Last night, as much of the city gathered in bars to sweat out a winner-take-all game between the San Francisco Giants and the New York Mets, I joined a mob of working class literati eager to get a glimpse of The Boss. In town to promote Born to Run, his new memoir, Bruce Springsteen regaled us with tales of his humble beginnings and anecdotes from his long road to the highest echelons of the rock-star famedom.
Speaking for just over an hour (and answering only pre-submitted questions from the audience), Springsteen covered a lot of ground in his time on the Nourse stage. Here are 10 of the most memorable tidbits that I learned about him:
1. When Springsteen auditioned for Columbia Records’ talent scout John Hammond in 1972, he had to borrow an acoustic guitar from a friend.
According to Springsteen, the acoustic had no case, which meant he had to tote the guitar in hand on a bus to New York. “I had to go Midnight Cowboy with it,” he told the night’s facilitator Dan Stone, calling the ordeal a terribly embarrassing experience. Of course, once Hammond heard Springsteen play and famously told him he “had to be on Columbia Records,” Springsteen says he and manager Mike Appel danced outside on the streets, guitar and all.
2. As a kid in New Jersey, his Irish relatives were very superstitious when it came to lightning.
He recalled that growing up as a young boy, when the weather indicated lightning was likely, he would be taken to his Aunt Jane’s house, where all the women in the family would gather. Then, she would splash holy water over all of them to keep them safe.
3. Springsteen is a bookworm.
He recently finished Moby Dick, but said it wasn’t nearly as hard as people suggested it would be. Springsteen did caution that readers of the classic novel should be prepared to learn more about whales then they could ever wish. He also spoke of his love for the Great Russian writers like Chekov, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy.
4. Much of the material that became Born in the U.S.A. was originally written as part of the Nebraska sessions.
Springsteen spoke about his dueling interests in making small, personal records and blowing things up with rock and roll splendor. Some songs that fell closer to the latter sonically were kept off Nebraska and later used for Born in the U.S.A., an album Springsteen says was essentially a record conceived as a means to release the title single.
5. As a child, Springsteen and his grandfather would go dumpster diving for old radios, which his grandfather fixed and sold for cash.
The migrant workers that bought these radios from Springsteen’s grandfather called him simply “the radio man.” Springsteen has fond memories of seeing junked radios crackle back into life after being mended by his grandfather.
6. Springsteen blames the internet for changing how long it takes to gain recognition as an artist.
Reflecting on the decade he spent as a guitarist for a series of New Jersey bar bands, Springsteen wondered if the immediate fame found by many contemporary musicians — thanks in large part to the internet — has cost them the chance to really figure out their music and their identity. Asked by Stone how those bar shows informed his future as an arena performer, Springsteen said, “At those bar shows, I played for five hours. The shows I do now are easy.”
7. There isn’t any rock memorabilia in his house.
All he keeps at his home is a piano and a couple of guitars.
8. He tried to find the music in his prose when writing his memoir.
While he wasn’t willing to say whether writing his book was easier than songwriting, Springsteen did find many similarities between the processes. He says just like songs, writing needs a rhythm. He also spent seven years on and off writing his memoir, and did all of his first drafts longhand.
9. Reflecting on the late E Street Band member Clarence Clemons, Springsteen says he was both “the brother I never had” and “a figment of my imagination.”
Springsteen says he met Clemons in his search for “a true rock saxophonist,” which he found to be a rare commodity at the time. He also wistfully recalled that the two of them made “a unique duo” for 40 years.
10. Springsteen’s children took a while to get familiar with his music, and he’s perfectly fine with that.
In one of the evening’s most memorable quotes, Springsteen explained that he wasn’t bothered when his children didn’t show immediate interest in his discography. “I don’t need three more fans,” he quipped. He also made the point that parents are meant to be the audience to their children, not the other way around. Springsteen named many contemporary artists he’s gone to see with his kids, including Lady Gaga, Paramore, and Justin Timberlake.