Rick Springfield

by Susan Brown


Photo credit: Joanne Rojcewicz

Rick Springfield Cashes in on New-found “Karma” with His Old Fans

After weeks of begging my best friend’s parents to drive and chaperone me, I stood on the lawn at Meriweather Post Pavillion in 1981, drumming my feet and chanting “We want Rick!” with a packed arena of rabid pre-teenaged fans.

Nearly two decades later, I’m once again waiting on Rick Springfield, the featured performer at an all-adult “Second Chance Prom,” getting ready to interview him in the atrium of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Crystal City, Virginia.

In many respects, not much has changed. After a good 20 minutes passes, I get the distinct impression that Springfield needs to be coaxed from the privacy of his hotel room. Eventually, though, he emerges from the back elevator, reserved and even a bit distracted, but still immediately recognizable. Clad in black nylon running pants, black-rimmed glasses, and a matching black t-shirt, only a few tell-tale pieces of tasteful jewelry — a gold ring in his left ear, garnet-beaded necklace, and a wedding band with cut-out crosses — point to his days as a pop superstar in the early eighties.

Over the course of his career, Springfield amassed 15 Top 40 hits and won a Grammy for his first number one single, “Jessie’s Girl.” After a long hiatus, a new album, and a resurgent interest in ‘80s music fueled partly by his VH-1 Behind the Music special, Springfield has emerged an older, less restless rocker.

After he waves to a few friends, we end up sitting on a couch beside a bubbling fountain, while roadies and radio station representatives hang a balloon arch above the nearby ballroom where the prom would be held later that evening. Though he warms up quickly, Springfield initially appears uncomfortable, and I immediately decide to reorganize my questions; I’d postpone the queries about how he feels playing a weekend prom, after a decade of packing stadiums across the world.

And then I’m the one who is distracted. Though he seems more intense and sedate than Dr. Noah Drake’s playboy on General Hospital, it’s hard to believe that Springfield is 51 years old, with sons as old as I was when I attended my first concert. Despite — or perhaps because of — his nearly 10-year break from the business, the fans seem just as devoted as ever. By the end of the interview, a small crowd had gathered along the hotel balcony, CDs and record albums in tow, as though there was barely a breath between the guitar-driven pulse of his first hit album and the meditative sounds of his latest album, Karma.

Naturally, the fans have aged now too, though you wouldn’t know it. Sure, they’ve since retired their blue ruffled tuxedo T-shirts and polka-dotted mini skirts, but most of the adult guests later that night came all decked out in prom gowns and tuxedos, posing for their formal snapshots.

This was Springfield’s first prom, since they don’t have them in Australia where he grew up. But he wouldn’t have been there anyway; Springfield left high school to pursue his recording career at age 16, reading voraciously and traveling in lieu of a traditional formal education. “I learned to read and write and socialize in school, and that’s pretty much it,” he said. “Once I discovered music, I knew what I wanted to do.”

A far cry from his frenetic pace in the early ‘80s, Springfield has been touring on weekends only for the past year and a half, and finds that he enjoys the pace much more than before. “We stay in contact with our families and the show’s always fresh, so wherever the gigs come up, if they work out for us we go . . . I couldn’t do six months in a row again.”

For those aware of the seemingly-omnipresent VH-1 Behind the Music special, Springfield’s tumultuous career is a familiar one. Though he seemed poised for super stardom in the early seventies, his face plastered on the cover of teen magazines and even his own cartoon likeness on Saturday mornings, it took another ten years for Springfield to hit it big. Once he did, though, there was little time to breathe; after releasing three modestly-successful records in the seventies, Springfield completed four platinum albums, starred in Hard to Hold and General Hospital, married and started a family — all in less than five years in the eighties. This explosion of productivity was at least one of the reasons Springfield took a 10-year break between his 1988 album Rock of Life and 1999’s Karma, a time when he refers to himself as “out-and-out.”

Photo credit: Joanne Rojcewicz

But during the early eighties, Springfield’s face was everywhere — a fix for soap-addicted fans in the afternoons, and for music-lovers at any time of day on fledgling MTV, launched the same year as Springfield’s first number one single, “Jessie’s Girl.”

“I was very fortunate to be at the vanguard of all that stuff and that was great,” Springfield said of the early days of music video. “I remember being on General Hospital and coming to the show one day and someone saying…‘Aw, man, they had five minutes over so they played your video.’ That was when I started to understand he power of that, you know. And I think MTV didn’t realize either how far they would go with it…In retrospect, it was a big hole waiting to be filled and they filled it.”

To an outsider, it might seem that Springfield’s fame was entirely wrapped-up in music video, their success coinciding perfectly, but he doesn’t see it that way. “Later on in my career I think [music videos] helped get a song out to more people, but probably General Hospital had more to do with me getting known physically than MTV did,” Springfield said. “I was on radio, and there was a momentum that was happening, and MTV was kind of part of it, but it wasn’t as integral as it is now.”

Still, the success of “Jessie’s Girl” and its video helped catapult Springfield into the pantheon of pop idols. As to why the tune caught on, Springfield singles out its timeless theme of lust for another man’s girlfriend. “I think it’s a really, really good song,” he said. “I read a letter the other day saying some mother had played my albums to her kids and that was the song that they picked out. Out of all of it, they wanted to hear ‘the Jessie’s song’ again.”

Though Springfield scored a hit with 1972’s “Speak to the Sky,” its spiritual themes were perhaps too thoughtful for a pop audience, and it took the infectious tune from Working Class Dog to shoot to number one and earn the singer a Grammy. “I think the first hit is always the magic one,” Springfield said. “It pulls you out of nowhere, and it’s gotta be something special. Once you get a momentum going, it’s a different story…[Today] it probably would be produced very differently…I couldn’t write a “Jessie’s Girl” now with as much meaning as a 27-year-old today could write it.”

But even the seemingly-innocuous records from the ‘80s, Springfield said, are filled with moody innuendoes. Resurfacing in a series of dark films, eighties music was enthusiastically deconstructed by a serial killer in American Psycho, and Springfield’s own “Jessie’s Girl” was a mix-tape favorite for a crazed drug dealer in Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic Boogie Nights. “I think everybody thought the ‘80s was all light and poufy hair, but there’s a really dark side to all the music,” Springfield said. “I’m thought of as very light ‘pop-y’ kind of music, but it all had very dark undercurrents and I was a very messed up person…there’s a lot of double entendre stuff in it.”

Though Springfield is thought of as a pop singer, his favorite musicians from the eighties were Australian band The Church and Peter Gabriel, whose song “I Go Swimming” is featured on the Hard to Hold soundtrack. Other than them, Springfield says he didn’t really favor any particular band or artist. “I just liked songs,” he said.

After the smash of Working Class Dog, Springfield was unhappy with the direction his music took in his next effort, 1982’s Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet. The only album produced by someone other than himself, Springfield was unable to fully oversee the final product due to his heavy touring schedule. As a result, the songs have an almost 1950s sound to them, with lots of clapping sound effects and background vocals. The lyrics seem innocent even by 1980s standards, and though the songs (like “I Get Excited” and “Kristina”) are catchy and upbeat, they weren’t really what Springfield had wanted.

“In retrospect, [Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet] was a lot softer than I would have made it,” Springfield recalls. “In fact, I remember reading a Rolling Stone review of it saying how much they loved the cover and were expecting a lot more after Working Class Dog, and that they thought it was a bit wimpy. And looking back at it, I think it was.”

Still, certain themes unite all of Springfield’s albums, albeit unintentionally, and Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet is no exception. Though his music has evolved over the years — from the pop-rock sensibilities of his first hit albums to the turbulent sound of Living in Oz (the follow-up to Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet) or 1988’s Rock of Life — Springfield consistently examines troubled romantic relationships, spiritual questions, and the bonds between fathers and sons. “It’s nothing I do on purpose,” Springfield says of these themes. “It’s just something that sneaks its way in.”

As for the songs depicting marital strife, Springfield admits that many of them are autobiographical. “I wrote them in as universal terms as I could,” he said. “But from [1982’s] Don’t Talk to Strangers up to [1999’s] Ordinary Girl, a lot of those songs are about the woman who became my wife.”

The mid-eighties marked the beginning of Springfield’s disillusionment; after completing 1985’s Tao, a tribute to finding spiritual enlightenment, Springfield realized that “it’s a really desperate search,” not a discovery after all. A few years later, his music career was sidelined due to an all-terrain vehicle accident in 1988, just before the Rock of Life tour was scheduled to begin. During the next ten years, Springfield struggled with spiritual and emotional turmoil, and chose to work on television projects rather than make music.

“That was really an awful time for me, and one of the reasons that I took that time off, too, was that I knew that it was messing me up, not being connected to a spiritual plane,” he said.

Recounting a mysterious story of spiritual rebirth, Springfield cites the death of his dog Ronnie — the bull terrier featured on the cover of Working Class Dog and his other early albums — as the moment that tuned him back into his faith, and the reason he sports a red-shouldered hawk tattooed on his shoulder. Renewed and excited to tour again, he was ready to start recording in 1999, and so completed his latest and most positive album to date, Karma. Though it may not feature the catchiest group of songs, pop memorability wasn’t exactly the album’s intent. At the very least, Karma showcases some of Springfield’s most thoughtful lyrics, reflecting at times on the scope of his career.

In “It’s Always Something,” one of the album’s best tracks, he writes about his father’s faith in him: “Through the hard years he was my rock when I could just not win / So it goes y’know my father died just before my leaky ship came in.” Ultimately, Karma may be a transitional album more than anything else, from the turbulence of his early career to the relative peace he’s experiencing lately.

“I have a lot more to say now. A lot’s happened over those years — deaths, births, divorces,” Springfield said. “Karma is “not just about the troubles, but also . . . about surmounting them.”

Of course, a lot has happened to his fans over the years as well, though they seem more interested in the classics than in Springfield’s new work. In spite of the claim that his audience is made up of “a pretty wide range,” clearly his core group of fans are those women, like myself, who remember his music from the early eighties.

Is he worried that his fan base is reluctant to see him progress musically? The short answer: not really. “Obviously a lot of what the audience focuses on is that era thing,” Springfield reasons, “but I do have a new album out, and that’s a drive for me to create new music…I’ve been writing songs since I was 14 years old and that’s my true love.”

Indeed, Springfield’s core audience is comprised of women who grew up in the ‘80s, only now they’re bringing their kids to his shows. But unlike the recent AT&T ad, where two mothers drag their bored daughters to Springfield’s show at a county fair, the music seems to appeal to both generations.

“The girls that did the commercial said, ‘We hate standing there like that. We want to dance with everybody else’,” Springfield said.

Based on an actual moment during one of his shows, the ad was unintentionally reenacted at the “Second Chance Prom” after our interview. During a sing-along version of “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” a woman in the front row handed Springfield a cell phone.

“Hi Karen,” he said. “You’re on stage.”

Recently, Springfield’s musical interests have become a bit more exotic than what his fans might imagine, due in part to his eldest son, Liam, who introduces him to “a lot of heavier stuff” like Slipknot, Kings X, and Deftones. Though Springfield believes that the music scene is thriving, he admits that Radiohead’s O.K. Computer is more his speed nowadays, rather than his son’s experimental taste. “I think the new adventurous music is for the kids in a state of flux — they’re open to all that — and in 10, 15, 20 years it will be their golden era, and they’ll be playing Korn and getting nostalgic,” he said, sounding less like a rock star than a father.

“Certainly with the radio now, a lot of late 20s, 30s and 40-year-olds don’t listen to that music,” he said. “There’s nothing in it for them…[but] my son can’t get enough of it because it’s speaking to him and not to us….A lot of the music that we hear now starts to sound the same.”

Springfield pauses for a moment, looks up, and smiles. “[That’s] what my parents said about my music — and that scares me right there.”

So why are women returning to the music of his early career now? Springfield thinks the ‘80s is “the comfort zone” for a lot of people, having been the music that soothed them during the anxiety of adolescence. If so, maybe that’s why it’s impossible for me to be cynical about Springfield; admittedly, I have no healthy dose of perspective on him, as I do for recent pop indulgences like the Spice Girls or Hanson. Like me, Springfield’s fans see him now as they remember him, without irony; having waited-out a 10-year break from the music industry, they appear to be just as fervent as they were twenty years ago.

Later that night at the “Second Chance Prom,” his many groupies had traveled a long way to see him, bearing handmade signs which read “30-plus shows and still going” and “This has been on my ceiling above my bed since 1982.” Quiet and unassuming in the interview, he became a bonafide rock star during his slow walk to the stage, lanky in a long black coat and silvery pants.

Once he took the stage, the transformation was complete; fans grabbed at his legs and snatched the sweat-soaked towels he tossed to the audience. Over the course of the two-hour show, he tossed guitars into the air, pulled guests on stage, donned a woman’s tiara, and strummed his guitar with countless bouquets of roses, creating a shower of petals. Springfield was back, and confident as ever.

Naturally, most of the prom audience wasn’t really there to hear his new songs; they wanted the hits, and Springfield was happy to oblige. With an expression of mock surprise, he began to play the familiar guitar riff to “Jessie’s Girl.”

But just when you thought he was back for good, Springfield is whisked off stage; like a moment on the pop charts, he’s gone in an instant, leaving fans to gather the rose petals for their prom scrap books.

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