|n early 1989, Walker Percy penned a fan letter "of sorts" to Bruce Springsteen, praising the musician's "spiritual journey" and hoping to begin a correspondence between them. At the time, Springsteen hesitated in responding, but he later picked up a copy of The Moviegoer and began a new journey into Dr. Percy's writing. Walker Percy died in May 1990, and the two never met, but Percy's novels and essays, among other books and films, have had a most profound impact on Springsteen's songwriting.|
In 1995, Springsteen recorded The Ghost of Tom Joad, a richly lyrical album that forged a new purpose for his music, linking him in some ways to the tradition of such artist-activists as John Steinbeck (Joad is the radical hero of The Grapes of Wrath) and folk music icon Woody Guthrie. Springsteen's songs tell us, in their familiar narrative style, about ordinary people struggling through life's twists and turns, presenting a cast of characters that includes immigrant families, border patrolmen, midwestern steelworkers, and America's poor and disenfranchised. The populist sensibility of Guthrie can be heard throughout: it is music competing for the public conscience.
Following an Atlanta concert promoting the album, Will Percy, Walker's nephew, met Springsteen backstage, and the two talked for hours. When Springsteen mentioned his regret at never having written back to Will's uncle, Will encouraged him to write to his aunt, Walker's widow. A few months later, Springsteen, who likes to say that "it's hard for me to write unless there's music underneath," sat down and wrote four pages-a letter years in the making.
Last fall, Will Percy and Springsteen had the chance to meet again, this time on the Springsteen farm in central New Jersey, not far from the small town where Springsteen grew up or from the Jersey Shore clubs where he first made his mark in the 1970s. With a tape running, the two explored the importance of books in Springsteen's life, most recently his discovery of Dr. Percy's essays in The Message in the Bottle. Like the long-in-coming letter to Mrs. Percy, perhaps this is part of the conversation that Bruce Springsteen might have had with Walker Percy.
Will Percy: When did books start influencing your songwriting and music? I remember as early as 1978, when I saw you in concert, you mentioned Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July, and you dedicated a song to him.
Bruce Springsteen: I picked up that book in a drugstore in Arizona while I was driving across the country with a friend of mine. We stopped somewhere outside of Phoenix, and there was a copy of the paperback in the rack. So I bought the book and I read it between Phoenix and Los Angeles, where I stayed in this little motel. There was a guy in a wheelchair by the poolside every day, two or three days in a row, and I guess he recognized me, and he Þnally came up to me and said, "Hey, I'm Ron Kovic"-it was really very strange-and I said, "Oh, Ron Kovic, gee, that's good." I thought I'd met him before somewhere. And he said, "No, I wrote a book called Born on the Fourth of July." And I said, "You wouldn't believe this. I just bought your book in a drugstore in Arizona and I just read it. It's incredible." Real, real powerful book. And we talked a little bit and he got me interested in doing something for the vets. He took me to a vet center in Venice, and I met a bunch of guys along with this guy Bobby Muller who was one of the guys who started VVA, Vietnam Veterans of America.
I go through periods where I read, and I get a lot out of what I read, and that reading has affected my work since the late seventies. Films and novels and books, more so than music, are what have really been driving me since then. Your uncle once wrote that "American novels are about everything," and I was interested in writing about "everything" in some fashion in my music: how it felt to be alive now, a citizen of this country in this particular place and time and what that meant, and what your possibilities were if you were born and alive now, what you could do, what you were capable of doing. Those were ideas that interested me.
The really important reading that I did began in my late twenties, with authors like Flannery O'Connor. There was something in those stories of hers that I felt captured a certain part of the American character that I was interested in writing about. They were a big, big revelation. She got to the heart of some part of meanness that she never spelled out, because if she spelled it out you wouldn't be getting it. It was always at the core of every one of her stories-the way that she'd left that hole there, that hole that's inside of everybody. There was some dark thing-a component of spirituality-that I sensed in her stories, and that set me off exploring characters of my own. She knew original sin-knew how to give it the þesh of a story. She had talent and she had ideas, and the one served the other.
I think I'd come out of a period of my own writing where I'd been writing big, sometimes operatic, and occasionally rhetorical things. I was interested in Þnding another way to write about those subjects, about people, another way to address what was going on around me and in the country-a more scaled-down, more personal, more restrained way of getting some of my ideas across. So right prior to the record Nebraska , I was deep into O'Connor. And then, later on, that led me to your uncle's books, and Bobbie Ann Mason's novels-I like her work.
I've also gotten a lot out of Robert Frank's photography in The Americans. I was twenty-four when I Þrst saw the book-I think a friend had given me a copy-and the tone of the pictures, how he gave us a look at different kinds of people, got to me in some way. I've always wished I could write songs the way he takes pictures. I think I've got half a dozen copies of that book stashed around the house, and I pull one out once in a while to get a fresh look at the photographs.
WP: I find it interesting that you're inþuenced a lot by movies -you said you're more influenced by movies and books than music. In the liner notes of The Ghost of Tom Joad you credited both the John Ford Þlm and the book The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck.
: I came by the film before I really came by the book. I'd read the book in high school, along with Of Mice and Men and a few others, and then I read it again after I saw the movie. But I didn't grow up in a community of ideas-a place where you can sit down and talk about books, and how you read through them, and how they affect you. For a year, I went to a local college a few miles up the road from here, but I didn't really get much out of that particular place. I think I'm more a product of pop culture: films and records, films and records, Þlms and records, especially early on. And then later, more novels and reading.
WP:Where did you draw your musical influences in your earlier writing as compared with this last album?
: Up until the late seventies, when I started to write songs that had to do with class issues, I was inþuenced more by music like the Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" or "It's My Life (And I'll Do What I Want)"-sort of class-conscious pop records that I'd listen to-and I'd say to myself: "That's my life, that's my life!" They said something to me about my own experience of exclusion. I think that's been a theme that's run through much of my writing: the politics of exclusion. My characters aren't really antiheroes. Maybe that makes them old-fashioned in some way. They're interested in being included, and they're trying to Þgure out what's in their way.
I'd been really involved with country music right prior to the album Darkness on the Edge of Town , and that had a lot of affect on my writing because I think country is a very class-conscious music. And then that interest slowly led me into Woody Guthrie and folk music. Guthrie was one of the few songwriters at the time who was aware of the political implications of the music he was writing-a real part of his consciousness. He set out intentionally to address a wide variety of issues, to have some effect, to have some impact, to be writing as a way to have some impact on things: playing his part in the way things are moving and things change.
I was always trying to shoot for the moon. I had some lofty ideas about using my own music, to give people something to think about-to think about the world, and what's right and wrong. I'd been affected that way by records, and I wanted my own music and writing to extend themselves in that way.
WP: I notice that you talk about "writing" and not "songwriting." Do you sit down and write lyrics and then look for music?
: When I'd write rock music, music with the whole band, it would sometimes start out purely musically, and then I'd find my way to some lyrics. I haven't written like that in a while. In much of my recent writing, the lyrics have preceded the music, though the music is always in the back of my mind. In most of the recent songs, I tell violent stories very quietly. You're hearing characters' thoughts-what they're thinking after all the events that have shaped their situation have transpired. So I try to get that internal sound, like that feeling at night when you're in bed and staring at the ceiling, reþective in some fashion. I wanted the songs to have the kind of intimacy that took you inside yourself and then back out into the world.
I'll use music as a way of defining and coloring the characters, conveying the characters' rhythm of speech and pace. The music acts as a very still surface, and the lyrics create a violent emotional life over it, or under it, and I let those elements bang up against each other.
Music can seem incidental, but it ends up being very important. It allows you to suggest the passage of time in just a couple of quiet beats. Years can go by in a few bars, whereas a writer will have to come up with a clever way of saying, "And then years went by. . . ." Thank God I don't have to do any of that! Songwriting allows you to cheat tremendously. You can present an entire life in a few minutes. And then hopefully, at the end, you reveal something about yourself and your audience and the person in the song. It has a little in common with short-story writing in that it's character-
driven. The characters are confronting the questions that everyone is trying to sort out for themselves, their moral issues, the way those issues rear their heads in the outside world.
WP: While your previous albums might all come from personal experience-from the people and places you grew up with in New Jersey and elsewhere-you seem to have started writing more about other people and topics now, Mexican immigrants, for instance, in songs like "Sinaloa Cowboys." With that song, I remember you said in concert that it started out when you met a couple of Mexican brothers in the desert once when you were traveling.
: There's no single place where any of the songs come from, of course. True, I drew a lot of my earlier material from my experience growing up, my father's experience, the experience of my immediate family and town. But there was a point in the mid-eighties when I felt like I'd said pretty much all I knew how to say about all that. I couldn't continue writing about those same things without either becoming a stereotype of myself or by twisting those themes around too much. So I spent the next ten years or so writing about men and women-their intimate personal lives. I was being introspective but not autobiographical. It wasn't until I felt like I had a stable life in that area that I was driven to write more outwardly-about social issues.
A song like "Sinaloa Cowboys" came from a lot of places. I'd met a guy in the Arizona desert when I happened to be on a trip with some friends of mine, and he had a younger brother who died in a motorcycle accident. There's something about conversations with people-people you've met once and you'll never see again-that always stays with me. And I lived for quite a while in Los Angeles, and border reporting and immigration issues are always in the paper there. I've traveled down to the border a number of times.
WP: Why would you travel down to the border?
: With my dad, I'd take trips to Mexico a few years back. We'd take these extended road trips where we'd basically drive aimlessly. The border wasn't something I was consciously thinking about, it was just one of those places that all of a sudden starts meaning something to you. I'm always looking for ways to tell a particular story, and I just felt the connection, I can't explain what it was exactly-a connection to some of the things I'd written about in the past.
I don't think you sit down and write anything that isn't personal in some way. In the end, all your work is a result of your own psychology and experience. I never really write with a particular ideology in mind. As a writer, you're searching for ways to present different moral questions-to yourself because you're not sure how you will respond, and to your audience. That's what you get paid for-from what I can tell. Part of what we call entertainment should be "food for thought." That's what I was interested in doing since I was very young, how we live in the world and how we ought live in the world. I think politics are implicit. I'm not interested in writing rhetoric or ideology. I think it was Walt Whitman who said, "The poet's job is to know the soul." You strive for that, assist your audience in finding and knowing theirs. That's always at the core of what you're writing, of what drives your music.
It's all really in your uncle's essay "The Man on the Train," about the "wandering spirit" and modern man-all that's happened since the Industrial Revolution when people were uprooted and set out on the road into towns where they'd never been before, leaving families, leaving traditions that were hundreds of years old. In a funny way, you can even trace that story in Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." I think that we're all trying to find what passes for a home, or creating a home of some sort, while we're constantly being uprooted by technology, by factories being shut down.
I remember when my parents moved out to California-I was about eighteen. My folks decided that they were going to leave New Jersey, but they had no idea really where to go. I had a girlfriend at the time and she was sort of a hippie. She was the only person we knew who'd ever been to California. She'd been to Sausalito and suggested they go there. You can just imagine-Sausalito in the late sixties! So they went to Sausalito, three thousand miles across the country, and they probably had only three grand that they'd saved and that had to get them a place to live, and they had to go out and Þnd work. So they got to Sausalito and realized this wasn't it. My mother said they went to a gas station and she asked the guy there, "Where do people like us live?"-that's a question that sounds like the title of a Raymond Carver story!-and the guy told her, "Oh, you live on the peninsula." And that was what they did. They drove down south of San Francisco and they've been there ever since. My father was forty-two at the time-it's funny to think that he was probably seven or eight years younger than I am now. It was a big trip, took a lot of nerve, a lot of courage, having grown up in my little town in New Jersey.
But that story leads back to those same questions: how do you create the kind of home you want to live in, how do you create the kind of society you want to live in, what part do you play in doing that? To me, those things are all connected, but those connections are hard to make. The pace of the modern world, industrialization, postindustrialization, have all made human connection very difficult to maintain and sustain. To bring that modern situation alive-how we live now, our hang-ups and choices-that's what music and film and art are about-that's the service you're providing, that's the function you're providing as an artist. That's what keeps me interested in writing.
What we call "art" has to do with social policy-and it has to do with how you and your wife or you and your lover are getting along on any given day. I was interested in my music covering all those bases. And how do I do that? I do that by telling stories, through characters' voices-hopefully stories about inclusion. The stories in The Ghost of Tom Joad were an extension of those ideas: stories about brothers, lovers, movement, exclusion-political exclusion, social exclusion-and also the responsibility of these individuals-making bad choices, or choices they've been backed up against the wall to make.
The way all those things intersect is what interests me. The way the social issues and the personal issues cross over one another. To me, that's how people live. These things cross over our lives daily. People get tangled up in them, don't know how to address them, get lost in them. My work is a map, for whatever it's worth-for both my audience and for myself-and it's the only thing of value along with, hopefully, a well-lived life that we leave to the people we care about. I was lucky that I stumbled onto this opportunity early in my life. I think that the only thing that was uncommon was that I found a language that I was able to express those ideas with. Other people all the time struggle to find the language, or don't find the language-the language of the soul-or explode into violence or indifference or numbness, just numbed out in front of TV. "The Language"-that's what William Carlos Williams kept saying, the language of live people, not dead people!
If I'm overgeneralizing, just stop me. I'm not sure if I am or not, but in some fashion that's my intent, to establish a commonality by revealing our inner common humanity, by telling good stories about a lot of different kinds of people. The songs on the last album connected me up with my past, with what I'd written about in my past, and they also connected me up with what I felt was the future of my writing.
WP: Do you think your last album, which wasn't a pop or rock-and-roll record, had the same impact on the larger public that other records of yours had?
: I've made records that I knew would Þnd a smaller audience than others that I've made. I suppose the larger question is, How do you get that type of work to be heard-despite the noise of modern society and the media, two hundred television channels? Today, people are swamped with a lot of junk, so the outlets and the avenues for any halfway introspective work tend to be marginalized. The last record might have been heard occasionally on the radio, but not very much. It's a paradox for an artist-if you go into your work with the idea of having some effect upon society, when, by the choice of the particular media, it's marginalized from the beginning. I don't know of any answer, except the hope that somehow you do get heard-and there are some publishing houses and television channels and music channels that are interested in presenting that kind of work.
I think you have to feel like there's a lot of different ways to reach people, help them think about what's really important in this one-and-only life we live. There's pop culture-that's the shotgun approach, where you throw it out and it gets interpreted in different ways and some people pick up on it. And then there's a more intimate, focused approach like I tried on Tom Joad. I got a lot of correspondence about the last album from a lot of different people-writers, teachers, those who have an impact in shaping other people's lives.
WP: Do you think pop culture can still have a positive effect?
: Well, it's a funny thing. When punk rock music hit in the late 1970s, it wasn't played on the radio, and nobody thought, Oh yeah, that'll be popular in 1992 for two generations of kids. But the music dug in, and now it has a tremendous impact on the music and culture of the nineties. It was powerful, profound, music and it was going to find a way to make itself heard eventually. So I think there's a lot of different ways of achieving the kind of impact that most writers and filmmakers, photographers, musicians want their work to have. It's not always something that happens right away-the "Big Bang"!
With the exception of certain moments in the history of popular culture, it's difficult to tell what has an impact anymore, and particularly now when there's so many alternatives. Now, we have the fifth Batman movie! I think about the part in the essay "The Man on the Train" where your uncle talks about alienation. He says the truly alienated man isn't the guy who's despairing and trying to find his place in the world. It's the guy who just finished his twentieth Erle Stanley Gardner Perry Mason novel. That is the lonely man! That is the alienated man! So you could say, similarly, the guy who just saw the fifth Batman picture, he's the alienated man. But as much as anyone, I still like to go out on a Saturday night and buy the popcorn and watch things explode, but when that becomes such a major part of the choices that you have, when you have sixteen cinemas and fourteen of them are playing almost exactly the same picture, you feel that something's going wrong here. And if you live outside a major metropolitan area, maybe you're lucky if there's a theater in town that's playing films that fall slightly outside of those choices.
There's an illusion of choice that's out there, but it's an illusion, it's not real choice. I think that's true in the political arena and in pop culture, and I guess there's a certain condescension and cynicism that goes along with it-the assumption that people aren't ready for something new and different.
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