Bruce Springsteen: More or less than The Boss?

Bruce Springsteen Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Meeting Bruce Springsteen, aka The Boss, off-stage brought an unexpected revelation as to his true subdued character

What can I possibly tell you about Bruce Springsteen that you might not already know? Certainly nothing about his attire.

He wears the standard issue rock 'n' roll three-piece: jeans, t-shirt, and a black leather jacket, accessorised - in his case - with biker boots, earrings, and stories of working class life in post-war New Jersey.

Then there's the usual rolling stone-type stuff about the compulsion to tour, about the "mind-numbing power of my rock 'n' roll meds", and about the love of a good woman, Patti, "queen of my heart". You know about the cock-sure kid who became an angst-ridden adult, about the boy with a taciturn father who performed to get attention, about the "fraud" who became a "hardworking journeyman".

You know the script. He knows the script. It is the script. There is only one. But then there was an off-script surprise - for me, at least - that showed The Boss and Bruce to be very different animals.

Bruce has - and I don't mean this as a criticism at all - very little presence. Almost zero. Which I found surprising. It's not just because of his media status as a "legend", "megastar", "icon" - which engenders its own presumptions in an interviewer, and you would have thought must have an effect on an interviewee's sense of self.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Bruce Springsteen on stage is all an ego-driven rock star should be

But it's also the fact that this is a guy who earns his living from standing in front of tens of thousands of adoring fans and royally entertaining them for epic four-hour stretches. You've got to have some persona wattage to pull that off for more than 40 years.

But he hasn't, not in Bruce mode, anyway.

'Toxic confusion'

The self-proclaimed egotist is self-effacing to the point of awkwardness. On Monday I watched him in-conversation on-stage with the Gallic journalist and one-time Eurotrash presenter Antoine de Caunes.

The room was packed with journalists, many of whom had travelled far and wide to hear Springsteen speak, but there was only one star showing off at the event, and he was French. I thought it might be a coy-boy thing they had going on - they're old friends. But no. When I met him, he was just the same.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Antoine de Caune's real-life bravado overshadowed the quiet Bruce Springsteen

Springsteen came into the smart hotel room that had been designated for our sit-down interview as if to collect the breakfast tray. Bashfulness doesn't do it. Honestly, if I hadn't known who he was, I would have said "not now please".

To be clear, most "stars" are not like this. I'm not saying they come into the room all personality guns blazing (unless they are called Aaron Sorkin), but there is usually a palpable sense of "an arrival". Their presence changes the mood, it causes folk to sit-up: there's a tension, a frisson. Which does makes Springsteen's humility remarkable.

He is throttled back, low-profile, quiet; thoughtful. More. He is nervous. I got the sense that Bruce is his Clark Kent who - by picking up a microphone and guitar - can transform himself, Superman-like, into The Boss.

The Boss would surely never succumb to mental illness, so I imagine it is the introspective aspect of Bruce's nature that has been partially responsible for the "toxic confusion" that led to a crippling depression that affected him in his 30s and in his 60s.

Sensitive and empathetic

It is also the reason, I think, that he has been able to write personal songs with such universal appeal. When you meet him you realise that Springsteen is as much a seer as he is a singer.

His non-performing comfort zone is not holding court in public, but watching from the shadows: observing unseen and unheard. He is a sensitive and empathetic storyteller.

The basis of his creativity, he says, is this duality of character. It comes from the dramatic and inspirational coming together of his opposing psychological states: between the "phony" and "the realest thing you'd ever see", the introvert and the showman; Bruce and The Boss.

I guess one writes the songs; the other performs them.

Like all partnerships, it has its own problems, which he explores with notable honesty in his autobiography Born To Run, but by and large it seems to have worked out reasonably well for him and his fans.

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