This “sold out in six seconds,” New Yorker editor David Remnick told a packed house at Manhattan’s Town Hall theater Friday night moments before introducing his guest for the evening. “What took you so long?”
In one of the most anticipated events of the annual New Yorker Festival, taking place this weekend in New York, Remnick was set to interview Bruce Springsteen, who has tirelessly promoted his memoir, Born to Run, since its late September release. “We rebranded the New Yorker Festival in his honor as the New Jersey Festival,” the noted Springsteen devotee, himself from Hackensack, N.J., quipped before inviting out the 67-year-old rock legend and New Jersey icon.
What followed was one of Springsteen’s most revelatory interviews in recent memory, a wide-ranging, 90-minute discussion that spanned his musical career, personal life, political views, and much, much more. And though he covered familiar ground for those who’ve paid attention to his latest tour of the media circuit — writing drafts of Born to Run by hand, his storied first meeting with music industry titan John Hammond — Springsteen shared plenty of new information. Read on for EW’s highlights from the evening.
Springsteen expanded on his criticisms of Donald Trump
The Boss prominently supported Barack Obama in both of his presidential campaigns and recently called Donald Trump a “moron” — so Remnick naturally asked Springsteen to detail his thoughts about this year’s Republican presidential candidate. “When he was just a big, sort of bloviating New York billionaire, he could be highly entertaining, and funny,” Springsteen admitted. “But he’s not funny as a presidential candidate.”
Though Springsteen predicted “he will not win,” he had a grim analysis of the consequences of Trump’s candidacy. “I do believe he’s done a lot of damage already and I believe he’s let loose some forces from the alt-right movement — he’s brought them into the mainstream — that are not going to go away when he goes away,” Springsteen said. “I don’t believe he’s going to go gently into the good night. I think the subversion of the idea of a democratic election is a very dangerous idea. When you start telling people [that] unless you win, the election will be illegitimate. When you have as many people listening to him as he does, it’s a very, very dangerous genie to let out of the bottle and not one that goes back in particularly easily. So I’m a little afraid of his lasting effect on the country.”
Remnick next asked Springsteen what he thought of a recent New York Times story that pinpointed locations from the artist’s songs — Badlands National Park, S.D., Amarillo, Texas, and more — that favor Trump in the election. “I’ve written about [how] the last 40 years of de-industrialization and globalization hit a lot of people very, very, very hard,” Springsteen said. “Their concerns and their problems and their issues were never addressed by either party. So, there’s this sea of people out there who are waiting and hoping and looking for something that’s going to bring some meaning back into their lives.”
Considering recent history, Springsteen said “it’s not a surprise” that a figure like Trump emerged to prey on people’s fears and prejudices. “I completely understand why a voice like that would be appealing,” he said. “You want to hear these kinds of solutions to your problems. Unfortunately, they’re fallacious — it’s a con job.”
He’s still an ardent Obama supporter — mostly
“If you grew up in the ’60s, politics was in the air,” Springsteen said of his career-long political activism, recalling playing anti-Vietnam War benefits as an adolescent. “It was part of the cultural experience.” When Remnick asked Springsteen if he was pleased with Obama’s accomplishments, he offered measured praise. “I’m still a fan of President Obama’s,” he said. “I would’ve liked to have seen a lot of things go further,” like including a public option in the healthcare law or a more stringent iteration of the Dodd-Frank financial reform package. Nevertheless, Springsteen concluded, “I think he’s going to be remembered as a good president.”
Springsteen explained how he staved off depression through exercise, and not substance abuse
One of Remnick’s most light-hearted questions elicited one of Springsteen’s most poignant answers. “This is my wife’s question, and it has caused some complication in my marriage,” Remnick began. “What is your workout routine? Because this is ridiculous.” When the Boss responded, “It’s all mental,” Remnick countered, “That’s gotta be bulls—.”
But Springsteen’s offered an explanation that resonated with anyone who has ever grappled with mental illness. “Initially, music was the first way that I kind of mitigated my anxieties,” Springsteen said. “I used it, being a good Catholic boy, as a purification ritual.” Performing was how he “momentarily satiated” his emotional pain. “I would say exhaustion is my friend,” he continued. “I realized when I was done working the night, the next day I [felt] incredibly clear and quite free — and simply too f—ing tired to be depressed. You’ve gotta have some energy to be depressed — to get out there and search through the weeds for the one thing that’s gonna bust your ass that particular day. And then you’ve gotta put a lot of energy into that thing. Well, if you’re too tired to do that, you’re feeling better.”
Springsteen’s analysis of quelling his personal problems with physical intensity provided an analogue to an earlier anecdote about how he avoided substance abuse despite life as a rock star. “I’d had enough of my self to want to lose myself — so I went onstage every night to do exactly that,” he said, adding that he was “pursuing intoxication” onstage. “It’s why the War on Drugs will never be successful,” he added. “People need to lose themselves. We can only stand so much of ourselves.” But drugs weren’t appropriate intoxicants for Springsteen, who had seen numerous peers suffer from addiction: “It took me so long to find a piece of myself, that I was frightened of losing that.”
Always a crowd-pleaser, Springsteen played to the hometown crowd
“It was like a Jersey Shore Ft. Lauderdale,” Springsteen said when Remnick asked him why the music scene in Asbury Park, N.J., exploded during the Boss’ adolescence. After grimacing his way through a snippet of one of his early bands, The Castiles — he greeted the applause with a cheeky “It’s not necessary, folks” — Springsteen recounted how he “tried it all,” even “playing a lot of guitar, [like] a kind of half-assed Jimi Hendrix or Cream.” He earned big applause when he discussed honing his chops through jamming at Asbury Park’s Upstage Club or, before he was old enough to get in, eavesdropping outside of Jersey Shore venue The Osprey to musically educate himself. “You’re young, you’re a sponge, and you’re obsessively determined,” he said. “When everybody else was going to get pizza and hang out with their girl, I ran home, got up in my room, and played my unplugged electric guitar trying to imitate everything I had seen that night.”
Remnick then mentioned how Springsteen’s early days took him to unsavory venues including trailer parks and even the psychiatric hospital in Marlboro, N.J. — where a young Boss played the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” for patients. “My main recollection is a guy got up on stage and gave a long introduction of the band,” Springsteen said. He “went on, went on. We were waiting to go on and then somebody came up and took him!”
The Boss detailed how his painful relationship with his father influenced his career
Springsteen candidly addresses his challenges with his dad, Doug, in Born to Run. Early on, Remnick asked how long it took Springsteen to understand his father. “Fifty years, two psychiatrists — one died already,” Springsteen wryly responded. “A long time.” But, as Springsteen acolytes intimately know, Doug loomed large in Bruce’s music in the intervening years. “My father had a deep influence over my stage persona,” he said. “When I went to do what I did, I kind of put on my work clothes — his work clothes — and I went to work. … I was just looking to sing for him in some way. … I took a lot of his story and I built it into my own character and I presented that on stage as my offering.” That, of course, didn’t work out exactly as planned. “It was an imperfect way to communicate with someone who you love,” he concluded.
Springsteen described his fame to his kids in terms of a famous purple dinosaur
“When [my kids] were little [they’d ask], ‘Why do people want you to scribble your name on a piece of paper?'” Springsteen said. “So one day I said, ‘You know Barney the dinosaur? Are you interested in Barney?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, people are interested in me in the same way.’ … They were pretty divorced from it. And then, one day, Evan came home and said, ‘Dad, what’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”?'” As Springsteen tells the story, he busted out an acoustic guitar and began strumming the 1975 song of his “Barney-style” — to which his son told him to “play it for real.”
He senses his own mortality — but doesn’t plan to ease up anytime soon
Remnick concluded the conversation by asking Springsteen if a day might come where, upon waking up, he’d discover he felt like he’s “been beaten by a baseball bat” and hang it up. “Can you see yourself becoming, years and years from now, like an old bluesman sitting in chair doing your songs?” Remnick added. “Part of it is you have to not mind feeling like you’ve been beaten up by a baseball bat!” Springsteen remarked. “Pain has to become your friend.” But he also offered up an enticing glimpse of the distant future: “I also will have no problem whatsoever sitting in a nice little chair, playing acoustic guitar, knocking out songs from [1982’s] Nebraska.”