Like the actor-guests at the Actor's Studio, Bruce Springsteen not only performed but answered questions when he appeared at the Somerville Theater (capacity: 900) in Boston on February 19 and 20. Some highlights include Springsteen as guitar god; what's behind Racing In The Street; the root of all rock 'n' roll angst boils down to one thing: "Daddy;" and any song you don't understand the meaning of is probably about sex.

We're gonna bring the house lights up a little bit, and try something haven't done before — and, with the exception of tomorrow night, will never do again (laughs). There's gonna be a gentleman with a microphone, and if you have any questions about how 1 do my job, I'd be glad to try and answer them for you. The only two questions 1 don't answer are: what comes first, the music or the lyrics; or how I get my hair to look the way I do So, anybody want to take a shot?

Talk about writer's block — how do you deal with it?

How do I deal with it? I'm trying to think, I haven't had it in a while, I've been writing pretty freely. But I've had it in the past — Born In The U.S.A. was ugly. I was sitting there, I had Born In The U.S.A., I had My Hometown, I said, "Man, those are great. Man, those are just good damn songs." And I think I had Glory Days and a bunch of others, but I just couldn't get any more. I had done Nebraska, and felt Nebraska was some of my best writing.

So I wanted to make a rock record that sort of took it from there and went forward, and I just felt like I couldn't do it. I worked so hard — I hacked stuff out like crazy. I had no life at the time, so that helped… or maybe that hindered.

I had no life. That was when I started to notice it. I was about 34, and I said, "Gee, if I'm not writing, I'm sucking a big one, pal." (mimics putting a gun into his mouth) Because, man, I got no life! So I got nothing else to do! So maybe that had something to do with it. That was probably the last time that when I wasn't actually writing I felt like it was time to, you know, leave the planet, because I wasn't doing anything else.

Eventually something comes around, and in the end (it) may feel a little forced to you, and sometimes you just gotta quit and get out there. I have other opinions around me that help, and on that record they were very helpful — Steve was very helpful. Jon was very helpful. They said, "Well, you know, this stuff we have is pretty good." We cut half of the record I think before I cut Nebraska, and we ended up going back to a lot of that stuff — Darlington County, I'm On Fire, Glory Days, Born In The U.S.A. — most of those songs were all cut before Nebraska, and we ended up going back and putting them back on. So I don't have any secret of dealing with it, I just kind of sit — sometimes you just got to wait, just kind of hang out and wait, and say, "All right…"

You're one of my heroes… and I just heard today that for the upcoming CBS special you have a corporate sponsor, I think for the first time…

Well, I don't have a corporate sponsor. I mean, they show commercials on television, as they play them on the radio, so I believe there are a couple of breaks for commercials. But they're not sponsoring me. I wouldn't have waited so long if I was going to go that way (crowd laughs). I would have made hay back in 1985 if I was going to do that. I'd be sitting on some Oreos right now, or some blue jeans, or plenty of — no, it's just TV commercials.

Just curious — how fresh was the hurt when you wrote Back In Your Arms?

You know, I just wrote it like a soul song, the hurt wasn't very fresh. I wrote it for the record after Lucky Town — which I didn't put out, I have it sitting around — it was written for that record, which was sort of another record about relationships. And when we were looking for songs for the Greatest Hits record, we put it on. (He breaks into it.) So it was kind of a soul exercise for me. I like to sing like that, I do it as best as I can, but it didn't come out of any place particularly… hurtful. At least not immediately.

What I wanted to say is that I think you're maybe one of the most underappreciated lead guitar players there is.

Yeah, I can play pretty well (breaks into "Boom Boom" riff). You know, that used to be my thing, I started out as a guitar player. They wouldn't let me sing in my first band — they used to tease me terribly about my voice — and so I started out playing lead guitar. And in my area, until I was well into my 20s, that was kind of my rep: I was the guitar slinger in Central New Jersey. As a matter of fact, when my first record came out and it had no electric guitar on it, people were really pissed off. I remember them going, "Man, hey man, what happened? What happened? Where's the guitar? That's your thing!" And I didn't have an answer. But we kind of compromised, so it was acoustic guitar with rhythm section. But thank you.

How do you pick your setlists every night? And are they any songs that you've kind of put away and said, "I'm not going to play them any more"?

There tend to be some, you know, when I go on tours — on this particular tour, I'm not playing this group of songs. Usually, it's just to give them a rest, or to balance between the new work and the old work. Because when I put the band back together, I didn't want it to be a sort of a nostalgia fest. You have a shared history with people that's very very important, and that I enjoy, and I want it to feel like that — that you've taken a long trip with somebody and you know somebody really well. But I wanted it to be continued to be based very much in the present, and the band's done a great job of (that) every night. So sometimes I will put away certain songs if I feel it's playing too much to the crowd on a given night, and I'll go for something else.

But the setlist just kind of comes up — like this one, I had a few days to put it together, just some things I like to play.

Darkness on The Edge Of Town, I just like to play it, it feels central to me. I didn't want to fuck up the first thing that I played. So I put that one first! "I know how to play that one." Adam Raised A Cain, that's about fathers and sons, so I'll take you in a little bit deeper, stick the knife in a little deeper and go to My Father's House.

Then I'll try something that's "up," because I don't want everybody to leave and kill themselves. So I'll go with Bus Stop and Growin' Up. And then Freehold, because it's kinda funny, and it's a fun song to perform. Thunder Road, because of Born To Run: I wanted to play something from Born To Run, because it's a central record for me, and that song is real real big. It still encompasses so much of my work that even when I play it tonight… it's just big, it takes in a lot.

Nebraska, because that was a record that I felt like I hit a different spot in my writing, and that particular song was central to that record — and central to a certain type of character I learnt to write well about, that really came from some place inside me that I felt very, very connected to. My family is a combination of Italians, my mother and her sisters, and they were all hysterical joy freaks. No matter what happened, they were always unbelievably optimistic, and their ability to communicate happiness continues to this day. I would come home from my aunt's house deaf from the screaming — over nothing, just "wheee!" just this shrieking! And my dad was Irish, and that was the other thing. That was (like) the police coming to the house party… so I tried to cover both a little bit. So that was Nebraska.

The River because it was central, I was beginning to write narratively. U.S.A. because of what it's about — and Souls and The Wall, those are all connected, just the theme of war and surviving. Bobby Jean, friendship; Hometown, sense of place; Brilliant Disguise, Stolen Car, Little Things, Fall Behind, that was just men and women, sex and love. Ghost because that was when I turned back outside again and started to write more about what I was seeing and trying that kind of narrative voice. The Rising because it was new and takes the theme of resurrection once again. The Promised Land because I like to play it, and that was a good song for Bob. So one thing leads to the next, you just kind of follow it down.

Racing In The Street, can you talk about that? And then Paradise, are you going to play that song live?

Paradise, I haven't played that one because it's hard to play live — it's hard to play in a big place because it needs so much stillness. Racing In The Street was based on a kid I knew in Asbury Park who I used to see down in the bar all the time. The theme of the thing was set, it was just this young kid that I knew with the car. So it started with him, and it always ends up with you, somehow. I wanted to write about the classic rock images: cars, and things that I loved from Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys, and I wanted to fill them with the dread that was part of everybody's life post-Vietnam. That was once again redemption — the whole thing about that song leads up to the instrumental. The instrumental at the end of the record tells the rest of the story. One of my favourite songs, I like that one a lot.

What's The Promise about?

I don't know — it must have been about sex! I can't say; it was after Born To Run. I wrote that for Darkness, I think, and I was reflecting on sort of the flipside of Thunder Road. I was reflecting on the responsibilities that I thought came with my fortune at that time and how it fit into my life. That's generally what I remember it being about in some fashion.

How does it feel having the best fans in the world?

I have good fans. I give you credit, because one night I ask you to scream your heads off; the next night if anybody speaks I'll kill ya (laughs). And people respond very well in most circumstances. I was very happy with the Tom Joad tour, where the show needed so much quiet, and after so many years of playing hard and loud, to be able to get that from the audience, as I did… I only had to throw a few people out (laughs)… what I generally got was very very satisfying. Well done.

Across The Border was sung in almost a whisper, something that I don't think you've done before. Can you give us a little snippet of that (Bruce laughs), and the character — which side of the border is he on? Has he crossed over to the United States and he's talking back to his honey? Or, has he come back to Mexico, let's say —

I didn't think about it all that hard (crowd laughs). Those are the kinds of questions a songwriter doesn't have to answer. If the song's good. The song was religious in nature, in the sense that it was about going someplace where love exists, and redemption exists: a place where you can live and feel good, and where you can have a chance at making something and building something for yourself. It was really about somebody seeking those things — coming out of a world of hurt and seeking those things.

When you write those songs, ultimately, you set them in a variety of settings, and that's part of what the songs are about, but they would not ring true unless you knew exactly what you were singing about, unless you could feel that thing. I wanna go across that border, I want to find those things I haven't found and touch those things that I haven't got a hold of yet. Someplace that you believe exists somewhere, somehow. So it was both about the things that were going on along the border in California, and just about a belief in that journey, I suppose. I'll give you a little bit of it. (Sings: Tonight my bag is packed…")

I'm a documentary filmmaker doing a film about manhood in America. A lot of your songs and a lot of your characters wrestle with this question: What does it mean to be a man?

Oh yeah. I think there was so much confusion about it when I was young. You grew up in the '50s generation, there were real rigid ideas, real painful ideals about how that was defined. My dad suffered under it pretty intensely, and he kind of passed along the confusion. So I think it was something I sought as a songwriter, I sought to define. In the end it's all: identity, identity, identity. Who am I? What am I doing here? All your writing, from the first note to the last, is sort of in pursuit of some of those answers. So that was a question I dealt with a lot and often in my music, with the intention of sorting it out for myself.

I also drew quite an audience of young men, when I started out — certainly initially I had an audience of more guys than gals… which was not the original intention (laughs). But whatever (laughs)… I think it was because I wrestled with those questions a lot, and hopefully people will sort through them a little better than they've been sorted through in the past.

After all these years on the Jersey Shore, can you explain your connection to Freehold and Asbury Park?

It's what I'm stuck with! It's the connection to my home, and it's what we're all stuck with. Some more than others — I may know a few people who literally left and never went back and never thought of it again, but I don't know many. There're too many ghosts, too many bodies buried.

And also, it's just that whole sense of place, I was very interested in where I came from, and I'm not exactly sure why. I think I went back many, many times with the intent of trying to make right things that went wrong, trying to recreate a place that had only marginally existed in real life, I suppose. And as I did that I just kind of investigated it further and further and looked at it closer and closer, and it was just something I couldn't get out of myself: the idea that I needed to make a home for myself somehow there, that that was important to me. I couldn't exactly tell you why. But I knew what it was, and I pursued it very intensely. I also kind of believed in playing the cards you were dealt with. I was from New Jersey. So it was just something I felt connected to.

When you do a live performance and you create the setlist, and in the middle of the set you give an audible to the band, is that something you try to fit in thematically, or is it something that comes to you that you feel like playing?

Maybe if things are going a little slow, I want to shake the band up, I wanna shake the audience up, I wanna shake myself up, just got an idea and feel like playing something… It just depends on a given night… The ability of the band to respond to those things is something we've worked on a lot over the years, it adds a lot of excitement to the show. Keeps it spontaneous — keeps the guys from thinking they know too much about what's gonna go on.

Feb 19, 2003

Note: The above is printed courtesy of Backstreets[The Boss magazine since 1980].
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