Outside the Nourse Theater before Bruce Springsteen's appearance Wednesday night, one could tell that this was no ordinary City Arts & Lectures event. Dozens of hopeful fans paced the sidewalk, looking for tickets. A crowd of 30 or 40 people huddled at the back driveway, awaiting his arrival. A buzz was in the air.
Here was a chance, after all, to hear one of America's great songwriters offer more than his famous songs and the patter between them. In San Francisco to promote Born to Run, his No. 1-selling memoir, the Boss sat down in City Arts & Lectures' familiar orange chair to read excerpts from the book and to get personal with interviewer Dan Stone in front of a sellout crowd.
Between discussing his literary inspirations (Dostoyevsky, James M. Cain, Chekov, Mr. S by Frank Sinatra's valet) and the current artists he's excited about now (Kendrick Lamar), Springsteen revealed much about his early life, his battles with depression, and his family. Read excerpts below, and listen to the full broadcast on KQED radio on Sunday, Oct. 16, at 1pm. (It repeats on Tuesday, Oct. 18, at 8pm, and Wednesday, Oct. 19, at 3am.)
On playing in bars, and how it prepared him for his current, four-hour shows:
"Well, I played for five hours a night at a bar. So what I'm doin' now feels easy. But you know, you learned everything in the bars: you had to please an audience sight unseen, you had hours upon hours upon hours to work on your craft; you got used to being ignored, so that didn't bother you too much. It was just a place where you could learn your business. I also enjoyed the social aspect of it, though I wasn't a drinker at the time. But once we got pretty good at it, we'd get 150 people a night, three nights a week. That means you made $150 a night, there were five of you, so you made $30 a night. But you made $90 a week! And anybody who couldn't live on $90 a week in 1968 just didn't know what they were doing. So life was pretty good. I just remember it felt free as could be."
On how it felt to be unrecognized:
"Those days, not only did things happen incredibly slow, if at all, but you were millions of miles from anywhere anyone would ever see you, or you would be discovered. An hour and a half out of New York was like Timbuktu. So we worked for years – years – in that neck of the woods, and nothing ever happened. Nothing ever happened. We drew thousands of people to shows — nothing. A group drawing 5,000 people to a concert with no record album wouldn't last three seconds out there right now, before somebody came and saw 'em.
When I started, there was no cell phones, no entertainment media, no E! Television, no TMZ. None of those things existed. There was very little coverage of you in daily newspapers. Rock was still ghettoized. It was a completely different universe where things happened at a much slower pace, where you could go like we did for eight, nine, ten years, at a very high level, with nobody of import really seeing you."
On his reputation for 'authenticity,' over creating a persona:
"Well, you can't help but create a persona, the minute you walk out on stage. I didn't change my name, because it didn't feel like the right thing to me, but you do build a completely constructed persona – that, of course, is tied into your true inner self, and comes out of your roots, and your background. But on another level, it is a creation. I built something on some of the voices of my past, and the voices of my family, and I created what people see on stage, which was very different from my young self.
[As for being dubbed 'The Voice of the Common Man'], well, nobody likes that stuff, because it pens you in, you know. I suppose it's kind of flattering. But it does feel like the minute you're the voice of anything, there's an obligation. Most artists run from obligation. I mean, that was the whole point!"
On battling depression, and writing about it in the book:
"I think music was the way I medicated myself in the beginning. It was the first thing that centered me and chased away the blues. It was the way I made sense of my experience. Even with the length of the shows, I found out that exhaustion was my friend. Because if I got myself tired enough, I was simply too tired to be depressed. Your mind doesn't have the energy to go searching in the weeds for the stupid thing today that you're gonna be able to drive yourself crazy with. So I found that the experience of playing cleared my mind and gave me a brief moment of respite from the things that tended to disturb me. There's a lot more to it than that – my family had a long history of mental illness, on the Irish side particularly, but some of the Italians too. It just picked people off here and there. And I got a little piece of it.
In the book, I really went into it mainly because I felt like I needed to be fair towards my father, who I felt I had painted rather one-dimensionally in my songs. At the end of the day, our relationship was a lot more complicated. And I needed to flesh that out, so people understood a little more about him and our lives together."
On his children growing up and slowly realizing their dad was famous:
"It wasn't that hard, really, outside of needing to make that distinction, when the kids were very young, because they were puzzled, like, “What do people want? Why do they want you to scribble on a piece of paper?” These were all pre-selfie days. So once I explained to the kids that that was what my job was, it wasn't a big part of our lives...
I used to ask my kids, “Does anybody ever bother you, or tease you?” And with the exception of a few times, really not. So they had a pretty relatively normal childhood. And we never made a big deal of it in the house. My kids, well into their teens, were probably relatively unfamiliar with most of the work that I've done, at all. Which is very normal! I mean, I wasn't out there looking for three more fans. Your job as a parent is you're supposed to be their audience. They're not supposed to be yours."
Bruce Springsteen's City Arts & Lectures appearance will be broadcast on KQED-FM on Sunday, Oct. 16, at 1pm, Tuesday, Oct. 18, at 8pm, and Wednesday, Oct. 19, at 3am.