Interview From the Vault: Bruce Springsteen, 1978

Music Features Bruce Springsteen
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As a member of the Wolfgang’s Vault family, Paste has access to a rich archive of historic audio interviews from a variety of sources. Many of these interviews have never existed in text form. Our new From the Vault series will publish a different interview each week from our favorite rock ’n’ roll icons. This week, we have an interview with Bruce Springsteen from July 9, 1978.

After his monumental Born To Run was released in 1975, Springsteen was sent on a whirlwind tour of publicity, including being on the cover of Time and Newsweek. A legal battle with then-manager Mike Appel ensued, which kept Bruce and the E Street Band out of the studio and the publicity circuits for two years. With the release of 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen was under the management of John Landau and seemed entirely rejuvenated.

This interview, recorded with Dave Herman when the band was in San Diego during the Darkness tour, is a reflection of Springsteen’s coming to terms with the need for album promotion. Seemingly distracted and nervous at first, he talks about why he stayed out of the limelight over the past few years. After calming down a little, the chat hits a great groove, with insights into the making of the album, how the E Street Band was formed, and some hilarious stories about the current tour (including the infamous spray painting on the Sunset Strip). Throughout, Bruce comes across as a regular guy trying to stay grounded amidst the chaos of being a star. For those not too familiar with him, this will make you a fan; for all others, this is Bruce exactly as you would expect.

Dave Herman: A few weeks ago we went to San Diego where the band was performing on their current tour for a rare radio interview with Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen has been somewhat of a recluse for the last three years and we were eager to find out what he had been up to.

Herman: Bruce, there seems to be quite a change going on with you. For one, you’ve never given interviews before and now suddenly you’re quite agreeable to talking… what’s up?

Bruce Springsteen: I want an instant replay of my Born To Run release, you know. So I initially thought, “Well, I’m not going to do any interviews right now. I’m gonna lay low, let the record come out and stuff, you know,” and I just realized a lot of things had changed since ’75. It’s been slow, over the past month or so, I took a different attitude toward promoting my record. Which is something that was like, “What! Promote my record? I can’t do that.”

Herman: Did you feel like it was selling your own stuff?

Springsteen: Well, it is. (laughs) It’s what you do, you know? I chased very aggressively what I was trying to get in the studio and I worked real hard on it. I believe in it a lot. For some reason, it dawned on me it was silly to do that, you know. Your record isn’t going to sprout legs and walk out the doors and jump onto people’s record players and say, “listen to me,” you know. I said, “Here it is, I’ve worked a year on this thing.” I put everything I had into it and now I want it to get out there, I want it to be heard. I want to get as many people listening to it as possible. An audience is something you don’t inherit. They don’t run over to you, knock on your door and sit on your lap. You gotta go out and you gotta say, “Hey, here’s what I think. I believe this” and give people the chance to make up their minds. I was a little weary of the Born To Run thing.

Herman: By that you mean all the press and all the hype?

Springsteen: I didn’t know what had frightened me about that and what had not. So I bunched everything together and just called it the Born to Run experience, you know?

Herman: Have you been able to separate that from what it was that frightened you about it?

Springsteen: Yeah. Since then what frightened me about it was I started to get as much say and control of my life as I could, and that’s what I felt slipping away. That’s what scared me. I was real naïve about it at the time. We blew through three or four years of playing, we had albums out, money had come in and money went out. I was doing what I had always wanted to do with my life. I was traveling around really good and then what happens is once you become what is known as a “capital generator” you know, something that makes money, all the sudden it’s a different ball game. You better get wise to it, or else you’re going to get stomped on.

Herman: You mean, you not only become Bruce Springsteen the person but Bruce Springsteen the product?

Springsteen: Well you’re the whole thing, you know. To ignore the whole fact is just stupid and it’s not real. I spent a lot of time ignoring it for quite a while, not even intentional because it never occurred to me. I was living out my rock and roll dream there, you know. It was something that once I got in that position that, “hey, there’s more money than we can spend” what happens is then come the distractions. “Hey you want this, you want that? You want a car? You want a limousine?” All the standard distractions that come down the line to take your mind from what is real, your initial motivations and the things you started out for. I always had it in my head; I always knew what I was doing there. And I knew when I was losing it. I knew when it was slipping away. I knew why I started and when it was slipping away… I got scared by it. You know?

Herman: What is it that you wanted to do when you got started?

Springsteen: You know it’s easy to wander through your life bouncing off walls, peoples and different jobs and yet you end up 55 and you never found anything you want to do. Well then you’re down the tubes, you know. When I was 13 or 14, I found something that was like a key to a little door that said, “There is more to it than this. There is more to this than just living that way.”

Herman: So is that when you decided you wanted to get into rock and roll? When you were 13 or 14 and you heard these records?

Springsteen: Initially, I was nine. My mother was an Elvis Presley fan. She had him and on TV and she used to listen to him on the radio every morning in my house. Come down before you go to school, my mother’s cooking and would have the radio on, on top of the refrigeration turned on the AM station ever since I could remember. So something connected then but I was a little young and I didn’t have the discipline to stick with it. Then when I was 13 the English thing happened, The Beatles, The Animals, The Rolling Stones… that really kicked it off for me. I said, “Well that looks like something that’s good to get into.” The point was to have some say in the way you’re going to live, in the thing you’re going to do. For the first time, in a long time, during the Born To Run thing, I felt it slipping away. I felt the old gas pedal stuck to the floor of a runaway car. I was lucky enough to realize it and grind it to a halt. There was a moment where I assessed my strengths and weaknesses you know. I’m glad it happened. I don’t have one regret about one second of the past three years because I learned a lot about it.

Herman: So Darkness On The Edge Of Town is a new beginning for you? A whole new change because you have that new perspective on your life.

Springsteen: It’s a continuation actually. It’s in the record. You can hear it on the record, I hope. It was something where I just learned a lot of stuff.

Herman: Would it be right for me to say what I’m getting from the album Darkness even though it’s your fourth album, you feel emotionally attached to it and that you have a lot of yourself invested in it even more than the first three? It’s a real important step in your life, this record. I’m kind of picking that up from you. It brings me to talk about a few things on the making of Darkness On The Edge Of Town. First, how did you and Jon Landau first get involved? Landau, who produced the album with you.

Springsteen: I met Jon in Boston at a place called Charles Place. He came down, I remember I was standing outside freezing cold and he had written a review and they had it in the window, I guess to get people to come in. I read it and he walked up to me as I was reading it and he said, “I wrote that,” you know. I said, “How you doing?” So he came in and watched the show.

Herman: That’s the review that had the famous line? “I saw the future of rock and roll and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”

Springsteen: (laughs) No that’s not the review with the “famous line.” The funny thing about that line is most people didn’t read the article that line came from. If they had read the article, it was not saying exactly what it seemed to say when it was used in the ad. And I believe it was only used in one ad, but it was picked up fast. As soon as I saw it I was like, “Uh-oh. This looks like trouble to me.” It was good intentions intended but it was like a kiss of death. The article actually, it still means a lot to me, it was that he saw a show and was writing about. I think what he was actually saying was that the music we were playing, me and the band, was a compilation of a lot of things. Not just past influences but future. I think that was the intention of the line but I guess somebody in the ad department was like, “This is it!” and it went out, so you know.

Herman: In advertisement, people are always looking for little catchphrases.

Springsteen: Oh yeah. I guess that’s their job. So anyway, he came up said, “how you doing?” We came in, sat down and played some songs. We made “Born To Run” and I sent him a tape, I think I called him on the phone, he was sick in the hospital, and he said, “Gee-whiz, the first time I heard it, it sounded like a bunch of noise (laughs). But if when I listened to it for a while, I could hear what was going on there.” He came back to New York and we got together. I was having problems creatively in the studio and I was just having a hard time making records. It was a longtime between The Wild, The Innocent and Born To Run, it was like two years I think. We were all a bunch of amateurs, even still there’s not that much experience. We came up on the problems I couldn’t solve, so I went to Jon and he had answers. I just saw him as being another key to me being able to go on and do what I wanted to do, you know. Eventually he came in and co-produced Born To Run. He opened a lot of doors for me because he was different to me and he was somebody who had been exposed to the different things I had. When I was growing up we used to joke around and say, my school was like, “What are you, some kind of smart guy?” And his school was like, “What are you, some kind of dumb [beeped out]?” So he exposed me to things I hadn’t been exposed to before.

Herman: So you started to hang out together? Going to the movies?

Springsteen: Oh yeah. Sure, I spent a lot of time with him. Then we made the record. I guess, six, seven, eight months, and then he broke down a lot of barriers to some of the problems we were having.

Herman: Could you be more specific? What kind of problems?

Springsteen: It was a million different little things… the right piano, the right studio. I knew what sound I wanted, I was just having some difficultly getting it. I was trying to make something that is a non-physical thing and make it physical. You’re trying to make it real. So I knew what I wanted and I knew I wasn’t getting it. He just said, “You could use a better studio, you could use a better this.” Then also he just had different perceptions of things, “Try this tone on the guitar.” You know, various small things that when it all came together it was a big contribution to put the thing over the hill, you know.

Herman: Is that the reason it took so much time?

Springsteen: It didn’t take that long actually. Born To Run the album was actually recorded in four months.

Herman: I think the release of Darkness On The Edge Of Town was about two years ago? October of ‘77 I think. Columbia wanted it for Christmas or something and we got it a year later.

Springsteen: Yeah. It always is like that. I had an idea and I was just going after it. You know if you can go in and do it in two weeks, great. If it takes a year, if it takes six months, it’s your own shirt so you’ve got to do what you want to do.

Herman: And you like the way this one’s come out I take?

Springsteen: Yeah. I like it. Which is always a hard thing to do. There’s a lot of things I would do differently and I hear differently now but in general, I think it’s an honest record and that’s basically what I was trying to make.

Herman: I think it’s a great record, for whatever that’s worth.

Springsteen: Well. (pauses) That’s good (laughs).

Herman: Part of the reason it took so long and cost so much money, I’m told, is that you did a lot more songs then you needed for an album.

Springsteen: Yeah, there was about 30 songs we did. Not finished but started. Some of them found their ways to other places. It was about 30 ideas that we recorded in the studio.

Herman: Which track was the hardest to get down on the album?

Springsteen: Um, “Badlands” I guess. It was hard to sing. What happens is when I sit down to write, I play the music, because I usually write the music first, then I think, “Oh brother. I’ve got to write lyrics.” I had chord changes and we go in the studio and we laid the track down. I had a vague outline. I’d go home and write the words but I wouldn’t say them out loud, I’d do them in my head. So then I’d go into the studio and sing it. I’d realized that what I’d written was hard to breathe and sing all at once. So that was hard to sing. Some of the new songs are physically harder to play than the older ones. “Born To Run” was hard too though, because that’s sort of the way I do it.

Herman: I’ve got to find out about the band and how you met these guys and your relationships with them because the E Street Band is so much a part of Bruce Springsteen and the whole record and show. We’ll talk about Danny Federici first because he’s the oldest member.

Springsteen: Yeah, how did I meet him? I remember he was in a band that was pretty hot at the time. The band was called The Moment Of Truth. He was playing with Mad Dog. I remember Mad Dog came up to me, his head was shaved bald, and he said, “Listen I just got out of jail but I got this band and we need a guitar player. You wanna play?” So I said sure.

Herman: What were you doing at the time?

Springsteen: I was freelancing on the guitar sorta. I quit school and I was just playing. I was making money at this place called Upstage, anywhere from five to 25 dollars a night, just jamming. I remember Danny [Federici], he was in a leather jacket, he had his hair slicked back, I think his wife was with him, and it was me and it was Danny and it was Vini [Roslin] and who played the bass, it was this man we called little Vini. At that time I was singing and playing.

Herman: When did Garry show up?

Springsteen: Garry was funny because the first time I walked into this club I had played North more on the coast around Redbank where there were the beach clubs and more jobs there for us. Asbury was funny. It was the only beach greaser town. I went up in this club to play, and this guy pulls out a chair right in the middle of the dance floor and sits down on it. He started giving me what I perceived as dirty looks, and it was Garry you know. I didn’t talk to him for a while after that because I just didn’t think we’d get along. We got up but not for a long time later. Garry started playing with me in 1971 maybe, somewhere in there because Miami Steve [Van Zandt] played bass before then. I was with a four-piece band. It was me, Danny, Mad Dog and when little Vini left, Steve played bass guitar.

Herman: No wait a minute. I thought you got together with Miami Steve around 1975. When you did The Bottom Line you introduced him as a new member of the band.

Springsteen: Well the thing is, he’d gone in and out. We had a band. Steve was in my band but there was a ways before the record when I had no band. I had written at home and we had toured down south and stuff so at the time there was no formal band.

Herman: Is Steve on Greetings From Asbury Park?

Springsteen: He is and I shouldn’t tell you where, he might be mad at me. We split up and Steve played with Dion at the time and he worked construction for a couple years but he didn’t actually get into the E Street Band until Born To Run was completed.

Herman: So what about Roy [Bittan]? How did you get together with Roy? The way he’s playing piano on this tour is really gorgeous.

Springsteen: I put an ad in the Village Voice for a drummer and a piano player. I auditioned 60 guys, 30 drummers, 30 piano players up in New York and that’s where I found Roy and Max [Weinberg].

Herman: Max just told me this this afternoon. He said guys came before him and they had big drum kits and he said he came up and had two or three little drums with him and he said you said to him, “listen if you want the job you can have it. It pays $75 a week” (both laugh) and he said, “I’ll take it.”

Springsteen: (laughs) Oh god. It’s true, that’s what happened. At the time that’s what we were all making. This was right before Born To Run we were getting $75 a week. He came up and he had the right feel, you know. A lot of guys came with the bigger drum sets, but I knew.

Herman: And what about CC… the big man?

Springsteen: I met Clarence in Asbury Park in another club called The Student Prince. It was me and Steven and Garry and Vini Lopez and one night this guy walked in and I had heard about it in the area because I had been looking for a saxophone player for a long time. He walked in and said, “Can I sit in?” And we said sure, you know. Nobody’s going to say no. And he got up and he played and I said, “This is the guy I’ve been looking for all my life.” Ever since then we stuck together.

Herman: And that’s the E Street Band.

Springsteen: Yep. That’s everybody.

Herman: Seeing the guys in the band today and being with you now and all, it seems to be that you’re having a terrific time working. It looks like you’re all having a lot of fun. Is the tour really going that well?

Springsteen: Yeah, it has been really good. It’s been the best tour we’ve ever done.

Herman: You had a great show in Phoenix the other night. I wasn’t there but I heard about some real craziness.

Springsteen: It was crazy. This little girl… in the front row, there were about 10 or so 15-year-old girls and the place was going crazy. There was just a lot going on and this little girl jumped up and stage and kissed me so hard about knocked out my front tooth. I fell back on the stage and everybody started screaming and running around and then these kids got up on stage and danced. It was funny.

Herman: Is that scary when it happens or is that a part of the fun and madness of it all?

Springsteen: Oh, it’s not scary. You can always feel a situation out, you know. When you’re on stage it’s like people who come to the shows it’s an excited crowd. It’s just a blowout. It should be fun. It was great; it was one of the best shows we ever did.

Herman: As long as we’re talking about tour stories, you gotta tell me the one about the sign on Sunset Strip. In Los Angeles there’s a sign, it’s enormous, there are billboards advertising records, there’s about 30 of them on Sunset Strip, okay. Now what happened?

Springsteen: It was just real ugly looking.

Herman: Well tell them what the sign is.

Springsteen: It was an advertisement. They shape your face real big and you know it was big enough and it was about 10 feet long and that thing was ugly. It was about ugly as ugly could see.

Herman: It was a picture of you?

Springsteen: No. It was words too (laughs).

Herman: Okay, okay.

Springsteen: So I said, “Okay guys. We’re gonna hit the sign. We’re gonna get some paint and we’re gonna hit the sign.” I don’t know if we were a little drunk or what was going on. We came back home and I said, “Tonight’s the night.” It was three in the morning and I said, “Whoever wants to hit the sign come on, we’re gonna go now.” So Clarence says he wants to go, me and him and Garry and some of the guys from the crew and our old manager we all went down. We had bought these cans of spray paint. We all went down and it was huge, it was wide open and vacant. It was really strange because the elevator was working. We had to go like six stories up. So some of the guys went up the fire escape, they didn’t know the elevator was working, we went up a flight of stairs and there we were on the roof. There it was. It was like, big and bright and we all climbed up there and just got out the paint and started to work on the ad. I wanted to write E Street, the band’s name up there, so Clarence was like, “get on my shoulders.” So I got on his shoulders and we’re like five stories up and I said, “Clarence you tired yet?” He said, “No, I got you Boss.” I’d write a new letter, “You tired yet?” He’d say, “No, I got you. I got you.” I looked back and there was nothing but the pavement. You know, it was fun to do.

Herman: How did The Boss name get started?

Springsteen: Uh, I don’t know. It started with the people who worked for me. It wasn’t meant like, the Boss, capital B. It was meant like, “the boss, where’s my dough this week [laughs].” It was sorta like that. It was out of a friendly, I guess it was from the band, just a term among friends. It’s funny because I never really liked it. I still don’t really like it, you know.

Herman: Well, you may not like it but you’re never going to lose it. That’s a term that’s a term of affection now.

Springsteen: Yeah.

Herman: Bruce, do you have any kind of life that’s totally divorced from music, anything that when you’re not working, recording, on the road…. do you have anything that has nothing to do with rock and roll?

Springsteen: No. I don’t think I do, you know.

Herman: Your friends are all in music?

Springsteen: Well, there’s girlfriends, you know. In general, I’ve got one friend who’s not really involved in the music business. He owns a motorcycle shop and he’s a little plug there. His name is Matty. He’s my only friend that doesn’t work for me and is not involved in some other way. He’s been a real source of inspiration and friendship you know. He’s interested in playing and I’m interested in his motorcycles and stuff.

Herman: So you’re really a prisoner of rock and roll?

Springsteen: Well I don’t know.

Herman: A thing I get from you is that you really care about your fans of your music. I mean you really feel close to them.

Springsteen: You know, it’s a shame that it seems to be such a big deal.

Herman: I agree, but it’s unusual.

Springsteen: When I’m on stage I’m half in audience and half on stage. I just relate a little bit more on the one-on-one level. I see them as the crowd but I also see them as a one-on-one level. I look to see if there’s any trouble down there, if the crowd’s getting too excited. There’s a level of responsibility, you know that’s all. It’s not a big deal.

Herman: Did you also at some point along the way growing up think about being a “rock and roll star?”

Springsteen: Uh, yeah I guess if you think about it. It depends on what that word means to you. Being a “star” or something, it’s too associated with the trappings of the music business. I’d rather not see the day when I can’t get down in the crowd or something. I hope that day never comes. It means you can hire 10 people to kiss your butt 10 times a day maybe.

Herman: Let me give you some meaning. I think that it means that you really adored or idolized a lot of people, huge crowds of people get to love you for the joy and the music and the entertainment you give them. Can you accept that definition?

Springsteen: Is it like, the music and they like the shows? I guess I have a certain aversion to it, like everybody does. Most people, they have a reaction. Mine has always been to reach out. Then when I reach out the next thing I want to do is pull back you know. There was a time with Darkness I said, “I gotta pull back and stay tight. I’ve got to stick to myself.” And then you know, I said, “Well wait a minute. I wrote my heart in this record, I want to reach out. I want a bigger audience.” I think you go through periods of reaching out and pulling back, reaching out and pulling back and there’s always a conflict there. There’s a lot of paradoxes, I think that’s the right word, that you have to learn to live with, because they’re not going to go away. The main thing is to cut down on the distance as much as possible, which is something I’ve been invested in a lot lately, to get as close as possible to the audience. The whole concept of the people come in and they’re not at the show, they’re in the show. I’m not only in the show; I’m at the show. It’s a corporative theme.

Herman: I think I know what you mean. It’s not the whole event that rests on one person. You’re the catalyst. You’re the person who’s making it all happen in that theater, in that arena.

Springsteen: I’m trying to figure a way to explain this because a couple of people have asked me this question.

Herman: Maybe it’s best not to explain it.

Springsteen: It’s like I said, there’s a lot of contradictions and paradoxes you have to sort out. The more popular you become the longer people have to sit and wait to see you but yet, you’re reaching more people that way. It’s like, these are things that go against each other but what are you going to do? You gotta work it out somehow you know. I see myself in a particular kind of way. I think I was lucky to find something that meant as much to me as young as I was. I wish that luck to everybody.

Herman: Well the thing you found that means a lot to you means as much to a lot of other people.

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