"There are a lot of ghosts in this place," Bruce Springsteen said as his boots clomped on an ancient staircase at the Asbury Park Convention Hall. It was here in this old seaside venue that Springsteen, as a teenager, watched Jim Morrison prowl the stage and Keith Moon thunder away on drums for the Who. It was also in the corridors here that he brushed past a wild-child named Janis Joplin. "Our elbows, they came this close," said Springsteen, somehow still amazed that a Jersey kid could come within arm's reach of rock history.
Unlike those lost icons, Springsteen was built for the long haul. He will turn 60 in September, and he'll do so while on the road with the E Street Band supporting their latest album, "Working on a Dream." The world tour (which comes to the Los Angeles Sports Arena on April 15 and 16) officially began Wednesday in San Jose, but it was in late March, here at this creaky boardwalk venue, that Springsteen began working on "the conversation" of the concert tour, as he calls it, trying out the new songs in front of a live audience for the first time.
On a blustery Monday afternoon, just hours before the first of two charity shows, Springsteen arrived at the venue with a 155-year-old surprise for his bandmates. During sound check he told the singers in the group to line up along the lip of the stage and, looking down at the lyrics, Springsteen coached them through a late addition to their opening-night lineup, a Civil War-era lament by Stephen Foster called "Hard Times Come Again No More":
It's a song that the wind blows across the troubled wave
It's a cry that is heard along the shore.
It's the words that are whispered beside the lowly grave
When hard times will come again no more.
It's a song and a sigh of the weary.
Hard times, hard times, come again no more.
Afterward, Springsteen leaned against a pockmarked wall and plucked at his Telecaster with a distracted look on his face. "We're sort of in search of the show," he said. "I've got half a thing planned in my head . . . mainly we're getting the new songs down and then finding the things that are in tune with the times and what's going on out there right now. But, you know, we are a band built for hard times."
Still, nothing comes easy these days for the E Street Band. The band prides itself on work ethic, but the struggles are different now. Two members are coming off of major surgery and then there's the hardscrabble nature of the music business these days. Album sales (494,000 copies in the U.S.) are good, not great, and the tour hasn't stirred the same sort of mad scramble as the old days. There are 3 1/2 decades in the band's rear-view mirror too, but Springsteen has his eye on the road ahead.
"The live show is a current event at all times," said Springsteen,who, more than any other performer, has figured out how to be Woody Guthrie and Elvis Presley at the same time. In January, he serenaded a new president by singing "The Rising," his wrenching Sept. 11 spiritual, with a red-robed choir at the Lincoln Memorial; a few weeks later it was Springsteen the showman, belting out a 12-minute medley with "Glory Days" and "Born to Run" between the fireworks and cheerleaders of the Super Bowl halftime show. "There were some requests for 'The Ghost of Tom Joad,' " Springsteen deadpanned when asked about his jukebox duty at the ballgame, "but we decided to save that one for a different day."
The inaugural event was a natural for a man who, as he puts it, has "been involved in national conversation" for a long time, but the Super Bowl appearance came with the risk of crassness. Springsteen said he took the booking because of his confidence in halftime producer Don Mischer (who also handled the inauguration concert), but there was another pragmatic motivation as well.
"I've said no for about 10 years or however long they've been asking, but, I tell you, we played on the last tour and there were some empty seats here and there and, well, there shouldn't be any empty seats at an E Street Band show. I hold pride that we remain one of the great wonders of the world . . . so sometimes you got to remind people a little bit."
For the singer, it's not enough to be an essential artist, he also wants to be urgent. He mocked the idea of "heritage" or "legacy" acts, the concert-industry jargon for aging bands that tour with just the old hits. "Resting on their laurels, resting on their . . . legacy," he said with a wicked grin. " 'Hey, I'm sitting on my legacy! Ow, my legacy's killing me!' "
The forever-young Springsteen seemed to be pulsing with new reasons to believe after watching the election of Barack Obama.
"You felt like the country that you had been imagining in your work, the kind of place you want your kids to grow up in, on that election night it showed its face," he said. "I never knew if I would see its face. I always wondered if maybe I was just a link in the chain pulling toward that place. But to catch a glimpse of it, just a glimpse . . . so it's real right now. I didn't know we had it in us, to tell you truth. The next day all my music was a little truer than the day before. That was big for me."
Springsteen is driven, competitive and, whether it's on stage or at the gym, obsessed with a muscular expression of himself as some sort of populist-poet-as-athlete, a concept that may be as peculiar to America as, well, the practice of bringing guitars and fighter planes to a football game.
The singer wants to be a force of good but also amplify his music by reaching the biggest audience possible. That puts him in awkward spots. Last year, he signed a sweetheart deal with Wal-Mart for an exclusive CD but then publicly apologized for it after critics said he betrayed his role as a workers rights champion ("I dropped the ball," he told the New York Times). In February, Springsteen was in the news again, lashing out at Ticketmaster for acting suspiciously like the nation's largest scalper with tickets for the new tour. By March, the rock icon was ready for a laugh but instead found himself squirming in discomfort on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" as the typically smooth host devolved on-air into a babbling Boss fan.
In person, Springsteen seems oddly shy and has a truly goofy laugh. He is intense when it comes to quality control, but his band's rehearsals are peppered with old-pal razzing. But there's no doubt that Springsteen is an earnest man in an ironic age, a vinyl-era rock evangelist at a time when music fans are losing that religion -- or at the very least, setting their denomination on shuffle. Then there's the fact that Springsteen is a tycoon singing protest songs during economic calamity. He's well aware of the tugs; he even sang about in 1992's "Better Days": "It's a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending / a rich man in a poor man's shirt."
For Springsteen, though, the mission becomes clear when he is on tour.
"Our music, our songs, they have a lot of bittersweet in them. People come up mostly and they say the same thing: They mention more how you got them through the tough parts of their life. It's always, 'You got me through' this or that: a divorce, high school, when I lost someone.
"It was kind of where we came from, particularly from 'Darkness on the Edge of Town' out. It was also just in the kind of intensity the band played with. It was always in the music. The band has developed this philosophy that is nurturing to people when things are very stressful. We're a good band to see when it's not going so good, you're having a tough time. So we're getting this thing going, we're finding the show."
Whether all of that makes you get a catch in your throat or simply roll your eyes, there's no denying the power of seeing this band on this shore and in front of these fans, every one of them waiting for the bells that ring, as the old song put it. No matter the year, audacious promises are made when Bruce Springsteen plays with the ocean at his back and Jersey at his feet.
Smoothing rough edges
"Evenin', everybody," said the singer, dressed in blue jeans, a dark gray T-shirt and a black vest, as he walked out and waved at the hometown crowd of 1,990. The audience bellowed back its love, but Springsteen cautioned them. "All right, tonight is the night you get to be the guinea pigs . . ."
The experiment was mostly successful. There were moments when the band lurched or misfired and Springsteen apologized, but most fans were too busy shouting out the lyrics to "Darlington County."
The group opened with the dusty epic "Outlaw Pete" (one of seven songs from the new album in the set), which seems inspired by "Jungleland," "Jeremiah Johnson," Ennio Morricone and perhaps, oddly, the loopy myth-speak of the old "Davy Crockett" television theme. The song starts off with a wink:
He was born a little baby on the Appalachian Trail
At six months old he'd done three months in jail
He robbed a bank in his diapers and his little bare baby feet
All he said was, 'Folks, my name is Outlaw Pete.'
"Pete" seems to be the standout song from "Working on a Dream," an album that has not been treated kindly by critics. Ann Powers, writing in The Times, called it "boisterously scatterbrained, exhilaratingly bad," while Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune found it "overdone and remarkably slight." A notable exception to the sour appraisals was Brian Hiatt's five-star review in Rolling Stone, which hailed the "romantic sweep and swaggering musical ambition" and dubbed it the "richest of the three great rock albums" from the band this decade.
The album is layered and ornate with flashes that recall Roy Orbison, Phil Spector and the Byrds, so it's no surprise that no one is comparing it to "Darkness on the Edge of Town," the 1978 classic that had a dark sawmill spirit. No one, that is, except for Springsteen himself.
"When 'Darkness' came out -- and people don't remember this now -- it was not tremendously received initially by plenty of fans," Springsteen said as he sat in his dressing room before the first Asbury Park show. "It was a record that people really needed to hear live. We went out and played and played and played. And that music through the years -- it's become some of our most durable music. It seems to have tentacles that reach out to our darkest things and our most inspirational things. It seems to sit center; it's almost like a little compass that guides you into the center of the band. It has an element of political implications to it, and at the same time it was gospel music in its intent. The verses were blues, and the choruses were gospel. It can sit near [the 1982 acoustic album] 'Nebraska,' and it can sit near [2007's ] 'Magic'. It spreads its arms between those places."
He paused and pondered his illustrious songbook. "They all come to their final life on stage. That's what I would say. They're born in the studio, but they learn to walk in concerts. . . . Some never quite work out the way you think. 'I'm Going Down' [on "Born in the U.S.A."], for instance, had a swing on the record we could never capture live."
The dressing room was cluttered. On the table in front of the singer was the night's set list, his reading glasses and a Sharpie marker. He also had the page with the 19th century Foster song. He initially changed chunks of lyrics, fretting that the language and messages should be more contemporary, but then he crossed out the edits and decided to rely on the song's innate powers. He has a similar approach to his own songwriting.
"As I get older I find that writing is getting more fluid and I'm giving myself less rules. No matter what you put out at this point, everyone has their particular Bruce Springsteen record that they're waiting for or thinking of. It should be dealing with this, it should be talking about that, it should sound like this. . . . That's just part of being around for a long time. The nice part of it is your ears are always open to the voices of your audience. But at the same time I don't tend to sit down with an external idea . . . A lot of it is listening to what's coming. One week the potatoes are up in the garden, one week it's tomatoes."
He leaned back and laughed, pleased with the idea of digging in the dirt. Skeptics who think the star takes himself too seriously would have been surprised to hear him braying with laughter. "If potatoes are up, I pick 'em!"
Prove it all night
On Night 2 in Asbury Park, Springsteen decided maybe it was best to start the show with the compass right in his hand; the E Street Band hit the stage with "Badlands," the first track from "Darkness."
Poor men wanna be rich, rich men wanna be kings,
And a king ain't satisfied 'til he rules everything.
I wanna go out tonight, I wanna find out what I got.
The show was nothing less than incandescent. The night before was fine for mere mortals, but Night 2 pleased even the exacting Springsteen, who introduced an encore with relief: "What a difference a day makes!"
The new material had a sharper edge. "Kingdom of Days" opened with far more throttle than the album version; Springsteen also sang it harder and in a higher key, subtle shifts that made a major difference. The show also had a suite of songs for the desperate and dispossessed -- "Seeds," "Johnny 99" and "Tom Joad" -- that created a coiled energy in the room. The local headlines that day told of the state unemployment fund running dry, and a Newark radio station was planning to load hearses with empty wallets and dump them at the statehouse.
Springsteen grew up in working-class Freehold (if that's not enough symbolism, he also lived for a time on Institute Street) and his family scraped to get by. "I'm telling the stories of my parents and their friends," he said backstage. "I think the things that happen to you before you're 12, they stay with you your whole life and as a writer and artist, you're just finding new ways to express them."
The E Street Band, now reunited for a decade after Springsteen's 1990s solo excursions, finished the "Magic" tour just last year and now it's back for an outing that may total 70 shows by the finish. Keyboardist Danny Federici, a founding member, died a year ago this month after a battle with melanoma ("Working on a Dream" is dedicated to him). Clarence Clemons, the saxophone player, used a cane to get on and off the stage in Asbury Park after double knee-replacement and guitarist Nils Lofgren had both hips replaced last year.
Springsteen, father of three kids ages 15 to 18, winces at the words "farewell tour" and gives every indication that he and his wife, E Street singer Patti Scialfa, won't trade the road life any time soon for their horse ranch in Monmouth County, N.J. He has songs written for the next album already and is just waiting "for the opportunity to record."
For this tour, a large video screen will sit right behind the band, a production touch that purist Springsteen had long resisted. At one point during the warmup shows, the screen flashed a railroad image that suggested a locomotive might come barreling through the drum kit. Springsteen chuckled when asked about it.
"Patti told me there was something about getting into your 50s, that people get very focused and busy in their 50s, and that maybe it's because an oncoming train focuses the mind," he said. "There may be some element of that involved with me right now. I hear a whistle in the distance somewhere -- maybe I'd better start to writing."