Rolling Stone journalist Brian Hiatt has spoken to Music Week about his new book, Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind The Songs.
Released in the UK last month and in the US last week via Harry N. Abrams/Carlton Books Ltd, the book details the making of every single Bruce Springsteen song to date, and has attracted widespread praise from critics and Springsteen’s closest collaborators alike. It has also proven a commercial hit, too, with the book temporarily selling out on the US Amazon site last week.
Hiatt – who has written over 55 Rolling Stone cover features and hosts the magazine’s Rolling Stone Music Now podcast – conducted over 60 hours of new interviews with Springsteen’s fellow artists and producers, not to mention insights he drew from previously interviewing the man himself five times.
“What’s interesting is how many times our interviews went so much broader than the topic at hand and provided stuff for many, many chapters,” Hiatt tells Music Week. “Our most recent interview was for his book so it was a truly life-spanning, and career-spanning interview – which is really helpful if you’re writing a book!”
Here, Hiatt reveals the painstaking research involved in bringing the book to life, and just some of the revelations he learned along the way…
It is a huge undertaking to tell the story of every Bruce Springsteen song. How did the idea come about?
“Basically, it’s a beautiful coffee table book – I can say that because I have nothing to do with making it look nice! – that I decided to turn into a real book. I feel like of the books that have the 'stories' of every song by an artist, there’s a small number that are spectacular and then many of them simply compile the information that’s already out there. I knew that if I did it I would not allow that to happen; I would only do it to significantly add to the historical record. I couldn’t bear the thought of someone doing it and just sort of slapping together what’s already out there. It was hard, because I had to take it on very, very quickly.”
Just how quickly are we talking here?
“Well, my line is that I’ve been working on it since I was 17 or else I wouldn’t have been able to do it. But it all happened from start to finish last year, so not even a full year. Basically, it was nearly impossible to do it the way I wanted to do it, but I couldn’t bear to do it any other way and so I intensely researched it. I did something like 60 hours of fresh interviews with The E Street Band, engineers, assistant engineers all the way to photographers and videographers just to get every little detail I possibly could. The goal was that, even if you are a super-hardcore Bruce Springsteen fan, you cannot possibly say you didn’t learn anything new in this book, and at the same time still make it accessible to people who don’t know very much about Bruce at all. It was a tricky thing to pull off. Thankfully, I’ve heard from some of the most knowledgeable Bruce Springsteen fans in the world. Chris Phillips, who runs the No.1 Springsteen fan site, Backstreets, and Dave Marsh, Bruce’s first biographer, have praised the book – that’s spectacularly gratifying and a relief, too [laughs]. It was kind of like pulling off a circus act.”
So how many songs have you actually ended up covering then?
“The book covers 17 proper albums, plus greatest hits, outtakes and bonus songs. It’s circa 300 songs and the only real reason I was able to do it is that I got to talk to all of these amazing people who worked with Bruce and they all understood the point of the project and wanted to help. Max Weinberg [drummer, The E Street Band] spent six hours with me on the phone – it was obviously multiple phone calls! – going over every single song he ever recorded with the E Street Band. It does help to know the subject in your bones, too, which I have to say I do. If you know the subject in your bones, you know what’s new to you will almost certainly be new to most other people and that’s invaluable. When you’re writing a cover feature about an artist you maybe don’t know that well, the trick is to learn enough and to prepare enough so that you know what is known and what is not known. So it’s a tremendous help if it’s already something you know in your bones. That was a big advantage.”
Bruce is more popular than rock right now... It’s an extraordinary thing
Brian Hiatt, Rolling Stone
Logistically, how did you figure out who you were going to ask what for each song to make sure everything was covered?
“It helped that some people are segmented. I talked to Mike Appel, Bruce’s first producer and manager. With Mike you’re going to talk about the first three albums because that’s what he did, and with David Sancious, the first keyboard player for E Street Band, you’re going to talk about the first two albums. There was a large number of people who have a certain segment they can talk about, like with Tom Morello there’s basically one album that you’re going to talk to him about and maybe a bit of another one. I went to a guy who was an assistant engineer on the Human Touch album, that’s how hardcore I was going – or the gentleman who was an assistant engineer on Greetings From Asbury Park, which was a spectacular interview because he told me he lent Bruce his acoustic guitar and that’s the one he wrote the entire album on! It’s this dude’s acoustic guitar, and he still owns it! He doesn’t even have any real proof, he doesn’t have a photo with Bruce or anything, but he has the guitar. That guitar is worth a lot of money based on that – it should be in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame.”
Depending on people’s degree of knowledge there will be plenty of revelations in the book. What was one of the biggest ones for you?
“There are probably hundreds of revelations and some of them are big things, some of them are small things. The thing I’m really happy about is that I packed so much in because I did it so fast, there are actually things I’ve forgotten about. I was just looking at the part where Brendan O’Brien is trying to talk Bruce out of titling his album Magic. It’s a great album but Brendan was like, ‘If you call it Magic people are going to think of a guy with a top hat – why don’t we call it Long Walk Home?’ Bruce said, ‘It’s called Magic,’ [laughs] and that’s the end of it! A lot of stories end with, ‘...And then Bruce said’ – and that’s the end! There are a few revelations I keep coming back to just because they’re so emblematic.”
“I keep coming back to the story of Sandy, I just really love this bit of detective work. It’s a song that debuted in 1973 and it’s about fireworks in Asbury Park on the fourth of July. I became very curious about what, if anything, went on with the fireworks that year. I found something truly incredible, which is that every year since World War II before and since there were fireworks in Asbury Park – every single year except in 1973. Asbury was going through some rough times and it was announced that there would be no fireworks. Bruce, I did establish, was not on tour and not in the studio but at Bradley Beach, New Jersey, which is very close to Asbury and did have fireworks. Almost certainly he watched them there under these new circumstances – becoming a bit famous and moving away from his old scene – reminiscing and no doubt became nostalgic for all those years of seeing the fireworks in Asbury Park. Something like 16 days later he debuted his song called 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) and I just think that that’s kind of astonishing.”
What song do you think profited the most from doing deep research?
“There are a number of entries that are quite long, they vary widely – some are 2,000 words long. I think Born In The U.S.A. has a spectacularly complex story because of all the evolution it went through. There’s a number like that, Thunder Road is a very complicated and unique one. The song Pink Cadillac, too, has a hilarious story that I didn’t know and it involved a feud between Bruce and Bette Midler – no joke! It’s a little complicated, that wasn’t the inspiration for the song but it is the story of how it ended up being what it is. It does involve a dispute, essentially, between Bruce and Bette Midler.”
Did researching the songs make any stand out for you in a way they hadn’t before?
“Pink Cadillac is a really interesting example because I always strongly disliked the studio recording of that song. It irked me. I did not like the way Bruce sang on it, I didn’t like the way it sounded. Chuck Plotkin, one of the greatest people I spoke to – I spoke to him for 10 hours, a brilliant gentleman – told me that he was the guy who took Pink Cadillac to Bette Middler after Bruce didn’t want it etcetera. Part of what I learned is that when Bruce finally recorded an electric version of Pink Cadillac – because it was a solo acoustic song on the Nebraska tape – Chuck felt the same way I did, that the version he recorded was a sabotage. He called it a ‘crocodile rock’ version, it’s a sabotagey, fake version of it, which is exactly how I felt about it. It was really gratifying that Chuck felt the same way. But what I did realise was that I hadn’t really paid to attention to the original Nebraska version of that song. Goddamn, if that isn’t great! Who knew!?”
You must now have a wonderful bird’s eye view across his whole career – what is his legacy as a songwriter?
“It’s funny, some people who knew me as a child said, ‘You liked him when you were 10!’ but that doesn’t really count because I didn’t really know what I was listening to. As a 10-year-old in 1984, I loved Born In The U.S.A., but I didn’t know anything else at that point. I became a Bruce fan, really, in 1992 and even in New Jersey it was just not a cool time to be a Bruce fan, you have someone who has a huge pop burst like Born In The U.S.A. and a few years later there’s that lingering sort of uncoolness or something. What’s turned around so tremendously is this is now one of the most beloved and respected [songwriters] across any generation in any genre. It’s well deserved. It’s fascinating to watch that he’s become the guy, the one who seems to have transcended eras more than almost any other artist, and he seems to get bigger every single year. I think that’s both a tribute to the artistry and to the brilliance of the people around him, like Jon Landau and everyone else around him who have so carefully managed his career in the best sense. Not that they’re manipulating him or public perception, but carefully managing like you’re pruning a plant. Look at the attention they paid to his legacy with the Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town documentaries that are not hagiographic and are not just butt-kissing exercises, but are actually fascinating. They got a brilliant filmmaker, Thom Zimny, working with them – he also did Springsteen On Broadway on Netflix. It’s just reaching [successive] generations and generations, and also just through touring, touring, touring – proving it all night, every night. They don’t let you write your own [book] jacket copy – but I did write the thing on the back that says, ‘The legend of Bruce Springsteen may well outlast rock’n’roll itself’. I do feel like that’s happening. Bruce is more popular than rock right now. Rock is not popular, but Bruce Springsteen still is. It’s an extraordinary thing. This is a guy whose contribution is going to be as one of the most lasting popular artists of the twentieth century. I think that’s clear, and that’s part of the reason I felt all these details [in the book] are important because this is now firmly part of American cultural history. All this stuff will be important some day, the same way that what Bob Dylan or Aretha Franklin did is important.”
Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind The Songs by Brian Hiatt is available now