When it comes to Springsteen pedigrees, you don’t get much more, well, pedigree-able: Christopher Phillips is the editor of Backstreets magazine and webmaster of go-to fansite Backstreets.com, and his collaborator Louis P. Masur is an American Studies professor at Rutgers (that’s in Jersey!) and author of Runaway Dream, one of the best of the recent slew of Springsteen books.
If only they’d collaborated a little faster: Talk About A Dream, their collection of interviews with Bruce Springsteen drawn from throughout his four-decade career, arrives on the heels of Jeff Burger’s Springsteen on Springsteen, which has a similar (well, OK, identical) concept. Does the world really need two Springsteen interview collections in the same year?
Turns out, well, yes. Even though the two overlap a bit — notably including Springsteen’s daring 1996 interview with the Advocate, in which he made an argument for marriage equality 15 years before it was fashionable — most of Talk’s 428 pages contain material unique to the new volume, all of revealing, much of it absolutely essential.
You don’t have to get further than page 30 for evidence: That’s where you’ll find “The Lost Interviews” from 1975, a series of sit-downs with European press that were locked in a vault for years; they were excerpted in Backstreets magazine in the ‘90s but never published in full, until now. It’s a loss that needed to be rectified: Catching Springsteen on the cusp of his first major success, it cements themes and attitudes he would go back to again and again during his career.
In particular, he’s candid about the almost pathological drive that propels him to the stage night after night. “I don’t know if it’s fate or what it is, but I go out there every night feeling that way: ‘Tonight, I gotta prove myself’,” he says. “It never was to anybody, it was always to myself.”
The voice of Bruce
Phillips and Masur stay mostly focused on Q&A’s and direct transcripts, bringing Springsteen’s own words to the fore — a wise choice, since the prose pieces tend to seem dated or downright cheesy. (“The chance of a meal at the hotel was as unlikely as a Reagan insight,” writes Roger Scott in a 1984 Hot Press feature, apropos of nothing.)
Using primarily Springsteen’s own words pays big dividends, and not just because fans will be able to hear his Jersey cadences and full-throated laugh in their heads as they go. He’s remarkably open and thoughtful, and you can see him gradually building and shaping the themes and concerns that have marked his career: his responsibility to the audience, the forces that drive his writing — from the psychological to the sociological — and the fact that he takes his job deadly seriously, no matter how much fun it is.
“I could make a commitment to [a luxurious lifestyle] for a certain amount of time, but after that I just had to get my feet back into what felt like real life,” he tells Ken Tucker in a 2003 Entertainment Weekly interview. “I always come back to the same thing: It’s about work — the work, working, working.”
Talk also has an edge over Springsteen on Springsteen with its inclusion of higher-profile pieces like Tucker’s and an incisive 1992 Rolling Stone interview by James Henke, which shed light on what many fans considered a fallow period for Springsteen as a songwriter. It may have been Springsteen’s most candid interview up until that time as far as laying out his own personal foibles, and how wife Patti pulled him up by his black-leather bootstraps: “She had a very sure eye for all of my bullshit,” he tells Henke.
Springsteen’s political world
The book also has Springsteen’s 2000s interviews with Backstreets, which helped define the motivations behind his late-career forays into electoral politics. “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,” he told Phillips in 2004. “You also figure, these are the times we’re working in. And I think you’ve got to take your stand in them.”
It’s an idea that threads itself through several of Springsteen’s later interviews. “In the course of your lifetime how your country steers itself is under your stewardship. So what did you do?” he asks Phil Sutcliffe of Mojo in 2006. “That was an interesting idea to me in terms of how to look at your life, your work and your place.” If there’s a more eloquent smackdown of the “shut up and sing” faction, I haven’t heard it.
And with this many interviews collected, there are bound to be tidbits new to even the most ardent fans — like the one about Springsteen’s aborted plan to put out a series of 4-song EPs in the late ‘70s, or his call, while writing “Nebraska,” to a reporter who had originally covered the Starkweather murders 25 years earlier. (You can imagine the conversation: “No, who is this, really?”)
It also features this telling reveal made to EW’s Tucker: Asked about his current cultural hero, Springsteen points to the author Philip Roth. “To be [in his 60s] making work that strong and so full of revelations about love and emotional pain,” Springsteen says. “Man, that’s the way to live your artistic life: Sustain, sustain, sustain.”
It’s nuggets like that which help Talk About a Dream build a three-dimensional picture of Springsteen as an artist, a performer and as a man: Complex, intensely devoted to his craft and his country, and — despite some early protestations to the contrary — eager to explain what music, his and others’, has meant to him, to his audience and to the world around him. It’s an impressive portrait of an important, devoted artist who’s lived up to Roth’s example, and then some.
Coming up: Notable Springsteen quotes from Talk About A Dream.