AUSTIN – Thursday’s keynote address at the South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference was not conducted by Bruce Springsteen the rock star, it was delivered instead by Professor Bruce Springsteen the music historian.
Springsteen, perhaps the most important rocker of his generation, showed up a half hour late while close to 2,000 conference goers lined up hours early. “Why are we here so f**king early,” laughed Springsteen, when he finally appeared. “How important can this speech be if it’s at noon, when most musicians are still asleep?”
Despite his mock complaints, Springsteen was energetic and engaging. He said the “amazing and a bit overwhelming” atmosphere this week on the streets of Austin had him a bit in awe. “In 1964, when I picked up my guitar there probably wasn’t 10,000 bands in the country because there weren’t 10,000 guitars (in existence),” he said. “But now you have at least 10,000 acts in one place.” He mentioned his great history with Austin over the years, and name-checked the Armadillo World HQ where he first played in 1974.
“I’m going to tell you a little bit about how I got to where I am, and what influenced me,” Springsteen continued. “Bill Haley concealed his age because he was older, not a teenager, when he sang ‘Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay’ he didn’t realize he was going to be terrifyingly f**king right.”
Springsteen was first influenced by rock and roll when he saw Elvis on TV. “People might have influences today like Public Enemy, Madonna or Pearl Jam, but it was 1956 when I saw Elvis. That was the genesis of power and creativity in rock and roll. Never again will everybody be brought together by one single person. Elvis showed too that there is no right way to create – you just have to go out and do it.
“Elvis brought a new way of experiencing and hearing music,” he continued. “After that show my parents took me to the Five and Dime in Freehold, N.J., and bought a guitar, but my six-year-old hands would not fit around the neck. All I did was stand in front of the mirror and beat on that thing, and beat on that thing, in front of the mirror… and I still do that!” When this drew a big laugh, Springsteen asked in mock shock, “Don’t you guys do that? You gotta check out your moves!”
Doo-wop, Springsteen said, was “like the stockings on the back seat upholstery, bras were snapping across the USA.” .Then, he said, it was the “blue ball limp” back from the dance. At this point he asked for a guitar, and when one finally materialized he played the notes.
In a G and C doo-wop voice, he said “out of that came ‘Backstreets.’ When you listen to Roy Orbison, when you met that girl and you told somebody you loved them at that moment, you were starting to go down and that’s what Roy Orbison’s music was,” Springsteen continued.
Phil Spector was “three-minute orgasms by oblivion, chaos in sound and it all came together.” About the British Invasion Springsteen said “that shifted the lay of the land, no more it was going to be a singer, a songwriter and a producer … you had these guys doing it all. At the Five and Dime there was the album, Meet The Beatles, and I realized I’d never get there. But when I saw a picture of the Beatles in Hamburg, wearing pompadours and leather jackets, I realized these are just kids. They were cooler than me, but when I saw that picture I felt like I could get to where they are.”
Springsteen also name-checked the Animals, also from the British Invasion. “It was the first time I heard about class consciousness in rock and roll. Their music mirrored my home life; I loved the cruelty in the music.” Springsteen also said the Animals were the ugliest band in rock and roll. “Eric Burdon had this man face on an 18-year-old body. I couldn’t believe that voice was coming out of a kid! He couldn’t dance either!”
But Springsteen sang a pitch perfect few bars of “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” and cited the central lick driving “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” “That became ‘Badlands,’ ” he revealed. “The art of successful theft!”
He listened to a lot of punk records, and bought the Sex Pistols’ album. “Frightening,” was the only word he used to describe it. He spoke more lovingly of soul music, citing the line from “Soul Man”: “I learned how to love before I could eat.” Springsteen said Motown was great, he loved the social consciousness of Curtis Mayfield and said about James Brown, “He’s still underrated … what I learned from James Brown was how to bring it home live. Because if you do, the audience will always remember you.”
And there was Bob Dylan. “Dylan gave us the words,” Springsteen said. “When Dylan said ‘how does it feel, to be on your own?’ if you were a kid in 1965 you were on your own. Parents just didn’t understand what was going on. Dylan is the father of my musical country.”
As he got into his late 20s, Springsteen said he wanted to write music he could play when he was 40. He listened to Hank Williams over and over again, and he understood that country music was about “Saturday night hell raising and Sunday morning coming down with guilt.”
Springsteen reminded the audience that this year is Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday year and said his focus changed when he read the Guthrie autobiography. “Guthrie never sold a million copies, never had a platinum album and was never on the cover of Rolling Stone but he was the big ghost in the machine.”
He ended the nearly hour-long talk by speaking directly to musicians. “Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive,” Springsteen said, “and treat it like it’s all you have.”