Bruce Springsteen on the songs he's proudest of and his long road to success: "I had a lot of experience … I’d been playing everywhere for eight or nine years"

Bruce Springsteen
(Image credit: Brian Ach/Getty Images for Bob Woodruff Foundation)

There's no such thing as overnight success, or so the saying goes. We all know ears of work go into being a musician; it doesn't matter if you're grappling with chords at home, playing to a disinterested dog in a bar or headlining Madison Square Garden. You have to put the work in. So it's almost reassuring to be reminded that Bruce Springsteen had to as well. 

The Boss was still young but effectively homeless and living on a friend's couch when he got the chance to audition for legendary Columbia Records A&R man John Hammond. But he'd already been working at his craft for a long time. 

“I had a lot of experience … I was 22 but I’d been playing everywhere for eight or nine years. I played every fireman’s fair, every bowling alley, every pizza parlor — a thousand nights, played them all,” he explained to Howard Stern in a recent appearance on his show. “I didn’t know if I would ever make a record, if I would ever get signed, but I knew what I was about … I played for a lot of people, and I had heard a lot of applause before I walked in to see John Hammond.”

Springsteen's then-manager Mike Appel nearly sabotaged the meeting until Hammond – who signed Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, and Aretha Franklin – finally heard the young songwriter perform one of his songs.

“Mike … said a bunch of stuff … he went insane, and Hammond was ready to kill us or throw us out and he said, ‘Look, just play me something,’ 

Springsteen played It’s Hard To Be a Saint In The City and it was enough to convince Hammond on the spot; “And then he said, ‘You’ve got to be on Columbia Records,’” The Boss remembered. 

But Springsteen added that he wouldn't want to be trying to make it now. 

If you were a young guy playing a guitar in 1967, 1975, 1985… you came up just as that whole business turned into something that no-one ever thought it would, y’know?

“We came up in a golden age for what we did,” he told Stern. “If you were a young guy playing a guitar in 1967, 1975, 1985… you came up just as that whole business turned into something that no-one ever thought it would, y’know? So it’s a blessing.”

“But I wouldn’t wanna be starting now, no. I don’t know if you can create… it’s just a different world, that’s all.”

Springsteen named Taylor Swift as a contemporary artist he admired, and proved the future is still bright. 

"She’s super talented … She’s a great writer,” Springsteen said. “People are still making great records, and people are finding a lot of joy in their records. That’s gonna go on, it’s just gonna be different.”

Springsteen now has a huge catalogue of around 400 songs to draw from and reflect on. He's added to his legacy with his new collection of soul covers, Only The Song Survives, but when Stern asked him the songs of his own he's proudest of it proved an understandably tough choice.

He listed Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born In The USA, Born To Run and Thunder Road, as well as whole albums Nebraska and Letter To You among personal highlights. But he performed another song on the show that still holds immense weight for him, and the people of New York City.

Springsteen wrote The Rising shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.“You write what you can,” Bruce said humbly. “You go, ‘Do I have anything to say?’ and — in the case of the 11th — ‘Is it possible to say anything about this?’ … That’s why what I wrote was a prayer. All I [knew] how to do [then was] to pray.

“When you can write those, you’re lucky,” Springsteen added. “It’s your craft, your talent, you’ve put the years in, you know how to put a piece of music together, but at the same time there’s always something going on that you don’t understand … the x-factor.

“That’s why [when you ask,] ‘Will you write again?’ Who knows? It’s magic.”

5 songs guitarists need to hear by… Bruce Springsteen

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.