Let’s start with Bruce Springsteen, for a few reasons. First: it was my first concert ever, in 1985, 10th row at Giants Stadium, and I was 9 years old. More on that in a future post but let’s just say it was fucking awesome. Second: he’s very well-documented, has been interviewed a thousand times, and openly discusses the wealth of influences from which he draws. Third: he himself has influenced a generation of artists.
Two potential challenges we saw digging into this. First: would the citations be easy to pull? Is the data of influence relationships easily accessed? Second: would there be anything to support our hypothesis of cross-medium referencing? Would film or literature be as referenced in interviews and scholarly analysis as the musical connections are?
Well, right off the bat we kind of lucked out, because with a little searching we found the transcript and video clips from Bruce’s 2012 SXSW Keynote speech, where he explicitly lays out, in the most heartfelt and poetic terms, his personal history of influence. It’s a stunner that is well-worth watching in its entirety.
But for the purposes of our blog, let’s try to break out some of the choice bits of information
1956, at six years old: “In the beginning, every musician has their genesis moment. Mine was 1956: Elvis on the ed sullivan show. It was the evening I realized a white man could make magic. You did not have to be constrained by your upbringing, by the way you looked, or by the social context that oppressed you. You could call upon your own powers of imagination, and you could create a transformative self. A certain type of transformative self that perhaps in any other moment in american history might have seemed difficult if not impossible.”
“But even before there was Elvis, my world had begun to be shaped by the little radio with the six-inch mono speaker that sat on top of our refrigerator. My mother loved music, and she raised us on pop music radio. So between 8:00 and 8:30 every morning, as I snowed sugar onto my Sugar Pops, the sounds of early pop and doo-wop whispered into my young and impressionable ears. Doo-wop, the most sensual music ever made, the sound of raw sex, of silk stockings rustling on backseat upholstery, the sound of the snaps of bras popping across the USA, of wonderful lies being whispered into Tabu-perfumed ears, the sound of smeared lipstick, untucked shirts, running mascara, tears on your pillow, secrets whispered in the still of the night, the high school bleachers and the dark at the YMCA canteen. The soundtrack for your incredibly wonderful, limp-your-ass, blue-balled walk back home after the dance. Oh! It hurt so good.”
Jesus, what an amazing quote. Pure visceral poetry. But here we get our first obstacle. How does one represent “DooWop” as a genre or movement? And I don’t know exactly where to plot this on the timeline, assuming that a timeline format even makes sense. I suspect this will be an issue but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
“…then into my 13-year-old ears came ’60s pop. Roy Orbison — besides Johnny Cash, he was the other Man in Black. He was the true master of the romantic apocalypse you dreaded, and knew was coming after the first night you whispered, “I love you,” to your new girlfriend. You were going down.”
“Then Spector and the Wall of Sound. Phil’s entire body of work could be described by the title of one of his lesser-known productions, “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).” Phil’s records felt like near chaos, violence covered in sugar and candy, sung by the girls who were sending Roy-o running straight for the anti-depressants. If Roy was opera, Phil was symphonies, little three-minute orgasms followed by oblivion.”
“And then, the British Invasion. My first real guitar, I actually began to learn how to play, and this was different, shifted the lay of the land. Four guys, playing and singing, writing their own material. There was no longer gonna be a music producer apart from the singer, a singer who didn’t write, a writer who didn’t sing. It changed the way things were done. The Beatles were cool. They were classical, formal and created the idea of an independent unit where everything could come out of your garage.”
“…The Animals were — they were a revelation. I mean, the first records with full blown class consciousness that I had ever heard…”
Shortly after this, Bruce picks up his guitar and strums/sings through the first section of “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”:
Then he stops singing and drops this revelation:
“That’s every song I’ve ever written. Yeah. That’s all of them. I’m not kidding, either. That’s “Born to Run,” “Born in the USA,”” everything I’ve done for the past 40 years, including all the new ones. But that struck me so deep. It was the first time I felt I heard something come across the radio that mirrored my home life, my childhood.”
I mean, holy shit. You couldn’t ask for a better quote about influence in an artist’s life.
I’m going to pause here because this is where it becomes clear that there was almost too much good information in this talk, and this might be a multi-day or multi-post effort to extract and map it all.
But let’s just try a sketch, here’s the beginning of Bruce’s life, and where these other artists started to make their impressions on his young little mind: