Bruce Springsteen is a living legend, and at 62 years old shows no signs of slowing down. His new album Wrecking Ball came out last week and debuted at number one in 14 countries. He’s also about to start a world tour, his first without saxophonist and side-man Clarence Clemons. But on Thursday, he took a South by Southwest audience on a whirlwind tour of his own music history.
He started his keynote speech sounding like he’d just rolled out of bed. But in no time he was warmed up, reminiscing to a rapt audience of about three thousand people about his many visits to Austin, and reflecting on how much music has changed since he discovered rock and roll in the 60s. He joked about how fractured music is now, rattling off several dozen musical sub-genres.
But Springsteen wanted to take a bigger step back, to his childhood watching Elvis’s swiveling hips on TV. And later, hearing his own teen anguish in the lyrics of Roy Orbison. He recalled seeing the faces of the Fab Four staring back from a Meet the Beatles record cover at a 5 and 10 cent store.
And then there was The Animals, where he discovered what he called “full-blown class consciousness” in rock and roll. He said The Animals were unattractive, mean, and couldn’t dance. It was a precursor to the frightening sounds of punk music. He said that energy seeped into his 1978 album, Darkness On The Edge of Town. He also gave credit to the working class sounds of Motown and soul.
And there was country music. He recalled practicing Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits over and over, trying to “crack its code.” He was attracted to country’s fatalism, its mix of sin and redemption. But he decided that fatalism was toxic, and instead found solace in the practical idealism of Woody Guthrie, whose 100th birthday is being celebrated at the festival. His anthem of unity, “This Land Is Your Land,” became a song Springsteen’s band began covering when he was in his early 30s.
Springsteen closed by telling musicians to have both confidence and doubt – that contradiction will make them strong, if it doesn’t drive them crazy. And with that, he told the crowd he was off to catch some black death metal.