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Bruce Springsteen’s State Of The Union

Jon Stewart sits down with his home-state hero for a conversation about ‘Wrecking Ball’, the death of Clarence Clemons, and the gap between ‘American reality and the American dream’

Rolling Stone Apr 21, 2012
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The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart sits down with his home-state hero for a conversation about ‘Wrecking Ball’, the death of Clarence Clemons, and the gap between ‘American reality and the American dream’

Bruce Springsteen (Photo: Mark Seliger)

They have a lot to talk about this evening, these two guys from New Jersey, these serious men with silly jobs. “When he’s talking to his audience,” says Jon Stewart, “he’s put time and effort into that conversation. He wants his music to be about something.” The host of The Daily Show is talking about Bruce Springsteen, and about himself, too: Stewart and Springsteen have each found ways to instill a steeliness of purpose into the acts of singing songs and telling jokes. But there’s another way to look at it, Stewart suggests with a laugh: “You’re in businesses where you should be having a good time, you dour pricks! What is wrong with you?”

Springsteen arrives at The Daily Show’s Manhattan studios on foot one icy day in late January, fresh from Jersey ”“ he fought the wind for the dozen blocks from the Lincoln Tunnel along 11th Avenue, wearing only a thin leather jacket. “There was traffic,” says Springsteen, “so Patti dropped me off.” (“The Freehold is strong in that one,” Stewart says, picturing this journey.) Back from taping that night’s Daily Show, Stewart joins Springsteen in his cluttered office ”“ where there’s already a photo of the two men together pinned to the wall ”“ after exchanging his suit and tie for khakis and a long-sleeved T-shirt.

In recent years, Stewart has seen his decades-long Springsteen fandom turn into a friendship. “It’s in no way surreal,” Stewart says with heavy sarcasm. “It’s the most natural thing in the world. It’s very hard to reconcile sitting and fishing in a little pond in New Jersey with a guy you spent many years hitchhiking the I-95 corridor to see in Philadelphia back in the day. The only band I think I’ve seen more than Bruce Springsteen is the Springsteen tribute band Backstreets. I try not to let him know how pathetic I truly am.”

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Stewart grew up in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, 30 miles north-west of Springsteen’s Monmouth County hometown. “Every car he sang about you were like, ”˜I’ve seen that up on blocks in the backyard right near where I live.’ ” He saw his first Springsteen show on 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town tour, when he was about 15. “The first time you hear Darkness, you begin to plan how to move out of New Jersey,” says Stewart. (Like Springsteen, Stewart eventually returned, and has a home in the Garden State: “You realize, hey, New Jersey’s all right, actually!”)

On Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, his characters aren’t looking for escape ”“ they just want a job. With fiercely populist tunes like “Death to My Hometown” and “Jack of All Trades,” Springsteen paints a picture of an America where “the banker man grows fat/Working man grows thin.” Springsteen wanted the new songs to address “what happened to the social fabric of the world that we’re living in.”
The two men spoke for nearly two hours, with Springsteen sharing details of his creative process, his grief over the loss of saxophonist and E-Street band member Clarence Clemons last year and the angry patriotism that fuels Wrecking Ball. When it was over, Stewart handed the recorder to a Rolling Stone staffer: “Here you go ”“ we got most of it.”

“There’s a lot of drunken singing,” adds Springsteen.

“A lot of it’s in Hebrew,” says Stewart.

How have you been, man?

Good! We’ve been starting rehearsals with the whole band ”“ on the abandoned military base at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.

I know that place. Every time I drive by there, I think about “The Andromeda Strain.” I always think that it’s one of those horror movies where all the structures still stand, still somewhat manicured, but the shit is just empty.

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That’s what it’s like. There’s a rehearsal studio, and we are the sole citizens. We’re the only game in town on that thing. And the funny thing was, I played there at the teen club and the officers’ club when I was 16 ”“ it was a regular gig. It’s funny to be back there now when it’s completely empty.

Wrecking Ball was more of a solo album than an E Street Band album ”“ what was the process behind it?

It basically all started out as folk music ”“ it was me and my guitar singing these songs. But while I was doing that, I was hearing maybe 50 percent of the arrangement in my head. So the minute I stopped playing, I would run around on all the instruments, and in about an hour or more, I would rough out the sound I was hearing in my head while I was singing. A lot of it was cut with acoustic guitar, singing and a sample, like maybe a hip-hop loop or country-blues-stomp loop. And the actual drums came later ”“ there was no preconceived set of instruments that needed to be used. I could go anywhere, do anything, use anything. It was very wide-open.

There are songs on here that feel like you and the Chieftains went out for a beer, and you decided to go kick it.

I called on a lot of roots and Celtic elements because I use the music to give the story a historical context. “Death to My Hometown” sounds like an Irish rebel song, but it’s all about what happened four years ago. I want to give people a sense that this is something that’s happened over and over and over again; what happened in 2008 happened before the turn of the century, and just after the turn of the century ”“ it’s a repetitive, historical cycle that has basically landed on the heads of the same people.

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