BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Still Writing and Singing for the Common Man

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen and Merle Haggard have much in common as songwriters. Though writing in two different musical genres, both speak to and for the common man – those people who get up every day, go out and do their job, then come home to spend time with their husband, wife, children, girlfriend, boyfriend and other loved ones.

Bruce Springsteen and Merle Haggard have much in common as songwriters. Though writing in two different musical genres, both speak to and for the common man – those people who get up every day, go out and do their job, then come home to spend time with their husband, wife, children, girlfriend, boyfriend and other loved ones.

The people who appreciate the songs written by these two men are the backbone of America – the working men and women – for they not only see their friends and neighbors in the songs, but they see themselves and in so doing can directly identify with what the men are writing about.

“I’ve always felt I write well about these things,” Springsteen agrees. “Those elements are where the blood and the grit of real life mix with people’s spiritual aspirations and their search for just, decent lives.”

In his latest album, The Rising, Springsteen speaks directly to this group of people in its songs, many of which he wrote after the 9/11 tragedy. While he wrote about the heroes who died because of that attack, he also wrote about the survivors of that day and how they now deal with a whole different set of problems than the ones they had before the tragic even happened. And in the end he offeres hope for those who survived to go forward with their lives and be the best that they can be despite the new set of circumstances they must deal with.

Springsteen says that he did not set out to write an album about 9/11, yet the events of the day and those that followed weighed heavily on his mind as he began to write for the album that would become The Rising. As with any good songwriter, Springsteen writes songs about what is heavy in his thoughts at the time.

The New Jersey-born singer/songwriter was invited to be a part of the Sept. 21, 2001 telethon for the Sept. 11 Fund, and planned to sing a song he had started writing immediately after the attacks, “Into The Fire.” Because he didn’t feel the song was complete enough to sing in public, he chose instead to sing an older song, “My City of Ruins.”

“I had had ‘My City Of Ruins’ for a couple of years,” Springsteen explains. “I was going to play it in Asbury Park (N.J.) for a Christmas show. Asbury has been struggling for a very long time, and the town’s now on the verge of being redeveloped, so there was a moment when there was a lot of hope and excitement about it. When I played it on the 9/11 telethon people made a connection with that event, but it was written quite a bit before. It felt appropriate to sing it that night, but it was not written about 9/11.

“It’s a gospel song. It’s like a lot of my things, like ‘The Promised Land,’ or I had a song on the live album called ‘Land Of Hope and Dreams’…They’re all fundamentally gospel-rooted, or blues and gospel-rooted. It seemed like that element was going to be a significant element of the record in some fashion.”

Soon after completing “Into The Fire,” Springsteen penned “You’re Missing” and “The Fuse.” Springsteen calls “Into The Fire” and “You’re Missing” genesis songs because, he explains, they triggered ideas for other songs that he wrote for the album.

“I’d come up with one and that would lead to another and then that one would lead to another,” Springsteen says. “After that happens a few times you see that you have enough emotional elements to make the song thoughtful and complete, and the songs come together to tell a story. And finally the story begins saying ‘I’d like this emotional ground covered or that emotional ground covered.’ We finished the album in about five months.

“The songwriting itself was not time-consuming. The songs formed themselves pretty quickly and I had a process where I’d demo them pretty fast because I have a studio set up at home and it enabled me to see if it was a good song. That really helped me weed through a lot of different ideas I had. But the songs were written quickly.”

Springsteen calls that type of writing soul-mining. “You’re mining, but not always around the rich veins,” he explains. “Sometimes a lot of time goes by before you hit on one that works.”

Springsteen has mined much gold in his career. The journey from paying dues in bar bands to becoming known as “The Boss” was a long haul for him, but he has made it with flying colors. His songwriting has been a major part of that journey and part of the reason for that is his ability to convey emotions in his songs. For instance, in writing the songs for The Rising, Springsteen researched before he wrote. The story goes that he actually called widows of two of the men killed in the attacks to learn more about their husbands and their loss.

“When you’re putting yourself into shoes you haven’t worn you have to be very thoughtful,” Springsteen explains why he did so much research for this project. “You call on your craft, and you search for it, and hopefully what makes people listen is that over the years you’ve been serious and honest,” he said.

“This album is the opposite end of the lyrical spectrum (from songs like those on his Tom Joad project). There’s detail, but it was a different type of writing than I’ve done in a while. It was just sort of pop songwriting or rock songwriting. I was trying to find a way to tell the story in that context. One of the things I learned on some of my earlier records where I tried to record the band, for instance, on Nebraska, when the band played those songs they immediately overruled the lyrics. It didn’t work. Those two forms didn’t fit. The band comes in and generally makes noise, and the lyrics want silence. They make arrangement, and the lyrics want less arrangement. The lyrics want to be at the center and there is a minimal amount of music. The music is very necessary but it wants to be minimal, and so with The Rising I was trying to make an exciting record with the E Street Band which I hadn’t done in a long time, so that form was kind of driving me.”

Another thing that gave Springsteen freedom to write was his association, for the first time, with Brendan O’Brien, who produced The Rising. “I trusted his viewpoint very intensely, and I had a lot of faith in where he thought it was going to go sound-wise.

“The guitars were brought way up front, the keyboards were put in a different spot; things sounded a little different. We used a variety of tape loops, and we had a lot of different sounds going on – everything to sort of not go the normal thing that we’d done in the past. The essential thing was to get the band to feel sonically fresh. He knew exactly what to do there, so I got to kind of sit back and do the singing and the playing and the songwriting.”

Now that the album has been written and recorded, Springsteen can look back and see how and why it is relevant to the people who were directly affected by 9/11 as well as those who were touched from a distance.

“I didn’t sit down to write this or that but I know music can help people discern meaning when they experience chaotic or cataclysmic events. Songwriters and storytellers in general are people who attempt to assist people in contextualizing some of that experience. Not explaining the experience, because I don’t know of an explanation, but sorting through things emotionally and locating ties that people have that continue to bind even in the face of events of that day. I think I went in search of those things on many of the songs and found myself moving toward religious imagery to explain some of the day’s experiences. It’s unavoidable to some degree because of the nature and the type of sacrifice that occurred.”

“What happened on that day was a very natural thing to write about, and there were a lot of obviously inspirational things happening at the time. You’re trying to weave that experience into words for yourself. I think that’s where it starts. It starts with you trying to do it for yourself, and then in the process – because I learned the language of songwriting and music – trying to communicate it to other people.

“I’m just doing something that’s useful for me, and then, I hope, in some fashion it’s gonna be useful to my audience and will provide some service to them.”

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