“I am The President, he is The Boss.” Remarked then-President Obama to Bruce Springsteen before awarding him the Medal of Freedom in 2016. This fine praise from the highest of echelons is more than deserved for one of the most iconic rock legends to have ever lived. Bruce Springsteen’s extraordinary life is one of many ups and downs as is well documented. He has given us classic anthems such as ‘Born to Run’, ‘Born in the U.S.A.” and ‘Glory Days’. They depict every aspect of working-class American life through his natural, candid lyricism, and stirring musicianship. His blue-collared, everyman nature, is exemplified in the way he honestly reflects on battles with depression, politics and fatherhood. In interviews he endears himself to fans from every walk of life, generating his legendary status as a voice of the people, and earning the nickname ‘The Boss’.
In his early ’70’s, Springsteen has continued to release consistent quality throughout his career. Since his debut, 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., he has released numerous studio albums, and his latest album, Letter to You, released in Autumn 2020, is his 20th. Interviewed on Fallon in December last year, he discussed the album and what inspired it. In a conversation typical of the Boss, he earnestly reflected on the passing of the last of his teenage friends with whom he formed his first band. Springsteen calls himself the ‘Last Man Standing’, the title of one of the album’s stand-out tracks.
In the conversation with Fallon, he talks of how this teenage band lasted three years from 1965-1968 when he was 15-18. The importance of that time period of his life and career is laid bare: “my entire school of rock”, he claims, sharing that “every basic lesson that I learned, I learned in that band; the beginnings of performing, how to put a show together, the beginnings of writing, everything began during those years with that band.” No wonder the album is so sincere, as it really is a homage to those friends that helped shape Springsteen into the Boss we know today. He continues to reflect on that time period- “a momentous time in American history 1965-1968”, labelling it “tumultuous”.
In this time period, questions of race, gender, and governments were being asked. The Vietnam War had been raging since 1955. Hippiedom had emerged to counteract war and societal ills, culminating in the Summer of Love in 1967. The civil rights movement was in full swing, with Dr Martin Luther King at his most influential. In April ‘67, he and 400,000 advocates for peace marched on the U.N. building in Washington D.C. That year the first Rolling Stone issue was released, with John Lennon on the front cover. Tragically, Dr King was assassinated in 1968, leaving many questions unanswered. Furthermore, that same year Richard Nixon came to power, and we all know how that ended.
These are just a few of the events that happened in the period of three years that Springsteen highlights, as momentous and tumultuous they certainly were. The extent of their impact is easily visible in how they permeated popular culture; Forrest Gump or Watchmen, anyone?
This was a momentous time in music too, and as the world and attitudes were changing, so was the music. It is almost mind-boggling to imagine what it was like being a teenager or young adult back then. Springsteen tells Fallon: “some of the songs were set a little bit in that time period […] a very memorable part of my life.” The Boss continues the conversation by describing the types of venues he started playing with his teenage crew, all sounding terribly stereotypical of the era: “The fireman’s fair, The Union Hall, in front of the drive-in movies, all of those very definitive, but small gigs that you play when you’re just learning your chops and your way.”
In describing Letter to You as being about “a life in music”, this makes us want to know just who exactly made the teenage Boss pick up the guitar. He loved Elvis, Dylan, The Beatles, and British invasion bands in general, but who inspired the singer? Who knows, he maybe even had a copy of that first issue of Rolling Stone?
Regardless, here’s a lesser-known story, starting right at the inception of Springsteen’s career. One that concerns his hitherto unknown love for The Rolling Stones and the fantasy he had, wherein a teenager dreams of becoming their idols, a tale nearly as old as time.
In his autobiography, Born to Run, Springsteen describes his early days in New Jersey and talks about the aforementioned artists’ influence in him learning the guitar. In 2016, he told an audience that his first one was a “banged up old guitar” he bought for “eighty bucks”. Eventually, he managed to buy his first electric guitar. However, this required selling his pool table for $35 to cover the cost, with his mother obliging to cover the other half, as the guitar has always been an expensive piece of equipment. “That night I went home, pulled out the second Rolling Stones album, put it on and taught myself Keith Richards’s simple but great guitar solo to ‘It’s All Over Now’ — It took me all night, but by midnight I had a reasonable facsimile of it down.”
Typical of anyone wanting to replicate the heights of their heroes, Springsteen recalls spending many a night watching the guitarists of bands at local dances, trying to learn their tricks by standing in front of the lead guitarist, then replicating the actions on his new axe at home. Not long after he began to feel “empowered” by the instrument, feeling he “might be good at” it. Living and breathing for the guitar clearly had a massive impact: “I fell asleep at night with dreams of rock ‘n’ roll glory in my head. Here’s how one would go: The Stones have a gig at Asbury Park’s Convention Hall but Mick Jagger gets sick. It’s a show they’ve got to make, they need a replacement, but who can replace Mick?
“Suddenly, a young hero rises, a local kid,” continues Springsteen with a smile, “right out of the audience. He can ‘front’: he’s got the voice, the look, the moves, no acne, and he plays a hell of a guitar. The band clicks, Keith is smiling, and suddenly, the Stones aren’t in such a rush to get Mick out of his sickbed. How does it end? Always the same…. the crowd goes wild.”
Illustrated by the moniker and the presidential award, we know the heights the Boss eventually reached. Wondering how the dream ended in real life? Well, Springsteen has actually played on stage with The Stones a few times. 2014. Ultimate Classic Rock reports that in 2012, as the Rolling Stones closed their 50th-anniversary tour, Springsteen was brought on to sing 1972’s ‘Tumbling Dice’. Other huge stars were on the bill too. Lady Gaga sang the iconic female chorus on ‘Gimme Shelter,’ and the Black Keys assisted in ripping through ‘Who Do You Love?’.
While those performances were all stellar, not even the headliners that night received applause like Springsteen. As Mick Jagger says in a clip: “You know, some of the guests we’ve had, they’ve come thousands of miles. They’ve flown from Moscow, Los Angeles, Saskatoon and God knows where else.” With his characteristically cheeky smile, proclaims: “But our next guest, he just had to walk here. So, we’d like to introduce to you, Jersey’s very own, Bruce Springsteen!”
Springsteen runs on stage and is naturally met with thunderous applause from his home state. Armed with his Telecaster around his neck, the instrument has become as synonymous with him as with Keith Richards. Springteen’s constant use of instrument throughout his career indicates the great influence The Rolling Stones had on his musical development — a clue that has been under audiences’ noses for years. He joins in with the band as they launch into the 1972 classic.
The ending of teenage Springsteen’s dream nearly 50 years later, is of fictional proportions, reminiscent of a Danny Boyle film. The fact that it is real makes how far he has come astonishing.
From being a teenage dreamer in the tumult of the late ’60s, cutting his teeth at local venues with that band of friends, to achieving iconic status, it is a tale of epic proportions. To reach the heights of his idols, and receive a better reception than them at a hometown show is a dizzying reality. Fifty years on from those halcyon days, after achieving so much, no wonder “the last man standing” is feeling so retrospective on his 20th album.