Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Springsteen talks Dylan, darkness and the “survivor guilt” of fame

“The artists we love, they put their fingerprint on your imagination, and on your heart and your soul”

by Brian D. Johnson on Wednesday, September 15, 2010 12:57am

A few minutes before Bruce Springsteen stepped onstage in the 550-seat flagship cinema of the new TIFF Bell Lightbox, a stage hand removed the guitar stand. Which seemed to confirm it wasn’t going to be that kind of show. It was, however, the hottest ticket at the festival: a chance to spend an hour or so in a relatively intimate theatre listening to actor Edward Norton interview the Boss about music, cinema, celebrity and politics. And it seemed as strange for them as it was for us. Springsteen is perfectly at home singing for 20,000 people, and Norton (Primal Fear) can comfortably shape-shift into a psychopath in front of a movie camera. But they were both novices at performing in an onstage interview, which had a certain homespun charm.

As part of TIFF’s Mavericks program, Springsteen’s dialogue with Norton was presented in advance of the world premiere of Thom Zimny’s documentary Promise: The Making of Darkness the Edge of Town. There was a palpable excitement in the air. As TIFF programmer Thom Powers nervously confessed, “I will be able to breathe for the first time in six weeks.” When the Boss hit the stage, there was the expected standing ovation and chants of “Bruuuuuuuce.” But the audience quickly settled down and sat in rapt attention without a single fan outburst. Obeying strict orders, there was no texting, tweeting or cellphone photography. I’ve been driven crazy all week by flickering Blackberries among industry types in screenings. But this was the best-behaved crowd I’d encountered since this film festival began—ironic considering they’d come to see a rock star.

Springsteen and Norton came out dressed almost identically in black shirts, black boots and jeans. They both seemed a bit awkward at first, joking about their wardrobe. Norton, who explained he and the Boss have been friends for 11 years, went out of his way to act casual. It’s always interesting to see a star play the role of interviewer. I’ve conducted an interview or two in my time, off and on stage, and though it’s not high art, it is an acquired skill, like acting or playing guitar. Norton’s questions were long, rambling and tangential; he tended to answer them by the time he got to the question mark. But at least they were intelligent, and informed by his friendship with Springsteen. He also covered the vital issues: the creative process, the balance between intuition and craft, the influences, the ambition, the politics—and that pesky vision thing. Springsteen even got to talking about his children. When Norton suggested that every generation thinks its going to be the first generation of cool parents, Springsteen laughed. “That doesn’t work,” he said. “Why would my kids want to come out and see thousands of people cheer their parents?”

The one thing they didn’t dwell on was the music, which gets plenty of attention in the documentary. Instead, Bruce ruminated on its thematic course, something he struggled with in the insanely laborious recording of Darkness on the Edge of Town, the 1978 album that followed the monstrous success of Born to Run.

“I was afraid of losing myself,” said Springsteen, explaining that one minute he and the the E-Street band were “a provincial group of guys with no money ” who had never been on an airplane and thought New York was “million miles away.” Then he was a superstar who was, nonetheless, broke, in a legal battle with his manager, and worried about being “gobbled up” by fame. “It’s easy for you to be co-opted,” he said. “The irony of any kind of success is the conversation you’ve struck up is also the one that makes you a bit of a mutant—a mutant in your own neighbourhood. And it leaves you with a good deal of survivor guilt. Nobody knows anybody who has any money—except you.”

Springsteen talked about Darkness on the Edge of Town as his pivotal album, where he set the direction that would set his career. In the early years, “we were all creatures of the radio,” he said, stressing that “records” were his prime influence. But the Boss has a more than passing affinity with film. The sense of landscape in his songs is archly cinematic, and as he explained, heavily influenced by American film noir. Early in the interview, he referenced Bob Dylan and David Lynch into the same line as he recalled listening getting “the first true picture of my country” when he heard Dylan’s Highway 61 as a teenager—”1960s small-town America was very Lynchian,” he said. “Everything was rumbling. Dylan took all the dark stuff that was rumbling underneath and brought it too the surface.

As Norton noted, Springsteen referenced movies from his first album, with lines like “I could walk like Brando into the sun.” But with success, he was flung into an epic landscape, with the Vietnam war still fresh and American cinema erupting around him: “Popular pictures were dark, bloody pictures that dealt with the flipside of the American Dream.” During the Born To Run tour, he recalled, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro treated him to a private screening of Taxi Driver. Then he added, as if it had just occured to him, that Jon Landau—the producer taking over his career at the time, was a film critic.

Things got interesting when Norton started asking about wild impulse versus painstaking craft. Springsteen talked about the virtue of craft. “Dylan,” he said, “was very, very conscious; he just wouldn’t talk about it. . . The construction of image, there’s no getting around it. That doesn’t mean it’s inauthentic. Writing and imagining a world, that’s a particular thing. The artists we love, they put their fingerprint on your imagination, and on your heart and your soul. . . I wanted to bring in the full landscape of the country.

Springsteen talked about the massive ambition he had in the 70s. “There was something in the hardness of it, that young naked desire. We wanted people to hear our voices and we set our sights very big. I wanted the pink Cadillac and I wanted the girls, but above all I wanted a purposeful work life.” Darkness on the Edge of Town, he said, was his attempt to find that. In marathon studio sessions—documented by intimate black-and-white footage in the documentary—he recorded some 70 songs. Slashing all the feel-good numbers, he reduced the album to “the 10 toughest songs I had.” They were “carved meticulously, consciously out of a huge hunk of stone, with a lot of ego and ambition. That, he said, “was the beginning of a long conversation I had with my fans.”

Norton asked if he ever worried about being overtaken by the next generation of rockers. “If you’re good,” said Springsteen, “you’re always looking over your shoulder. It’s the life, the gun-slinging life.”

So yes, I took notes as I sat in the 5th row, close enough to feel a connection, marvelling at how odd it was to quietly watch the Boss perform musicology on his own career—Uncle Bruce easing into his role as the elder. It was by turns fascinating, inspiring and slightly sad, all this rumination about the meaning of those glory days. Then suddenly it was over. The rock star and the movie star slipped off stage to a few polite shrieks of protest. Later outside the theatre, as I chatted with Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy, we noticed a stagehand carrying away an unplayed acoustic guitar.

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