The list of those who have given the keynote speech at the South By Southwest music conference reads like who should be etched in the edifice of a rock Mount Rushmore.
Robert Plant, Neil Young and Pete Townshend just to name a few, have given their view on the history of music and where it stands.
Bruce Springsteen delivered the keynote Thursday afternoon at the Austin conference and he arguably offered the most thoughtful, poignant and humorous speech over the last 15 years of the event.
After noting how music fans fail to agree on anything in pop music and there really is no key note or unity in rock, the Boss united the 1,500 badgeholders in attendance with a message of hope for those who love music as much as he has throughout his storied life.
Springsteen waxed about how blown away he is that 10,000 bands are playing the 90 venues this week at SXSW.
“Back in late ‘64 that would have seen like some insane teenage pipe dream,” Springsteen said. “That would have been numerically impossible. There just weren’t that many guitars to go around. They simply haven’t made that many yet. We would have all had to have been sharing…when I picked up the guitar there was only ten years of history of rock to draw from. That would be like all of known pop being only the music that has occured between 2002 and now.”
Springsteen is taken aback by how bands are so ubiquitous everywhere but especially in Austin. “The most groups in one place I’d ever seen as a teenager was 20 bands at the Keyport Matawan Rollerdome in a battle to the death,” Springsteen said. “So many styles were overlapping at that point in time, you would have doo wop singing group with full pompadours and matching suits set up next to our band playing a garage version of our band playing a version of Them’s ‘Mystic Eyes, set up next to a full 13-piece soul show band and still that’s nothing minutely compared to what’s going on in the streets of Austin right now. It’s incredible.”
Springsteen rarely grants interviews unless you’re Bob Costas and it was such a treat to get some insight on how he metamorphosed from self-loathing and insecure to one of rock’s greatest iconoclasts.
He pulled out a guitar to explain how massive an impact the British blues-rockers The Animals had on him as he was coming of age in the Garden State during the mid-60s.
After playing a few bars of The Animals ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place,’ which is about a couple of characters stuck in a hum drum, unsatisfying existence in which they have to work incessantly. But those figures yearn for a better life.
“That’s every song I’ve ever written,” Springsteen admitted. “I’m not kidding either. That’s ‘Born to Run,’ Born in The USA.’
To further illustrate the point that he and every rocker of note is skilled at appropriation, he picked up the guitar and played the riff from The Animals ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.’ He followed by delivering the guitar line from ‘Badlands.’
“Listen up you youngsters,” Springsteen said. “This is how successful theft is accomplished.”
But the message was of encouragement to the myriad of fledgling recording artists playing showcases at SXSW trying to generate some buzz or kids busking on the corners trying to score some recognition.
He urged musicians to ‘bring the noise’ and go all out to pursue their dreams. Springsteen certainly did and he gave the blueprint revealing who inspired him and how he had to give some legends a few additional spins to understand.
Hank Williams came off as cranky initially to Springsteen but he eventually connected with the legend’s brilliance.
Springsteen name-checked such seminal acts as Public Enemy, the Sex Pistols and of course, the Beatles and Elvis Presley.
Part of what makes Springsteen so great and relevant today is that he is an unabashed fan of music. When waxing about James Brown, he was emphatic about one of the greatest figures to grace a stage. “He’s still underrated,” Springsteen said.
His enthusiasm for great music has always been unbridled. He’s always tuned in. A few years ago Pete Case played the Stone Pony and he detailed during an interview that he was shocked who popped in during a soundcheck. “Dad, you’re not going to believe who is here,” Case said when his son walked into his dressing room. “It’s Bruce Springsteen.’ Then Bruce went on and on about my solo albums.”
The charismatic rocker is all about music and rising musicians. His speech was about taking care of his own. It was about his obsession and a career that was utterly unavoidable. He cracked that he would be wearing a jester’s hat and driving his kids along in a wagon if he were born at a much earlier time.
He had one final bit of advice for young musicians before he left the stage after 50 compelling minutes.
“Treat it (music) like it’s all we have,” Springsteen said. “And then remember, that it’s only rock n’ roll.”