I would connect this interview of Bruce Sprinsteen that takes place in the explicit light of Walker Percy's search for the "I" in alienation, with Pope Francis' asceticism of escaping from the "self-referential" and going to "the peripheries" of poverty that Benedict XVI identified with the lonely.
Francis to the Cardinals before the Conclave (March 2013): "The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.
2. - "When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referential and then gets sick."
Joseph Ratzinger To Catechists in Rome (2000): "The deepest poverty is the inability of joy, the tediousness of a life considered absurd and contradictory. This poverty is widespread today, in very different forms in the materially rich as well as the poor countries. The inability of joy presupposes and produces the inability to love, produces jealousy, avarice -- all defects that devastate the life of individuals and of the world.
This is why we are in need of a new evangelization -- if the art of living remains an unknown, nothing else works. But this art is not the object of a science -- this art can only be communicated by [one] who has life -- he who is the Gospel personified.
In early 1989, Walker Percy penned a fan letter "of sorts" to Bruce Springsteen, praising the musician's "spiritual journey" and hoping to begin a correspondence between them. At the time, Springsteen hesitated in responding, but he later picked up a copy of The Moviegoer and began a new journey into Dr. Percy's writing. Walker Percy died in May 1990, and the two never met, but Percy's novels and essays, among other books and films, have had a most profound impact on Springsteen's songwriting.
In 1995, Springsteen recorded The Ghost of Tom Joad, a richly lyrical album that forged a new purpose for his music, linking him in some ways to the tradition of such artist-activists as John Steinbeck (Joad is the radical hero of The Grapes of Wrath) and folk music icon Woody Guthrie. Springsteen's songs tell us, in their familiar narrative style, about ordinary people struggling through life's twists and turns, presenting a cast of characters that includes immigrant families, border patrolmen, midwestern steelworkers, and America's poor and disenfranchised. The populist sensibility of Guthrie can be heard throughout: it is music competing for the public conscience.
Following an Atlanta concert promoting the album, Will Percy, Walker's nephew, met Springsteen backstage, and the two talked for hours. When Springsteen mentioned his regret at never having written back to Will's uncle, Will encouraged him to write to his aunt, Walker's widow. A few months later, Springsteen, who likes to say that "it's hard for me to write unless there's music underneath," sat down and wrote four pages-a letter years in the making.
Last fall, Will Percy and Springsteen had the chance to meet again, this time on the Springsteen farm in central New Jersey, not far from the small town where Springsteen grew up or from the Jersey Shore clubs where he first made his mark in the 1970s. With a tape running, the two explored the importance of books in Springsteen's life, most recently his discovery of Dr. Percy's essays in The Message in the Bottle. Like the long-in-coming letter to Mrs. Percy, perhaps this is part of the conversation that Bruce Springsteen might have had with Walker Percy.
Will Percy: When did books start influencing your songwriting and music? I remember as early as 1978, when I saw you in concert, you mentioned Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July, and you dedicated a song to him.
Bruce Springsteen: I picked up that book in a drugstore in Arizona while I was driving across the country with a friend of mine. We stopped somewhere outside of Phoenix, and there was a copy of the paperback in the rack. So I bought the book and I read it between Phoenix and Los Angeles, where I stayed in this little motel. There was a guy in a wheelchair by the poolside every day, two or three days in a row, and I guess he recognized me, and he Þnally came up to me and said, "Hey, I'm Ron Kovic"-it was really very strange-and I said, "Oh, Ron Kovic, gee, that's good." I thought I'd met him before somewhere. And he said, "No, I wrote a book called Born on the Fourth of July." And I said, "You wouldn't believe this. I just bought your book in a drugstore in Arizona and I just read it. It's incredible." Real, real powerful book. And we talked a little bit and he got me interested in doing something for the vets. He took me to a vet center in Venice, and I met a bunch of guys along with this guy Bobby Muller who was one of the guys who started VVA, Vietnam Veterans of America.
I go through periods where I read, and I get a lot out of what I read, and that reading has affected my work since the late seventies. Films and novels and books, more so than music, are what have really been driving me since then. Your uncle once wrote that "American novels are about everything," and I was interested in writing about "everything" in some fashion in my music: how it felt to be alive now, a citizen of this country in this particular place and time and what that meant, and what your possibilities were if you were born and alive now, what you could do, what you were capable of doing. Those were ideas that interested me.
The really important reading that I did began in my late twenties, with authors like Flannery O'Connor. There was something in those stories of hers that I felt captured a certain part of the American character that I was interested in writing about. They were a big, big revelation. She got to the heart of some part of meanness that she never spelled out, because if she spelled it out you wouldn't be getting it. It was always at the core of every one of her stories-the way that she'd left that hole there, that hole that's inside of everybody. There was some dark thing-a component of spirituality-that I sensed in her stories, and that set me off exploring characters of my own. She knew original sin-knew how to give it the þesh of a story. She had talent and she had ideas, and the one served the other.
I think I'd come out of a period of my own writing where I'd been writing big, sometimes operatic, and occasionally rhetorical things. I was interested in Þnding another way to write about those subjects, about people, another way to address what was going on around me and in the country-a more scaled-down, more personal, more restrained way of getting some of my ideas across. So right prior to the record Nebraska , I was deep into O'Connor. And then, later on, that led me to your uncle's books, and Bobbie Ann Mason's novels-I like her work.
I've also gotten a lot out of Robert Frank's photography in The Americans. I was twenty-four when I Þrst saw the book-I think a friend had given me a copy-and the tone of the pictures, how he gave us a look at different kinds of people, got to me in some way. I've always wished I could write songs the way he takes pictures. I think I've got half a dozen copies of that book stashed around the house, and I pull one out once in a while to get a fresh look at the photographs.
WP: I find it interesting that you're inþuenced a lot by movies -you said you're more influenced by movies and books than music. In the liner notes of The Ghost of Tom Joad you credited both the John Ford Þlm and the book The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck.
WP:Where did you draw your musical influences in your earlier writing as compared with this last album?
I'd been really involved with country music right prior to the album Darkness on the Edge of Town , and that had a lot of affect on my writing because I think country is a very class-conscious music. And then that interest slowly led me into Woody Guthrie and folk music. Guthrie was one of the few songwriters at the time who was aware of the political implications of the music he was writing-a real part of his consciousness. He set out intentionally to address a wide variety of issues, to have some effect, to have some impact, to be writing as a way to have some impact on things: playing his part in the way things are moving and things change.
I was always trying to shoot for the moon. I had some lofty ideas about using my own music, to give people something to think about-to think about the world, and what's right and wrong. I'd been affected that way by records, and I wanted my own music and writing to extend themselves in that way.
WP: I notice that you talk about "writing" and not "songwriting." Do you sit down and write lyrics and then look for music?
I'll use music as a way of defining and coloring the characters, conveying the characters' rhythm of speech and pace. The music acts as a very still surface, and the lyrics create a violent emotional life over it, or under it, and I let those elements bang up against each other.
Music can seem incidental, but it ends up being very important. It allows you to suggest the passage of time in just a couple of quiet beats. Years can go by in a few bars, whereas a writer will have to come up with a clever way of saying, "And then years went by. . . ." Thank God I don't have to do any of that! Songwriting allows you to cheat tremendously. You can present an entire life in a few minutes. And then hopefully, at the end, you reveal something about yourself and your audience and the person in the song. It has a little in common with short-story writing in that it's character-
driven. The characters are confronting the questions that everyone is trying to sort out for themselves, their moral issues, the way those issues rear their heads in the outside world.
WP: While your previous albums might all come from personal experience-from the people and places you grew up with in New Jersey and elsewhere-you seem to have started writing more about other people and topics now, Mexican immigrants, for instance, in songs like "Sinaloa Cowboys." With that song, I remember you said in concert that it started out when you met a couple of Mexican brothers in the desert once when you were traveling.
A song like "Sinaloa Cowboys" came from a lot of places. I'd met a guy in the Arizona desert when I happened to be on a trip with some friends of mine, and he had a younger brother who died in a motorcycle accident. There's something about conversations with people-people you've met once and you'll never see again-that always stays with me. And I lived for quite a while in Los Angeles, and border reporting and immigration issues are always in the paper there. I've traveled down to the border a number of times.
WP: Why would you travel down to the border?
I don't think you sit down and write anything that isn't personal in some way. In the end, all your work is a result of your own psychology and experience. I never really write with a particular ideology in mind. As a writer, you're searching for ways to present different moral questions-to yourself because you're not sure how you will respond, and to your audience. That's what you get paid for-from what I can tell. Part of what we call entertainment should be "food for thought." That's what I was interested in doing since I was very young, how we live in the world and how we ought live in the world. I think politics are implicit. I'm not interested in writing rhetoric or ideology. I think it was Walt Whitman who said, "The poet's job is to know the soul." You strive for that, assist your audience in finding and knowing theirs. That's always at the core of what you're writing, of what drives your music.
It's all really in your uncle's essay "The Man on the Train," about the "wandering spirit" and modern man-all that's happened since the Industrial Revolution when people were uprooted and set out on the road into towns where they'd never been before, leaving families, leaving traditions that were hundreds of years old. In a funny way, you can even trace that story in Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." I think that we're all trying to find what passes for a home, or creating a home of some sort, while we're constantly being uprooted by technology, by factories being shut down.
I remember when my parents moved out to California-I was about eighteen. My folks decided that they were going to leave New Jersey, but they had no idea really where to go. I had a girlfriend at the time and she was sort of a hippie. She was the only person we knew who'd ever been to California. She'd been to Sausalito and suggested they go there. You can just imagine-Sausalito in the late sixties! So they went to Sausalito, three thousand miles across the country, and they probably had only three grand that they'd saved and that had to get them a place to live, and they had to go out and Þnd work. So they got to Sausalito and realized this wasn't it. My mother said they went to a gas station and she asked the guy there, "Where do people like us live?"-that's a question that sounds like the title of a Raymond Carver story!-and the guy told her, "Oh, you live on the peninsula." And that was what they did. They drove down south of San Francisco and they've been there ever since. My father was forty-two at the time-it's funny to think that he was probably seven or eight years younger than I am now. It was a big trip, took a lot of nerve, a lot of courage, having grown up in my little town in New Jersey.
But that story leads back to those same questions: how do you create the kind of home you want to live in, how do you create the kind of society you want to live in, what part do you play in doing that? To me, those things are all connected, but those connections are hard to make. The pace of the modern world, industrialization, postindustrialization, have all made human connection very difficult to maintain and sustain. To bring that modern situation alive-how we live now, our hang-ups and choices-that's what music and film and art are about-that's the service you're providing, that's the function you're providing as an artist. That's what keeps me interested in writing.
What we call "art" has to do with social policy-and it has to do with how you and your wife or you and your lover are getting along on any given day. I was interested in my music covering all those bases. And how do I do that? I do that by telling stories, through characters' voices-hopefully stories about inclusion. The stories in The Ghost of Tom Joad were an extension of those ideas: stories about brothers, lovers, movement, exclusion-political exclusion, social exclusion-and also the responsibility of these individuals-making bad choices, or choices they've been backed up against the wall to make.
The way all those things intersect is what interests me. The way the social issues and the personal issues cross over one another. To me, that's how people live. These things cross over our lives daily. People get tangled up in them, don't know how to address them, get lost in them. My work is a map, for whatever it's worth-for both my audience and for myself-and it's the only thing of value along with, hopefully, a well-lived life that we leave to the people we care about. I was lucky that I stumbled onto this opportunity early in my life. I think that the only thing that was uncommon was that I found a language that I was able to express those ideas with. Other people all the time struggle to find the language, or don't find the language-the language of the soul-or explode into violence or indifference or numbness, just numbed out in front of TV. "The Language"-that's what William Carlos Williams kept saying, the language of live people, not dead people!
If I'm overgeneralizing, just stop me. I'm not sure if I am or not, but in some fashion that's my intent, to establish a commonality by revealing our inner common humanity, by telling good stories about a lot of different kinds of people. The songs on the last album connected me up with my past, with what I'd written about in my past, and they also connected me up with what I felt was the future of my writing.
WP: Do you think your last album, which wasn't a pop or rock-and-roll record, had the same impact on the larger public that other records of yours had?
I think you have to feel like there's a lot of different ways to reach people, help them think about what's really important in this one-and-only life we live. There's pop culture-that's the shotgun approach, where you throw it out and it gets interpreted in different ways and some people pick up on it. And then there's a more intimate, focused approach like I tried on Tom Joad. I got a lot of correspondence about the last album from a lot of different people-writers, teachers, those who have an impact in shaping other people's lives.
WP: Do you think pop culture can still have a positive effect?
With the exception of certain moments in the history of popular culture, it's difficult to tell what has an impact anymore, and particularly now when there's so many alternatives. Now, we have the fifth Batman movie! I think about the part in the essay "The Man on the Train" where your uncle talks about alienation. He says the truly alienated man isn't the guy who's despairing and trying to find his place in the world. It's the guy who just finished his twentieth Erle Stanley Gardner Perry Mason novel. That is the lonely man! That is the alienated man! So you could say, similarly, the guy who just saw the fifth Batman picture, he's the alienated man. But as much as anyone, I still like to go out on a Saturday night and buy the popcorn and watch things explode, but when that becomes such a major part of the choices that you have, when you have sixteen cinemas and fourteen of them are playing almost exactly the same picture, you feel that something's going wrong here. And if you live outside a major metropolitan area, maybe you're lucky if there's a theater in town that's playing films that fall slightly outside of those choices.
There's an illusion of choice that's out there, but it's an illusion, it's not real choice. I think that's true in the political arena and in pop culture, and I guess there's a certain condescension and cynicism that goes along with it-the assumption that people aren't ready for something new and different.
WP: Do you think that the culture of celebrity is a cause of some of those problems? You seem to have escaped some of the problems that go along with being a celebrity.
I don't think the fascination with celebrities will ever really go away. An intellectual would say that people in the Industrial Age left their farms and their towns, so they couldn't gossip with their neighbors over the fence anymore-and all of a sudden there was a rise of a celebrity culture so we could have some people in common that we could talk about.
The substantive moral concern might be that we live in a country where the only story might be who's succeeding and who's number one, and what are you doing with it. It sure does become a problem if a certain part of your life as a writer-your "celebrity," or whatever you want to call it-can blur and obscure the story that you're interested in telling. I've felt that and seen that at certain times. One of the most common questions I was asked on the last tour, even by very intelligent reviewers was, "Why are you writing these songs? What are you complaining about? You've done great." That's where your uncle's essay "Notes on a Novel about the End of the World" was very helpful to me and my writing. Your uncle addresses the story behind those same comments: "The material is so depressing. The songs are so down." He explains the moral and human purpose of writing by using that analogy of the canary that goes down into the mine with the miners: when the canary starts squawking and squawking and finally keels over, the miners figure it's time to come up and think things over a little bit. That's the writer-the twentieth-century writer is the canary for the larger society.
Maybe a lot of us use the idea of "celebrity" to maintain the notion that everything is all right, that there's always someone making their million the next day. As a celebrity, you don't worry about your bills, you have an enormous freedom to write and to do what you want. You can live with it well. But if your work is involved in trying to show where the country is hurting and where people are hurting, your own success is used to knock down or undercut the questions you ask of your audience. It's tricky, because American society has a very strict idea of what success is and what failure is. We're all "born in the U.S.A." and some part of you carries that with you. But it's ironic if "celebrity" is used to reassure lots of people, barely making it, that "Look, someone's really making it, making it big, so everything is all right, just lose yourself and all your troubles in that big-time success!"
WP: Do you think you're through making music videos?
I don't know. I probably am. There's nobody waiting with bated breath out there for my next video right now. I've never been much of a video artist. I was "prevideo," and I think I remain "prevideo," though maybe I'm "postvideo" now.
Music videos have had an enormous impact on the way that you receive visual images on television and in the theaters-and it sped up the entire way the music world worked, for better or for worse. When I started, you had a band, you toured two or three, four years, you did a thousand shows or five hundred shows, that's how you built your audience, and then maybe you had a hit record. I feel sorry for some of these talented young bands that come up: they have a hit record, a video or two, and then it's over. I think it might have made the music world more fickle. In some ways, it may be more expedient for some of the young acts, but I think it's harder also, because you don't have the time to build a long-standing relationship with your audience.
There was something about developing an audience slowly-you'd draw an audience that stood with you over a long period of time, and it got involved with the questions you were asking and the issues you were bringing up. It's an audience who you shared a history with. I saw the work that I was doing as my life's work. I thought I'd be playing music my whole life and writing my whole life, and I wanted to be a part of my audience's ongoing life. The way you do that is the same way your audience lives its life-you do it by attempting to answer the questions that both you and they have asked, sometimes with new questions. You find where those questions lead you to-your actions in the world. You take it out of the aesthetic and you hopefully bring it into your practical, everyday life, the moral or ethical.
"Man on the Train" [Chapter 4 of Percy's "Message in the Bottle"] helped me think about these things in some fashion, where your uncle dissects the old Western movie heroes. We have our mythic hero, Gary Cooper, who is capable of pure action, where it's either all or nothing, and he looks like he's walking over that abyss of anxiety, and he won't fail. Whereas the moviegoer, the person watching the movie, is not capable of that. There's no real abyss under Gary Cooper, but there is one under the guy watching the film! Bringing people out over that abyss, helping them and myself to realize where we all "are," helping my audience answer the questions that are there-that's what I'm interested in doing with my own work.
That's what I try to accomplish at night in a show. Presenting ideas, asking questions, trying to bring people closer to characters in the songs, closer to themselves-so that they take those ideas, those questions-fundamental moral questions about the way we live and the way we behave toward one another-and then move those questions from the aesthetic into the practical, into some sort of action, whether it's action in the community, or action in the way you treat your wife, or your kid, or speak to the guy who works with you. That is what can be done, and is done, through film and music and photography and painting. Those are real changes I think you can make in people's lives, and that I've had made in my life through novels and films and records and people who meant something to me. Isn't that what your uncle meant by "existentialist reþection"?
And there's a lot of different ways that gets done. You don't have to be doing work that's directly socially conscious. You could make an argument that one of the most socially conscious artists in the second half of this century was Elvis Presley, even if he probably didn't start out with any set of political ideas that he wanted to accomplish. He said, "I'm all shook up and I want to shake you up," and that's what happened. He had an enormous impact on the way that people lived, how they responded to themselves, to their own physicality, to the integration of their own nature. I think that he was one of the people, in his own way, who led to the sixties and the Civil Rights movement. He began getting us "all shook up," this poor white kid from Mississippi who connected with black folks through their music, which he made his own and then gave to others. So pop culture is a funny thing-you can affect people in a lot of different ways.
WP: Did you always try to affect the audience like that? When you first started out, when you were young?
We were trying to excite people, we were trying to make people feel alive. The core of rock music was cathartic. There was some fundamental catharsis that occurred in "Louie, Louie." That lives on, that pursuit. Its very nature was to get people "in touch" with themselves and with each other in some fashion. So initially you were just trying to excite people, and make them happy, alert them to themselves, and do the same for yourself. It's a way of combating your own indifference, your own tendency to slip into alienation and isolation. That's also in "Man on the Train": we can't be alienated together. If we're all alienated together, we're really not alienated.
Blogger Comment: But consider "Alone Together" by Sherry Turkle in which we are all together on street, in bus, on subway intensely working out a video game for ourselves, wires to ears gently rocking away to our own isolated music, blaring out indiscriminently to no one visible while blind and impervious to the human context around us, all the while in a blur of thumbs sending out a cyber text to the other through the medium of the invisible cloud where we meet. Bill Orchard just kindly sent me: "Together" by Avril Lavigne:
That's a lot of what music did for me-it provided me with a community, filled with people, and brothers and sisters who I didn't know, but who I knew were out there. We had this enormous thing in common, this "thing" that initially felt like a secret. Music always provided that home for me, a home where
my spirit could wander. It performed the function that all art and film and good human relations performed-it provided me with the kind of "home" always described by those philosophers your uncle loved.
There are very real communities that were built up around that notion-the very real community of your local club on Saturday night. The importance of bar bands all across America is that they nourish and inspire that community. So there are the very real communities of people and characters, whether it's in Asbury Park or a million different towns across the land. And then there is the community that it was enabling you to imagine, but that you haven't seen yet. You don't even know it exists, but you feel that, because of what you heard or experienced, it could exist.
That was a very powerful idea because it drew you outward in search of that community-a community of ideas and values. I think as you get older and develop a political point of view, it expands out into those worlds, the worlds of others, all over America, and you realize it's just an extension of that thing that you felt in a bar on Saturday night in Asbury Park when it was a hundred and fifty people in the room.
What do you try to provide people? What do parents try to provide their children? You're supposed to be providing a hopeful presence, a decent presence, in your children's lives and your neighbors' lives. That's what I would want my children to grow up with and then to provide when they become adults. It's a big part of what you can do with song, and pictures and words. It's real and its results are physical and tangible. And if you follow its implications, it leads you both inward and outward. Some days we climb inside, and some days maybe we run out. A good day is a balance of those sort of things. When rock music was working at its best, it was doing all of those things-looking inward and reaching out to others.
To get back to where we started, it can be difficult to build those kinds of connections, to build and sustain those kinds of communities, when you're picked up and thrown away so quickly-that cult of celebrity. At your best, your most honest, your least glitzy, you shared a common history, and you attempted both to ask questions and answer them in concert with your audience. In concert. The word "concert"-people working together-that's the idea. That's what I've tried to do as I go along with my work. I'm thankful that I have a dedicated, faithful audience that's followed along with me a good part of the way. It's one of my life's great blessings-having that companionship and being able to rely on that companionship. You know, "companionship" means breaking bread with your brothers and sisters, your fellow human beings-the most important thing in the world! It's sustained my family and me and my band throughout my life.
WP: Do you think you've extended your audience to include some of the kinds of people that you're writing about now: Mexican immigrants, homeless people? Do you feel that you're doing something for those people with your music?
I'm sure I've gotten a lot more out of my music than I've put in, but those meetings and conversations keep me connected so that I remember the actual people that I write about. But I wouldn't call myself an activist. I'm more of a concerned citizen. I think I'd say that I'm up to my knees in it, but I'm not up to my ass!
I guess I'm-rock bottom-a concerned, even aroused observer, sort of like the main character of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Not that I'm invisible! But Ellison's character doesn't directly take on the world. He wants to see the world change, but he's mainly a witness, a witness to a lot of blindness. I recently heard two teachers, one black and one white, talking about that novel, and it sure got to them; it's what Ellison wanted it to be, it's a great American story-and in a way we're all part of it.