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
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."
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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.