"The purity of human expression and experience is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntables, to microchips. There is no right way, no pure way, of doing it. There is just doing it." -- Bruce SpringsteenBruce Springsteen delivered the keynote at this year's SXSW. It was an epic performance, a tour de force, a compelling recounting of his musical influences, a history of rock 'n roll through his unique prism.
Springsteen described his "genesis moment" in 1956, when he saw Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show, and realized "you didn't have to be constrained by your upbringing, by the way you looked, or by the social context that oppressed you." He spoke of Elvis as the "first modern 20th Century Man" who changed how we think about "sex, race, identity, and life," about "a new way of being an American" and "a new way of hearing music."
Doo wop deeply affected Springsteen in the late 1950s-early 1960s, and he demonstrated its power by picking up a guitar and playing a quick segue from a doo wop rhythm to the early strains of his own great tune Backstreets.
Then there was 1960s pop: Roy Orbison ("the coolest uncool loser you'd ever seen") and Phil Spector's Wall of Sound ("He hit me and it felt like a kiss").
Next came the British Invasion. "The Beatles were cool, classical and created the idea of an independent unit where everything could come out of your garage." For Springsteen, The Animals were "a revelation." He played a wonderful version of We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, and confessed "that's every song I've ever written."
He talked about the influence of punk and how the Sex Pistols "shook the earth." They were frightening and challenging, he said, and "made you brave."
He talked about "the blue collar grit of soul music." And Motown, which was "smoother, but no less powerful." There was the "beautifully socially conscious soul of Curtis Mayfield," and other great African American artists who provided the soundtrack of the Civil Rights movement. And, of course, there was James Brown, who he believes is "still underrated."
Springsteen spoke passionately about the special genius of Bob Dylan, who "gave us the words to understand our hearts" and who "is the father of my musical country now and forever."
It took a while for Springsteen to "crack the code" of the music of Hank Williams, but he ultimately discovered its "beautiful simplicity and its darkness and depth." Country music, which he called, "the working man's blues," spoke to him deeply. In it he found "the adult blues, the working men's and women's stories" he had been looking for."
There was a fatalism that attracted him to country music, but something was missing -- "it was rarely politically angry and rarely politically critical." And then there was Woody Guthrie, in whom he found a "fatalism that was was tempered by a practical idealism, where speaking truth to power wasn't futile."
And there you have it.
Springsteen concluded with a story about playing This Land Is Your Land with Pete Seeger at Obama's inauguration and ended with this advice: "Treat it like it's all that we have, and then remember: it's only rock and roll."
[Please read these too: Thank You Steven Gladstone, Wherever You Are; The Big Man (1942-2011).]