Born to Run (2016)
. . . First, of course, I fretted, worried, questioned, discussed, debated, dismissed, rethought, reconsidered and thought some more. I wanted my reasoning to be sound and I did not want to reconstitute a nostalgia act to run the new oldies circuit. (Though I’ve actually gotten plenty of pleasure out of some of those oldies shows when the performers are laying down their hearts. If your heart is in it, it ain’t old.) Still, I was coming off a deeply satisfying solo tour that had felt very present, hadn’t played with the band in ten years, still held a few mild grudges and was worried about whether the whole thing would actually work.
It came down to this: I’d studied, honed, worked and sweated to acquire a set of skills that when put into action made me one of the best in the world at what I did. Those skills were at their apex with a hard-driving band, and, I’d come to realize, not just any band. Time, history, memory, collective experience had made this so. Working with my band of the early nineties, I’d learned that as much as I enjoyed playing with a new set of musicians and as good as I thought we were, there would be, in my lifetime, no other group of musicians with whom I would step onto the stage with a quarter century of blood, sweat and tears under our belt but the E Street Band. There were only these eight men and women. Their style and playing abilities had long been hand stitched to fit me perfectly. More important, when the fans looked at those faces onstage, they saw themselves, their lives, their friends looking back at them. In the new digital world of three-second attention spans, where the cold, hard hand of impermanence and numbered anonymity holds sway, this was irreplaceable. It was real, and we’d built it the way real things are built, moment upon moment, hour upon hour, day after day, year after year. I came to the conclusion I’d need a pretty good reason to not exercise my skills at the still-very-young age of forty-eight with this group of musicians sitting at home. I didn’t have one. Everyone had found their own way but no one had found—and they wouldn’t, not now or ever—another E Street Band.
There was residual tension in the band but a lot more love than in most, or any, I knew of. And . . . it had been ten years. I wasn’t hearing myself so regularly on the radio anymore. What we’d done was getting farther away, receding into rock’s glorious but embalmed past. I didn’t like that. We were far too formidable a unit to go gently into that good night. I remained too filled with ambition, ego, hunger, desire and a righteous sense of musical power to let a life’s work slip into the respectful annals of rock history. As surely as death, taxes and the hunger for new heroes, that day would come . . . but not . . . right . . . now! Not if I had anything to do with it. Not while I was a mighty, strapping, psychosis-filled rock ’n’ soul shouter. Not yet.
Rock ’n’ roll bands that last have to come to one basic human realization. It is: the guy standing next to you is more important than you think he is. And that man or woman must come to the same realization about the man or woman standing next to him or her, about you. Or: everyone must be broke, living far beyond their means and in need of hard currency. Or: both.
A decade of seat-warming the ex–rock ’n’ roll gods’ bench sharpens the mind and softens everyone’s perspective on any mild mistreatments from the past. That is a good thing. We all must wake up one morning, or different mornings, and think, “You know, that thing, that thing I had, was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It was good for my life, it was good in my life and if the opportunity should ever again arise . . .” It arose, for all of us, and we were about to make the most of it, whatever each individual’s motivations may have been.
In our last incarnation there had been no Steve Van Zandt. I had to think about that. If we were going, I wanted all of us to go. First I needed to make a courtesy call to Nils. Nils had done much more than step in and replace my old friend Steve over the years. He became a very responsible second lieutenant, fully committed to his position in the band and giving everything he had. On top of that, Nils was just a beautiful guy to be around. He was an assured, calming, inspiring presence and one of the world’s great guitarists. Within the band, he was ego-free. If an entire night passed without a solo, no problem. He was a total team player who arrived at the hall hours before everyone else to ready himself for the work. He carried an archive of music for every possible song choice I might pull out of the hat, prepared himself and tutored others in chord structure and arrangements for the night’s specialty items. Between Nils and Max, another deep student of our work, I always had somewhere to go if I had any questions about something I’d written. I called Nils, told him what I wanted to do, assured him I appreciated and understood the great work and commitment he’d shown our band, explained his position would not change and asked his blessing. Nils, ever the gentleman and loyal soldier, told me if that’s what I thought was best, he was behind me. Then I called Steve.
Despite our great friendship, or because of it, Steve can be a powerful force, and with his great energy he can be unintentionally destabilizing. Steve’s word on something will often tip the scales for me one way or another. His often hilarious point of view constantly loosens things up, keeps me grounded, and his mere presence makes me feel all will be well. He’s also a serious thinker about rock ’n’ roll, what it means and can do. The friction and the rub in Steve’s opinions is often where he is most valuable to me, but in the past, he could unintentionally cross the line, entering into band politics in a way that sometimes made my job tougher. We’d need to talk about that. We did, one afternoon at my home. We had a friendly but tough conversation. I got to air my remaining grievances and hear Steve’s point of view, and we put it away. We proceeded to have the best eighteen years of our work life and friendship.
When I called Clarence, he told me he’d been waiting for ten years and asked where I had been. As I’ve said, plenty of the guys had found their own second acts and been very successful, but there is something about walking onstage in front of seventy-five thousand screaming fans with the oldest friends of your life, playing music that is ingrained in you, that’s hard to replace. If you had it for one—just one—evening, you’d never forget it. To go there night after night, over a lifetime, is an unimaginable, immeasurable pleasure and privilege. After ten years apart, this was something we all understood and had come to appreciate in a new way. We were nine of a handful of people on the planet who had earned that privilege. Now, firmly and finally, in our middle age, we understood its significance. But if we were going to do this, if I was going to do it, I wanted to be sure it would be “easy,” that it would be fun. The work would be hard enough. The past had to be over and done with; all grudges, money issues, slights—real or imagined—would need to be put away.
An example: One day I had one of my musicians come to me and explain he would need more money if he were to continue doing his work. I told him if he could find a more highly paid musician at his job in the world, I would gladly up his percentage. I also told him I could spare him the time to search. All he had to do was walk into the bathroom, close the door and walk over and take a look in the mirror. There he’d find the highest-paid musician in the world at his post. I told him, “That’s how it works in the real world.” He then looked straight at me and, without a trace of irony, asked, “What do we have to do with the real world?” At that moment I knew I had sheltered some of my colleagues perhaps a bit too much.
Right now, I just wanted to enjoy myself with my great friends doing the thing we do best together. If we couldn’t do that, I’d prefer simply to leave it. We were still young but too old to recomplicate our lives by engaging in any venture that wasn’t going to be rewarding and a pleasure to all.
Along with (when necessary) supreme confidence, doubt and all of its many manifestations is in my wheelhouse. You work that right and it’s a blessing. You work it wrong and you’re paralyzed. Doubt can be the starting point for deeper critical thought. It can keep you from selling yourself and your audience short and it can bring you hard down to Earth if needed. Before our ten-years-coming Asbury Park opening night, I’d experience plenty of it.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
I’d attended several early ceremonies of the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In its second year, I’d gone to induct Roy Orbison, then had the honor of inducting Bob Dylan. These were two of my most telling influences. To be chosen to present them with their induction meant a great deal to me. After the ceremonies, during the all-star jam, which in those days featured every musician in the house, I’d stood onstage between Mick Jagger and George Harrison, all of us together on one mike, singing “I Saw Her Standing There.” I was thinking, “What’s wrong with this picture?” How did a kid from New Jersey end up, on this evening, between these two men whose work had driven so deeply into his soul that he had to follow the road they laid out before him, follow it with everything he had?
Look at it like this: In 1964, millions of kids saw the Stones and the Beatles and decided, “That looks like fun.” Some of them went out and bought instruments. Some of them learned to play a little. Some got good enough to maybe join a local band. Some might have even made a demo tape. Some might have lucked out and gotten a record deal of some sort. A few of those might have sold some records and done some touring. A few of those might have had a small hit, a short career in music, and managed to eke out a modest living. A very few of those might have managed to make a life as a musician, and a very, very few might have had some continuing success that brought them fame, fortune and deep gratification, and tonight, one of those ended up standing between Mick Jagger and George Harrison, a Stone and a Beatle. I did not fool myself about what the odds were back in 1964 that that one would’ve been the acne-faced fifteen-year-old kid with the cheap Kent guitar from Freehold, New Jersey. My parents were RIGHT! My chances were ONE, ONE in a MILLION, in MANY MILLIONS. But still . . . here I was. I knew my talents and I knew I worked hard, but THESE, THESE WERE THE GODS, and I was, well . . . one hardworking guitar man. I carried the journeyman in me for better or for worse, a commonness, and I always would.
These were the days at the Hall of Fame when the ceremonies were NOT televised. People got up and were glorious, hateful, hilarious, spiteful, smashed, insane and often deeply moving. If you were still enmeshed in intergroup grudges and fighting, the podium at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was your one last shot at sticking it in a little deeper to that guy or those guys. The Hall of Fame induction—by its nature, a moment of reflection—brought out the best and worst in folks and was never less than wildly entertaining. These were the days when rock’s true giants were still being inducted. You’d find yourself onstage at night, not just between Mick and George, but alongside of Keith Richards, with Bob Dylan to your left, B. B. King on your right, Smokey Robinson to his left, Jeff Beck stage-side with Les Paul. It was a living pageant of Guy Peellaert’s early illustrations of the gatherings of rock’s Olympus, Rock Dreams. What resulted musically was often a train wreck but there was something to just being there. There amid your dreams, your gods, your heroes, like a misplaced stowaway on the ride of his life. It was a rock da Vinci’s Last Supper, and Steve and I often ruminated on how we felt we’d been born at exactly the right moment. We were teenagers in the sixties, when rock and radio had their golden age, when the best pop music was also the most popular, when a new language was being formed and spoken to young people all across the world, when it remained an alien dialect to most parents, when it defined a community of souls wrapped in the ecstasy and confusions of their time but connected in blood brotherhood by the disciple’s voice of their local deejay.
We were rock’s early third generation. Born in time to get the best of rock’s reinventors of blues, pop and soul, the British wave, yet young enough to experience its originators, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis . . . all still alive and active at the crest of the wave of the sixties. It was rock’s most vibrant and turbulent era. I saw the Doors, Janis Joplin and the Who in Asbury Park’s Convention Hall. The Who opened for Herman’s Hermits! And were preceded by a New York City band, the Blues Magoos, who wore electric suits that glowed in the dark. Janis had in her band one of my great guitar heroes, Danny Weis from the band Rhinoceros, whom Steve and I followed slavishly whenever they came into the Jersey area. I received all these hands like a supplicant directly upon my trembling forehead and fell stunned by their power. With the radio and country exploding, there was enough rough fuel to last a poor boy a lifetime . . . and it has.
Much great and inspirational music has come since, particularly the punk explosion of the late seventies and hip-hop in the eighties, but all in all, we had the luck of the draw. It’s part of what’s made our band unique: the cross-tensions of the fifties blue-collar world and sixties social experience clashing and melding in our music. We are pre- and post-hippie sixties soul survivors. It’s a blend that won’t exactly exist firsthand anymore when we’re done. The world and society changes too quickly and too much. The birthing conditions of today’s musicians will be different—just as valid, but different. And as the social conditions that gave rise to Motown, Stax, the blues and rockabilly slip out of existence, the elements that form the basis of what was created, the golden age of radio, the industrial age, pre-Internet localism, post-industrialism, will shift into an entirely different set of influences and create the next generation’s rock heroes. It’s already happened quite a few times and is happening as we speak. Long live rock! (Whatever that may be.)
Come ’98 I got the word I was to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’d been twenty-five years since the release of Greetings from Asbury Park and that was the criterion for inclusion. Our old paradox would be revisited. I’d long ago signed as a solo artist and recorded as “Bruce Springsteen” for twenty-five years. The Hall of Fame induction rules stated you were inducted under the name of your earliest recording. We’d toured since 1975 as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and what I’d accomplished was inseparable from my work with my friends. A few weeks before my induction, Steve visited me in my Rumson home and made his case that I should push for the Hall of Fame to induct us as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band because, in his words, “that was the legend.”
He had a point but it’d been ten years since we’d played live together. I still had a good deal of ambivalence, and the closeness we’d rekindle over the next decade had not yet taken hold. And . . . I had a lot of pride about walking into John Hammond’s office on my own that day in 1972. I’d set the band aside in the early seventies and determined to be a solo artist. I put together the greatest band in the world to further that purpose and in doing so we created something that was not quite fish nor fowl. My primary heroes were solo artists—Frank, Elvis, Dylan—and I went in on my own with the determination to forge a solo voice. My model was the individual traveler, the frontiersman, the man in the wilderness, the highwayman, the existential American adventurer, connected but not beholden to society: John Wayne in The Searchers, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Bob Dylan in Highway 61 Revisited. These would later be joined by Woody Guthrie, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Flannery O’Connor—individuals who worked on the edges of society to shift impressions, create worlds, imagine possibilities that would then be assimilated and become a part of the culture at large. I needed a grand instrument and more, the feeling of heart-and-soul commitment that gave me the room, the time to make the music I felt within me. That was the E Street Band.
The Hall of Fame did not have an apparatus to consider the gray area my work and my collaboration with the band fell into. There wasn’t a structure specific enough to take the important subtleties of our kind of musical entity into account. Steve was probably right; I could’ve petitioned the Hall of Fame to make an exception as to how I’d be inducted. Though it had never been done with any other group or individual, I’m sure they would’ve in this case. But to do so I would’ve had to have felt with absolute clarity that that was what I wanted to do. In 1970, when I walked out of Steel Mill as a twenty-year-old kid and decided that was the last of small-unit democracy and “bands” for me, I’d chosen a different path.
On March 15, 1999, I was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the guys at my side. Some had hurt feelings and some were simply happy for me, but at the end of the day, they all came through. We’d soon commence the tour that would signal a decade of some of our most productive years and bring us to several new generations of E Street fans.
On March 11, 1999, we went back to our roots and set up band rehearsals in Asbury Park’s Convention Hall. In ’99, Asbury was still blighted and struggling mightily from decades of neglect and corruption, but down on the fringes of Cookman Avenue, there was movement. A small group of artists/frontiersmen and gays drifting in from New York had found the town’s low rents and laissez-faire social attitudes attractive. Asbury was now the borderlands, a canvas driven blank by poverty and abandonment, leaving room for something new to be created. There was a faint light at the end of the city’s long, dark tunnel. Here we set about finding who we were now.
On the first day, as I kicked the band into “Prove It All Night,” I could feel it was all there. I was startled by some things I’d forgotten. My ears had lost their insensitivity to how loud we were. That, along with deafness, would soon return. The big rolling sound of the band, the weight it carried, felt both welcoming and unsettling. If I was going to release this big machine again, I’d better know what I wanted to do with it. Midway through “Prove It” it felt like we could’ve played this song just two weeks ago. Ten years vanished into faint remembrance. It was an enjoyable day but still I went home unconvinced. I held long conversations with Jon about my ambivalence. Ambivalence, of course, being one of my specialties, I couldn’t have honestly expected to make my way to where we were heading without a full-on wrestling match with my own dissonance. So be it. I was drawing a lot of our set from Tracks, an sixty-six-song set of outtakes, which would be released simultaneously with our tour. I was resisting going to the classics for fear of relying too heavily upon yesterday.
One evening I sat with Jon in the Film Center Café on Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen and I wrote out my proposed set list. He looked it over and said, “We’re a little short on the songs that after ten years, people might want to hear.” “Really?” I made my protestations: I can’t . . . I won’t . . . blah, blah, blah. Then I confided in him that I was unsure if the whole thing was going to work. If I could make it “real.” Jon calmly responded, “If you come out with your band and play your best music, people are going to like it.” Oh.
The next afternoon at Convention Hall, I went through a stressful rehearsal, running through music we’d long known that was feeling somehow leaden and lifeless to me. I was quietly seething with anxiety but I didn’t want to disturb or draw the confidence out of the band. There had been about fifty or so fans milling around outside of the hall for the past few weeks and around midafternoon, with a few songs left to rehearse, I told one of the crew to let them in. A rush of shining, excited faces rushed stage front as I counted into “Promised Land” and suddenly, there it was . . . liftoff. The band felt light as a feather and deep as the sea. I’d looked into those faces and found what I was missing. It was all there inside of me. A great relief washed over me and it all made sense. As we’d slogged away for weeks on the Convention Hall stage in isolation, trying to pump life into our much-vaunted songbook, there’d been only one thing missing: you.
With these few souls in front of me, I could feel not only our shared history but the presentness of what we were doing. It’d be all right.
The day before our opening-night concert I brought in a song called “Land of Hope and Dreams.” I wanted something new to start this new stage of the band’s life with. “Land of Hope” summed up a lot of what I wanted our band to be about and renewed our pledge to our audience, to point the way forward and, once again, become a living presence in our listeners’ lives. That evening we closed the show with it and we were off.
We started on April 9, 1999, in Barcelona, one of the cities that had become an epicenter of our European popularity, and were met with a blind hysteria that would continue to bring us back to this beautiful city for the next decade. It was not a reunion but a revival, and the band played hard and well for 133 shows, winding down to a last stand in New York City that would crystallize our return in a way we hadn’t expected.
As our first tour in a decade drew to its close, I wanted to write something new for our New York engagement at Madison Square Garden as a signpost to where we were heading. The shooting of Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant, by plainclothes police officers as he was reaching for his wallet seemed to underscore the danger and deadly confusion of roaming the inner-city streets in black skin that still existed in late-twentieth-century America. I wrote as thoughtfully as I could, trying to take in the perspective of not just the Diallo family but the officers as well. I tried the song out in Atlanta, our last show before New York City. I just thought it was another piece of music I had written that followed my long career path of dealing with topical subjects and I was mildly shocked when Steve came running into our Fort Monmouth rehearsal on the day before our Garden gig saying, “Have you seen this?” There on the cover of the venerable New York Post was the head of the New York State Fraternal Order of Police calling me a “dirtbag” and a “floating fag.” I understood “dirtbag” but I had to retreat to my pre-Wikipedia Webster’s for a definition of “floating fag.” It wasn’t there. I received letters, one from the police commissioner asking me NOT to play the song! . . . Huh? It’s a SONG! No one, except the folks in Atlanta, had even heard it yet! But the storm continued on CNN and in newspaper editorials.
Come opening night at the Garden, needless to say, some tension filled the air. You could feel the restlessness of the audience, perhaps smelling a little blood. The police backstage, usually a great part of my audience, were unsmiling and uncommunicative. Mr. and Mrs. Diallo had requested to be in attendance. I met them both briefly backstage, two elegant and beautiful Africans who in gentle voices spoke a little of Amadou and thanked me for writing about their son. Despite the press ruckus, I had no big presentation to make. I simply inserted the song in the part of the set where it would naturally come and went out to do my job. I gathered the band in a circle backstage, explained that something unusual might occur but that this was what we did at our best. We held hands, the house lights dropped and we took the stage.
The opening of the set was stiff with apprehension, both our own and the audience’s. You could feel it was not going to be a normal evening. I’ve never stood onstage and felt people waiting, waiting, waiting for just one song. Finally, six songs in, I cued Roy and Max to go into the dark, drawing riff and clocklike rhythm that introduced “American Skin.” Some in the crowd began to incongruously clap along and I asked for some quiet, then each band member, beginning with Clarence, chanted the opening lyric, “Forty-one shots.” At that point I could hear some scattered booing (regardless of what they say, it is quite distinctive to the ear from “Bruuuuuuce”-ing!). Well, that was to be expected. Then several angry young men, one flashing a badge and saluting me with the New Jersey state bird, rushed to the front of the stage. They stood for a moment shouting at my feet; what, I couldn’t quite tell, but it wasn’t greetings and salutations. They were shortly hustled away by Garden security. We played on to a mixture of supportive applause and boos with the Diallos in view in their seats and that was it. I followed “American Skin” with “Promised Land,” two songs about the demand for and refusal to give human recognition and the cost of that refusal.
Though “American Skin” was critical, it was not anti-police, as some thought. The first lines you hear after the intro are from the policeman’s point of view: “Kneeling over his body in the vestibule, praying for his life.” In the second verse, a mother tries to impress on her young son the importance of his simplest actions in a neighborhood where the most innocent of motions (your hand reaching for your wallet or moving out of sight) can be misinterpreted with deadly consequences.
In the bridge, the lyrics “Is it in your heart, is it in your eyes” ask the singer and his audience to look inside themselves for their collaboration in events. The third verse, “We’re baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood . . . it ain’t no secret, no secret my friend. You can get killed just for living in your American skin,” spoke of life in the land of brotherly fear.
The sheer number of shots, forty-one, seemed to gauge the size of our betrayal of one another. “Forty-one shots . . . forty-one shots”: that was the mantra I wanted to repeat over and over throughout my song, the daily compounding of crimes, large and small, against one another. I worked hard for a balanced voice. I knew a diatribe would do no good. I just wanted to help people see the other guy’s point of view. The idea was: here is what systematic racial injustice, fear and paranoia do to our children, our loved ones, ourselves. Here’s the price in blood.
At the end of “American Skin” you could feel the audience in the Garden breathe a sigh of relief. The world had not ended. Many of those who booed us cheered the rest of the show, but the cleaving scar of this one song, more than any other I’d written, stayed with us for a long time. On one of my motorcycle forays through western New York, I stopped at a little roadhouse and ran into a few local officers with a few beers under their belt who were thoroughly displeased with my editorializing. I wisely left. Years later, when I played the song at the closing night of our Rising tour at Shea Stadium, the police contingent refused to assist us out of the hall (poor us) and we made our way through the crowded streets on our own. No problem, but I was saddened that the song was still so misunderstood by some good men toeing the blue line. On the other hand, I also encountered men and women who showed me their badge, thanked me and said they understood what I was saying.
My sweetest memory of the whole fiasco is that as I sauntered down Monmouth Avenue in Red Bank one afternoon, an elderly black woman approached me and said, “They just don’t want to hear the truth.” I received a small plaque that year from our local NAACP and I was always glad that the song brought me just a little closer to the black community I always wished I’d served better.
No other song I’d written, including “Born in the USA,” ever received as confused and controversial a reaction as “American Skin.” It truly pissed people off. It was the first song where I stepped directly into the divide of race, and in America, to this day, race cuts deep.
The first E Street revival was over. I’d regained my confidence in the band, and with “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “American Skin” I found I was able to write material that stood with the songs of our past. Now we needed to make a great modern record.