Bruce "The Boss" Springsteen told young musicians on Thursday that in this new age of digital music in which he can carry all the songs he's ever loved on a player in his pocket, two things haven't changed: inspiration and the power of creativity.
In a keynote address at the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival here, the "Born to Run" singer took the audience on a journey through his musical history. In doing so, he gave the up-and-coming musicians in the audience a lesson in how other artists might inspire their own music, just as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and others inspired him.
The Boss said his musical "genesis moment" came in 1956, when Elvis appeared on TV's "The Ed Sullivan Show" and showed a passion that inspired a young Springsteen to try out the guitar.
"I realized a white man could make magic," Springsteen said.
For those in the audience who were among the more than 2,000 acts that will play at SXSW, Springsteen encouraged them to open their ears and their hearts to the vast array of artists at the festival and added, "when you walk onstage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it's all we have, and then remember, it's only rock ‘n' roll," Springsteen said.
Springsteen, whose new album, "Wrecking Ball," debuted this week at No. 1 on U.S. record charts and in 13 other countries - his fifth No. 1 debut in the past decade - made a surprise appearance at the Austin Music Awards Wednesday night and was to give a concert on Thursday evening as part of SXSW.
On Thursday afternoon, he spoke of how his world was shaped by the doo-wop music his mother played on the radio in the kitchen as he ate breakfast. Doo-wop, he said, was "the sound of raw sex, of silk stockings rustling on backseat upholstery, the sound of the snaps of bras popping across the U.S.A."
As he eased into his teen years, along came 1960s pop music and the heartbreaking songs of Roy Orbison, who "seemed to take joy in sticking his knife deep into the hot belly of your teenage insecurities."
BEATLES TO SEX PISTOLS
Springsteen spoke of being influenced by Phil Spector, the Beatles and The Animals. He sang a bit of The Animals' "Gotta Get Out of This Place," adding: "That's every song I've ever written." Plus, he liked the fact that none of the members of The Animals were good-looking.
"That was good for me because I considered myself hideous at the time," he said.
Springsteen continued his journey with an interest in punk and the Sex Pistols, soul music and Motown and James Brown, who he said invited him on stage by calling out for "Mr. Born in the U.S.A.," because he knew Springsteen's song but not his name.
Bob Dylan, he said, came along at a time - the 1950s and 1960s - when everything felt false but young people didn't have the words to describe it. Dylan lyrics like, "How does it feel to be on your own?" spoke to those who felt their parents didn't understand the changes taking place in society, he said.
"He gave us the words to understand our hearts," Springsteen said.
As he moved into his late 20s, Springsteen found his way to country music. He described listening again and again to Hank Williams, trying to "crack the code," until he understood its beautiful simplicity.
Country, he said, "was about doing, then dying ... losing, then trying." It suited him because it was provincial, he said, "and so was I."
He also admired Woody Guthrie, who didn't fill arenas or have his picture on the cover of Rolling Stone, but who spoke truth to power, Springsteen said.
The Boss started covering Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" in concerts and has continued over the years. He sang it at President Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009 with Pete Seeger, and he sang a piece of it to the audience at SXSW, getting everyone to sing along.