I've seen different moods in your concerts. There are some that are much more more serious and then explode into joy, and there are some that are lighthearted from the start. Do you lean into that? Lately, we've been playing the stacks of [songs from] Greetings and The Wild, the Innocent. That's pretty happy music, in a funny sort of way. It has the other side, too. But there is a lightness because it was not hard rock music. Which meant it was less physically aggressive, with more swinging, Latin, soul influences. After that, with Born to Run, the band became much more of a rock band and we played those songs much more aggressively. So the early records, you're up there and you're swaying and you're jamming a little bit. People are playing solos, you know. It's a very different state of mind.
Looking back, I wish I might have plumbed that direction more. If you go to some of our outtake records, you can find music like that. There's really no reason it didn't come out at the time – it just didn't. But it's a feeling I like very much and have enjoyed playing, over these past 10 shows. And so perhaps the hard-hitting, more serious side of what we've done takes a little bit of a backseat on some of those shows, though it's still in there.
One of the most striking aspects of Greetings was the lyrics – what Lester Bangs called "a whopping passel of verbiage." [Laughs] It was! And they've been like new revelations to me and the band.
At the time people were asking about Beat poets, which I think you hadn't actually read yet. I went and checked them out after people said that my stuff was kind of in that vein.
There are moments in your career when commercial considerations actually resulted in better music. When Clive Davis asked for something more like a single on Greetings, for instance. Clive made Greetings From Asbury Park a much better record simply by making that request. Take Greetings without "Blinded by the Light" and "Spirit in the Night," it's a slightly different record. They pointed towards my next record already. And I found Clarence, who had been missing in action. I got him on those two cuts and I got an electric guitar on "Blinded by the Light," which wasn't on the rest of the record. And I wrote this sort of jazzy R&B thing for "Spirit in the Night." So Clive did me a great service at the time by giving me the record back.
And Jon Landau did you a big service by suggesting you write another single for Born in the U.S.A. Yeah. Very much!
You went in the direction that would lead to Greetings after quitting your hard-rock band Steel Mill. In your book, you talk about rethinking your music entirely after a trip to California. I learned. I went some place I hadn't been. I went into a bigger environment musically and I learned that we were very good, but not quite as good as I thought we were. I had to think what I was going to do about that.
Your manager, Jon Landau, famously saw some of the same flaws in Cream that you saw in Steel Mill. And Clapton ended up making the same leap that you made into more of an ensemble thing. Of course looking back, Cream was pretty good. [Laughs] But yeah, I think people do reach these reckoning points where you bump up against the limits of what you've structured at that time and you make other choices.
We were talking about depression in your songs. On "Something in the Night," on Darkness on the Edge of Town, you sing, "You're born with nothing and better off that way." That is a dark mindset. That was the situation I was in at the time.
On the other hand, it points to what you told yourself on the elevator on your way up to audition for John Hammond, which is, "I got nothing, I've got nothing to lose." That was your preferred state, in some way. It was my preferred state of mind, if I could convince myself into it.
I guess it also does explain some of the courage you showed as a young man, the adventures that you went on. Yeah. It was just the way my life was working out. It wasn't a choice. These were just the things that happened to me on my way to where I was going. And, you know, the unusual experience of my parents moving away from me! And I was 19. So that was a little strange. And in those days, there was no contact. You weren't running up big phone bills, and at that time, I don't know if I had met someone who had been on an airplane for any long trip. I couldn't go on an airplane; that wasn't practical. The only way I could go see my parents was by driving across the country to see them. So it didn't happen much. We were very cut off in those days. So we were living by the skin of your teeth there and I was very happy doing so. But that was the kind of life it was.
You say in the book that at the time you signed to Columbia Records, you "wanted to collide with the times and create a voice that had a musical, social and cultural impact." You had all that in your head at that time? Yeah, when I was 23. But I had a lot of experience before that. From the time I signed my record deal, I made a lot of very specific choices. Just signing it on my own was a great departure and I had a very clear idea of the kind of musician I wanted to be. I was very, very ambitious at a very young age. And I had thought through these things a lot already.
You obviously paid tribute to them onstage, but how much did the deaths of both David Bowie and Prince this year get under your skin? It was a terrible shame. It was a great loss and a tragedy. I felt a great kinship with Prince. And he was a guy, when I'd go to see him, I'd say, "Oh, man, OK, back to the drawing board." There was a film of him on the Arsenio Hall show, where he plays a series of songs in a row. It's just some of the greatest showmanship I've ever seen. And he knew everything. He knew all about it, and then could put it to work. Just since the Sixties and Seventies and your Sam and Daves and your James Browns, he's one of the greatest showmen to come along. I studied that stuff a lot and put as much of it to use as I can with my talents. But he just took it to another level.
But when these guys go, does it give you a little boot in the ass or a reminder of the finite-ness of all of this? Well, I think we all sit back and go, "What?" I couldn't believe it when I heard it. Any death gives you renewed sight. It's a part of what the dead pass on to us. A chance to look at our lives and look at the world again. It's just a powerful experience.
You've never starred in or directed a movie, never had an exhibition of your paintings. You don't do the extra stuff that a lot of rock stars do. This book is as far you've gone. Does the other stuff not interest you? You've got to have a deep feeling as to why you want to do something else and you may not have those particular talents. If I had some deep feeling of, I have to turn this into a film, I'd go ahead and give it a try. But I've never had that. If you go to Ghost of Tom Joad or Devils and Dust, those are my little films. And I have absolutely no ability to paint or draw whatsoever. So that's not a temptation in any way, shape or form. I found that the forms I worked in have been a great outlet for what I've wanted to express. Also, when I was very young and got offered a few different movie roles, I was concerned with diluting my work as a musician and the identity I was building for myself at that time. And so I said, "I'm going to focus everything I have on what I'm doing right here."
The fun thing about Ghost of Tom Joad is it's the one record of yours that audiophiles love – they use it to demonstrate high-end stereos. That's very funny. That record was never really mastered, and we used the rough mixes we did on the day of the recordings and so it was never fucked with after that. It was this sort of very plain-sounding thing. But that's why the stories ring true on it. I didn't want to dress it at all, similar to Nebraska, you know. These were records that were made at the very moment the music was made.
There's moments on that record where it feels you're pushing beyond the song form, where there's barely any music, almost like recitations. Yeah.
It made me wonder at the time if you were going to start writing short stories. No. I'm very happy as a songwriter, and once again, it's a different talent. But I got very close to that style of narrative writing during that record. Also on Devils and Dust. It's a style of writing I get a great, great deal of enjoyment out of.
It's very hard to marry that to a rock song. Yeah. Rock music. First of all, it's a lot louder and noisier. So narrative writing within the rock form, when I've tried it, it never melded very well. You know, you want that verse, chorus, you want that chorus to come along and take you somewhere. Though that's changed with a lot of modern music. A lot of modern music finds its hooks in so many different places. In the bass, in the rhythm. There's a lot of different ways to create content and narrative at this point that you hear on the radio.
You mentioned in the book that two of the songs on Wrecking Ball came from a gospel film project. What was that? Um, I don't want to talk about it. It wasn't something that came to fruition and I'm still sitting on the rest of them.
"Rocky Ground" always sounded cinematic to me. It always sounded like it should be in a movie. Yeah. It was originally written for a film.
I think that's one of your best songs and probably didn't get the traction it deserves. Yeah. And a guy did a remix of it that's better than the one that's on the record. I'm just very proud of that song. It was just a small thing of beauty.
In the wake of Tom Joad, it seemed that you were contemplating a sort of semi-retirement from the world of big records and big tours. I did for a while, cause I enjoyed the Tom Joad experience tremendously. I said, I might just continue here, making these kind of records and I made a record right after Tom Joad that was really Devils and Dust. But when I made it, I said, "Two of these in a row? I don't know. Maybe it's not for me, you know." Basically we went back towards the band again. So, you know, you're following your instincts and your impulses and when I got there and was going to make another one, I said, "Well, I would have to ignore a lot of my other abilities to just do this." And I took too much joy and pleasure in the physicality of the other kind of music I made, in the talents that I gathered to make that music, to just limit myself to one particular genre.
How do you see Human Touch and Lucky Town now? I like those records, myself. There's great songs on those records. Of course, Steve [Van Zandt]'s comment at the time, was you should do these again and cut them with the E Street Band. You know? I just finished the record! The first thing he says to me, "You ought to make it again." That explains our relationship in a nutshell, having that kind of immediate interaction. And then when I played him Lucky Town, he said, "That's more like it." There was something correct about what he was saying, in a lot of ways. I think that while I loved the experience of playing with the musicians that I played with on that record and I learned a great deal from doing so, it might have gotten in the way of people hearing both of those records. And there are still plenty of songs on them that that we play. We played "Better Days" and we played "Living Proof." I love "Living Proof."
Me too. And "Lucky Town." These are songs that we should play more of.
It feels like the stripped-down rock of "Living Proof" and "Lucky Town" is still a direction you could explore more at some point. Maybe so.
At least on the song "Real World," you've acknowledged that the production was wrong or the approach was wrong. A certain slickness crept in. Well, you know looking back on it, I might have cut those songs somewhat differently and with a different sound. That's the reason that immediately upon being finished with Human Touch, I wrote and recorded an entire other record before that record could even come out! You know? I think I was looking for an antidote of some sort or a balance of some sort that I felt, maybe we went a little too far in this direction production-wise on that album. You can make that argument.
You write that your grandmother's overbearing love both broke you and made you. How much of the dysfunction of your early life was truly necessary to make you into the artist you became? I always say that artists come from the same place, where somebody told you you're the second coming, and somebody told you you're dirt. You believe both of those people and you go about trying to reconcile those two things through a lot of your work life. So on the one hand, you go, where are my apostles? Yet, I'm not really worthy of any of this. So you're always trying to reconcile those two points of view. You get older and you learn how to live with all those things and you realize the ridiculousness of some of it. And you put it aside. But yeah, it was a powerful, powerful, powerful motivation.
Finally, given that you had some rough years emotionally, how are you doing now? I'm good! I'm good right now, you know [knocks on wood].