Bruce Springsteen on Musical Activism: 'The Right Song Can Start a Fire'

Danny Clinch
Bruce Springsteen in conversation with Bob Santelli, Executive Director of the Grammy Museum at Monmouth University's Pollak Theatre.

Can popular music be used as a political force to change people's minds? Bruce Springsteen has some thoughts on the subject.

"I met one kid who said it did, but only one," Springsteen said in response to a fan question at an appearance at Monmouth University in Long Branch, New Jersey. "I tend to believe music is important to activism in the sense that it stirs passion, it stirs interest, it stirs curiosity, it moves you to question your own beliefs. It strikes straight to your emotions and it stirs you up inside. After you've heard it, I think it marinates inside of you, and ends up coming out in your own energy."

Springsteen -- dressed simply in a red plaid shirt, black jacket and jeans -- sat down for a 90-minute "conversation" moderated by Grammy Museum executive director Robert Santelli in the University's Pollack Theatre for the sold-out show, which seats 700, though some chairs were clearly unoccupied.  A third of the tickets were reportedly allotted for free to students in an online lottery.

In that time span, the two covered plenty of musical ground, from Springsteen's beginnings with Steel Mill, his nine appearances at the University, evolution from a 10-piece to a five-piece unit, his early releases, creative process, future musical plans and stories as told in his new memoir, Born to Run.

Through it all, the 67-year old singer was engaging, insightful, candid and funny as he spoke of seeing The Doors and The Who at Convention Hall in Asbury Park ("people were shocked when the amps went up in smoke"...the headliner was Herman's Hermits), his simultaneous appearances in Time and Newsweek ("for the young people here, those were magazines and it was a big deal to be on the cover"), his shortcomings ("we were awful in the studio for many years"), his understanding of the music business ("I was even worse"), opening for Grand Funk Railroad ("we blew them off the stage") and the group's first trip to San Francisco and the discovery that another musical act was "better than us" ("it came as a terrible shock," he joked).

When asked about his political activism, Springsteen never talked directly about president-elect Donald Trump, but instead cited Pete Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer" and "Where Have All the Flower's Gone?" (also covered by  Peter, Paul and Maryas examples of musical pieces "directly aimed at socially, politically conscious people and are important in the same way hymns are important in church."

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"It makes us stronger in our beliefs. And in a certain moment, the right song can start a fire," he said. 

Or a song can lose you fans, as he says his song "41 Shots (American Skin)" did. 

"It successfully pissed people off for a while, I ran into people who didn't like me very much," he said. "Then there were some people who really liked what I did a lot. It can stir the pot. It can bring ideas to the fore, and it can create dialogue and conversation and create argument out of which hopefully comes some sort of small resolution of events. Songs do have the capacity to translate and to communicate, and to sustain and serve."

Springsteen's songs and legacy will now be preserved through a new partnership at the University with the just announced The Bruce Springsteen Archives and Center for American Music. Through the collaboration, Monmouth University -- an affiliate of the Grammy museum -- is now the official archival repository for Springsteen's written works, photographs, periodicals, and artifacts. 

Since 2011, the college -- which offers a music industry program in the curriculum -- has served as the home of the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection. The Bruce Springsteen Archives and Center for American Music will integrate the history and inspiration of American music into the curriculum and research experience at Monmouth. 

There were plenty of light hearted moments in the talk as well, as Springsteen discussed his Jersey roots and his feigned horror after reading an article that "says that New Jersey remains the No. 1 state that people move away from."

"After all my hard work," he laughed. "But I made my living writing about moving away from New Jersey, so maybe that has something to do with it." 

Being from New Jersey, he said, was his ace in the hole after Columbia Records tried to package him as a new Bob Dylan and arranged a photo shoot in New York City. Even after playing shows at Max's Kansas City, sharing the same stage as The New York Dolls and Bob Marley & the Wailers, he didn't feel right marketing himself as a New York act.

"I was wary of that particular approach, so literally I was walking down the boardwalk in Asbury, and the postcard was there on a postcard stand, and I pulled it out," he said. " And I said, 'Yeah, I'm from New Jersey. Who's from New Jersey? Nobody. It's all mine."  

That postcard became the cover of his 1973 debut, Greetings from Asbury Park. Although critically acclaimed, Springsteen remembers it sold 23,000 copies -- and was initially thrilled with that news.

"That's fantastic. Who are all these people that I don't know buying my album?" Springsteen recalled saying to his manager, Mike Appel, at the time. "The next one (The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle) did a little worse because the record company sank it intentionally. We had a little problem there, and we had a three record deal. The third record, if that didn't work, we were going to be back on the street where we were."

That next album, Born to Run, was written when the singer lived in Long Branch, not far from Monmouth University.

When Santelli noted the post-Born to Run period of shows from 1976 to 1977 were his favorite shows -- when Springsteen's lawsuit against Appel prevented him from recording -- the singer responded: "I'm glad you had a good time..we were suffering."

Another funny moment came when Santelli referenced the Born in the U.S.A. period -- which Springsteen called a "happy accident." Santelli joked that the singer had "muscles" during that time, to which Springsteen smile and said, "I still got them."

When asked about his favorite record, he said, "I always roll with Nebraska...that is one of my personal faves," but also gave props to his 1987 record, Tunnel of Love.

"As a record, as a whole, it's a very full piece. It directly addresses what I was trying to address at the time. It was a record I had never made before, so it was successful that way. I can listen to it now and I just like the writing. I recorded almost all of it by myself, and then Bob Clearmountain came in to fix everything so it sounded like I knew what I was doing," he said. "That record is still very important to me."

When Santelli remarked that The E Street Band was a communal family that fans could "relate to," Springsteen cracked, "I found that out when I broke up the E Street Band."

Stan Goldstein, who along with Jean Mikle wrote the Springsteen-themed book Rock and Roll Tour of the Jersey Shore, asked why the E Street Band was named after the Belmar street where original keyboardist David Sancious lived. Springsteen explained the band discussed it on the bus, and just liked the way it sounded.

"I wanted it to feel mythic. I thought of James Brown and the famous Flames. Who were The Flames? These must be the people who hang out with James. Or Buddy Holly and the Crickets, those must be Buddy Holly's best pals," he said. "All of those bands with the "and" intrigued me because it was more than just the main protagonist, there was a community suggested."

As for future records and the previously-announced solo record, Springsteen offered: "It's kind of sitting there at the moment."

"I'm working on a bunch of things at one time," he noted, adding that recently he strummed his guitar and created a new song as his wife, Patti Scialfa, was "laying on the couch."

He said he does have some other songs "laying around" that aren't enough for an album, but could see daylight one day. "There's lots of stuff in the vault, and if I do a second Tracks or something, I will get that stuff out," he added.

Springsteen also said Scialfa -- who was in attendance at the talk, as was Jon Landau, original E Street drummer Vini Lopez and Carl "Tinker" West" -- is working on another album. "She's as good a singer-songwriter as anybody out there," he enthused. "Whenever she works on an album, I get to play the bass, I get to play the keyboards. I like to be of service...as best as I can."

Music, however, is not "the family business" as far as his children are concerned.

"They're all musical in their own way, but they've all found different places to express themselves," he said. 

In the meantime, the E Street Band is hitting the road in a few weeks for a month-and-a-half tour of Australia. Tuesday night's talk was filmed by Thom Zimny for future release.

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