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Bruce Springsteen gives the SXSW Music Festival keynote address in Austin, March 15, 2012. (Courtesy: NPR/Shore Fire Media)
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Updated: Thursday, 15 Mar 2012, 6:58 PM CDT
Published : Thursday, 15 Mar 2012, 2:47 PM CDT
AUSTIN (KXAN) - He spoke of Elvis, Hank Williams, The Beatles, Woody Guthrie, Motown, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, James Brown and Pete Seeger. And in so doing, the Boss took people in the audience, on live chat and NPR radio listeners around the world on a journey -- his journey -- of how the greats shaped his musical soul, his heart, his tunes.
He then extended through his imagery that same journey to musicians who hung on his words during his keynote speech at the South By Southwest Music Festival Thursday afternoon.
Bruce Springsteen took to the stage more than 30 minutes late, but it didn't matter to the fans and musicians who listened intently, hoping to catch the magic, the secret, of what lies at the heart of a musician of his stature.
He didn't let them down. The Boss let them in.
Springsteen spoke of his childhood, how at age 6, when he first saw Elvis perform on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, he was hooked. He said it was Elvis who not only shook his legs, but shook the world of music -- time before Presley's breakout being "yesterday" and time since Elvis being "today." It was then that Springsteen first grabbed a guitar, had his "Genesis" moment, and the journey began. Though his fingers couldn't quite yet fit around the fret board, the young Boss persisted.
"I would just beat on it, and beat on it, in front of a mirror -- of course, I still do that," he said. The audience laughed.
"In the beginning, every musician has their Genesis moment," he said, "whatever inspires you to action ... I saw that a white man could make magic, not constrained by his upbringing, his social status, but use the power of imagination ... to transform oneself."
Springsteen said Presley's performance on television was so monumental because "Elvis and television gave us a new way of looking at life, about sex, about race -- it was a new way of being an American, and a new way of hearing music. Once Elvis came over the airwaves, you could not put the genie back in the bottle."
He called Elvis "outsider art, which was embraced by a mainstream, modern culture."
Springsteen's mother also shaped his passion for music, as did the songs full of throbbing messages he heard in their melodies, he said.
"She loved music. From the little radio in the kitchen, as I snowed sugar on my cereal, I would listen ... to the sound of raw sex, the sounds of bra straps popping across the U.S. ... running mascara, secrets whispered, in the still of the night, the soundtrack of your wonderful blue-balled walk home after the dance. It hurts so good."
And the audience understood, in their minds, the memories of the decades that formed each man or woman who looks to the Boss as one who spoke for them.
"Then came the British invasion, and I got my first real guitar," Springsteen said. "I learned how to play. The Beatles shifted the lay of the land. Four guys, classical, formal, who could create the idea of an independent unit. Where everything could come out of your garage."
Springsteen's awareness hit a deeper chord when he discovered The Animals and the group's gritty lead singer, Eric Burdon.
"They were a revelation," he said. "They were the first records with full-blown class consciousness that I'd ever heard. The clock marking time. Sun refused to shine. Ain't no sense in trying. One that that I know is true. You'll be dead before your time." The Boss strummed and groveled his signature-style voice to honor Burdon's message, but in Springsteen's hard, soulful way.
"That's every song I've ever written, I'm not kidding," he said. "Everything I've done for the past 40 years -- it struck me so deep in my childhood ... The Animals were aggression personified. 'It's my life, and I'll do what I want.' They were cruel. So freeing ... yes, yes, yes, even the name was very different. Unforgiving, final, irrevocable, unapologetic -- until the Sex Pistols came along. Darkness was filled with The Animals."
Springsteen shared what dug itself deep in his soul.
"Blue-collar, gripping music ... gritty determination. Of the earth. Of sweat and perspiration, for a man's pleasure and respect. Soul men and women."
Then the Boss took the audience on the next part of the journey, as he talked of the greats of Motown, which he called the "soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement." It was then he learned his craft, he said. How to write, arrange, what mattered and what didn't matter, produce great sounds. How to lead a band, to front a band. "They were and remain my masters," he explained.
To the young musicians in the audience, Springsteen gave sage advice.
"I had nights and nights of bar playing behind me," he said. "Young musicians: learn how to bring it night after night after night. Your audience will remember you. Your ticket is your handshake. These skills gave me a huge ace up my sleeve. When we finally went on the road, we scorched it."
His discovery of Hank Williams and the simplicity of country music also left its mark on Bruce.
"I remember sitting in my little apartment, listening to his music, trying to crack its code," he explained. "It sounded old fashioned. That old country voice. Slowly my ears became accustomed to its darkness and depth. It came alive for me before my very eyes ... a recognition of country music's fatalism that attracted me. Soulful, funny, but quite fatalist ... that fatalism had a toxic element."
It was the "why" that nagged at Springsteen, he said. He longed to have the answer to the questions that country music raised for him.
He said he found it after reading Joe Kleins' book, "Woody Guthrie: A Life."
"Woody's gaze was set on today's hard times, but also somewhere over the horizon," Springsteen said. "There was something. Fatalism was tempered by a practical ... why do we continue to talk about Woody so many years on? He never had a hit, never hit platinum, never was on a big stage ... he was a ghost in the machine. But his body of work tried to answer the questions. In my early 30s, his voice spoke to me, 'This land is your land.'"
The Boss shared his memory of singing that very song with Pete Seeger in Washington, D.C., four years ago, with President Obama nearby.
"On that day, Pete, myself and generations of young and old. All colors, all beliefs. I realized that things that come from the outside, they make their way in," he said.
It would be Guthrie's 100th birthday, if he were alive, and Springsteen noted the significance of the huge gathering of thousands of musicians in Austin for SXSW before his final words to aspiring musicians there, and those listening online from as far away as Sweden, Germany and Italy.
"Tonight, in this town, musicians young and old, are celebrating a sense of freedom that was Woody's legacy," he said. "So rumble, young musicians, rumble. Open your ears and open your heart. Don't take yourself too seriously -- and take yourself as seriously as death. Don't worry -- and worry your ass off. Have doubt -- and don't doubt -- it keeps you awake and alert. Believe you're the baddest ass in town -- and [that] you suck!
"It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas in your head and heart at all times. If it doesn't drive you crazy, it will make you strong. Stay hard and hungry. It will keep you alive. When you take the stage -- treat it like it's all we have. It's only rock and roll!"
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