Declaring that “every important musician in this town is asleep — or they will be by the time I finished this thing,” Bruce Springsteen spent nearly 50 minutes early Thursday afternoon encouraging his musical colleagues and offering insights into his own career — some surprisingly — during his keynote speech at the South By Southwest Music + Media Conference.
Running on “Boss time,” Springsteen started a bit later than expected and apparently went missing when SXSW co-founder Roland Swenson was ready to introduce him, but once on stage the New Jersey rock icon kept a packed ballroom at the Austin Convention Center spellbound with an often funny, frequently poignant, carefully constructed and passionate address that stressed hard work and humility. “No one really agrees on anything in pop anymore,” he explained. “You go Kiss, early theater rock proponents expressing the true raging hormones of youth, or — they suck!…You go Bruce Springsteen, natural-born poetic genius off the streets of Monmouth County, hardest-working musician in show business, voice of the common man, future of rock ‘n’ roll, or — he sucks! Get the f–k outta here!”
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The tone, however, was overwhelmingly positive. “So rumble, young musicians, rumble,” Springsteen told the crowd. “Open your ears and open your hearts. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don’t worry. Worry your ass off. Have unclad confidence, but doubt. It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town — and you suck! It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideals alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn’t drive you crazy, it will make you strong.
“And,” he added, “stay hard, stay hungry and stay alive. And when you walk on stage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it’s all we have — and then remember it’s only rock ‘n’ roll.”
With E Street Band members – including Little Steven Van Zandt, Garry Tallent and Roy Bittan – looking on, Springsteen poked fun at the hyper genre-fication of music, reeling off more than three dozen classifications and noting that an event such as SXSW, with its 2,000 performing bands, “would have been numerically impossible” when he began playing music as a teenager. “There just weren’t that many guitars around! We would all have to have been sharing,” Springsteen said before offering a lengthy remembrance through his own musical journey, beginning with seeing Elvis Presley on “The Ed Sullivan Show” (“It was the evening I realized a white man could make magic for the first time”) and sending the then six-year-old Springsteen scrambling for a guitar even though his fingers wouldn’t fit around the neck.
Springsteen grabbed an acoustic guitar at points, to illustrate how he translated doo-wop’s influences into his own “Backstreets” and the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” into “Badlands.” “It’s the same f***ing riff!” he confessed to general laughter. “Listen up, youngsters — this is how successful theft is accomplished.” He also spoke about the great impact the Animals had on him in general.
“They were a revelation…the first records of full-blown class consciousness I ever heard,” he explained, playing a bit of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” After reaching the line “there’s a better life for me and you” he added, “That’s every song I’ve ever written. That’s all of them. I’m not kidding, either. ‘Born to Run.’ “Born in the USA,’ Everything I’ve done for the past 40 years, including all the new ones…That was the first time I felt I heard something cross the radio that mirrored my home life, my childhood.” He also noted that “there were no good-looking members” in the Animals, a bold comment to make with Animals frontman Eric Burdon also in Austin for SXSW this week.
Springsteen also tracked, in detail, the impact of the rest of the British Invasion and of the soul music of James Brown Stax, Curtis Mayfield and Motown had on him as a young man. Bob Dylan, he recalled, gave him “the first version of the place I lived that felt unvarnished and real to me. If you were young in the 50s and 60s, everything felt false…but you didn’t know how to say it. There was no language for it at the time. Bob came along and gave us those words…to understand our hearts. He didn’t treat you like a child. He treated you like an adult…Bob is the father of my musical country now and forever, and I thank him.”
As for once being tagged “the new Dylan” when he was first signed to Columbia Records, Springsteen cracked that “the old Dylan was only 30. I don’t know why they needed a new f***ing Dylan.” He called himself “a wolf in sheep’s clothing back then…I had nights and nights of bar bands playing behind me to bring my songs home…Those skills gave me a huge ace up my sleeve, and when we finally went on the road we scorched the earth because that’s what I was taught to do by Sam Moore and James Brown.”
Springsteen added that he gravitated to country and folk, specifically Hank Williams Sr. and Woody Guthrie, as an adult, looking for yet another musical language to express himself. He spoke about this year’s Woody Guthrie centennial celebration and played the third verse of “This Land is Your Land,” recalling that Pete Seeger insisted they perform the entire song even in the chill temperatures at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration in Washington, D.C. “Woody’s world was a world where fatalism was tempered by a practical idealism. It was a world where speaking truth to power wasn’t futile, whatever its outcome. Why do we continue to talk about Woody so many years on? He never had a hit, never went platinum, never played in an arena… But he’s a big ghost in the machine. I believe it’s because Woody’s songs… tried to answer Hank Williams’ question (about) why your bucket has a hole in it. That’s a question that’s eaten at me for a long time.”
The speech, of course, came after Springsteen made a surprise appearance at Wednesday night’s Austin Music Awards and before Thursday night’s performance at ACL Live at the Moody Theater (a guest spot with good pal Tom Morello at the New West Records day party on Thursday was a hot rumor as well). He came to SXSW to play as much as talk, so it wasn’t surprising that he advised the “young musicians” in front of him to “learn how to bring it live, and then bring it night after night after night after night. Your audience will remember you. Your ticket is your handshake.”