Bruce Springsteen‘s much-anticipated keynote speech at South By Southwest entertained the audience nearly as much as his roof-raising concerts with The E Street Band. As anyone who has seen his speeches at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies will attest, he is nearly as powerful without musical backing as he is with it. He has made induction speeches for Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jackson Browne and U2 at their inductions, and this afternoon at the Austin Convention Center, he paid tribute to Dylan, Orbison and many of his other musical influences.
Taking the stage a little after 12 noon (traffic in Austin is apparently crazy during SXSW), Springsteen joked about the early hour, and then started his speech by joking about how diverse, or fragmented, music is today, name-dropping all the different sub-genres represented at the festival, including two tone, art punk, medevil, electronic punk, sad core, skate core, paisley underground and Nintendo-core. “What the hell is ‘Nintendo-core?” He also joked about diverging opinions on polarizing artists, including Kiss, Phish and himself. “Kiss? You can (say), ‘Early theater-rock proponents, expressing the raging hormones of youth.’ Or: ‘They suck!’ Phish? You can (say): ‘The inheritors of The Grateful Dead‘s mantle, brilliant center of the true alternative community…’ or ‘They suck!’ Or, ‘Bruce Springsteen? Natural born genius off the streets of Monmouth County, hardest working New Jerseyian in show business, voice of the common man, future of rock and roll’ or ‘He sucks, get the f*** out of here!'”
Soon he went into an abbreviated history of rock and roll, and how different movements affected him. He mentioned Elvis Presley as “the first 20th century man,” saying that he was the first person to create “outsider art” that was accepted by the mainstream. Doo-wop music he said “was the sound of bras snapping across the U.S.A.” He described Roy Orbison as “The coolest uncool loser you’ve ever seen, sticking a knife deep into your teenage insecurities.” After Oribson, he discussed Phil Spector, whose productions were akin to listening to “violence covered in sugar and candy.” The Beatles “were cool, classical, formal and created the idea of an independent unit. Everything could now come from your garage.”
Springsteen spent a lot of time ruminating over the influence of The Animals, calling them “a revelation” and grabbing a guitar to sing part of “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” and then laughing, “That’s every song I’ve ever written, ‘Born To Run,’ ‘Born In The U.S.A.,’ all of ’em!” After that, he demonstrated further, by playing The Animals “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” which led right into his own “Badlands.” “It’s the same song!”
He talked a lot about soul music, saying it was “music sung by men and women, not teen idols.” Through soul music, he learned how to lead a band and how to front a band: “they are still my masters.” He said that the late James Brown is still “underrated,” and remembered watching him on an infamous episode of The TAMI Show, when The Rolling Stones played immediately after him. He laughed that he loves the Stones, but they looked like boys and Brown looked like a man. He also referred to Bob Dylan‘s influence, noting ”Dylan didn’t treat you like a child, he treated you like an adult. He’s the father of my musical country, and I thank him.” He also talked about how Dylan led him to some of his other seminal influences, Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie.
He offered advice to the younger bands in attendance: “Don’t take yourself too seriously. [But] Take yourself as seriously as death itself. Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive. It’s only rock and roll,” ending with, “Now I’m gonna go listen to some black death metal.”
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band perform tonight at a “secret” location in Austin as part of the SXSW Festival, and they officially kick off their tour Sunday night in Atlanta at the Phillips Arena.