Bruce Springsteen: This is the only thing Im qualified to do. It matters how I do it

Ahead of his shows in Australia, the Boss explains the art of performance and never taking an audience for granted

You must feel an incredible sense of power, standing in front of 80,000 people. And with great power comes great responsibility, as Spider-Man put it. Do you feel that responsibility, too?

Well, youve got to look at it you go out on stage each night as if, one, its the most important thing in your life you can do, two, its only rocknroll. Youve got to be able to keep those conflicting points of view in your mind at the same time without letting either of them drive you crazy, or taking either of them at 100% face value. Thats sort of how you live with it. But it is something you asked for. You cant get around that part of it. You just do your best with it.

Your show is about delivering to the audience moments of transcendence its something youve spoken about. When you go on stage do you have any idea where those moments might fall, or where you want them to fall? Can you pace a set like that?

You cant predict it. Every show is so organic. Ive never played two shows that are the same, in all the years weve been playing. Youre dealing with the alchemy of yourself and your audience, and thats a swirling, changing experience from moment to moment. I go out and I both guide and allow myself to be guided by the audience. And those moments happen Theres a structure to the show that builds to certain points, it ebbs at certain moments, but theres always a moment of surprise those moments will come up and surprise me during the course of the evening, and youll just play something where Ill just look at Steve [Van Zandt] and well go, Yeah, that. We got that. Well just look at each other and go, Wow. That was a great moment.

How, mentally, did you adjust to how ageing has changed your performance, the fact that you could no longer jump from the piano, or if you did a kneeslide, it might take you five minutes to get up from it

Im probably not going to do three running somersaults at this point. But the basic thing, the only thing that I notice as Ive gotten older is that you have certain structural weaknesses in your body that arise, and youve got to manage your physical self so it can do the essential and important things. So you can deliver your message and create the evening you want to create. So you curtail a few of the other things that at this point arent as necessary you have the possibility of busting your back or your neck.

You can remove the adornments from a cathedral, but its still a cathedral

Yeah, exactly! Those are the only adjustments Ive had to make. Energy wise, I dont feel anything different. Physically, I dont feel anything different. Weve played some of the longest shows of our career [in 2016], so there are a few small things, but not too much.

Does it feel different to play to 70,000 people as opposed to 150 people?

The machine, the inner workings of what youre doing is exactly the same. Youre still working as hard to impress 150 people. The hunger in you that drives you to throw everything out there, amazingly enough, I believe would be the same in front of an audience of one. Because youre trying to start a conversation, to fire up a conversation, fundamentally with one other person, which then extends itself, to 50, to 500, to 5,000 to 50,000. But the act itself is profoundly the same. You have to learn some different elements of your craft to play a bigger crowd, you have to have a certain talent for it. But the inner alchemy is basically the same.

Michael Stipe of REM told me he was happy to play a full room of any size, but once it wasnt full he had a problem with it, no matter whether it was a club or a stadium, because thats when the insecurities would come out.

Really? Thats interesting. My approach was a little different, in that I always looked at it as: Im here to play for the people that are here. And we go round the States and we dont sell out all the time. Weve played arenas that are three-quarters full. We still sell a great amount of seats but youre not going to sell out every show for the rest of your life. I still come out on stage with the same presence of mind as if the place was full. The stakes are still the same. Youre always happy to see a large group of faces staring back at you. And Im used to playing full houses, so Ive been spoiled a little bit by that over the years.

Its not that you wouldnt have second thoughts, Hey! Where is everybody? of course you would. But still, the fundamental act is the same. Youre trying to talk to whos there. You have a window of opportunity where you have some influence, and you try to use that window well. Go home, put your head on the pillow, and sleep well that night.

What do you recall about making the steps from arenas to stadiums in 1985?

You are initially intimidated by the space. But its all mental. You have to be mentally prepared for the larger environment. If you can mentally project yourself to the last row, youll be fine. Its all about making that initial connection with the audience. If you do that, the folks at the back will feel it, the folks in the middle will feel it, the folks at the front will feel it. If you go out there and you cant imagine that connection, its not going to happen, and then youre going to have a miserable few hours. Thats when you think, OK. Im a fraud.

Are there shows where you dont feel you make that connection?

The key is you have to take each audience on its merits. No two audiences are the same. If you go and play a show in Spain, its not the same as playing in Hyde Park [in London]. Its not the same as playing in the States. Every audience has its own characteristics. You cant expect the audience to conform to your expectations. You have to come out and say, OK, Im meeting someone new tonight. First let me meet them and learn a little bit about them.

So you have to come out, start playing, and get a feel for the audience that evening. They may be quiet. They may be wildly boisterous. They may overwhelm you with their energy. You may feel theres a particular crowd where the energy is low. But you cant have preconceptions if the energy is low, people may simply be listening. Or they may be experiencing the music in a different way.

Ive had circumstances where Ive seen somebody in the front row who appears completely stone-faced, not enjoying the show at all. Ill see em at another show Gee, that guy wasnt having much fun at the other show, whats he doing here? And then you bump into them in the street, and the guyll go, Ive been the biggest fan of yours for the last 25 years.

You cant read what people are thinking or how theyre experiencing what youre doing. So you have to have faith in what youre doing, and you have to have faith in the audience when you come out. Then you have to go about your business until you can feel the connect happening. But its very important not to come out with a set of preconceived notions about who the audience is.

At the big outdoor shows, theres also the fact of geography: diferent songs work in different ways in different parts of a huge crowd. Sometimes, at your shows, Ive found ballads work well at 120 yards away, because people have to be quiet. Whereas up close, the big numbers steamroller you. Geography matters at those gigs.

It certainly does. The sound will shift every hundred yards or so. So the audience has to mentally prepare themselves also. You find your place where youre located and you find your way into the show as its being presented. So the audience has work to do also.

Whenever youre going out in front of a crowd of any size, your body knows it. Photograph: Jon Super/Redferns

Do you still get the same adrenaline rush from performance?

It varies from night to night but whenever youre going out in front of a crowd of any size, your body knows it. This is what I do. This is the only thing I do. This is the only thing Im qualified to do. So it matters how I do it at night. Theres a lot of anticipatory anxiety which then translates into a raw shot of adrenaline once youre out there. We come out to press our case very hard, about what we think about everything, I suppose, and life itself. And so its challenging nightly.

But how do you find meaning, night after night, in Born to Run, for example? Nils Lofgren said he does it by remembering that while he plays it 150 times a year, the crowd dont hear it 150 times a year, so he finds that person in the crowd for whom its the big event of the year and feeds off them.

Yeah. Its like if youve written something You work on an album in a hermetically sealed environment. One of the most frightening things is playing it for someone else. For the first time youre hearing it through their ears. Theyre just sitting there, but youre hearing the thing totally brand new through their ears. And youre recognising all its faults and all its strengths. So the thing about coming out in front of an audience every night is that Im hearing what Im doing through that audiences ears. Thats what Nils was sort of explaining. I may have heard it 100 times, but that guys only hearing it that night, thats all.

Part of my job is to have a foot on stage and a foot in the audience. To have one ear to the band and one ear to the crowd. And if youre doing that correctly you experience the evening through their ears as well as your own.

Do you never get lonely being the leader of the band, being their employer, the Boss?

Its been that way for so long that I dont really think about it much anymore. While you feel the fullness of what youve accomplished, you also do your best not to dwell on it very much when it doesnt serve you to do so. Everyone needs a degree of anonymity, a degree of freedom of movement at the end of the day, a big piece of you is still who you were previous to when you picked a guitar up, or before you started. You need to feel that person still close by. You cant live inside your work; your work has got to live inside you.

Are you still friends with the E Street Band members in the way ordinary people are friends? If youre in the same place at the same time, would you call up and have a beer?

Oh yeah, very much. Everyone has families and lives in different places. But if I get out west, Ill see Roy [Bittan]. If Im in New York, Steve and I will make a point of bumping into each other as much as possible. There may be long periods where you dont see the guys. But Im happy to report that the E Street Band is still filled with people who actually like one another. We may not have everything in common, but theres a deep mutual respect and I believe a real love between the band members that projects from the stage and is very real.

At times when your status has ebbed, as it does for all artists at some point, have you found that hard to deal with?

Not really. Everyone has their moments when they think, Gee, why isnt everyone listening to this record I made? But I take the ebb and flow of my work life, after 50 years of doing it, as a natural part of the dynamic of your career. But whenever you put something out there particularly if you believe in it completely you want to to be understood, you want it to be well received. You want to grab peoples ears thats my business. If not, youre going to be disappointed.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band tour Australia and New Zealand between 22 January and 25 February

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