The man with the Number One album in America today, The Boss, took to the stage at SXSW to deliver the festival’s keynote address. Bruce Springsteen began by asking, “Why are we up so fucking early? I mean, uh, how important can this speech be if we’re giving it at noon. Every decent musician in town is asleep. Or, will be by the time I get this thing finished.”
The video is almost an hour long. But, we watched through the whole thing for you. So, here are a few highlights until you get home and can pop some corn and see the whole thing for yourself, because you will not want to miss it.
It’s fascinating to see what’s become of the music that I’ve loved my whole life. Pop’s become a series of new languages, cultural forces and social movements that have inspired and enlivened the second half of the 20th century and the first of this one. I mean, who would’ve thought that there’d be a sax-playing President or a soul-singing President, you know?
When we started, 30 years old for a rock musician was unthinkable. When I look out from my stage these days, I look into the eyes of three generations of people.
For a guy who realizes that U2 is the last band that he’s going to know the names of all the four members of, it’s overwhelming.
Perhaps the most prophetic comment I’ve heard of the past quarter-century about rock music was made by Lester Nags upon Elvis’ death. In 1977, Lester Bangs said, “Elvis was probably the last thing we were all going to agree on, public enemy not countin’… So, instead of saying good-bye to Elvis, I’m gonna say good-bye to you.”
So, as the records that my music was initially released on give way to a cloud of ones and zeroes, and as I can carry my entire record collection since I was 13 in my breast pocket, I’d like to talk about the one thing that’s been consistent over the years: the genesis and power of Creativity. The power of the songwriter, composer or creator. So, whether you’re making dance music, American, rap music, electronica, it’s all about how you’re putting what you do together. The elements you’re using don’t matter. Purity of human expression and experience is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntables, to microchips. There is no “right way”, no “pure way” of doing it. There’s just doing it.
We live in a post-authentic world. And today, “authenticity” is a house of mirrors. It’s all just what you’re bringing when the lights go down.
Every musician has their genesis moment… Mine was 1956: Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show. It was the evening I realized that a white man could make magic, that 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.
I always tell my kids that they were lucky to be born in the age of reproducible technology, otherwise they’d be traveling in the back of a wagon and I’d be wearing a jester’s hat… It’s all about timing.
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 taboo perfume dears. 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!
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 first girlfriend. You were going down. Roy was the coolest uncool loser you’d ever seen. With his Coke-bottle black glasses, his 3-octave range, he seemed to take joy sticking his knife deep into the hot belly of your teenage insecurities.
[After playing a verse and chorus of The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”]: That’s every song I’ve ever written.
[The Animals] was the most unapologetic band name till The Sex Pistols came along.
[Demonstrates how he stole Animals’ riff from “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and used it for “Badlands”]: It’s the same fuckin’ riff, man. Listen up, youngsters. This is how successful theft is accomplished!
The Sex Pistols were so frightening… Which is different from “shocking”. A lot of groups manage “shocking”. But, “frightening” was something else. There’s very, very few rock groups that manage “frightening”.
I was signed as an acoustic singer-songwriter, but I was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Young musicians, learn how to bring it live. Then bring it night after night after night after night. Your audience will remember you.
James Brown: underrated. Still today, underrated.
If you were young in the 50’s and 60’s everything felt false everywhere you turned. But, you didn’t know how to say it. There was no language for it at the time. It just felt fucked up, you know? But, you didn’t have the words. Bob [Dylan] came along and gave us those words… And, the first thing he asked you was, “How does it feel? To be on your own?” And, if you were a kid in 1965, you were on your own, because your parents – God bless ’em – they could not understand the incredible changes that were taking place.
Hank Williams went from archival to alive for me right before my very eyes.
[Woody Guthrie’s world] was a word where speaking truth to power wasn’t futile, whatever its outcome.
So, rumble young musicians, rumble. Open your ears 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 iron-clad confidence, but doubt. It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town. And [that] you suck. It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside your head at all times. If it doesn’t drive you crazy, it will make you strong. Stay hard; stay hungry; and stay alive. And, when you walk onstage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it’s all we have. And, then remember, it’s only rock n’ roll.