Bruce Springsteen has said he isn’t interested in writing his autobiography, but that’s exactly what his keynote speech at SXSW in Austin Thursday was–a poetic, historically insightful, and sometimes musical look back at his own journey through rock and roll as both an artist and a fan, as someone who has never stopped thinking about why he does what he does and how to do it best.
While SXSW director Roland Swenson introduced The Boss by drawing parallels between the 1980 presidential election and the 2012 campaign, Springsteen’s keynote was political only in the broadest sense, though he did lead the crowd in a verse of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” after recounting his performance with Pete Seeger at President Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration.
The speech, which had been scheduled for noon, started well after 12:30, with the 62-year-old Springsteen, who performed with Alejandro Escovedo at last night’s Austin Music Awards, rightly asking “Why are we up so f—ing early?” (The first of many f-bombs that the rocker dropped.)
“How important can this speech be if we’re giving it at noon?,” he continued. “Every decent musician in town’s asleep … or they will be before I’m done with this thing.”
He began by quoting the famed rock critic Lester Bangs, who, after Elvis Presley died, wrote “we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.”
“No one hardly agrees on anything in pop anymore,” Springsteen echoed, setting up a comic riff in which he ticked off the merits of Kiss, Phish, and then himself, followed by a rousing: “YOU SUCK!” To wit:
Bruce Springsteen: ‘Natural born poetic genius off the streets of Monmouth County, hardest working New Jerseyian in show business, voice of the common man, future of rock’n’roll!’
Or, ‘he sucks!’
That was followed by an even more hilarious digression through all the different kinds of music subgenres that exist now, including “sadcore, “screamo,” and a dozen different kinds of metal (“black metal,” “black death metal,” “black doom metal”).
Then came the heart of the speech in which Springsteen touched on a few of the greats:
- On Elvis Presley: “A precursor of the sexual revolution, of the civil rights revolution, drawn from the same Memphis as Martin Luther King Jr., creating fundamentally outsider art that would be embraced by a mainstream popular culture.”
- On Doo-Wop music: Springsteen rhapsodized about its romance and called it, “the most sensual music ever made…the sound of the snaps of bras popping across the USA.” He then picked up a guitar for the first time (once it was brought out for him) to show how the Doo Wop chord progression was what he used for his song “Backstreets.”
- On Roy Orbison: “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. Roy was the coolest uncool loser you’d ever seen. He seemed to take joy in sticking his knife deep into the hot belly of your teenage insecurity.” (At this point, Springsteen began to repeatedly make a stabbing gesture until he was finished talking about Orbison).
Springsteen also spoke about Phil Spector, James Brown, Bob Dylan, and Hank Williams. But the unquestioned, unexpected highlight of the day was when he talked about the Animals, who he said were as radical in their own way as the Sex Pistols.
“The first records with full blown class-consciousness that I’d ever heard,” Springsteen said. “First time I heard something come across the radio that mirrored my whole childhood.”
This was demonsrated with an amazing, growling performance of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place:”
See my daddy in bed a-dyin’.
See his hair turnin’ grey.
He’s been work-in’ and slavin’ his life away.
He’s been work-in’ yeah, everyday slavin his life away.
Have been work-in’ baby.
He’s been a work-in’ work-in’ work-in’ work-in’
We gotta get out of this place
If it’s the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
Girl, there’s a better life for me and you, ooh yeah
“That’s every song I’ve ever written,” Springsteen said. “That’s ‘Born to Run,’ ‘Born in the USA,’ everything I’ve done in the past forty years, including all the new ones.”
Finally, he brought the speech around by talking about Woody Guthrie, who is being recognized by SXSW with several performances and panels for what would have been his 100th birthday. Guthrie’s was “a world where speaking truth to power wasn’t futile, whatever its outcome,” Springsteen said. And on the day of the Obama inuaguration, he said, “we were united for a brief moment by Woody’s poetry.”
So perhaps Lester Bangs wasn’t completely right. Because here we are all tonight in this town together, celebrating, each perhaps in our own way, a sense of freedom that was Woody’s legacy.
So rumble, young musicians. Rumble. Open your eyes and open your hearts. Don’t take yourself too seriously. And take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don’t worry. Worry your ass off. Have ironclad confidence. But doubt. It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town.
And … ‘you suck!’