Rock Icon Bruce Springsteen Performs Live During His Stern Show Debut

The Boss talks life, death, music, and how President Obama inspired his Broadway takeover

October 31, 2022

Legendary singer, songwriter, and musician Bruce Springsteen has accomplished just about everything over the course of his 50-year career. He’s won an Oscar, an honorary Tony, and more Grammys than you can fit in the trunk of a stolen Cadillac. In 2016, he was even awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. You want prolific? He’s released more studio albums (20!) than Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Traveling Wilburys, and Creedence Clearwater Revival combined. He’s sold over 150 million records to date and boasts a fan base so fervent it not only fills arenas but also follows him around the globe. By just about any metric, Springsteen is peerless, even among fellow music greats. But don’t close the book on the career of the storied 73-year-old Freehold, New Jersey native just yet. He’s not done rocking. Not even close.

“I can’t imagine [retiring], you know?” Springsteen told Howard on Monday during his eagerly anticipated Stern Show debut. The Boss’s face-to-face conversation with the King of All Media proved to be everything listeners had hoped for and more as Bruce performed scores of songs and discussed subjects ranging from Bruce’s family and the E Street Band to the incredible origins of his unparalleled career. Wherever their conversation went, it never took long to come back around to Springsteen’s love for music.

“I bumped into the luckiest job in the world because they paid me a fortune for something I would’ve done for free,” he told Howard.

When looking ahead to his future, he credited Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger with inspiring him to keep rocking into his later years. “I look at those guys and go, ‘Yeah, I don’t know if I’ll [always] be doing three-hour shows, but there are so many different kinds of music that I can play and do. That Broadway show I can do for the rest of my life in one form or another if I wanted to. So, I can’t imagine retirement, no.”

Howard, who has repeatedly praised “Springsteen on Broadway,” wondered how Bruce ever came up with the idea for a one-man revue.

“It just happened by accident,” Bruce told him, explaining it all started when President Barack Obama invited him to play at the White House. “I thought, ‘What can I do that is different? Well, I’ll read from my book a little bit and play some songs that are related to it,’” he recalled of the performance. “It ended up being about 90 minutes of what the Broadway show became … [then] Barack Obama came up and said, ‘I know you just did this for us, but you should turn this into a show.’” His two closest confidantes, his wife (and longtime E Street Band member) Patti Scialfa and his longtime manager-producer Jon Landau, agreed.

“Shortly thereafter I added about a half hour to it, and it became the show I did on Broadway,” Bruce said, adding, “I played – I don’t know – 200-plus nights, we did it 14 months, and I enjoyed it every single night that I did it and found something new in it.”

‘Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.’

Bruce was just 22 years old when he and then-manager Mike Appel took the trip into New York City to audition for John Hammond, the legendary Columbia Records A&R man and producer responsible for signing Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, and Aretha Franklin, amongst many others. Armed with just an acoustic guitar, the artist wound up giving himself a pep talk on the elevator ride up. “I know where I’m going, I know who I’m going to go see, and I’m telling myself. ‘Okay, well, the worst that can happen, I come out exactly as I am right now — that’s not so bad. I make a living, I play music, I enjoy my life … I’ve got nothing to lose. The worst I’m going to be is exactly like I am,’” he recalled thinking before reality set in. “I almost convinced myself that was true until I sat down and … looked across a little desk and there was John Hammond.”

The rocker remembered how Appel’s brash demeanor originally rubbed Hammond the wrong way. “Mike … said a bunch of stuff … he went insane, and Hammond was ready to kill us or throw us out and he said, ‘Look, just play me something,’” he said, noting he played “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” which wound up being on his debut album. “And then he said, ‘You’ve got to be on Columbia Records.’”

While Bruce was homeless and “living in a sleeping on [his] buddy’s floor” at the time, he was more than prepared for the moment. “I had a lot of experience … I was 22 but I’d been playing everywhere for eight or nine years. I played every fireman’s fair, every bowling alley, every pizza parlor — a thousand nights, played them all,” he explained. “I didn’t know if I would ever make a record, if I would ever get signed, but I knew what I was about … I played for a lot of people, and I had heard a lot of applause before I walked in to see John Hammond.”

Bruce’s parents, who had left New Jersey for California a few years prior, were especially taken aback at the news. “They were surprised when I called them from Asbury Park and said, ‘Hey, I got signed to a record label,’” he recounted with amusement. “I remember my mother just said, ‘What did you change your name to? … It can’t be Bruce Springsteen — they must have changed it to something better than that.’”

Although Bruce would eventually come to be known as a studio rat, he was still unseasoned when he went into record the songs for his 1973 debut, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” “I just walked in, and they told me where to be, and he pointed to the microphone. I went to the microphone and … I just started singing, it was all I knew to do,” he marveled before explaining Hammond only wanted his guitar and voice, not a full band. “I finally was able to get basically the rhythm section of the band onto the record … they didn’t want me to use any electric guitar because it was the day of the singer-songwriter … They were looking for the new Dylan … they didn’t even know I played with a band when I got signed. They had no idea that I had any rock chops, whatsoever.”

Blinded by the Bard

Bob Dylan ultimately became one of Bruce’s most important musical influences, but as he told Howard on Monday, he never even heard Dylan’s music until “Like a Rolling Stone” found mainstream popularity in 1965. “If it was on Top 40 radio, I listened to it and I absorbed it,” Bruce said of his inspirations back then.

And inspire him he did.

“He was the foundation where a lot of … the poetic side of my lyrics came from,” Bruce told Howard before breaking into an impromptu cover of Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” the same song he performed in 1997 when Bob was honored at the Kennedy Center.

“That was a song that Bob requested, that’s why I did it,” Bruce said of that performance. “I wanted to do a great job for him because I owe him so much.”

“I brought [his abstraction] over into pop music and rock ‘n’ roll music and adopted it as part of my writing style on my earliest records,” he continued, adding, “‘Blinded by the Light’ was of course me totally tripping on Bob Dylan.”

Talking about the origins of the song, Springsteen revealed that he’d only written “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirit in the Night” — the two singles off “Greetings” – after record producer Clive Davis told him the album needed a hit. “[He] said, ‘Man, there’s nothing you can play on the radio on this record.’ I said, ‘Ok, well I want to be on the radio,’” Bruce recalled, explaining he then took his notebook to Loch Arbour beach and came up with some catchy lyrics. “’Blinded by the Light’ I wrote with a rhyming dictionary … I was just using all the words that rhymed,” he continued before performing a few verses of the song for Howard and his listeners.

“That was me just having fun. It’s all stuff out of my life … [but] it’s nonsense, total nonsense,” Bruce finished with a laugh.

Making His Aunt’s Piano Talk on ‘Thunder Road’

Though Bruce is better known for his relationship with the guitar, he is also self-taught on the piano — thanks to one of his aunts. “When you walked into her house there was a little foyer, and she had an old aeolian piano there … I would go down while my mother was visiting and I would start to pick chords out on the piano,” Bruce recalled of visiting his mom’s sister, who happened to live below his grandmother. “She gave me a key to her house, and she says, ‘Anytime, you want to come and play the piano, use this key no matter who’s here.’ And so, after school, I would take the key and I would go to my aunt’s house, and I would sit in her foyer, and I would just transfer what I was learning on the guitar onto the piano.”

Bruce revealed to Howard that while he heard his friend Charlie Puth play the piano intro to ‘Jungleland’ during his recent Stern Show visit, he can’t do it himself, despite writing it. “He can really play it, and the funny thing is I can’t play it anymore … I can’t remember how I did it,” he admitted, before playing the intro to “Backstreets” and part of “Thunder Road.” “I wrote most of ‘Born to Run’ on [my aunt’s] piano … all the little intros and the big ‘Jungleland’ intro I wrote all on the piano.”

After Bruce was done belting out “Thunder Road,” Howard was moved. “Finally got me to cry on the air,” he confessed. “It was the first time ever.”

Bruce Plays ‘Tougher Than the Rest’ Before Explaining How He Became Just That

For years, Howard has made no secret of his admiration for “Tougher Than the Rest” off 1987’s “Tunnel of Love,” especially when Bruce does it as a duet with wife Patti Scialfa. On Monday, Bruce broke down the song’s meaning and importance. “It’s probably my best love song … because it’s so understated,” he told Howard, noting the strength of the title before digging into the main character. “He’s in a bar, there’s somebody there he’s interested in … [and he’s] thinking, ‘Hey, I’m not anything that special, but I last. When the chips are down, I’m there.’ … When that guy gets down to that last verse … he’s using the only sales pitch that he’s got.”

Sitting down at the piano and playing the tune, Bruce admitted he gets the same chills from that song as Howard does. “That’s how I know that I’ve got something,” he explained. “I’m playing and I’m singing, but I’m listening too … if I’m creating that sensation for me, I know I’m creating it for you, and that’s how I judge what I’m doing.”

The songwriter also admitted that, without having the best example of a loving relationship growing up, it took him a longtime and a great deal of therapy to match the promise of the guy in the song. “I didn’t have the emotional flexibility to get into a real relationship with somebody or really fall in love with somebody, I simply was too frightened, and I’d bolt,” he confessed. “And I said, ‘Well how do I stay? … How do I get to what this guy is saying in ‘Tougher Than the Rest?’ How do I simply get to that place where I can say, ‘I’ll be here.’”

When his first marriage to actress Julianne Phillips led to divorce, it took a toll on Springsteen. “That was pretty devastating. It was a big failure at the time,” he revealed. “Then eventually Patti and I got together, and Patti was very different than anyone that I went out with before. She was tough.”

After Howard asked Bruce how long it took Patti to trust him, he jokingly suggested Howard reframe the question. “The question should be, ‘How long since she’s been able to trust you enough to keep you in the house,” he teased.  “We were both outsiders … and we came together, and we just sort of made that promise, like, ‘… this is the one that we do the things that it takes to make [it] work.’ … We took that vow, and we were married long before I say we actually got married.”

Bruce Performs ‘Born to Run’ (Acoustic)

There’s no denying the greatness of the E Street Band, but Howard admitted many of his favorite Bruce performances involved nothing more than the Boss and his trusty guitar. “I always say, if I have a good song I should be able to sit and play it by myself for you,” Bruce told him.

“You can still sometimes get more nuance out of just you, your guitar, and that piece of music you wrote —even on big productions like ‘Born to Run,’” he continued before wowing Howard and co-host Robin Quivers with a slowed-down, acoustic rendition of the hit 1975 song. “If the song is written well, you can just sit back, relax, and dig into it, you know?”

the Best Songs He’s Ever Written

With a catalogue of nearly 400 songs, it’s no wonder so many Springsteen superfans struggle to pick a favorite. Even Bruce himself struggled to choose the best song he’d ever written, though he told Howard his darlings included “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Born to Run,” and “Thunder Road,” as well as the albums “Nebraska” and “Letter to You.” He was also fond of “The Rising,” a song and album he penned shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

“You write what you can,” Bruce said of creating music to overcome those types of tragedies. “You go, ‘Do I have anything to say?’ and — in the case of the 11th — ‘Is it possible to say anything about this?’ … That’s why what I wrote was a prayer. All I [knew] how to do [then was] to pray.”

As Bruce explained it, another impetus for “The Rising” was a man he encountered in New Jersey shortly after the World Trade Center buildings were destroyed. “Like everybody else, I was just in shock. I was going back home and … some guy rolled down his car window and said, ‘Hey Bruce, we need you!’” he recalled before playing “The Rising” for Howard, live in the Stern Show studio.

“When you can write those, you’re lucky,” Springsteen later added. “It’s your craft, your talent, you’ve put the years in, you know how to put a piece of music together, but at the same time there’s always something going on that you don’t understand … the X-factor.”

“That’s why [when you ask,] ‘Will you write again?’ Who knows? It’s magic,” he told Howard.

Clarence Clemons and the ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’

Bruce met future E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons at Asbury Park club the Student Prince in 1971 in the middle of a nor’easter. The storm was so powerful it blew the hinges off the club doors that night — fitting for Clemons, an equally powerful musician, who would eventually be known affectionately as “The Big Man.”

From appearing together on the cover of “Born to Run” to a powerful bond that translated on world stages for decades, the relationship between the two ran deep. In fact, Bruce was by his side when Clemons died in 2011 at the age of 69 after suffering a massive stroke. Speaking about their final moments together, Bruce told Howard he was playing Clarence a song as he passed away.

“I had a feeling he could hear me because he could squeeze your hand. When I first went to see him, there was some response to your voice and being in the room,” Springsteen recalled. “I knew that he was gonna die. I Just brought the guitar in, and I strummed this song called ‘Land of Hope and Dreams.’”

“Why did you choose that?” Howard wondered.

“It’s about passing over to the other side, you know? It’s about life and death,” Bruce said before switching guitars and performing the hymn for listeners.

“Beautiful song,” Howard said.

“It was one of the last songs that Clarence and I worked on a sax solo together on,” Bruce finished. “That was it, you know? There wasn’t anything else to say.”

Darkness on the Edge of Neck Surgery

In addition to being a talented singer, songwriter, and dancer, Bruce is no slouch on the guitar. “My guitar playing is underrated as a matter of fact,” he told Howard with a laugh. “I started out as a lead guitarist. That was my original gig … I wouldn’t have survived otherwise … I was all about shredding through my teens and early 20s.”

The guitar has been a staple of both his music and his live performances ever since, but he did hit a rough patch a few years back when a medical issue made it hard for him to play. “I had to get an operation on my neck because … my fingers were going numb,” Bruce told Howard. “I’d get halfway or three-quarters of the way through a solo and my fingers would just fatigue.”

“It was a bit freaky because they cut your throat, basically – open you up, tie your vocal cords off to one side, and they tell you, ‘You’re not going to be able to sing in three months,’” he recalled. “I didn’t sing for three months, then I went in my garage, picked up a guitar … I played ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’” he continued before performing the song live for Howard and his listeners.

Bruce admitted the surgery had left him nervous about whether he could still sing, but his fears were assuaged after he nailed the high vocals in the song. “Once I got to that note, I said, ‘I’ll be alright,’” he laughed.

The ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ Story

Photo: Getty Images

Whether he was walking a mile in a factory worker’s shoes or singing about a dad who didn’t approve of his lifestyle, it’s no secret Bruce’s rocky relationship with his late father Douglas Springsteen inspired more than a few of the Boss’s best-known songs. Despite all the ups and downs, Bruce did fondly recall one anecdote involving his aging dad and the Oscar he’d just won for “Streets of Philadelphia.”

“I walk in, I sit down across from him – he’s got his beer, his cigarette – I go in my jacket, I pull out my Oscar, and I put it on the table … between us. I don’t say anything,” Bruce told Howard. “He sits there for a minute, and he says, “I’ll never tell anybody what to do ever again.”

“That’s beautiful,” Howard remarked.

“I said, ‘Hey, that’s not too bad for a loser,’” Bruce concluded with a laugh.

Taylor Swift’s ‘Midnights’ and State of Music in 2022

Howard was curious to hear Bruce’s thoughts on how the music industry had changed over the course of his career and whether rock ‘n’ roll was in decline.

“Music has had to share the cultural arena with video games, movies, and everything else you can imagine,” Bruce said, adding, “We came up in a golden age for what we did, you know? If you were a young guy playing a guitar in 1967, 1975, [or] 1985 you came up just as that whole business turned into something that no one ever thought it would. So, it was a blessing. But I wouldn’t want to be starting now.”

“It’s just a different world,” he continued before sharing an anecdote about his daughter and her love of crossover superstar Taylor Swift. “The other day I picked her up at the airport and she said, ‘Dad, Taylor Swift has got a banging new record,’” Bruce recalled with a chuckle. “She plays it for me, top volume, all the way from Newark to Colts Neck—[she] was dancing in her seat. I said, ‘That’s what I like to see.’”

“What did you think of the record?” Howard asked.

“It was good. She’s super talented … She’s a great writer,” Bruce said, explaining he knows Taylor “just a little bit.” “People are still making great records, and people are finding a lot of joy in their records. That’s gonna go on,” he continued. “It’s just gonna be different.”

‘Only the Strong Survive’ and the Need to Evolve

Bruce’s new album “Only the Strong Survive” features 15 classic soul covers, including the Boss’s renditions of the Commodores “Nightshift” and Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do).”

“I worked very hard on my singing on this record,” he told Howard before explaining he worked even harder to select the right songs for the album. “I made an entire record … and threw it out.”

“There’re 15 songs on this record, 40 songs left on the floor,” he continued. “I basically chose songs that I love and …. [that] got my voice out front.”

“My career has been a life-long conversation with the audience,” Bruce said at one point, explaining he was grateful for loyal fans who were “still interested in what’s interesting me.”

Even so, Bruce learned early on it was impossible to please everyone. In the 1980s, he recalled one fan complaining because his album “Tunnel of Love” focused on relationships instead of fast cars and women. Regardless, he was grateful to have evolved as an artist and as a person. “I would’ve had no life. I would’ve had no kids, no home life,” Springsteen said of the prospect of staying focused on the fleeting pursuits of his youth. “For a while when I was young, I thought that was romantic. Quickly as I got older I realized, eh, maybe not.”

Bruce Springsteen’s “Only the Strong Survive” is available Nov. 11.