write that you were kind of traumatized by what was going on at home.
It was enough to make me a nervous wreck and it wasn't just what my father was doing, either. It was the nature of my relationship with my grandparents, which was very intense, perhaps incredibly anxiety-provoking. I didn't have any release for it. So I just chewed my knuckles until they were rocks, or blinked uncontrollably.
You describe yourself around the age of eight as a "sissy" and a "weirdo."
How did you make the journey from there to being a very conventionally masculine rock star, especially in the Eighties?
It was an obvious reaction, I think, to my childhood – and I look back on it and it appears one-dimensional. My dad, to me, was a very conventionally masculine man. He worked physically. He was a big and beefy kind of guy. And again, you emulate. I believe that's how I got there. But he himself had that dichotomy. I believe he was similar to me when he was young. He was soft inside. And in the Forties and Fifties, you couldn't survive like that. As a child, he hadn't been provided with the confidence to be himself, to be fully masculine, and I don't mean that in a one-dimensional or conventional sense. So I had to sort my way through all this stuff myself, and what did I use to do it? I used my music and did the best I could.
What have you tried to teach your sons about what it means to be a man?
I try to emphasize the softer side of myself, and that there's no need to feel ashamed of or misunderstand this part of yourself. Just as you've got to be comfortable with the other side.
There were so many times you came close to total failure. Is there a universe where you went back to Jersey and were just the greatest bar-band leader anyone ever saw?
You can be very, very good and miss. But do I personally envision a scenario where that could have happened? No [laughs]. Or maybe I just prefer not to. I was a lion in pursuit of the things that I needed. And as I traveled around, I don't see that many people that are better than me. I've seen some, you know. Now of course you were very isolated in New Jersey at that time. Sometimes some sort of B-level rock star passing through town catches your band and says, "Oh, man," but nothing happens.
And sometimes they slept with your girlfriend, apparently.
Unfortunately. That part is true too [laughs]. So I knew what it was like to miss.
The song "Backstreets" seems to capture that time in your life. Where did that song come from?
Just youth, the beach, the night, friendships, the feeling of being an outcast and kind of living far away from things in this little outpost in New Jersey. It's also about a place of personal refuge. It wasn't a specific relationship or anything that brought the song into being.
You mentioned the election onstage the other night. What do you make of the Trump phenomenon?
Well, you know, the republic is under siege by a moron, basically. The whole thing is tragic. Without overstating it, it's a tragedy for our democracy. When you start talking about elections being rigged, you're pushing people beyond democratic governance. And it's a very, very dangerous thing to do. Once you let those genies out of the bottle, they don't go back in so easy, if they go back in at all. The ideas he's moving to the mainstream are all very dangerous ideas – white nationalism and the alt-right movement. The outrageous things that he's done – not immediately disavowing David Duke? These are things that are obviously beyond the pale for any previous political candidate. It would sink your candidacy immediately.
I believe that there's a price being paid for not addressing the real cost of the deindustrialization and globalization that has occurred in the United States for the past 35, 40 years, and how it's deeply affected people's lives and deeply hurt people to where they want someone who says they have a solution. And Trump's thing is simple answers to very complex problems. Fallacious answers to very complex problems. And that can be very appealing.
The New York Times found the guy you wrote the song "Youngstown" about, and he's a Trump supporter. What do you make of that? Does it surprise you?
Not really. Not if you see the history of Youngstown and what happened.
If people there are pushed to the edge, and reaching for a metaphorical gun in the form of Trump, it's the same anger you've written about.
Yeah. I mean, I started writing about this stuff 30 years ago or whenever it was.
What do you think of Black Lives Matter?
Well, it's all chickens coming home to roost. These are issues that have been ignored or hidden, and due to modern technology and the availability of cellphone cameras and constant video feed, these things are coming to the surface. Black Lives Matter is a natural outgrowth and response to the injustices that have been occurring for a very long time in the United States.
Why is it so hard for so many white people to grapple with? Why the backlash?
Nobody likes being told they're wrong.
What do you think of Colin Kaepernick's protests and the reaction to it?
Athletics is a difficult place to make political statements. There was the Olympics in the Sixties, and obviously Muhammad Ali. But sports is such an escapist field. I think when politics or personal expression is injected, it rankles people more than in other fields. But we're in a time where there isn't any place where these issues can be excluded. I admire Kaepernick, but it's a very difficult field to be outspoken in.
As was music, maybe, at times. In the Eighties, you tried to disassociate yourself from Reagan. But you didn't go nearly as far as you went later. Why?
Maybe I didn't have the confidence.
You haven't chosen to do anything for the campaign this year. Have you lost faith in whatever power you might have to affect these things?
I don't know. I think you have a limited amount of impact as an entertainer, performer or musician. I feel what I've done was certainly worth doing. And I did it at the time because I felt the country was in crisis, which it certainly is right now. I don't know if we've been approached or not to do anything at the moment. If so, I would take it into consideration and see where it goes.
No, I haven't really lost faith in what I consider to be the small amount of impact that somebody in rock music might be able to have. I don't think people go to musicians for their political points of view. I think your political point of view is circumstances, and then how you were nurtured and brought up. But it's worth giving it a shot when it's the only thing you have.
Is there a lack of enthusiasm for Hillary on your own part?
No. I like Hillary. I think she would be a very, very good president.
Where do you see the upper limits of performing live? We have Paul McCartney, who is, what, 76?
Seventy-four. You're keeping track! He's playing three-hour shows. But how does it work for you going forward?
At my age, life is day-to-day. Depending upon your health, you can be at a very different point in your life at the age that I'm at. So it's how you're feeling and the shape you're in and how you feel emotionally and spiritually inside and what you're up for and what kind of effort and commitment you still want to bring to what you're doing. I'm still firing on all eights. I'm completely committed like I was when I was 16 or 21 years old. I can still do it with no problem. But life as you get older is more like, "What a great day today is. And let me see, what am I going to do? What am I going to do in the next six months or the next year?" But there's no real answer to that question, because it's just where you're at right now. You realize there's a finiteness to it. So that changes your nightly experience. You can look out ahead and go, "OK, I'm 67. In 10 years I'm 77. Maybe that's four tours away, or five tours." You can do that and go, "Wow." You can speculate, but that's all.
You said onstage that the older you get, the more it means. Is that the finiteness?
It's the finiteness. The intensity that the audience brings to the show now – they experience the finiteness also. You can appreciate it a little more. And the whole experience gets heightened.
The next few years and beyond: Is the idea to just move between the different modes you have – E Street, solo, archival releases?
Yeah. All of the above, you know. At this point, my plan is to do everything that I do and at different intervals. I'd love to tour solo again. I look forward to playing with the band again. We're going to play in Australia this winter. And whatever else comes my way, whatever projects come my way. I don't have any five- or six-year plan, outside of having whatever music I'm making now and getting out and just continuing my work life.
You've said you have an album done that's influenced by Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb's collaborations.
I don't want to overemphasize the influences too much, because people may hear it and go, "What's that got to do with that?" But it was sort of a place where I found some inspiration.
Is that a different record than the one you almost finished before Wrecking Ball?
It's the record I wrote before Wrecking Ball but could not finish, and in attempting to finish it, I wrote Wrecking Ball. So the roots of the record go back quite a ways. Sometimes you have to wait for these puzzles to sort themselves out, and it can take years. I mean, I have a record that I've been working on that's 20 years old. That's just the way the process is working at the moment.
What's the pace of your songwriting now, compared with the 2000s, when you were extremely prolific?
Well, Wrecking Ball came, I would say, easily. The albums and songs have been coming along for quite a while. But I haven't written in a while right now, outside of the record that I have ready.
What would you have said to Elvis when you hopped the fence at Graceland in the Seventies, if he had been there?
I had a song I was probably trying to sell him, "Fire." Outside of that, I truly have no idea. I'm not sure what I was looking for.
Has fat Elvis haunted you – perhaps as a fitness inspiration and as an example of exactly where you didn't want to end up?
I don't know. I saw Elvis shortly before he died and I remember enjoying the show tremendously. Everybody makes their maps, and people will look at the one I wrote and there will be things they'll want to follow and things they won't want to follow. I got so much from Elvis as an inspiration, and I admire that voice so deeply right until the end. And everybody struggles.
At the same time, you have a "stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive" kind of counter-philosophy.
There are a lot of distractions along the way and a lot of places you can lose yourself. I was very aware of that, thanks to the people that came before me. And I worked very hard to avoid some of those pitfalls, and still do.
You write that the E Street Band was hitting its stride in the studio with The River. But after one more album with them, you waited 18 years for the next. In the abstract, doesn't that seem a little odd?
It's just the way it played out. I think we learned how to record finally with The River, even though we made somewhat of a mess of it. But we were making the kind of sound we wanted to make, and that continued into Born in the U.S.A. But Born in the U.S.A. was such a transformative event that after it I didn't really know where to go with the band. So I went in a different direction. Also, I wanted to immediately downsize, because I didn't want to play the game of "You have to top this and top these sales." I don't want to get into being that kind of artist.
That said, how did you feel about the commercial underperformance of Human Touch and Lucky Town in 1992 – which ran straight into grunge?
I think Nirvana hit at the moment those albums came out. I remember Jon, at the time, was nervous that the records hadn't done as well as he'd hoped or we'd hoped. We had a conversation: "Jon, it's just not our time. We'll have other times." And if you have a long life and a long work life, you're going to go through that. Sometimes it's just not your time. It was somebody else's.
You write about 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad as a pivot point back to writing about the larger world – how do you understand your avoidance of topical songwriting for so many years?
You're always in a box, and you're an escape artist if you do what I do – or if you're a creative person, period. You build your box and then you escape from it. You build another one and you escape from it. That's ongoing. And you may at some point escape enough boxes where you find yourself back around to the first one again and you go, "Oh, I didn't think I had any more to say about these things. Wait a minute, yes, I do. I've got a lot more to say about these things!"
How do you balance the magic that happens with the E Street Band with the quotidian realities of being the boss?
You have to accept the fact that along the way it becomes a business – if you don't accept it, everything is going to get fucked up very deeply. So you're doing everyone a service by acknowledging that's a part of your relationship and negotiating your way through it as friends and as adults.
You write that you needed disciples rather than employees early on. Did that mean total dedication?
Yeah, it did. I made unreasonable demands and then perhaps things were unreasonably demanded of me in return [laughs]. But that was who we were at the time. I was an insecure young man. So my need for total dedication from the people I was working with was very great. Those things were tempered as time passed by. There's still an enormous amount of dedication, but we have healthy boundaries now that we didn't have when we were younger.
In the studio, you deliberately played Steve Van Zandt off Jon. Where did the instinct come from to do something as –
As devious as that? [Laughs]
I was going to say maybe sophisticated, Machiavellian, but let's go with that.
It came very naturally out of that part of me that is ruthless in the pursuit of my song. And they joined a team, so they're in for the whole ride, and we're all big boys.
You write that you and Clarence Clemons couldn't hang out because it would have ruined your life.
Clarence was a wild liver, and it was fabulous. But don't think you can do it at home, kids. He was a hearty soul.
So you have deep friendships that aren't hanging-out type of friendships?
Of course. I've got plenty of them. As you get older, you're involved in your family. It's a great joy when I'm with, say, Steve. We don't hang out that much. So it's a tremendous joy when I am with him. It was a great joy being with Clarence. He was hilarious. One of the funniest guys on the planet, and someone who enlivened you when you were around him. And then what you did together was so deep. So you never questioned your friendship or your allegiance to one another. It doesn't mean you're going to have dinner every day.
You write that Steve's opinions could be destabilizing in the band. How so?
He's a powerful man, so his opinions count greatly. He's also more free-swinging than I am. If you're at the head of an organization and you're trying to give it continuity and collective power, a strong personality can be disruptive. But that's been a part of our relationship our whole lives. I believe I've played the same role in his life, and I need somebody who will do that.
You expected Wrecking Ball to make a bigger splash, and you concluded that people aren't looking to rock for that kind of statement anymore.
Rock, at the moment, it's not the prime vehicle for communicating those particular ideas. There's a sort of mixture of pop and hip-hop that dominates the airways and is the current carrier for cultural comment.
How do you feel about that?
It's just the lay of the land. Pop always moves on and transforms itself. There's great music being made now. Kanye West makes terrific records. Kendrick Lamar is incredible. You wouldn't want things to remain static or to have a lasting hegemony on cultural comment. But there's somebody in a garage right now with a guitar, probably, figuring out some different way to reinvent it, some different place to take it. That's always going on.
With the benefit of hindsight, why was rock & roll so powerful a transformational force in your life – and in the world at large?
There was an explosion of the id that had been repressed, first of all, previously to a great degree. So when you had Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, there was this thing that had been contained suddenly exploding onto the airways, into the world, giving you permission to live with part of your spirit and your body that had been in many ways denied previously. It also came along at a time when people were questioning religion. So there was a secular-spiritual side to it, based in bliss and joy and a personal transcendence of circumstances. It was caught up in the dead center of the American dream, the dream of success and fulfillment. So it was just a powerful, explosive force that came along at a time when history almost demanded it.
And when you needed it too.
I was born at the right time.