AUSTIN, TX—We’ve gotta give the Boss this: Though his much-anticipated keynote address at SXSW 2012 was rife with as much mawkish sentimentality as his music at its absolute hokiest, the man alone at a lectern—armed only with an acoustic guitar, a self-deprecating sense of humor and an epic text that carried him through a full hour’s talk—was much more engaging and affective than he’s been in at least two decades, either with the E Street Band or backed by the over-produced folk sounds that propelled his new album to the top of the Billboard chart on Tuesday.
In fact, Bruce Springsteen’s talk on Wednesday not only drew the largest crowd for any SXSW keynote in the event’s 25-year history, it instantly became a contender for the best… at least since Johnny Cash in 1994. Plus, he quoted the late, great rock critic Lester Bangs—several times!—and that can never be a bad thing.
Starting half an hour late—“There’s a reason they call him the Boss,” SXSW cofounder Roland Swenson nervously joked as he tried to kill time—Springsteen began by riffing on the absurd bounty of bands and the mind-boggling diversity of genres that have occupied the Texas capital for the music festival, rattling off a long list—“black metal, death metal… emo, screamo… Nintendo-core!”—before bringing things to a head by paraphrasing Bangs’ famous, oft-quoted observation upon the death of Elvis:
“We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s. But I can guarantee you one thing: We will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying goodbye to his corpse. I will say goodbye to you.”
Is this a good thing, the splintering of the audience of music lovers into ever-narrower and more isolated segments and subgroups? Springsteen doesn’t think so, but then neither did Bangs. There was a magic to be had in the universal shared experience, as New Jersey’s favorite son proceeded to illustrate by running through a pocket version of the Baby Boomer’s history of “pop” (the term the Boss strangely favored over “rock ’n’ roll’; no rockist he, as the New York Times’ Ben Sisario observed via Twitter) and how it has impacted his life.
Springsteen ran down the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum pantheon from Elvis to Roy Orbison, the Beatles to the Sex Pistols, Hank Williams to Motown, and Woody Guthrie to Public Enemy, seemingly eager to leave no sacred touchstone untouched. But he was at his best when he was most off the cuff and left of field, as when he passionately lauded the influence of the Animals on his music, as much because “there was nobody good-looking in that band” as the fact that they were the first he ever heard sing about class warfare.
After playing a chunk of the 1965 hit “We Gotta Get out of This Place” (which actually was written by the American songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil), Springsteen declared, “That’s every song I’ve ever written!” Then he showed how he literally rewrote “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” as “Badlands,” shouting, “Listen up youngsters! This is how successful theft is accomplished!”
Along the way, Bruce passed on a few tidbits of timeless good advice to aspiring musicians, including, “You’ve got to learn how to bring it live and then bring it night after night after night and your audience will remember you.”
And this: “Don’t take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don’t worry. Worry your ass off. Have iron-clad confidence, but doubt. It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town, and you suck. It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas inside your heart and head at all times. If it doesn’t drive you crazy it will keep you strong. Stay hard, stay hungry and stay alive. Treat it like it’s all we have. And then remember it’s only rock ’n’ roll.”
This is the Bruce his acolytes love: Inspiring, even if rife with contradictions. In the end, he concluded that “Lester was not completely right,” and that maybe the simple fact that there is so much music being celebrated in Austin at SXSW, and so many people who are so passionate about it, means that the ideals he grew up with are alive and well.
“And tonight, I may go see some black death metal,” he cracked.
Oh, if only that were true.