The River

Thursday, August 05, 2004 interview with Bruce


Backstreets: As political awakenings go, I’ve always had the impression that the time around The River was big for both you and Steve, as far as getting out of the States and seeing our country through other eyes.

Springsteen: I know for Steve it was a tremendous awakening, that tour. More so for him maybe than for me, because I had kind of started to write about it on Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River already, really before we went overseas. But I know for Steve it was tremendous. We went to East Berlin together, and it was quite an experience, East Berlin at that time. It was real noticeable, what that does to you. And also, when you spend a good amount of time over there, you do have a moment to step out of the United States and look back with a critical eye.

If there was one single thing I’d like to give every high school kid in the United States, it would be a two-month trip through Europe at some point during the formative years. Because it’s very difficult to conjure up a real worldview from within our borders. It’s hard. It’s hard because we’re so big, and the hegemony of American culture is so weighty and so heavy that it’s very difficult without stepping outside and realizing what it’s like to have the next country just a two-hour drive away, to have a certain kind of interdependence that is different than what we have here. It’s just a certain view of the way the world works that is different. So if I could give every young kid one thing, that would be it -- because it would broaden what we listen to, the way we perceive ourselves, the types of leaders we choose. It would change the nation dramatically.

I always remember going down to South America on the Amnesty tour and hearing incredible music, or going into Africa and seeing some amazing acts that opened up for us on that tour, and realizing that only a miniscule amount of people are going to hear this music back in the United States. Meanwhile, a six- or seven-piece rock band from Central Jersey is playing the Ivory Coast, and people who have barely heard our music before are going crazy. And we’re speaking English, you know? The openness I’ve found outside the United States contrasted a bit to some of the closedness that we have here. And it’s not intentional – it’s cultural. And it comes from a lack of exposure to other things.

Backstreets: What opened your eyes to some of those things initially? On the River tour you talked about the Joe Klein book, Woody Guthrie: A Life. Was that book pivotal for you?

Springsteen: That’s a big book, a very powerful book. I was looking for ways that other people went about creating work that spoke to all of these things -- emotional, and social, and political, the environment of the day. How did other people do that? How did they balance their creative instincts and their political instincts? I was a very different creature in that, hey, I was a successful pop musician, and that changes the cards to some degree. But at the same time, what’s at the heart of it is still the same sort of questing after the country that you’re carrying in your heart, the country that you want your kids to grow up in. So I studied all of my forefathers very intently along the way. And I just put together something that felt right for us, and for me.

Backstreets: One of the purposes of art is to reflect our world back to us. And there’s so much animosity and fear surrounding that right now -- a lot of people, the whole “shut up and sing” faction, seem to think that’s not what an artist should be doing. But considering the folk tradition you’re a part of, thinking about Woody Guthrie, “shut up and sing” is a real oxymoron.

Springsteen: First of all, there’s a long tradition of artist involvement in the nation’s social and political life. Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Public Enemy... not only was their music joyous and exhilarating, but it was timely. And it was essential, for me, to understanding some of the events of the day. When they spoke, I heard myself speaking. I felt a connectedness. So I think that any time somebody in this country is telling somebody else to shut up, they’re going in the wrong direction. No, no, no, you’re supposed to be promoting speech. You may like it, you may not like it -- I hear a lot of things I don’t like, either, but hey. [laughs]

Also, if you listen to the airwaves and the level of discussion out there, we can’t screw it up. It’s already broke! It’s screwed already [laughs]. So it’s not like the musicians are going to come in and screw all this up now, you know? That’s not going to happen.


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