Groaning and sweating cannonballs, Bruce Springsteen jounces along in the passenger seat of a packed-to-the-gunwales van barreling out of downtown Detroit at 4 in the a.m. He radiates waves of locker-room Ben-Gay powerful enough to knock down a charging rhino at 30 yards. And he's happy. Happy as only a certifiably fanatical rock 'n' roller can be when he has just strapped on his Fender Telecaster guitar and blown away 24,039 also certifiable rock fans in the very heart of Motor City. Home of the Cadillac and of the Motown Sound. A tough audience. Bruce had just brought them to their knees with three and a half hours of no-mercy, flat-out rock 'n' roll played the way God intended, and now he is suffering for it. Even after a half-hour rubdown by his trainer, Bruce aches from the grueling marathon of singing, dancing and screaming.
"Man," he rasps in that familiar Jersey Shore staccato, "this was a four and a half tonight." A visitor crammed up against a guitar case behind him asks what he means. "I usually lose between three and five pounds during a show," he says. "This felt like a four point five." He laughs a contented laugh, and the van sails on through the night.
After laying out for three years, the Boss is back with a vengeance. Back with no flash, no lasers, no glitter, no glove. Back with his highly personal brand of straight-ahead, gloves-off rock overlaid with a deceptively folksy vox populi that has made him the poet of the blue-collar baby boomers, for whom his carefully wrought songs sound like letters from home. Just as Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie did before him, Springsteen articulates the thoughts of an entire class of people. And right now nobody does it better. In Detroit Springsteen learned that his new album, Born in the U.S.A., was No. 1 on the charts, the LP's first single release, Dancing in the Dark, was No. 2, and the tour was steaming along at such a pace that he had sold 202,027 tickets—that's 10 nights—at Brendan Byrne Arena in home state New Jersey in just two days. And the tour (this week Bruce is in Washington, D.C.) is going to continue for at least a year, with forays to Canada, the Far East and Europe.
Given all that, the trappings of rock superstardom were astonishingly absent backstage at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena earlier on the balmy summer evening. The fans milling around outside were so well-mannered that even the cops were yawning. No stretch limos for the rock stars; just unobtrusive vans. No stiletto-heeled, slit-skirted, glossy groupies stalking their turf. In the dressing rooms and the tunnels backstage, there were no drugs and nothing stronger to drink than beer.
"Welcome to the 'Hardy Boys on the Road,' " laughs a management associate. She's kidding, of course, but there's a hearty, all-American air to the proceedings that one doesn't usually find at this sort of event. "Sit down," comes a holler from a man with a familiar rock face. He's assistant road manager Chris Chappel, for many years in The Who's organization. Chappel explains he's happy to be here for many reasons. For one: "Sanity, no drugs." For another, he's a fan: "When I first saw Bruce at Hammersmith Odeon [in London] in 1975, I knew immediately that the rock 'n' roll torch had been passed from the Beatles and the Stones and The Who to him. I had never seen such a great show. And I still haven't."
Meanwhile, Bruce is winding up his usual exhaustive sound check in a cavernous hall. He is one of the few rockers who bothers to do a walk-through, listening carefully from every area of the hall while his band is playing. Then he disappears into his dressing room, to remain alone until the show starts.
This is a typically exuberant Bruce crowd, screaming Brr—uuu—ce chants that sound like "boos" to the uninitiated. They hold up lighted matches and those 99-cent discount lighters and scream for Br—uuce some more. Then they stomp and shake the floor and do the Wave and cheer each other. When Bruce finally gains the stage at 8:35 p.m., the spontaneous roar from 24,039 throats is seismic, physically felt, unsettling in its intensity. Most performers never get this kind of ovation when their concerts end. Bruce is clearly among friends in Detroit. He's a folk hero in his biker boots, tight jeans, kerchief headband and short-sleeved sport shirt with its sleeves rolled up to display his newly pumped-up biceps. And he's sporting a proud attitude that proves to be contagious when he rips into Born in the U.S.A., a blue-collar anthem of the '80s if ever there was one (kid gets drafted, sent to Vietnam, then prison and every other raw deal possible, but remains a "cool rocking Daddy in the U.S.A."). The applause is, of course, thunderous. Some of the blue collars in the $14 seats behind the stage (all tickets are $14 or $15) unfurl American flags.
The show, measured by any rock standard, is brilliant. The E Street Band is solid enough to support the World Trade Center. Springsteen's pacing of 30 or so songs over almost four hours is improvised, based on the mood of the crowd. He leaps into the audience during Tenth Avenue Freezeout, pressing the flesh like an old pol and eliciting the predictable hosannas for being an authentic man of the people. Truly, though, of any rock star today, he is the only one who can fearlessly wade into a crowd and know that the crowd will protect him. He can hush the crowd in a second when he starts an eerie, haunting tale of a mass murder in the song Nebraska, his hollow vocal accompanied only by his own harmonica breaks and by Nils Lofgren's sepulchral guitar. Welcome to the First Church of Rock, brothers and sisters. Then the Reverend Bruce gets into his preaching rap. Waving his arms and assuming his best Sunday morning mode (he likes to watch TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart), he intones: "Do you believe, that if you die, during the course of this show, due to excitement, that you're going to HEAVEN?" Cheers from most, some of whom spill their beers and worse things on less fortunate brothers and sisters. "Did you know," he continues later, "that God created the Pink Cadillac, and He said it was great!" And with that Springsteen tears into Pink Cadillac, a searing rocker that cheerfully meets every definition of what rock haters say is wrong with rock 'n' roll (mainly the celebration of free will).
Bruce then sits on the lip of the stage and tells stories: about how he almost became a baseball player before rock 'n' roll saved him, about his childhood, about his relationship with his father. He becomes a beneficent uncle, and the crowd is transformed into rapt children, hanging on every word and laughing at the right times. Then Bruce, like any savvy showman, gets them up on their feet and dancing as he piles 90 mph encore on 110 mph encore, till he literally exhausts the crowd. They file out, drained and smiling, long after midnight. If you hadn't known better, you might have thought that a tent revival had just let out. Perhaps it had.
An hour or so later, after getting his rubdown and recovering, Bruce sits down in his dressing room for a rare interview. He drinks mineral water and offers his visitor the same. He's wearing his layer of Ben-Gay beneath two sweatshirts, G.I. jungle-camouflage pants and suede cowboy boots. Up close, he is quite extraordinary-looking, with the sort of sculpted features that Hollywood executives and art directors lust after. Though he doesn't often do so, he clearly likes to talk—even about the new fitness program that got him those new muscles.
"Well," he laughs, "I had never exercised before in my whole life, y'know? And I didn't tour after the Nebraska record, I didn't feel like going out on the road. And I met this trainer, Phil Dunphy, and he said come on down, and he just got me into it, into strength training and weight training and running." (At 34, the Boss spreads a lean 155 pounds on his 5'10" frame.) "Do you know that I run six miles a day now?" he says, seemingly surprised himself. "It's really helped on the road. Before, I would come out the first night, and I'd almost die, wanna throw up, gaspin' for air."
Still, Springsteen is hardly a health nut. "It's just that I'm not like I was," he says, which was a thin, wiry, almost waif like junk-food addict. "You know, when I was growing up, I never ate in a restaurant till I was 22 years old; that's when I got a record deal. My parents never ate out. They didn't have the dough. All I knew was fast, fast-food. That's all I had the dough for. Later, any kind of restaurant was intimidating. Like, what do you say to the guy who meets you at the door, what do you call him...? Maître d', right. Yeah, who knows? I didn't know."
Springsteen's American Dream-like ascent from poverty forms the basis for many of his autobiographical songs. Born in 1949 in Freehold, N.J., he was the first of three children born to Douglas and Adele Springsteen. His father, a bus driver, was often out of work. An unexceptional student, Bruce by his own account was "dead" until he got a pawnshop guitar when he was 13. "I know that rock 'n' roll changed my life," he says with feeling. "It was something for me to hold on to. I had nothing. Before then the whole thing was a washout for me. It really gave me a sense of myself, and it allowed me to become useful, which I think most people want to be." Once he discovered rock 'n' roll, he took to it with a missionary zeal that has never abated. Music was not just the best thing going for Bruce; it was the only thing. Even girls and cars occupied a distant second and third place.
He briefly tried Ocean County College and then, after staying behind when his family moved to California in 1969, became a permanent fixture of the club scene on the Jersey Shore, specifically in Asbury Park. Basically a seedy boardwalk town, Asbury Park, with its raucous, late-night rock clubs, was a magnet for scuffling young musicians. As the fastest guitar in town, Bruce became the Boss of a lively scene that included the likes of Miami Steve Van Zandt and Southside Johnny Lyon. As Bruce's manager, Jon Landau, points out, this was a strong barband enclave that was totally isolated from the trendy music centers and one based entirely on traditional rock 'n' roll, on Elvis and Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. On top of those foundations Springsteen built his own tradition with his strongest points: his ability to people his songs with believable characters and his genuine talent for storytelling.
That he did so without compromising his musical integrity says much for his perseverance, especially when you remember that the biggest hurdle in his career was his too-much-too-soon appearances on the covers of Newsweek and Time the same week in 1975, just after his commercial breakthrough with the Born to Run single and album release. Scoffers charged "hype" about the hoopla, leaving Bruce wary of the press, but Born to Run remains a rock benchmark, encapsulating Springsteen's psalms on rock 'n' roll as a way of life: rock theology.
A lapsed Catholic, Bruce says Born to Run "really dealt with faith and a searching for answers. On that record I laid out a set of values. A set of ideas...intangibles like faith and hope, belief in friendship and in a better day. But you don't really know what those values are worth until you test them," he admits. "So many things happened to me so fast. I had to focus on the music and not on what was going on around me with the media thing or the lawsuit thing [brought by his former manager about recording and publishing rights]. I always felt that if the music was right, I would survive. But if that went wrong, then that was the end of it."
It went very right. At around $15 per ticket at most shows, Bruce's tour is not raking in what the Jacksons' is, but this former poor boy from Jersey does only what he wants to. No watch or shrill alarm clocks ever schedules Springsteen. His world moves when he's ready. He finally bought a three-story brick mansion in Rumson, N.J., but he doesn't get home often. He's still a loner, still cruising on the highway alone, still hitting the clubs on the Jersey Shore. Bruce's new hit single, Cover Me, suggests he might feel a need now to share his life. ("Hold me in your arms/Let's let our love blind us/-Cover me"), but Bruce keeps insisting he's not ready yet to write "married music." The girlfriends remain just that and no more.
There's no question, though, that Springsteen's life and work involve heavy moral overtones. Not many rock 'n' rollers would dare to say, as does Bruce, that "mainly all my records try to offer some sort of survival course. Maybe you can't dream the same dreams when you're 34 that you did when you were 24, you know, but you can still dream something. Maybe you've got to downsize some of your expectations. I know I have. Just in growing up, in accepting adulthood. My characters, I think that's what they do. They say, 'Man, I had some—thrown at me, but here I still am.' That's strong and realistic, and that's what I want. To just paint the heroic things. Like my sister and her husband."
To Springsteen, sister Virginia, husband Mickey and their two sons are idols. "They were married when they were kids," says Bruce. "They went through some hard times, got a house and raised the kids, and I admire them a lot. My sister's tremendously, unbelievably strong. This is real inspiration. Like in the song My Hometown, these are the heroic things that happen in most people's lives. Everyday things between them and their kids. Just talks and husbands and wives and families. But those talks maintain a sense of continuity and a sense of values. I guess that's hard to do these days. I know it's hard for me to do."
When it gets too much, the Born to Run kid does just that. "I like to travel," says Bruce. "To me, the idea is you get a band, write some songs and go out to people's towns. It's my favorite thing. It's like a circus. You just kind of roll on, walk into somebody's town and, bang! It's heart to heart. Something can happen to you; something can happen to them. You feel you can make a difference in somebody's life. All I'm trying to do is wake up people's senses and do the same thing for myself. I want to make their bodies tingle. Make their blood run. Make them scream."
And the place Springsteen does that best is onstage. "Some nights when I'm up there, I feel like the king of the world." he says. "It's the greatest feeling on earth. I can go home and get in that bed and sleep real sound. It's a beautiful thing. Beautiful. It can tune you into everything, what's happening with people everywhere. For the moment I feel young. Young, and I'm strong. I get the strength and the energy to do it from the crowd. I don't want to pass that by."