Saturday, November 20, 2010

On the Outside Looking In

Bruce Springsteen’s Fan Interview at Sirius Radio, November 15

Working off no transcript, simply memory, as Mr. Marcus once suggested. My apologies for any lies that follow….

The best part, that’s easy—watching the greatest Springsteen fan in the world (IMHO), Randy “Drive-All-Night” Heaster (as Dave Marsh dubbed him), sitting in a close triangle with Bruce and Dave. Two of the best friends I could ever have engaged in a conversation with the artist who brought us together.

How I got to be a fly on the wall was wild happenstance. My buddy was one of 20 contest winners out of 3000 applicants. When I heard Randy was going on Dave’s show, I thought I’d go along for the ride just to sit in some Times Square bar and wait for the debriefing. Fortunately, I got to see the show.

Of course, there were 19 other fans there… and Chris Phillips from Backstreets, and Bruce’s producer, Jon Landau, and film editor, Thom Zimny, and guitar tech, Kevin Buell, and Dave Marsh’s radio producer Jim Rotolo popping in and out….and everyone of those fans had their own stories I didn’t know, all thrown into the same room for two hours to try to have an all-but-impossible conversation. Not surprisingly, Dave and Bruce gave it their best, and Randy reported, “I got what I came for.”

By definition, that meant I had too. But I actually have to write to get my finger on what that was. In the end, it had something to do with watching Bruce get outside of his comfort zone and learn a new thing or two about what he already thought he knew.

Bruce entered the room giving each of the winners a handshake and a how are you. From where I was standing, well outside the studio fishbowl, he didn’t look like a rock star so much as, say, a mechanic, a crusty aging craftsman. If not for the light in the contestants’ eyes, the charisma of this blue denimed character might be no more or less than that of someone who knows how to keep you on the road and charge a fair price in the bargain. He had that much swag, but he wasn’t exactly cutting a romantic figure.

Eye level with a group of fans rather than cloistered with a journalist, the craftsman struggled to get comfortable with the adoration in that room. It’s not like on stage where he could pull from his bag of tricks and send everyone home justifiably pleased. This was a different kind of reckoning, and it demanded some attempt to cut through the hype which the entire industry system had cranked higher than ever the night before an expensive, one-of-a-kind release.

That attempt to deflate the hype was the thread that ran through the night, becoming a sort of international auditory equivalent of the guy who just made the Darkness album climbing up on his own LA billboard to deface his image. “I hire folks to do that for me now,” he joked, but that’s the tip of the iceberg in an evening peppered with self deprecation.

The new 2-Disc CD, he reported, is nothing more than some pleasantly sequenced outtakes from the Darkness sessions sans the stuff that was already out on Tracks or made its way onto The River. He worked on it casually in the first part of the summer. He seemed happy it turned out good, but he wasn’t even going to imply it was great or important. Bruce’s sarcastic repetition of the phrase, “I’m a helluva guy,” eventually led Dave to say, “You’re beginning to make me worry that you are one of my friends who doesn’t like yourself as much as I like you.”

Of course, as big an ego as Bruce has to have, he’s also an important artist because he can’t quite like himself as much as any fan would, even someone who knows him warts and all like Dave Marsh. For me, the ultimate poignancy of the new material on The Promise is that, as joyous as the music often sounds, it’s consistently about the hardest sort of loneliness, desperate-but-almost-empty relationships, and the pain of living with dreams that indeed do tear you apart.

It is in this context (which I’d love to write about some other time), following the heartbreaking desolation of people taking chances and failing on “Breakaway,” that the song “The Promise” has finally taken on the depth and breadth it hinted at when I heard an unintelligible bootleg back in high school. It’s about how it’s getting “harder each day to live with these dreams I’m believin’ in.” It’s also about that point of betrayal when you “keep on living” with something stolen “from deep down in your soul.” To my ears, right now, it has a special resonance as the sound of my own secret scars and fears and as the sound of an America that doesn’t know what to believe anymore.

So, since we’re all in this shit together, it seemed all that much more appropriate Monday night that Bruce, clinging to a guitar for comfort, was sitting toe-to-toe with his fans and trying as best he could to answer their questions, not as the oracle but as a participant in a new kind of process. When he was not cutting himself down for tactical reasons, his honesty was welcome and often very helpful.

He called the much romanticized 1978 piano introduction to “Prove It All Night” “a device” that worked in a certain place at a certain time, allowing him to play some guitar at a certain point in the show, and he assured fans it wasn’t coming back. He said that he could not have done the things he did if he had not met someone with the wide angle vision and tolerance for insanity Jon Landau offered. He talked about his relationship with Steve Van Zandt in similar terms. Though he made it clear he never set out to make a lot of friends (note to a few thousand people listening in), he admitted that he has been very lucky to find a handful of collaborators he could trust. And once he trusted them, they were pretty much in for life. The cautious man’s strength acknowledged as several parts community, if a somewhat closed community.

He says many interesting things in the interview, and, for fans, it is certainly worth catching on a Sirius Channel 10 repeat broadcast, but it’s the way he said them that most interested me. There was a lot of humor, at times tinged with hostility—like a man trying not to put his guard up though his involuntary reactions want to go defensive. He said things like, “I often find the uproar of my fans amusing” and “you have to remember those first three albums were about getting out of New Jersey….I tried to move to California, where it was nice!”

When asked why “The Way” is a hidden track, he said it was because he never liked it, but the fans (and then engineer/now Interscope mogul Jimmy Iovine, apparently) wanted it. So, “there it is,” he said, repeating “there it is.” He explained the bizarrely possessive love song had always been “too red blooded” for him to be comfortable with it, and proposed the soundtrack of a perverse sex scene in a David Lynch movie would be “its righteous home.”

Talking about the album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, itself, he was more than happy to point out its strategic and tactical design. “I didn’t want to be perceived as a revivalist,” so anything that showed its influences was not long considered for the final album (this is apparent when the final cut is compared with the 21 genre-hopping outtakes that make up The Promise). “We needed to carve out a space that was our own,” he explained, and “it was what I wanted to say at that time.” He would never have to define himself so absolutely again.

That said, he admitted that the specifics of the record were indeed a reaction to a lot of things going on at that time—the punk explosion, the death of Elvis, reading Lester Bangs’ statement on the end of cultural common ground represented by Elvis’s death, and the fact that Bruce was getting sued by his formerly good friend and first manager, Mike Appel. This fan is probably not alone in feeling the two sides of Darkness may as well have come down from Mt. Sinai, but Bruce wanted us to understand a lot of specific conditions put that gun in his hand.

This even led him to a more general statement about every compelling musician (and he mentioned a number of people, but James Brown is the one who sticks with me)—they have something nagging at them, and their primary struggle is with themselves to deal with that issue before the concept of the audience enters the picture. The audience plays a role, but it’s after most of that work is done. This is why he believes the recent Paramount performance of the album, without any audience at all, worked so well—he was able to simply focus on his relationship to that music, and that’s a relationship that’s plenty intense.

So, what’s the value of Bruce Springsteen sitting down with fans instead of journalists? Have I suggested how it gets at something truly difficult? Have I said enough to show how it faces the limits of celebrity in its attempt to address universal human experience?

I dunno. I think it showed there’s more give in those limits than we might think. When Bruce pushed back, fans gave him space, and no doubt saw him some percentage more human than they saw him before. It’s tough when you live in a culture where your value as a commodity lies in all that makes you rarified. But the Springsteen vision has always tried to push beyond that to “all the redemption I can offer…beneath this dirty hood.” On Monday, November 15th, fans crowded around with the hood up and took a look at the works.

For Bruce, I hope it brought some relief. The kids (hardly kids anymore with about two exceptions) were all right, and they seemed more than happy to accept him just as he was. He played guitar more as the night went on, which may well have been a sign of increased nervousness, or stress, but it came off as an effective form of relaxation.

He played a little of “Come On Let’s Go” while explaining the effect of Elvis’s death on the recording, and when Dave mentioned a caller said Elvis’s ghost hung over the whole record, he slipped into the riff from “Mystery Train.” Most surprising was the outro instrumental he played while Marsh searched for the words to bring things to a close. Seizing on a caller’s earlier comment about the “highbrow” questioning on the show, Bruce said, “We were a little highbrow. How come no one asked me what color underwear I have on?”

Dave answered, “What color underwear do you have on?”

Bruce kept playing the outro but offered no response.

“See,” Dave said, “You don’t like it when I ask that.”

And the sprightly outro played on. At that moment, they sound like a weekly comedy routine, Misters Marsh and Springsteen, Fric and Frac, and it doesn’t sound like an altogether bad idea. Bruce would go on to appear more comfortable than I’ve ever seen him outside of a concert on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon the next day. Maybe it would have happened anyway, but it felt like the cautious man had led down his guard and found support he didn’t know was there.

More than likely, I’m projecting more than I should. Three years ago, I had a heart attack and found myself faced with the choice of finishing my semester teaching or giving up my classes. Now, I’m possessive enough of my classes that I probably went against my own best interests and returned to the classroom in a couple of weeks, but I’m glad I did. I was not strong, and I was hopelessly behind, but my students didn’t care.

They were happy to see me back and patient as hell. Some of them even shared stories of losses in their lives and took on the roles of my caretakers in one way or another. I’ll never forget them, particularly a young artist and mother who brought me a painting as a gift at the end of the semester. Few ironies in my life will match her loss to a brain aneurysm a year later.

Since that time, I’ve learned my guard can be my greatest enemy in dealing with my students, and honesty about my own vulnerability can allow students to meet me more than halfway in an effort to achieve our semester goals. Of course, I’ve known this intellectually for a while. Though he calls it his "Samarai record," that need that ties us together is there in almost every tortured but defiant verse of Darkness on the Edge of Town. But just what such lessons mean in everyday life has to be learned time and again.

More than once, and more often than not, I got a glimpse of Bruce Springsteen as a part of a community of learners along with his fans last Monday night. As I know from the classroom, he was in the position to learn the most. I want to believe he didn’t miss the chance.

(P.S. Thanks to Backstreets and other Bruce blogs where I saw the in-studio picture posted. I have no idea who took it, or I would certainly give credit.)