This past Monday, comedian and broadcaster Marc Maron, host of the popular WTF podcast, posted an hour-long interview he conducted with rock music legend Bruce Springsteen just before Christmas. Typical of Maron's approach as an interviewer, the conversation dealt very little with any of the specific benchmarks of Springsteen's four-decade-plus career, and instead found the two plumbing the depths of the musician's interior world and seeking to understand the motivations and pathologies that drive his obsessive work ethic. While no jaw-dropping revelations occur, there are several fascinating insights to be gleaned from the conversation, a handful of which we will chronicle here:
#1: The Boss Is A Genuine Control Freak
If there is any single overarching motif for the interview, it involves Springsteen's singular desire to exercise something like total control over his work and environment. Stemming from a sometimes traumatic childhood, during which his volatile father was frequently an agent of chaos, the singer describes his deep dive into writing and performing as constructing a "fortress" that kept himself safe and others out. He even characterizes his famously energetic live shows — which are often seemingly exercises in communal spontaneity — as a way of exerting control over his audience. Springsteen goes on to allow that relinquishing control in many areas of his life was paramount to ultimately achieving stability and happiness. But the setting of the interview — in a studio, on the singer's compound, where Maron is made to wait a half hour amidst guitars and vintage gear — suggests that the impulse to be in charge hasn't left the Boss entirely.
#2 For Many Years, Springsteen Only Felt Normal When Performing
As most are aware, Springsteen's shows with the E Street Band are known to frequently stretch past three hours and occasionally even beyond four. While this has most often been interpreted as a tribute to the singer's unending generosity toward his audience and willingness to give until he has nothing left, the Boss's interview with Maron suggests an additional motive: For most of his life he was completely at sea when not on stage. While this is not particularly uncommon for performers (Maron cops to much of the same disposition), it is interesting to think of the final hour of a Springsteen marathon less as a charitable act from a singer toward his audience and more as the behavior of a very lonely man who has thrown a party and is desperate not to have anyone leave.
#3: The Deeds Of The Father Live On Through the Son
As is the case with his recent memoir, a good deal of Springsteen's WTF interview deals with his attempts to cope with and relate to his late father, a mercurial and sometimes intimidating figure who was eventually diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. On the one hand it makes complete sense, and on the other there is something powerful about the notion that even an Olympian of Springsteen's caliber, with his vast stores of acclaim and hero worship, is still left sorting through the complicated meaning of this most primal of relationships. Maron, who has spoken openly about his own complicated relationship with a father suffering from mental illness, is a particularly astute interlocutor on this point.
#4: The Boss Is A Mark
Springsteen's songs are populated with so many drag racers and streetwise hoodlums and good-hearted roustabouts that you might assume he knows his way around the backstreets pretty well. And maybe he does, but on WTF the singer self-describes as an easy "mark" whose inherent empathy makes him a ripe target for all manner of come-ons and scams. He even tells an amusing story about getting caught up in a classic New York street hustle involving an ostensibly confused South African traveler and an allegedly missing brief case that eventually ends with him nearly being held up at gunpoint. Regular WTF listeners will note that Maron recently told a similar story on an episode of the Mark & Tom Show with Tom Scharpling. These guys have a lot in common.
#5: Notable In Their Absence
Much of this is attributable to Maron's idiosyncratic style, but it is fascinating to hear Springsteen talk in detail about his career for an entire hour without a single mention of any of his E Street Band cohorts — not one word about Little Stevie or Max Weinberg or the Big Man or even his wife Patti Scialfa (at least not by name, although family figures prominently in the overall conversation). In no way does this come off as a slight, but it can feel a bit strange for those of us who still assume rock bands all live together in a big house like the Monkees. For what it's worth, long-time producer Jon Landau does get a name check for encouraging the Boss to try analysis. All of which brings us to number 6...
#6 Marc Maron Does It His Way
During his rise to prominence as a broadcaster, Maron has always been straightforward about his unconventional methods. Generally speaking, this involves eschewing heavy research and skipping past details in the life and career of his subjects that some might consider crucial in favor of the things he personally finds interesting. What he finds interesting is usually anxiety, struggle, and the baseline drivers of people's desire to be in entertainment. Whether you like him or not — I think he's a national treasure — a lot is going to be passed over. In the case of his Springsteen interview, this means almost no specific discussion of his music at all. There are one or two passing references to Born To Run, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, and Nebraska. There are none of Born In The USA, The River or Tunnel Of Love. There are no discussions of his recording methods or influences, and only oblique references to his songwriting methodology. There is at least 35 minutes about fathers. That goddamned Maron does it his way.
#7 The Boss Is Pretty Freaked Out About Trump
Those familiar with Springsteen's longstanding connection to progressive politics and aware of his vocal support for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will be unsurprised to learn that he was upset and not a little disturbed by the election of Donald Trump. Trump's ascendancy seems to have shaken the Boss even more than previous conservative turns in the electorate, possibly as it owes so much to the very working class that he has painstakingly depicted in his own work. Beyond ideology, he is concerned Trump may just prove completely incompetent. He allows that many decent people voted for Trump, but he fears the normalization of some of the more vituperative elements of his constituency. Asked point blank if he has ever been this frightened before, Springsteen simply answers: "No." The Boss is pretty worried, and maybe that should worry all of us.
#8: The Boss Figured It Out
Perhaps the most important takeaway is that Springsteen, through rigorous discipline and constant self-examination, seems that rare example of an individual who has experienced fame and success on a truly global level and not allowed himself to become permanently demented in the process. Seemingly never excessive in his extracurricular pursuits, the Boss has navigated the burden of his notoriety without dependency, cruelty, or the needless exploitation of others, highly uncommon for an individual of his influence and power. Springsteen's laudable self-awareness leads to a moving exchange where he describes attempting to "build a version of me, step by step, that other people would be able to stand." Great records are one thing, but this is perhaps the most ambitious life-pursuit of all.