There aren't many musicians who inspire serious scholarship, but Bruce Springsteen is one of them. The New Jersey native has sold more than 120 million albums over his four-decade-plus career. Although many acts that started in the 1960s or '70s still sell out arenas, most of these musicians (without naming names) have evolved into nostalgia acts. The Boss, however, continues to pump out new music, most recently January's High Hopes. Springsteen's music and life touch upon many historical and cultural moments of the past 60 years, from Ed Sullivan's weekly smiling face to the stresses of Vietnam and 9/11 to our tabloid obsession with celebrity.
To help navigate the pivotal moments in this Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's career, New Times turned to Jeff Burger, editor of Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters. While compiling the collection, Burger did plenty of sleuthing to track down rare interviews with Springsteen. The book, available on his website, includes an interview Burger himself conducted in March 1974 with a struggling Springsteen. "His second album had just come out. He spent most of the interview talking about how he couldn't afford to pay the members of the band. I told him I loved his second album but hadn't heard his first. He offered to send me his copy since he couldn't afford a record player to play it on." Things have changed for Springsteen and society (what's a record player?); let's go back in time to see how much.
1964: A 14-year-old Bruce Springsteen sees the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in his childhood home in Freehold Borough, New Jersey. While Elvis Presley's appearance on the popular variety show eight years earlier inspired young Bruce to be a musician, the Beatles gave him the courage to play in front of an audience.
Burger's take: "His mother always had the radio and TV on, and this was the first thing he could really relate to. His mother then bought him his first guitar, which he ended up writing a wonderful song about called 'The Wish' on the Tracks collection about his mother having to borrow the 60 bucks to buy the guitar because they were so poor. It's one of my favorite obscure Springsteen songs."
1967: Bruce Springsteen fails the Army physical, meaning he will not have to go to war in Vietnam.
Burger's take: "His father was always very hard on him. He would say things like, 'You should join the Army; they'll make a man out of you.' But as the war went on, his father saw that his son would probably die in Vietnam. Springsteen stayed up a couple of days straight to fail the physical. When he came home and told his father, 'They didn't take me,' his father said, 'That's good.'"
1972: Springsteen's manager, Mike Appel, arranges for Springsteen to audition in front of Columbia Records talent scout John Hammond, the man who discovered Bob Dylan and Billie Holiday.
Burger's take: "Mike Appel was also very important. They later had a contentious relationship, and in spite of taking a big cut of everything Springsteen earned, Appel was Springsteen's biggest champion. Appel almost turned John Hammond off of Springsteen because he was giving him so much hype, but once Springsteen started singing, Hammond was sold."
1974: Music journalist John Landau writes in his review of a Springsteen show: "I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time." Flattery gets you everywhere, as Landau later became Springsteen's manager and producer.
Burger's take: "Springsteen didn't like the review. Columbia Records took it and ran with it. He thought it was a lot of hype, but the article had a big effect and started the important relationship between Springsteen and Landau."
1975: Fame rears its ugly/beautiful head as Born to Run is released.
Burger's take: "Three important things happened in August of 1975. Born to Run came out. He's on the cover of Time and Newsweek the very same week, and he does a ten-show stand at New York's Bottom Line club with all the critics attending. Those three things made him a star."
1984: Born in the USA makes Springsteen a megastar. Ronald Reagan and Chrysler begged to use the song in the products they were selling, unaware the lyrics protested the way the U.S. used up and spit out Vietnam War vets.
Burger's take: "Before that album, Nebraska was an important statement that he wasn't going to just follow a path a star is supposed to take, and he put out this home recording. Born in the USA, though, was a phenomenon. It sold 15 million albums very quickly and made him a superstar."
1988: Springsteen goes from music magazines to publications at the supermarket checkout line as his divorce with actress Julianne Phillips and affair with back-up singer Patti Scialfa becomes tabloid fodder. The relationship has outlasted most of those publications, as Springsteen and Scialfa are still married and working together today.
Burger's take: "The first marriage probably turned out to be a footnote in his life. I think he kind of laughed off the tabloid stuff. The important thing of this was his finally learning how to have a personal relationship in marrying her and having kids together."
1994: Springsteen wins an Oscar for best song with "Streets of Philadelphia" from the movie Philadelphia, both dealing with the prejudices associated with AIDS.
Burger's take: "I think it was the first music he ever wrote for a film. It was a different kind of song for him, more of a pop song, but it was very political. He was an early supporter of the gay rights movement. There's a great interview with the editor of the Advocate where he talks very eloquently about gay marriage before anyone else was talking about it."
2002: The release of The Rising was one of the first works in any medium to directly deal with 9/11.
Burger's take: "It was a very hard subject to write about. There was still raw emotion for a lot of people, and if you got it wrong or trivialized it in any way, you could be accused of trying to make money off of a tragic event. There are all kinds of ways it could have gone wrong, but sincerity came through. He met with a lot of surviving families and widows of the people who died, and it comes across in the music. I think it's a fantastic album."
2011: Longtime E Street Band saxophonist and the shoulder Springsteen (literally and metaphorically) leans on for the album cover of Born to Run, Clarence Clemons, dies.
Burger's take: "I have Springsteen's eulogy of Clemons in the book. It was really moving and kind of surprising. I had no idea Clemons wasn't the easiest guy to be around. Springsteen with his typical candor gave hints about that. He didn't go into detail, but they were very close for decades. I'm sure that was a tough thing for him."