Between American Dream and reality: a rare and reflective meeting with the Boss
From the archives: "“There is a patriotism underneath all my music, but it’s a very critical, questioning, often angry patriotism,” says Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen: "Once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic... It’s given me a very active sense of spiritual life and made it difficult sexually, but that’s all right."
This article was first published on February 17th, 2012
`"Turn up at the agreed address at 12.30pm," the instructions begin. From there, you will be transported to an undisclosed location for an event whose format cannot be revealed in advance. Cameras, recorders and laptops will not be permitted. Put aside six hours. Is it a briefing with the Mossad? An invitation to ransom negotiations? No, folks, it’s a rare appointment with The Boss.
All the secrecy has, naturally, created quite a buzz among the gathered journalists by the time the theatre’s lights come up after a playback of Bruce Springsteen’s new album and he saunters casually onto the stage in black jeans, boots and a worn jacket. Springsteen has come to talk about the new record, Wrecking Ball – a furious, haunting portrait of an America at the receiving end of recession’s scattershot sweep and a fierce denunciation of the America that lets such things be.
Written after the financial crisis of 2008, the album – Springsteen’s 17th studio effort – sees the 62-year-old home-in on the stories of men, women and families torn apart by the pain of lost jobs, homes, dignity. “There was really no accountability for years,” he says. “People lost their homes and nobody went to jail. People lost enormous amounts of their net worth. A basic theft had occurred that struck at what the American idea was about.”
Deep voice booming
Springsteen is a charming, self-deprecating interviewee, his deep voice booming effortlessly across the Théâtre Marigny. He seems relaxed, laid-back. The album is anything but. Its first half arguably sees Springsteen at his angriest. The powerful opening track, We Take Care of Our Own, asks the rhetorical question the rest of the album sets out to answer, sketching the distance – as Springsteen’s work always has – between American Dream and reality. “Where are the hearts that run over with mercy?” he sings in disbelief. “Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?”
Much like Born in the USA – famously misappropriated by Ronald Reagan – We Take Care of Our Own has an ambiguous heart. And a big one. “There is a patriotism underneath all my music, but it’s a very critical, questioning, often angry patriotism,” Springsteen says.
In Easy Money, a man is about to go out on a robbing spree, “imitating the guys on Wall St in the only way he knows how”. In the loud, thumping Shackledand Drawn,“gambling man rolls the dice, poor man pays the bills”.
Elsewhere we hear a reference to the New Orleans poor abandoned in the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina.
If the first half of the album is suffused with anger, the latter half grows more constructive, more reflective. The stories shift towards resilience and strength, such as in Land of Hope and Dreams(“Dreams will not be thwarted, Faith will be rewarded.“)
“The record has to expand emotionally, spiritually,” Springsteen says. “And it’s got to throw you a good time.”
Wrecking Ball also takes a striking spiritual turn as it develops – a tendency Springsteen traces easily to his Catholic upbringing in New Jersey. “I got completely brainwashed with Catholicism as a child. Once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic . . . It’s given me a very active sense of spiritual life and made it difficult sexually, but that’s all right,” he jokes.
It’s a stylistically innovative album, borrowing from folk, gospel and rap, and constantly reaching for sounds that evoke previous depressions in order to push home the notion that “it’s cyclical, that it goes over and over and over again.”
Wrecking Ballwas almost finished when Springsteen’s long-time friend and collaborator Clarence Clemons died last year. Clemons plays sax on one of the tracks, and Springsteen wonders how the E Street Band will sound without him on tour. “We had a relationship that was elemental since the very beginning,” he says of Clemons. “It fired my imagination and my own dreams. It made me want to write for those sax sounds. It’s like losing something elemental – like losing rain or water.”
It’s an election year in the US, of course, but Springsteen doesn’t feel inclined to get involved. He prefers to stay on the sidelines, and it was only because the Bush years were “such a blatant disaster” that he felt compelled to join John Kerry and Obama on the campaign trail. He praises Obama for keeping General Motors alive, enacting healthcare reform and killing Osama bin Laden. The president turned out to be friendlier with big corporations than he expected, and he could have done more to create jobs and restrict foreclosures, but “I still support him”.
There is another political phenomenon that fascinates Springsteen these days: the Occupy Wall Street movement, which he believes managed to change the terms of political debate and in doing so proved once again the power of the street. “No one had gotten anybody in the US to talk about economic inequality in two decades . . . You’ve got Newt Gingrich calling Mitt Romney a vulture capitalist. That wouldn’t have happened in 10 million years without Occupy Wall Street.”
The new album may take today’s America as its subject, but as Springsteen points out, it’s more deeply rooted in his own upbringing. His mother was the primary breadwinner, his father struggled to find work – a situation that prevails in many American homes today, as the economy’s shift from manufacturing to services leaves older working-age men most vulnerable.
“I saw how painful that was. Work creates an enormous sense of self.” His mother was “an inspiring, towering figure” but his home life was a “minefield”, a “place of tremendous emotional turmoil”.
“The anger that surfaced in my music from day one emerged from that scene. I’m motivated circumstantially by events of the day, but the deepest motivation, the reason to ask these questions, comes from my home.”
Wrecking Ballis released on March 2nd, 2012