The Late Show With Stephen Colbert
Season 2, Episode 14 - "Bruce Springsteen"
Stephen Colbert, Jonathan Batiste, Stay Human
Regular airtime: Mondays-Fridays, 11:35pm
US: 23 Sep 2016
There’s no one left on earth who doesn’t know Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run debuts this week, as the publicity machine has been rolling out in full force all month long. Particularly in terms of television appearances, Springsteen has been stepping up in advance of the book in a way he hasn’t had to do for albums.
Even though the book includes an album of previously unreleased material, Springsteen’s been sitting and talking more than he’s been playing in order to promote the autobiography. This includes repeatedly highlighting the fact that Springsteen has depression, a mental illness that runs in his family. Clearly, the book isn’t meant to be construed as a tell-all bombshell, as this depression reveal has been the focus of the advance coverage and I doubt that anyone who’s really listened to any of his lyrics will be surprised that the Boss sometimes gets pretty down.
Stephen Colbert’s number finally came up on Friday, when Springsteen appeared on The Late Show for the entire hour after Colbert’s monologue. They’d previously agreed on giving him three slots, which represents all the available interview time on the show. The fourth and final slot usually belongs to a musical act.
At the end of the third segment, Colbert requested that Springsteen stay to continue their conversation into the final segment, which means one of four things: Springsteen was going to play and instead he agreed to talk more, Colbert bumped whatever unadvertised act was going to appear in the fourth slot, the show never slotted the fourth segment because they expected Springsteen to run over his talk time, or Springsteen had agreed to four segments all long and Colbert’s request was simply a conceit to make the audience feel special. Those last two options are super cynical and substantially unlikely, but aren’t any of the options a bit disappointing? Would we rather hear Springsteen talk, or play?
So, disregarding the two parts of their dialogue that replicate all of Springsteen’s other appearances this month—his reflections on how writing a book is somewhat different from making a record and the fact of his depression—let’s consider what Colbert was able to get out of Springsteen that was new.
Springsteen is fond of casting mystery over everything he does by turning it into a metaphor. He’s accustomed to constructing poetic comparisons so that his lyrics conjure up pathos. One reason these televised interviews are valuable is that they are an opportunity to force Springsteen to deal more directly in facts. His ability to convey those facts to Colbert is notable because it relied less on the emotional quality of his autobiography, and more on his sense of place. Throughout the interview, Springsteen displayed repeated interest in the politics of space and how he inhabits it alongside his audience.
For his walk on music, Jon Batiste chose Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book”. This is one of the tracks on the book’s companion album that Springsteen recorded when he was just 16 years old. Before he sat down, he briefly turned to wave at the band, momentarily looking a little uncomfortable to have to be somebody else’s audience. Yet, when he sat down and Colbert asked him to name that tune, he couldn’t do it. Springsteen turns 67 this weekend, and indicated that his distance from the band multiplied by his decades of stage time prevented him from being able to hear what they were playing. He wasn’t really open to being their audience.
Realizing the awkwardness of the answer, Colbert quickly turned to make a joke about judging the autobiography by its cover, and asked what the 27-year-old on the cover would say to the 67-year-old rock star today. “Where’d my car go? Who’s the old man in the suit jacket? And what did he do with my hair?” The car has disappeared and a suit jacket has appeared in its place, two very different markers of what’s cool.
His hair has also disappeared. Springsteen has never had good hair, if we’re going to honestly judge photographs of him, but everybody knows the story about not being able to walk at his high school graduation because he refused to get a haircut, so the symbolism of this commentary is clear. The fact is, young Springsteen would disapprove of elder Springsteen. These questions from his younger self show a sense of bewilderment tinged with suspicion, and a very current preoccupation with the visual. He didn’t have to focus on Colbert’s question from the perspective of the photograph itself; that was one among many routes for an answer that he chose.
Colbert briefly returned to another part of Springsteen’s origin story, and this is where the sense of space really takes hold. It was the vision of Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show that brought Springsteen to music. Of course, Colbert’s show is in the same theater, meaning that Springsteen was now in the space that was briefly inhabited by his idol.
Colbert asks him how it feels to be there, but Springsteen has higher standards. His eyes search the carpet and he gestures toward the expanse of floor. “I’m curious as to where he stood here.” Being in the room isn’t enough. It’s not in the air; he wants to put his feet right on the spot. He needs to get closer. Even the Boss can’t touch his idols; even the Boss longs to physically overlap with a space he personally considers sacred.
When the conversation inevitably turns toward their mutual Catholic upbringing, Springsteen again focuses on how he might inhabit sacred space. Colbert quotes from the book that this upbringing is “where [he] found [his] song”. They talk about how to a young boy, hell is a literal place; the fact that Springsteen’s not wanting to be scared all the time turned him off of Catholicism early. He says he was “the worst altar boy on planet Earth”, and aside from trouble with Latin, all the evidence offered is of a spatial nature. He remembers running down the street in a predawn hour, trying to get to the early service on time. He remembers telling another altar boy he needs major help because he didn’t study his role well enough to perform it responsibly. When he has to simply light some candles, he can’t do it. He finds himself face down on the altar, having been collared and put down by the angry priest, and remarks that he was “the only altar boy to be knocked down on stage”.
Colbert returns to the subject of the memoir to ask, “What do you mean by ‘the magic trick’?” Then he adds that he only really gets intimidated when interviewing musicians because they “have a magic I don’t understand”. Springsteen says, “You’re there to manifest something. Before you go in there, it’s an empty space. It’s an empty building. So the audience is gonna come and you’re gonna show up, and together you’re gonna manifest something that is very, very real. It’s very tangible, but you’re gonna pull it out of thin air. It wasn’t there before you showed up. It didn’t exist.” He describes this experience as one of catharsis and transcendence, and he views his purpose as assisting with the audience’s deliverance.
It isn’t lost on Colbert that this is pretty much a description of the functions of a good altar boy, and he makes a transubstantiation joke. He follows up by asking how Springsteen knows he’s “turned the trick”, and Springsteen relies that “it’s in the air”. This is in direct tension with his own desire to stand in the exact same spot as Elvis once did. In his elaboration, he inadvertently harkens back to the previous topic by saying that an excellent concert experience can “alter you”.
To begin wrapping the interview, Colbert turns to a softball question about how long the shows are, referencing the E Street Band’s recent four-hour record-breaker. Springsteen says, “I’m here to take you out of time. I’m here to transport you someplace else. I’m here to alter time and space, and play with it myself, and help you move in and out.” He also credits a “little man under the stage” who throws lyrics up on the teleprompter instantaneously when the Boss calls for a last-minute song that none of the band has rehearsed. Colbert then raises the specter of his own “man under the stage”, and cuts to a live feed of the sound mixer who as a young man once helped Springsteen mix the version of “Henry Boy” that appears on the memoir’s companion album. This is another thing connecting Springsteen to the place of the Ed Sullivan Theater.
Most of the reviews and clips of this episode of The Late Show focus on the final segment where Colbert asks the Boss to name his personal top five from his own catalog. He quickly lists “Born to Run”, the title of the book he’s ultimately there to hawk. Then he names “The Rising” and “Thunder Road”, followed by “but ‘Nebraska’ was a good one”. Then, at a loss, he turns to the audience and they immediately start shouting out a bunch of different songs. He veers toward “Jungleland”, and then decides on “Racing in the Street” based on their suggestions.
I see very little merit whatsoever in this itself, but as an activity it speaks volumes. At the end Colbert rightly declares, “These are everybody’s top five, by the way.” More to the point, Springsteen curated his list based on the audience that happened to be there with him, and what they happened to shout when he momentarily ceded the floor to them. He makes a joke about people being planted in the audience. Taken in conjunction with his remarks about pulling the show’s energy out of thin air together, it’s clear that he would make a different list if you gave him a different space with a different crowd. The list is in no way meant to be definitive; it’s a one-off moment between the idol and whichever of his fans were present.
The interview concludes with Colbert presenting Springsteen a birthday gift: a framed copy of the original schematic for the Ed Sullivan Theater. Colbert says the building historian informs them that Elvis would’ve played pretty much right where they’ve been sitting the whole time. Bruce goes “wooooo” and gives a thumbs up. He seems underwhelmed, and then all I kept thinking was: too bad the Boss didn’t perform in that spot where Elvis performed; he could’ve gotten closer. Then again, didn’t he indeed perform? Springsteen quite clearly thinks of any stage he’s standing on as his church. The Ed Sullivan Theater, under Colbert’s progressive Catholic personal brand, is often described as his church.
On this episode of The Late Show, Springsteen’s consistent attention to the space results in the same transubstantiative feat as his concerts. He was able to get it done in a new space, without a guitar.
Can the book—an experience that happens everywhere and therefore nowhere—also get it done? I’m going to set the bar as high as possible for this memoir based on Springsteen’s own preoccupation with the particularities of place: If Born to Run provides an equally transformative experience that’s detached from the spatial politics of the concert stage and its attendant live audience, if it succeeds in a collaboration with readers despite their isolation from his sacred space and from his guitar, then the Word of Bruce will truly have achieved omnipotence.