Interview by Backstreets Editor Christopher
©2004 The Backstreets Publishing Empire
Backstreets: Youíve supported a lot of causes over the years, but as
political and socially conscious as a lot of your work has been, this
is the first time youíve really weighed in on electoral politics. So
I guess the big question is, why now?
Bruce Springsteen: Basically, this is probably the most important election
of my lifetime. I think that the government has drifted too far from
American values. After 9/11, I was like everybody else -- I supported
going into Afghanistan, and I felt tremendous unity in the country that
I donít think Iíve ever felt exactly like that before. It was a moment
of great sadness, but also tremendous possibility. And I think that
was dashed when we jumped headlong into the Iraq war, which I never
understood, and I talked about that on the road. I never understood
how or why we really ended up there. We offered up the lives of the
best of our young people under circumstances that have been discredited.
I had to live through that when I was young myself, and for any of us
that lived through the Vietnam War, it was just very devastating.
Along with that, the deficits, the squeezing of services like the after-school
services for the kids who need it the most, the big windfall tax cuts,
the division of wealth that has threatened our connection to one another
over the past 20 years that is increasingÖ. these are things that as
the election time neared -- I couldnít really keep true to the ideas
that Iíd written about for 30 years without weighing in on this one.
I donít think Iíve seen anything like it before in my lifetime. I think
that the freedoms that weíve taken for granted -- I spoke about this
on the road a little bit, too -- they are slowly being eroded. In the
past I've gotten involved in a lot of grassroots organizations that
sort of expressed my views, and where I thought I could be of some small
help. I guess Iíve been doing that for about 20 years, and that was
a way that I was very happy to work. I always believed that it was good
for the artist to remain distant from the seat of power, to retain your
independent voice, and that was the way I liked to conduct my work.
But the stakes in this one are just too high. I felt like, given what
Iíve written about, the things that Iíve wanted our band to stand for
over the years, itís just too big a battle to lay out of.
Backstreets: A lot of great, unique artists are coming together for
these shows -- R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Jurassic 5, Bonnie Raitt Ė- so Iím
guessing that even with the unity of at least one common goal, there
will be some different viewpoints. How much expression of that do you
think there will be? Will we get different perspectives from different
Springsteen: I would imagine so -- as different as all the artists involved.
I think weíve all come together with one goal in mind, but I think everybodyís
idea of where it goes from there could very well be different. Myself,
I like John Kerry a lot. I donít think he has all the answers, or that
John Edwards has all the answers, but I think they have the experience,
the life experience, and I think they have the sincerity to ask the
hard questions about America and to try to search for honest solutions.
I believe theyíre going to do that. And I donít feel that way about
the guys who are in there right now. I feel that trust has been broken,
and thereís no going back.
Backstreets: What did you think of Kerryís speech [at the Democratic
Springsteen: I thought it was fantastic -- the best one Iíve heard him
Backstreets: And using ďNo SurrenderĒ for his entrance music -- is that
something the campaign clears with you in advance?
Springsteen: No -- somebody mentioned to me that theyíd heard it at
different rallies here and there, around the countryÖ but it was a nice
Backstreets: Youíve focused a whole lot more on issues than labels or
parties over the years -- whether thatís Democrat, Republican, Independent,
Reform, Green, or anything else. That has appeared to be a very conscious
decision, so in this case was it just that things reached a tipping
Springsteen: Yeah, I would say. I mean, I grew up in a Democratic house.
The only political discussion I ever remember in my house was when I
came home from school when I was little -- I think someone asked me
at school what we were, it must have been during an election season
at some point, and I was probably around my sonís age, eight or nine.
And I came home and said, ďMom, what are we?Ē And she said, ďOh, weíre
Democrats. Weíre Democrats because theyíre for the working people.Ē
And that was it -- that was the political discussion that went on in
my house over about 18 years.
So Iíve always held progressive beliefs, or liberal beliefs. I think
that when I went to write -- youíre shaped by your background, fundamentally,
thereís no getting around it. I lived in a household that was caught
in the squeeze, endlessly trying to make ends meet. My mother running
down to the finance company, borrowing money to have a Christmas, and
then paying it back all year until the next Christmas and borrowing
some more. So I know what thatís like. This time out, there just wasnít
really any way I could sit on the sidelines.
Backstreets: That makes me think about that ďcriticismĒ you always seem
to get: how can a millionaire still write about blue collar concerns?
Something similar gets leveled at Edwards: heís the son of a mill worker,
and yet he turned into a millionaire lawyer, as if one negates the other.
But clearly those formative experiences help shape how you see the world.
Springsteen: That criticism is also a tremendously muddled idea of how
writers write. First of all, have you ever been to Mark Twainís house?
Backstreets: No, I never have.
Springsteen: Itís really nice [laughs]. The room he wrote in is beautiful.
Backstreets: It wasnít a whitewashed shack with a bunch of frogs hopping
Springsteen: No, itís a really beautiful Victorian home. So itís been
done before! [laughs]Ö It seems to me that particular criticism gets
aimed at musicians rather than, say, filmmakers. Nobody complains that
Marty Scorcese isnít actually in the Mafia. It always comes up -- Iíve
settled into the fact that Iíll be answering that question for the rest
of my working life. But itís a muddled understanding of the way that
things get written.
Backstreets: Well, I hear youíve been writing up a storm these days.
Springsteen: People say that all the time. I wish that were true!
Backstreets: Just wondering if we should be looking for any new material
on the tour, if youíve written anything for it specifically?
Springsteen: Iím always trying... I donít have anything until I have
it, you know? Actually, I took a lot of time off -- Patti was working
on her record, and so Iíve been spending time with the kids, and I enjoyed
watching her work. Iím always writing, Iím always trying to come up
with something, but until I have it, I donít have it. So I canít predict.
Backstreets: Youíve said that ďa writer writes to be understood.Ē And
thereís been so much misinterpretation of your songs over the years,
the obvious ones being ďBorn in the U.S.A.Ē and ďAmerican Skin (41 Shots).Ē
For the most part, youíve let your songs do the talking, but Iím wondering,
in addition to the changes these shows are trying to effect in the country,
if you think this will give your audience more clarity as far as the
meaning and intent of your writing?
Springsteen: I donít know, itís possible. Basically, I have faith in
the songs. And I also surrender to the reality that once your songs
are out there, that youíre simply another voice in the ongoing discussion
to define them. Thatís just the way it plays. And thatís okay -- I think
theyíre out there to be debated, some of them. Itís funny with ďAmerican
Skin,Ē I do run into people who thoroughly believed the New York Postís
interpretation of that piece of music! But Iíve also run into a lot
of people who completely understood what I was trying to say. And thatís
the way that it goes. When those songs go out there, then you add your
voice to the chorus of people fighting for their definition and what
they stand for. I have an edge, because Iíve still got the guitar in
But itís possible -- itís not something I thought about, but it may.
Backstreets: In the past when youíve felt the need to define something
more clearly -- Iím thinking right now of ďEmpty SkyĒ at the 
Atlantic City show, when you made it very clear what you intended ďan
eye for an eyeĒ to mean -- what goes through your head when you decide
to clarify things like that?
Springsteen: I have no compunction about stopping and telling someone
what I mean. Thereís a moment to do that. And so, hey, I had the stage
at the moment [laughs], and generally if I feel any sort of recurring
misunderstanding thatís occurred more than a few nights running, Iíll
say, ďOkay, thereís a few people.ÖĒ Maybe thereís 100, maybe thereís
ten. Maybe thereís two. Maybe Iím just hearing the guy whoís making
the noise at that moment. But in the end, I am speaking to you. Iím
speaking to you individually. And so I donít have a problem stopping
at a particular moment and making clear my intentions. And now with
the fabulous help of the Internet [laughs], those intentions are instantaneously
around the world, and it helps clear things up even faster.
Backstreets: Well, hey, happy we could be of service!
Springsteen: Or muddle things even quicker, I suppose.Ö But when you
have an audience the size of mine, that audience is broad. And when
I spoke about the Iraq war during this past tour, before the truth came
out, there were people who cheered, and there were people who booed.
And thatís the way it rolls. I tended to keep my comments down to approximately
two minutes at the end of the night, which I felt was a pretty good
balance to the three hours that weíd spent playing, you know?
I do believe that you serve at the behest of the audience. But, at the
same time, I believe that my ideas and the beliefs that our band has
stood for over the years are an integral part of our work, and we have
a duty to make those ideas as clear as possible. To make our stand at
different moments as clear as possible. I think thatís part of what
people look to us for, thatís a part of what we have provided to a portion
of our audience. And I think on any given night Iím playing to many
of my audiences out there. Thereís the Tom Joad audience, thereís the
ďDancing in the DarkĒ audience, but hey, theyíre all there at that particular
moment. So I look at it as a part of our process. You also figure, these
are the times weíre working in. And I think youíve got to take your
stand in them.
Backstreets: When some conservative fans bristled at some of that stuff
last summer, like your mention of the Al Franken book, I think some
people felt that it was a contradiction of your welcome to fans of all
political persuasions. I guess I always just took that as, ďEverybody
is welcome here, but that doesnít mean that I wonít speak my mind or
challenge you on occasion.Ē
Springsteen: Thatís right. Itís pretty simple. I donít need people cheering
everything Iím doing -- I donít go out expecting that, and weíve done
enough that Iíve seen both sides of the coin. And thatís all right.
The show is a forum of ideas. Thatís one of the things that we try to
provide over the course of the evening. And as such, thatís part of
what youíre getting when you walk through the doors.
Backstreets: Which shouldnít come as a surprise to anybody who has been
following you for any decent length of time. Some fans seem to have
been taken aback by the posting of Al Goreís speech on your website,
or the impeachment jokes onstage, but it seems to me that your political
stance and your social concerns have been consistent for a long time.
Springsteen: Yeah, I would be surprised if there are longtime fans who
were surprised. I could see somebody who sort of casually comes in and
out depending on what youíre doing, or on a particular song, but I think
if you followed us over the past 30 years, our positions on most social
issues have been consistent and straightforward.
Backstreets: Some people may have blinders on and just choose not to
see it, or choose to take the ďgood partsĒ and leave the rest.
Springsteen: Thatís true -- I think that part of the audience/artist
relationship is one of intense identification. ďYouíre me, Iím you.Ē
That is a big part of the deal. And I think part of what we do is say,
ďWell, yeah, we are one. But we are not the same one.Ē
I love John Wayneís work like crazy. Iíve found great inspiration and
soul in it my whole life. Iím not a fan of John Wayneís politics. But
I love John Wayne, and I love the work heís done. And so thatís how
it bounces sometimes.
Backstreets: So who inspires you not just artistically but politically
as well? It looks like John Fogerty is going to be on the bill, and
his songs seem to be a touchstone for you in that way.
Springsteen: Really, if I go back to it, when I was really young, even
with Steel Mill, we did the local benefits, marches down to Washington
in the late Ď60s. So the truth of it is, if youíre in my generation
and if you grew up in any part of the alternative culture, that was
just a part of your birthright. Whether you want to call it activism,
or concerned citizenry, that came as a part of those times. I find it
unusual when I meet people who did not have that experience from my
generation. They are out there, you know? But for me and most of my
friends, those were things that were just a part of growing up when
we did. And the people who we admired and emulated -- which for me obviously
begins with Dylan -- had a very clear political voice. John [Fogerty]
did it more subtly, but fabulously also.
And so I took my own spin on it. I couldnít exactly tell you why I started
writing in that direction. Itís funny, Steve [Van Zandt] went on to
be one of the most political songwriters, but back in the early times,
he was like, ďI donít know if those should mix.Ē [laughs] Thatís classic
Steve -- when he goes, he goes! Thereís no coming back! Thatís Steve
Van Zandt. [laughs]
But yeah, when I was very young, maybe it was because of my background,
or because of the music that I liked -- I was interested in the class-conscious
music of the Animals -- these are things that spoke to me and that I
also wanted to address in my own music. That was really the way I came
to it. I didnít have a political education when I was young, as I said,
I didnít really grow up in a political family. The politics in my town
were small-town politics. So it was something that, in truth, I really
came to through popular music. Through a combination of the times and
Backstreets: As political awakenings go, Iíve 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
If there was one single thing Iíd 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 itís very difficult to
conjure up a real worldview from within our borders. Itís hard. Itís
hard because weíre so big, and the hegemony of American culture is so
weighty and so heavy that itís very difficult without stepping outside
and realizing what itís 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. Itís 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 weíre speaking English, you know? The openness Iíve
found outside the United States contrasted a bit to some of the closedness
that we have here. And itís not intentional Ė itís 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: Thatís 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, whatís at the heart
of it is still the same sort of questing after the country that youíre
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 thereís so much animosity and fear surrounding that right
now -- a lot of people, the whole ďshut up and singĒ faction, seem to
think thatís not what an artist should be doing. But considering the
folk tradition youíre a part of, thinking about Woody Guthrie, ďshut
up and singĒ is a real oxymoron.
Springsteen: First of all, thereís a long tradition of artist involvement
in the nationís 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, theyíre
going in the wrong direction. No, no, no, youíre supposed to be promoting
speech. You may like it, you may not like it -- I hear a lot of things
I donít like, either, but hey. [laughs]
Also, if you listen to the airwaves and the level of discussion out
there, we canít screw it up. Itís already broke! Itís screwed already
[laughs]. So itís not like the musicians are going to come in and screw
all this up now, you know? Thatís not going to happen.
Backstreets: Itís amazing how violent some of the reactions have been
-- like what happened to Linda Rondstadt last week in Vegas.
Springsteen: A tragicomedyÖ [laughs] The description of it was hilarious,
you know? The idea that people actually got worked up enough to throw
drinks, pull down concert posters, and storm the lobby or whatever,
and that they felt the need to escort her off the premises -- for mentioning
a film. Thatís scary. Or even the Dixie Chicks, who were pounded so
relentlessly. So itís kind of crazy. But right now we live in very divided
times; peopleís feelings about these issues are very intense, and people
are going to have strong responses to anybody coming out and moving
toward one side or the other. Particularly if itís somebody who you
like, or whose music you admire. I think for a lot of people it severs
a part of that artist/audience bond. But that bond is a little more
complicated than that. Itís just a little more complicated. I know what
youíre saying: I think weíre waiting for the drums to start.
Backstreets: Considering how divided things are, ideally, whatís your
goal on this tour? Whatís the message, or the result that youíre looking
Springsteen: Well, the best thing is that we have a very simple result
in mind -- and that result is to change the administration in November.
So at its core, itís a very direct goal. At the same time, working with
MoveOn and America Coming Together, weíre trying to get voters registered,
trying to get people mobilized to vote, trying to get people out on
the street to mobilize the progressive voters, to get people involved
in the democratic process. Thatís the means to the end. But the end
is very clear for this short tour: weíre out trying to change the direction
of the government, to add our voices to the folks who are trying to
make a change at the top.