In addition to being America’s only rock ’n’ roll magazine, CREEM happens to be the world’s best rock ’n’ roll magazine—and, it could be argued, the world’s most masturbatory. Because we like ourselves a little too much, every now and again, we’re going to review past CREEM pieces in a series called CREEMAINS. Expect the most deliciously spoiled CREEM, like our take on Lester Bangs’ 1972 review of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., or here, in our conversation with Robert Duncan about his Springsteen profile. Lap it up! And check out more from the CREEM archive, here.
It’s 1975. CREEM writer and managing editor Robert Duncan is sitting with a very green Bruce Springsteen in a dusty Detroit dive bar, fresh from the release of Born to Run and on the eve of superstardom. Duncan loves Springsteen. He wants to believe the songwriter’s rough and tumble exterior isn’t some hokey schtick, but he’s not so sure yet. Ultimately, in his January 1976 CREEM feature “Bruce Springsteen is Not God (And Doesn’t Want to Be),” Duncan makes the assessment that the guy is the real deal. They develop a warm friendship and mutual respect. But a lot has changed.
In the decades since, Springsteen’s working class hero image has had to move and shake parallel to business dealings that have made him exorbitantly successful, most recently a $550 million deal with Sony Music for his entire catalog and the now infamous Ticketmaster debacle that had platinum Springsteen tickets go for $5,000 a pop. In light of this, a CREEM writer of a new generation (me) wrestles with her own suspicions about Springsteen’s image of authenticity.
What do you do when your adoring public now worships you as the deity you purportedly never wanted to be? And moreover, what do you do when they can't afford the price of admission? Duncan graciously sat down with (new) CREEM to unpack what it means to be a rock ‘n’ roll king, artistic authenticity, and his belief that Bruce is, and always was, a righteous man. Because in the end, faith is the true marker of divinity. Desired or otherwise.
CREEM: What made you want to profile Springsteen?
ROBERT DUNCAN: The headline, as I recall, “Bruce Springsteen is Not God (And Doesn’t Want to Be),” was just a riff on the Lester [Bangs] piece, the cover story, “John Denver is God.” Lester had a piece laying around for a long time. People would talk about it in the office and I said, “Look Lester, give me that piece. Let me see what it is.” It was unreadable and unpublishable, and it was also, you know, like 80 pages long. Probably took him like a day and a half to write. But when I looked at it, I thought, “Oh, forget them. If you just took out these 40 pages, you could have a long but pretty cogent piece.” And then I had this Bruce Springsteen piece. Why did I decide to write it? I think just the opportunity came up. I had met him on his Born to Run tour, I guess it was, and we had met in Detroit and had a good time. I think their management cooked it up. They're pretty tight—like, you don't call up and throw out an idea, “Hey, I want to play bocce ball with Bruce Springsteen.” They do what they want to do. I was managing editor at the time. And at the time, I really liked to drink a lot. I still like to drink, but Bruce is not a drinker. So half the time I was just shit-faced and and carrying on, and I had a much readier companion in [Springsteen’s E Street Band saxophonist] Clarence Clemons. I remember spending a whole night raising hell in Detroit with Clarence after Bruce had gone off to bed.
I was a pretty young writer; I was maybe 22. I hadn't written a lot of stuff and in the end, I thought, “Wow, this is the best thing I ever wrote,” you know? And he was a great interview. I’ve interviewed a million people at this point, but you know, so many of them were so fucked up on drugs that it was just wasn't fun. It was just boring. Now I say that after talking about me and myself drinking, I'm not judging them. It was just like, when you're talking to, you know, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, and they can barely keep their eyes open. You’re like, “Okay, this sucks.” I used to throw away interviews because it was so boring. But he was really thoughtful and had some funny anecdotes.
The interview took place in a weird liminal space, right before he was on the cover of Newsweek and Time, but after Born to Run had come out. He hadn't completely become a superstar yet, but he was right on the precipice.
I remember. The night ended with me leaving the hotel where Clarence was; the hotel manager came up because Clarence and I were playing football in his room. He used to be a football player and we were, you know, fighting and carrying on in his room, and the guy came and knocked on the door, like, “Fuck you guys, it's five in the morning.” I remember leaving the hotel, and trying to find my car in downtown Detroit [that I had] parked on the street somewhere. I remember walking around a really long time trying to find my car, which is probably a good thing.
What was your perception of him before you wrote the piece and met him, versus, like, after you had spent the evening with him drinking?
Well, I was drinking, and Clarence was drinking.
And you kind of were egging him on.
Yeah, well, that's what I do. That's what I used to do. I think I still do it. But I thought I loved that Born to Run record. I loved the second record, in particular, [1973’s] The Wild, The Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle. It was the same time CREEM writer and NPR rock historian Ed Ward, the guy who gave me my start in my career, turned me on to CREEM and I became a little copy boy there. I had been living in California and I was going back to New York; Ed Ward was playing me a bunch of New York records and he played me that one. “Whoa, I love this record.” I mean, again, I was 20 or 21 at the time. It had all the romance that I wanted and needed. And I loved Born to Run, I thought that was a great record. My impression of him as a singer and songwriter was quite elevated.
I went to see him at a show; I remember he had a cold—which I found out later—but he was kind sniffling and snuffling through the show. I thought, “What, is he trying to play a junkie? Is this guy, like, a phony? What's this whole thing?” I said it to somebody in the CREEM office, and Dave Marsh called me and said, “What the fuck dude, he had a cold.” So he evidently was not a phony, and I saw him again. My impression of him before I saw him was that at first I thought “This guy’s a phony,” but then I was convinced that he wasn't. He was a really nice, thoughtful guy, and unlike a lot of his brethren in the rock world. He seemed quite authentic to me.
At first I thought “This guy’s a phony,” but then I was convinced that he wasn't.
In the piece, it seemed like you were trying to determine whether he was a phony or not: one instance that stuck out to me was when you were looking at his outfit. You were talking about how he had replaced his James Dean leather jacket with a slick red leather coat and these fancy high heeled boots. Were you trying to detect if the whole working class hero thing was a schtick?
I think that's where I was coming from. You know, I had this idea that rock ‘n’ roll was not theater. Of course it is. I was just gullible and naive. I had this idea that it shouldn't be theater, and especially if this is your image, that's who you should be on and off stage. Obviously, I was probing that, and I'm not sure Bruce ever would have subscribed to that. I mean, he came up in the early ‘60s with the Beatles and the Stones and so I think he knew that it was a theatrical endeavor. I remember another moment with Dave Marsh. When I saw Springsteen at a charity thing, I said something to Dave Marsh about authenticity and he said, “Oh, you're still hung up on that.” I felt so stupid. I was originally from Sheboygan, [Wisconsin,] and I was a little hip kid that didn't understand all this stuff: that you put together an image.
So Bruce was intentionally cultivating a role and an identity, in a theatrical way?
No question. And he still is. Yeah, I remember those two albums when he had all that crazy jewelry and his shirt open to his navel [Human Touch and Lucky Town, both 1992]. It amazed me that he was willing to change his image so radically that it was easily perceptible. So yeah, I think he has an image and now I understand that that's okay. You know, maybe part of what you're doing is combating the image that you acquire in high school, or something. Bruce was some zitty, small, unimposing kid, and inside, he was not that kid. He was a rock king.
I had this idea that rock ‘n’ roll was not theater. Of course it is.
You use this expression, the “archetype of rock ‘n’ roll king” in the piece more than once. It seems like you have an idea of what that is in your mind, and you're trying to see if Bruce lives up to it. When he says he doesn't drink or do drugs, you're like, “You're supposed to be like a rock ‘n’ roll king. What do you mean you don't party?”
Yeah. My first exposure to music practically, I believe, was Elvis. I had a much older brother, and he would drive me around in his hot rod, and this cacophony came out of the dashboard: it was Elvis singing “Hound Dog.” That's one of my earliest memories, Elvis. I don't remember knowing what he looked like. It seems tame to us now, but it was crazy shit to me when I was six or seven years old. Elvis started it, but my true commitment to rock ‘n’ roll, like so many in my generation: the Beatles. When the Beatles arrived, and when the Stones arrived about a year later, everybody was getting nasty. Even the Beatles were no longer the mop tops with the little matching suits. My image was chaotic and loud. And in the mid ‘60s, that's when all the drug stuff emerged. Marijuana was a big drug. I became a teenager in the late ‘60s. The Stones were being busted for drugs and the Beatles were being busted at these wild parties I'd read about: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. I bought that old thing. I bought the unschooled aspect of rock ‘n’ roll. I like the idea of the three chords. I felt like I was right there in the mainstream: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, the way it was supposed to be. Taking it beyond limits.
Bruce was some zitty, small, unimposing kid, and inside, he was not that kid. He was a rock king.
Let's talk about Ticketmaster. The only time I've seen Bruce Springsteen was at a charity event for Jon Stewart's veterans organization. It is obviously a great cause, but something felt off about watching this very moneyed crowd watch this man—who sold his catalog to Sony Music last year for $550 million—perform a working class image that he had cultivated. What does it mean to have a very wealthy man, performing as a blue collar guy, and the only people who can afford to see it are also very wealthy people?
It was the same complaint you heard about the Broadway show. The tickets were really offensive. He’s talked about it, “a rich man in a poor man's shirt.” That's a line from one of his songs [“Better Days”]. He understands that it’s a little bit weird. I share your confusion because I would hear from people in New York, friends of mine who have money, saying “Oh, we're going to see Springsteen on Broadway.” Broadway became a status thing. I share your unease. I'm convinced that he shares your unease. And you know, he stays away from people. I remember when I ran into him, we hadn't seen each other for 10 years. And I was like, “Hey, let's eat lunch or dinner or something sometime, you know, and chat.” He was so happy to see me. He said yeah, and I gave him my number and he put it in his pocket. Did I ever hear from him? Of course [not.] I can't imagine the pressures on his time and on his money. I would be pretty sure that he gives away a lot of his money.
I think what infuriated people so much about Ticketmaster was not even that he allowed that to happen, but that when people were outraged and posting screenshots of the $5,000 Bruce Springsteen tickets, he didn’t do anything or acknowledge it. [His manager] Jon Landau’s statement seemed to enrage people. He wrote,"Regardless of the commentary about a modest number of tickets costing $1,000 or more, our true average ticket price has been in the mid-$200 range. I believe that in today’s environment, that is a fair price to see someone universally regarded as among the very greatest artists of his generation.”
Are you surprised by the way that it's been handled by him and his team? And that he hasn't done anything to alleviate people's anger about it?
I'm just going to assume he really is a caring, compassionate guy.
You’d have to be, to write songs like that.
I remember years ago, maybe in the late ‘70s, by the time he was rich—the first phase of rich—he worked at a food bank, unbeknownst to anybody. Of course, it became beknownst. That could be a PR strategy, but he was working at a food bank, loading trucks somewhere in Jersey. Somebody, maybe one of the workers, found him there, noticed it, and outed him for doing that. So I tell myself that he's working at a food bank somewhere. Maybe he's doing house concerts. I think he probably gives away a ton of his money; he's such a good Catholic that he would have to rationalize that $550 million. Maybe he gave away 200 million! And, you know, he raised his son to be a firefighter, but his daughter is this fancy equestrian. That blew my mind. So I think he's a good guy. He's a righteous guy. He cares. He's probably given away tons of money. That became my image of Bruce: that he was the kind of guy who would pay your rent.
Like Robin Hood, except it's his money?
Yeah. I assume there is a Robinhood aspect to his incredible wealth. In the last day or two, I was looking something up, and I came across a thing that said, “Who are the top 10 richest rock stars?” Paul McCartney, and I forget who was second, but Bruce was third or fourth. I thought, “That's astonishing.” I assume he's doing good with it. I would hate to judge Bruce. I would hate for him to judge me.
It’s important to interrogate these things, though, to take another look.
We need to and it's interesting to me that I had forgotten that I had kind of queried that [in the piece].
You’ll have to give it another read. Do you have any final thoughts?
Final thoughts. You mean, like, if I'm dying?
On the topic.
I'm just gonna go ahead and keep believing that he is and was a righteous man. He did go drink some booze at the beach with those kids in Jersey and got busted for drunk driving. You remember that? This is about a year ago, maybe two years ago now. But he likes to go riding on his motorcycle. Some kids spotted him and they were drinking, and asked if he wanted to drink, and he took a couple pulls out of the bottle with these guys. It turns out there's a cop car, and he got on the motorcycle and rode out and the guy pulled him over and busted him for drunk driving. It turned out he wasn't drunk. He's still out there.
You went into your interview with him thinking that he was a phony and I'm coming into this interview with you thinking he’s a phony, and you're proving me wrong.
I don't have a lot of proof except intuition. But you know, that was pretty good, him drinking out of the bottle with these kids on the beach. I want to believe that he's still righteous and all. And I can't believe that I was so naive as to think that he's not going to change from his stage clothes into something else.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.