Keeping up the craftsmanship theme I have been exploring recently, I’ve been meaning to share this feature on Bruce Springsteen that I read last summer in The New Yorker. It’s an immensely interesting long profile on the enduring, iconic rock-and-roll star. (You’ve got to add the “roll” for Springsteen, don’t you? He’s more than just a “rock” star.) I was in college when his biggest album, Born In the U.S.A., dominated our music consciousness. It seemed like every song on that album was a huge hit. It was one of the first CDs I owned. (I was one of the first in my dorm to own a CD player and make the transition from vinyl. I have always been a bit of an early adopter.) Unfortunately, I have never seen Springsteen in concert, and his performances are considered epic. He goes for hours at high energy and gives the audience more than they expect. The man is in his sixties now and still going strong as an artist and performer. Here’s an excerpt from the article describing a rehearsal:
Springsteen arrived and greeted everyone with a quick hello and his distinctive cackle. He is five-nine and walks with a rolling rodeo gait. When he takes in something new—a visitor, a thought, a passing car in the distance—his eyes narrow, as if in hard light, and his lower jaw protrudes a bit. His hairline is receding, and, if one had to guess, he has, over the years, in the face of high-def scrutiny and the fight against time, enjoined the expensive attentions of cosmetic and dental practitioners. He remains dispiritingly handsome, preposterously fit. (“He has practically the same waist size as when I met him, when we were fifteen,” says Steve Van Zandt, who does not.) Some of this has to do with his abstemious inclinations; Van Zandt says Springsteen is “the only guy I know—I think the only guy I know at all—who never did drugs.” He’s followed more or less the same exercise regimen for thirty years: he runs on a treadmill and, with a trainer, works out with weights. It has paid off. His muscle tone approximates a fresh tennis ball. And yet, with the tour a month away, he laughed at the idea that he was ready. “I’m not remotely close,” he said, slumping into a chair twenty rows back from the stage.
Preparing for a tour is a process far more involved than middle-aged workouts designed to stave off premature infarction. “Think of it this way: performing is like sprinting while screaming for three, four minutes,” Springsteen said. “And then you do it again. And then you do it again. And then you walk a little, shouting the whole time. And so on. Your adrenaline quickly overwhelms your conditioning.” His style in performance is joyously demonic, as close as a white man of Social Security age can get to James Brown circa 1962 without risking a herniated disk or a shattered pelvis. Concerts last in excess of three hours, without a break, and he is constantly dancing, screaming, imploring, mugging, kicking, windmilling, crowd-surfing, climbing a drum riser, jumping on an amp, leaping off Roy Bittan’s piano. The display of energy and its depletion is part of what is expected of him. In return, the crowd participates in a display of communal adoration. Like pilgrims at a gigantic outdoor Mass—think John Paul II at Gdansk—they know their role: when to raise their hands, when to sway, when to sing, when to scream his name, when to bear his body, hand over hand, from the rear of the orchestra to the stage. (Van Zandt: “Messianic? Is that the word you’re looking for?”)
The article goes on to describe Springsteen leading his band through a meticulous, intense rehearsal in an empty hall they rent just to prepare for a tour. I’m sure after all those years of performing, The Boss could just walk out on stage and put on a good show without much preparation. But he doesn’t want to be just “good”. He’s great because he approaches his work with discipline (note above how he takes care of his body) and attention to detail. He’s a master, constantly refining his craft. And rehearsal is crucial.
My college speech teacher, Cal Logue, was insistent that we must rehearse our presentations out loud on our own multiple times before facing an audience. I was reluctant, feeling it silly to talk to myself in an empty room. But I did it, and in the process discovered problems and new ideas and connections that wouldn’t have been obvious had I not rehearsed out loud. I still do it when preparing a big presentation. I close the doors on the presentation room in our office, load my slides, and give my talk to a bunch of empty chairs. And I never fail to come up with improvements. Timing and flow especially benefit from live rehearsal, and you can’t get that from just reading over your notes multiple times and clicking through your slides over and over. If the first time you give a prepared talk is in front of a live audience, you’re giving them something less than your best. If Springsteen still rehearses, you should, too.