Bruce Springsteen gave the keynote speech at SXSW today, and it was a remarkable piece of work, one that resonated in ways easily recognizable to those of us who attend his concerts over and over.
Bruce was all of the things we love about him. He was funny and a bit self-deprecating, he was serious, he was respectful of his influences, he played the crowd and had them eating out of his hand. In essence, he took his famous line about learning more from a 3-minute record than he ever learned in school, and showed us what a 45-minute class in a proper school might teach us. He told about seeing Elvis on TV when he was six, he demonstrated his love of doo-wop, singled out 60s icons like Roy Orbison, Phil Spector, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles, showered love on both Stax and Motown, and told a funny story about getting on stage with James Brown that included a more-accurate-than-you’d-expect imitation of the Godfather of Soul.
He spoke of the impact punk had on Darkness on the Edge of Town, and how important Joe Klein’s biography of Woody Guthrie was to him. Then he suddenly leaped forward 25 years, as if he was running out of time, and talked about singing “This Land Is Your Land” with Pete Seeger at the inauguration. He closed with a bang, and he was done.
It’s tempting to just offer up the great lines from his speech, kind of like how I feel after watching an episode of 30 Rock. And I’ll get to that. But I want to take a minute to focus on the overarching Story of Bruce’s Life, as told in this speech.
Most obviously, his influences, which are pretty standard for baby-boomers, are all men. A few women sneak in behind Phil Spector, and there were plenty of women in the soul music of Stax and Motown, but the people that meant the most to him musically were guys. His story has always been a pretty standard white-guy tale, where the guy loves a girl and life is tough. Beyond the occasional “Streets of Philadelphia” or “My Lover Man”, Bruce doesn’t sing from the point of view of gay men, nor does he often sing from the point of view of women. He has a core decency towards people that works well … he may not sing from their point of view, but he is understanding from the outside; he’d never write “Under My Thumb”. But the primary outside influence he cites is the soul and R&B of African-Americans … guys.
This doesn’t make him a bad artist, and his sympathy towards the people in his songs is heartfelt. But it does point to why some non-believers think of him as a drab, middle-of-the-road artist who doesn’t go far from his white-guy roots, even though anyone who ever saw him live would wonder how someone could find Bruce drab.
OK, I got that out of the way. There were also several moments during his speech where you saw why Bruce is Bruce and, oh, Tom Petty is Tom Petty. I’ve often spoken of punk rock as the line that separated boomers who were looking ahead from those who decided the first time they heard the Sex Pistols that it was time to adopt grown up musical tastes. (Hip-hop then broke down barriers and built entirely new ones.) Bruce mentioned how he bought all of the early punk music, reminded us that Darkness was written in the crucial punk year of 1977, saying that not all of the people of his generation embraced punk, but he did. (“You could not ignore it. I had peers who did, and they were mistaken.”)
I can’t give away all of his best material … you’ll have to watch or listen to the speech, hear it from the horse’s mouth, as it were. But among the highlights for me were:
The famous Lester Bangs quote about the death of Elvis … Bruce quoting Lester!
Doing a human beat box to demonstrate the power of the opening to “Be My Baby”.
His description of James Brown’s performance at the TAMI show, and how it must have felt to be the Rolling Stones that day.
His regular use of the word “pop” rather than “rock” to describe all of the music that he loved.
His frequent shout outs to Kiss and Public Enemy.
And perhaps best of all, the segment about the Animals. They were different than the other British beat bands. They were the first ones to really address class as a topic (those of us who saw him in the mid-70s can remember his powerhouse version of “It’s My Life”, with one of his long, personal raps about how the song fit his life). And, as he said, there wasn’t a good-looking guy in the bunch, which made Bruce, who thought he was ugly, feel better.
But the best of this best segment was his brief tutorial on stealing (“Youngsters, watch this one!”), demonstrating how “Badlands” had “the same fuckin’ riff” as “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (“Listen up, youngsters! This is how successful theft is accomplished!”).
I said last week that I was lucky to latch onto Bruce as my favorite almost 40 years ago, because you can never predict who will remain vital. In this speech, Bruce was a great spokesperson for that segment of Baby Boomer America that grew up on rock and roll. He represented our best, eloquent in describing what the music meant to him, but also giving nods to the music, past and present, that works outside the white-bread mainstream.
NPR.org is going to archive the audio of the speech (it’s not there as I type, but they say by the end of the day it will be up). Here is the entire video, including all of his f-bombs (which I suspect won’t make the NPR archive … there were so many of them, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone sues them for allowing the word “fuck” on a live broadcast). Keep in mind, this link may not work forever, but the NPR link, when it arrives, will be around.