By Andy Greene
Seven minutes before Bruce Springsteen is scheduled to call Rolling Stone to talk about his new R&B covers album, Only the Strong Survive, a number I’ve never seen before from Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey pops up on my cellphone. This is usually the point where a manager or publicist conferences in the interview subject, but there’s just one person on the other end of the line. “Hey,” says a gruff, familiar voice. “It’s Bruce.”
He’s wrapping up an exhausting couple of weeks in which he inducted Jimmy Iovine into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Los Angeles, played the annual Stand Up For Heroes veterans’ fundraiser in New York, flew to London to guest on the BBC and The Graham Norton Show, and still found time to make his debut appearance on The Howard Stern Show and shoot a two-night “takeover” of The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon where he played four tunes with a large band. He’s shared the story of how he cut Only the Strong Survive at his home studio in New Jersey to honor R&B greats from the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, and explained why his longtime producer Ron Aniello handled much of the instrumentation on the album, letting Springsteen focus largely on his vocals.
But there was still a lot left to talk about in our interview, including his next covers album, the E Street Band’s 2023 tour, future archival box sets, his online bootleg series — and the widespread and intense fan uproar that followed the high ticket prices on his tour and the use of dynamic pricing. We somehow crammed all of this into a 30-minute chat.
So how did your Fallon week go?
It was fun. A lot of fun. I got to play in front of that big 20-piece band we put together. It was a mini-orchestra.
I loved seeing you back with original E Street Band keyboardist David Sancious.
That was a treat. Davy flew in from Hawaii and sat in with us for the duration. We had a lot of fun together.
I was watching that and thinking to myself, “What would have happened if David and [drummer] Ernest ‘Boom’ Carter had stayed in the band? What would Born To Run, Darkness, and The River have sounded like if they had been on them?” I just can’t imagine those records without Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg, but it would have happened.
It would have happened. Boom started out as a jazz drummer, really, but very, very quickly picked up his rock & roll chops due to the fact that he was put in extreme pressure when he got in the band.
The way it happened was [drummer] Vini Lopez left the band and we had a gig the next night. I had to play it, because it was a mob-owned club [laughs]. They were throwing some impolite suggestions in our direction about what they’d do if we didn’t show up.
That night, David said, “I’ve got a friend named Boom.” And so Boom comes over, spends the entire night from midnight to morning learning the entire set. We then drive to Fort Dix and play at the Satellite Lounge at 11 p.m. and then 2 a.m. in the morning. That was Boom’s induction by fire. After that, he always swung…but he always grabbed enough of a rock edge to make that work.
And he would have worked. It would have worked. But the band might have swung in a slightly different way and been more comfortable with the sound of the music we played last night at Fallon, probably.
Getting to the new record, you’ve said you originally recorded an entire different record that you decided not to release. Were those also soul and Motown songs, or were you experimenting with a different genre at that point?
It started out with me just saying, “I’ve written songs. I’ve made movies. I’m sitting here in the house. I like to record. Let me go record songs that I love and hope to record well.” I told my producer Ron [Aniello], “Ron, I want to make a record where I only sing.” And beside playing a little guitar here and there, and making some keyboards on occasion, I pretty much only sang.
Ron was in charge of putting the tracks together, which he does fabulously. And we turned the music into rock and soul music. I basically have a rock voice with soul undercurrents. But we were looking for songs we could just push a little bit in the rock direction. And then, of course, we wanted songs that had great singers, and were beautiful songs.
I did have a record previously that I made of me singing other people’s songs that wound up on the floor. It wasn’t until I discovered “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” by Frank Wilson, the Motown rarity, and my voice slipped in perfectly that I realized, “I should be singing soul music.”
You’d never done any of these songs before live in concert. Tell me about the song selection process.
“Do I Love You” I found just looking into Northern Soul compilations, because I knew Northern Soul compilations choose a lot of offbeat rhythm and blues and Motown records. I was looking to make a record that had some classics on it, but also things that people may not have heard so the record sounded fresh to people’s ears. And so I chose [songs like Dobie Gray’s 2001 single] “Soul Days.”
“Nightshift” was a big hit, but it was 1985. All these songs were hits, but it was 50 years ago. I figured a good part of my audience might not know some of this music or these artists. I wanted a chance to sing these songs myself and re-introduce this music to the current cultural environment. I chose ones I liked at the end of the day, and what I can sing well.
Were you trying to avoid super iconic songs like “My Girl” and “Dancing in the Streets” that you still hear everywhere today?
I thought about doing both of those. I actually recorded “My Girl.” My attitude is, “The reason everyone knows this song is because it’s a great, great song. If I can strip away the part that people have gotten used to and just make a great record out of it again, people will hear that song in a fresh way.”
When that works, we put it on the record. When that doesn’t work, it goes to the floor. So “What Becomes of The Brokenhearted,” which was a huge hit a couple of times, but we just had a really good performance of it, went on the record. “I Wish It Would Rain,” you’ve gotta be nuts to try and sing that song after David Ruffin sang it [laughs]. But I found my own little part of it, and I found my place in it, and it was such a beautiful, beautiful song. I found the hurt and the center of human emotion in it. I just felt great. It came out great, so we used it.
You’re really showing the full breadth of the Motown catalog and the Gamble and Huff catalog and all the other R&B from that era. By the Eighties and Nineties, it was cut down to just a handful of hits you’d hear on oldies radio. Many people that didn’t grow up in the Sixties and Seventies have no idea just how many other great songs from this time are out there.
Most people probably wouldn’t even know “Only the Strong Survive.” It was a big hit. Elvis covered it. And certainly songs like “Soul Days,” “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” or “Hey, Western Union Man.” These are songs are that people, for the most part, won’t be that familiar with.
When I first read the credits, I was pretty shocked to see that Ron Aniello was playing most of the instruments. I had no idea he was capable of basically being a one-man Funk Brothers.
He’s a genius musician. Ron Aniello is a genius musician. He goes totally under the radar. He lives here and works with me. I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I have him and [engineer] Rob Lebret, who is also a local guy. He’s just great at what he does. We got a three-man factory here [laughs]. We can do just about anything. I have tremendous freedom, because you couldn’t have a band standing around while we go through 30 songs, testing each one to see which one is going to work really well.
And we get a beautiful, near-analog sound on the instruments. For the first time, we mixed the record right here in-house, which I’ve never done since 1984. It’s a tremendous freedom here in the studio. It allows me to go anywhere and do anything at any time.
One might think you’d want the E Street Band to record these types of songs, but I guess you’re saying that wouldn’t have worked with this setup.
Getting the E Street Band together is a bit of a project right now. We did it for Letter To You, but that was four days. Everybody has lives. They act, they produce, they tour on their own. They have schedules. It’s possible, but it’s not quite as easy. Also, I don’t like to gather the band today, unlike 30 years ago, if I don’t know what I’m doing. I need to figure that out first.
Bringing in Sam Moore is pretty cool. It’s incredible that he’s pushing 90 and can still sing like that.
I’ve known Sam for 30 years. He sang on the Human Touch record, on “Real World” and “Soul Driver.” He’s the greatest high harmony, high tenor I’ve ever heard in my life. When we sing on anything together, it’s just incredible. He’s probably the greatest living soul singer right now.
Did this project give you an even greater respect for the craftsmanship of these Motown songs? By deconstructing them and re-building them, I’m sure you heard them in a very different way.
It just brings them back. These songs should be part of the American Songbook just like Gershwin and Cole Porter, these incredible songs from the Sixties and Seventies and Eighties. They should be current. They’re incredibly written. They’re beautifully written songs. They were amazingly recorded for their time, but you can really beef the recordings up now in a way you couldn’t in 1965 or 1970. You can get a full sound on these arrangements that gives them a lot of power. That’s what we’ve enjoyed doing.
I love the Frankie Valli song “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.” Did you know his version, or the one by the Walker Brothers?
The funny thing is I didn’t know that Frankie Valli did that song. It’s an incredible song. Scott Walker, obviously, sings it. But there was an operatic part of my voice that I used on Born To Run and a little bit on Darkness, but then I put it away and just sang with more of a barman’s rock voice for the rest of my work life, for the most part. But on that song, I was able to bring it back again and really sing in that big, round tone that I love to use. I want to try and find more things I can sing with that tone since it’s a whole different sound.
“Nightshift” is a really special song since you could tell it was written by people that really knew Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson. They’re singing to a friend.
Yeah. First of all, it’s an incredibly written song, once again. These guys knew those people. The Commodores had a huge hit with it right after Lionel Richie left the band. It was a huge smash. I loved it when it came out. I’ve listened to it year after year since then. It would always bring tears to my eyes. I thought to myself, “I’ve got to cut ‘Nightshift,’” because that’s just an incredible piece of music.
There are guys like Jerry Butler and William Bell and Walter Orange from the Commodores who are still alive and really deserve such a bigger spotlight. You’re giving it to them here.
It’s nice to be able to do that. I got into Jerry Butler over the past six months in a way I had never before. I realized what a great singer and stylist he was. But all these artists should have second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth lives. These are records that should be popular forever. For me, it was just fun to do. It was just a project of pure pleasure.
I’m hearing parts of your voice I hadn’t really heard before. Do you think that not screaming in front of a loud rock band all these years has given your voice a rest and allowed you to do new things with it?
That’s interesting. I don’t know. Generally, my voice has stayed strong and not given me any problems for 50, 60 years now. Unless I get sick, that’s the only time my voice gets funky. But not singing really hard and heavy might have given me a little extra range in this break. That’s possible. But also, it’s interesting music. It’s usually so mild during the verse, and then when the chorus hits, the singers push a little harder and get a little dirt and grit in their voices, like on “Turn Back the Hands of Time.”
It was interesting, when we were performing on the Fallon show, I was like, “Oh my God, I’m not pushing hard enough.” But I was. It was just that the music was demanding to be performed and sung differently. I didn’t realize it since I hadn’t performed it much until I got there and began to sing it. It was a real learning experience singing with the big band on Fallon. It was a lot of fun.
You put together a whole band for Fallon you’ve never worked with before. Did you think to yourself at any point, “I should play a full show with these people?”
It’s like the Seeger Sessions band. It’s a band that good. It’s got great people in it. Eventually I’ll do more with them because it was so enjoyable.
This project is called Covers Volume I. That really invites the question: Is a Volume 2 coming?
Volume 2, I would say, is probably three-quarters recorded.
What genre are you tackling on that one?
It’s very similar. I continued working in soul music because I was just having so much fun. But I thought of doing a series of these records in a variety of different genres with songs that I love. That’s because in the moment, I’m not writing. I might not write in a while. That’s very normal for me. I had that great output that happened during Letter To You. I always know after something like that happens, I might not write for a while. But this time, I don’t have to sit around, and fans don’t have to wait four years for me to make another record. I have a chance to record regularly, if I feel like that. And actually I’m looking forward to doing that in a little bit. When the writing comes, I’ll be ready for it.
So you might change genres soon and try out British Invasion songs or something like that?
Yeah. I would love to do country music. I would love to do one record of country music. I would love to do a rock record. There’s just so many different things, and all focused around my voice, all focused around how well I’m singing. I’d really like to use this time when I’m not writing to really focus on my vocals.
You haven’t played a full rock concert in nearly six years now. Are you itching to get back onstage in February?
Oh yeah. Definitely! Love the E Street Band. Can’t wait to get onstage with them. Come 2025, it’ll be 50 years together. Those are my guys, greatest band I’ve ever played with. We do something that’s totally unique. I’m extremely excited to see Max behind me again and Roy on the keyboard and Garry [Tallent] on the bass and Steve [Van Zandt] to my side and Nils [Lofgren] to my side and Patti…everybody there. It’s going to be a great, great time.
You’re bringing a horn section and backup singers on this tour?
Yeah, so we can cover some of this stuff also.
So it’ll be the same gang from 2014, with Ed Manion and Curtis King and those people?
Pretty much. There may be a few different people, but it’s pretty much those people.
Are you going to do Western Stars songs?
I might do one, but the E Street Band is going to come out and put on a rock show. That’s what people want to see. That’s what I want to play. And that’s what it’s going to be.
The last time the band toured, some shows were over four hours long. Might that happen again, or are you going to trim it down a bit for this run?
That was by accident. That’s never a plan. I never tell the band, “We’re going to play four hours tonight.” They’d look at me like, “Oh my God.” That’s why when my voice is sick, they never like to see me take a steroid. They know I’m going to go insane to where three and a half hours feels like nothing and I just keep going. But I’m expecting the show to run somewhere near three hours.
Are you thinking yet about the setlist? I know it always changes, but I mean the basic structure?
Yes. I made a setlist. I sent it out to the band. We will do it on the first day of rehearsal. It’ll change by the second day [laughs].
Are you going to start rehearsals in January?
I’m sure opening night will be really cathartic. It’s just been so damn long. This is the longest break since the group was on hiatus in the Nineties.
It’s going to be wonderful. I’m super excited about playing with the E Street Band again.
I’ve got to ask you about the ticket on-sale.
It caused a bit of an uproar in the fan community because some of the tickets used dynamic prices, and some tickets hit $5,000. Did you know in advance about those price points and dynamic pricing, and do you have any regrets about that?
What I do is a very simple thing. I tell my guys, “Go out and see what everybody else is doing. Let’s charge a little less.” That’s generally the directions. They go out and set it up. For the past 49 years or however long we’ve been playing, we’ve pretty much been out there under market value. I’ve enjoyed that. It’s been great for the fans.
This time I told them, “Hey, we’re 73 years old. The guys are there. I want to do what everybody else is doing, my peers.” So that’s what happened. That’s what they did [laughs].
But ticket buying has gotten very confusing, not just for the fans, but for the artists also. And the bottom line is that most of our tickets are totally affordable. They’re in that affordable range. We have those tickets that are going to go for that [higher] price somewhere anyway. The ticket broker or someone is going to be taking that money. I’m going, “Hey, why shouldn’t that money go to the guys that are going to be up there sweating three hours a night for it?”
It created an opportunity for that to occur. And so at that point, we went for it. I know it was unpopular with some fans. But if there’s any complaints on the way out, you can have your money back.
As you said, the fans were pretty upset. Backstreets said it caused them to suffer a “crisis of faith.” They wrote an op-ed where they said that dynamic pricing “violates an implicit contract between Bruce Springsteen and his fans.” How did you feel about all that blowback against you?
Well, I’m old. I take a lot of things in stride [laughs]. You don’t like to be criticized. You certainly don’t like to be the poster boy for high ticket prices. It’s the last thing you prefer to be. But that’s how it went. You have to own the decisions you have made and go out and just continue to do your best. And that was my take on it. I think if folks come to the show, they’re going to have a good time.
Do you think in the future you’ll avoid using dynamic pricing, where the prices change in front of your eyes during the initial on-sale?
I don’t know. I think in the future, we’ll be talking about it, of course [laughs]. It changes from tour to tour. We will be coming back. I’m sure we’ll be playing outside somewhat. That’ll be a whole other discussion when that comes around. I don’t want to say anything now, but we’ll see what happens.
To move on, I’ve read a lot of rumors about a sort of Tracks 2 box set with a bunch of your unreleased albums on it. Are you planning that?
Yes. I have a box set of five unreleased albums that are basically post-1988. People have always wondered…People look at my work in the Nineties and they go, “The Nineties wasn’t a great decade for Bruce. He was kind of doing this and he wasn’t in the E Street Band…” I actually made a lot of music during that period of time. I actually made albums. For one reason or another, the timing wasn’t right or whatever, I didn’t put them out.
They’ve kind of gathered. I spent time over one of the past winters completely cleaning out the vault. I have a series of Tracks albums that eventually we’ll release. Some of it is older stuff that the band plays on, and some of it is newer stuff where I was conceptualizing during that period of time. It’ll give people a chance to reassess what I was doing during that time period. Also, a lot of the stuff is really weird. There’s going to be people that really…I can’t wait to see the response to some of it [laughs].
I’ve been reading about this mythical drum-loop album for years.
That’s going to be as weird as people think it’s going to be [laughs]. But it uses all drum loops and things like that, and it uses synthesizers. I like the record myself. But the first thing we’re putting out is a series of albums. It’s going to be so interesting to see the fan response because I love them all.
Do you know when that’s coming?
I can’t say. I can’t give a release date because obviously there’s this record. Let me say, it’ll be in the near future.
I’ve heard rumors of a Born in the USA box set. Are you working on that, too?
No [laughs]. I have not done anything on a Born in the USA box set. First of all, what people need to understand is that most of the Born in the USA great outtakes are out there on Tracks 1. The Born in the USA stuff we have left either isn’t very good or there isn’t any of it. I’m not sure which. We’re hoarding no secrets. Unfortunately, the Born in the USA tour was not filmed very well either. This is simply where we have a paucity of material ourselves. But we’ll look into it. When the time comes around, we’ll see what’s there. But I don’t see a big Born in the USA box set like there was with Darkness or The River. I’m not sure if we simply have that in our vaults.
Are you doing anything with Nebraska? I’ve heard some pretty amazing bootlegs with different versions of those songs.
Nebraska has a variety of different types of outtakes. Maybe something will get put together around that. I have some ideas I’d like to see. That’s a possibility. There’s a Nebraska book coming out. I don’t know if I’m blowing someone’s book release. At any rate, I don’t want to blow someone’s book release. But I know someone has been working on a book about just that album. That’s in the future also.
I’ve heard these great bootlegs of Nebraska where you hear the pages turning in your notebook as you sing the songs. They’re all pretty rough with different lyrics. I think a lot of fans would find that fascinating.
Oh. I guess people like some of that. Myself, I’m not a big, “Let me hear the song six ways to Sunday.” I like the hear the song the way it was finished. The box sets with ten million versions of one song, I don’t listen to them. But maybe I’m a different kind of listener. I’m sure someone is looking into Nebraska to see what’s there. If something is there, we’ll put it out.
You’re putting out a concert bootleg every month online. Do you play any role in picking those?
I have a team of people [laughs]. I see it and sort of go, “OK, that’s good. That’s good. That’s good.” I see it, but I’m not actively putting that together myself.
There’s not much there pre-1975. Are you opposed to them putting out anything by Steel Mill or the Bruce Springsteen Band or that real early stuff?
Not really. If they can find something pre-’75… I wouldn’t mind them putting out some Steel Mill shows. They’re not going to sound great, but you’ll certainly get an idea of what I was whacking away at at the time. I’ll look into it. If there’s some good Steel Mill shows, I’ll get them to put some out.
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A big Human Touch/Lucky Town box set would be cool, too. It would be great to revisit that era and hear the songs in new ways.
With Human Touch and Lucky Town, once again, those were the songs that I had. There may be a few outtakes not from Lucky Town, but from Human Touch. But I don’t think we have box sets on those records. Those records kind of what they are.
I’ll wrap up here, but I’m really looking forward to this tour. It’s long overdue.
Yeah. I’m really looking forward to it myself. We’re going to have a lot of fun.
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