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Professor Springsteen's rock 'n' roll history lesson at SXSW

By Brandon Griggs, CNN
updated 5:39 AM EDT, Fri March 16, 2012
Rocker Bruce Springsteen speaks Thursday at the South By Southwest music conference.
Rocker Bruce Springsteen speaks Thursday at the South By Southwest music conference.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bruce Springsteen delivers a personal history of his music influences at music conference
  • Speaking to more than 1,000 people, he cites his love of Elvis, Dylan, Hank Williams and others
  • Springsteen is at the South By Southwest conference to help launch his new album

Austin, Texas (CNN) -- Anyone expecting outspoken rocker Bruce Springsteen to spend his keynote address here at the South by Southwest music conference talking about his new No. 1 album or the politically divided state of the country may have gotten a surprise.

Instead, Springsteen delivered a rousing, witty and personal history of his varied music influences -- from Elvis Presley to Bob Dylan to James Brown to Hank Williams -- punctuating his points by playing snippets of songs on a guitar. He also offered a little veteran advice for the thousands of young, unknown musicians who have descended upon Austin in the hopes of making it big.

"Stay hard. Stay hungry. Stay alive," he said in his familiar rasp. "And when you walk onstage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it's all you have."

Springsteen is at SXSW to help launch "Wrecking Ball," his 17th studio album, which voices his frustrations over what he sees as a lack of accountability by government and financial leaders for the country's economic woes. Several members of his E Street Band were in the audience, and he and the band were scheduled to perform at a 2,000-seat theater Thursday night in Austin before kicking off a North American arena tour Sunday in Atlanta.

Thursday afternoon's event placed the current Rolling Stone cover boy in an unusual setting: Behind a podium in a packed convention hall -- and in the middle of the day, no less. Looking a little bleary-eyed, Springsteen took the stage 30 minutes late, carrying his notes on sheafs of paper, and immediately complained about the time.

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"How important can this speech be if we're giving it at noon?" he asked. "Every decent musician in town is asleep. Or they will be when I'm done with this thing."

Springsteen began his talk by marveling at the thousands of bands, in almost every musical genre, who are playing Austin this week and how that would have been inconceivable to him as a young music fan. He then pointed out how fractured the music landscape has become and how hard it is for consumers with divergent tastes to gain critical consensus around an artist -- including himself.

In what may have been an allusion to today's manufactured pop stars, he argued that what matters most in music is "purity of human expression," not looks or labels or digital format.

"We live in a post-authentic world. Today authenticity is a house of mirrors," he said in his hourlong talk. "It's about what you're bringing [onstage] when the lights go down."

Springsteen then began recounting his personal journey through music, beginning when he first saw Presley on "The Ed Sullivan Show" at age 6. He managed to get his hands on a rented guitar, but his hands were too small to play it, so he just struck rock poses in front of the mirror. "I still do that," he said with a chuckle.

As a teenager, he recalled gazing in wonder at the Beatles' first record in a five-and-dime store. But the '60s band that made the biggest impression on him was Eric Burdon and The Animals, whose gritty rebelliousness spoke to him deeply. To make his point, Springsteen strummed a few verses from "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," with its chorus, "We gotta get out of this place/,'cause girl, there's a better life/for me and you ..."

"That's every song I've ever written," he said. "That's all of them. I'm not kidding."

To show how The Animals' songs shaped his own, he strummed a few chords from "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," before segueing into "Badlands" and its similar structure.

"Listen up youngsters!" he said to laughs from the crowd. "This is how successful theft is accomplished."

When it came to songwriting, Springsteen acknowledged he owes a huge debt to Dylan, whose lyrics gave voice to the turbulent '60s and who he called "the father of my musical country, now and forever." When Springsteen became famous in the mid-1970s, he and fellow singer-songwriters such as John Prine were given the dreaded "new Dylan" label.

"The old Dylan was only 30," he said. "I don't know why they f***ing needed a new Dylan."

Springsteen went on to cite his love of '60s and '70s soul singers such as James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, who played "music of gritty determination, of the blues, of the earth." He also drew inspiration from the lonesome-blues songs of country icon Hank Williams, which he said reduced him to tears.

"Country music was provincial. And so was I," he said. "I was not a bohemian, or a hipster. I was an average guy with maybe an above-average gift."

In his twenties Springsteen said he read a biography of folk singer Woody Guthrie, whose American protest songs "spoke to me very deeply." As if to prove it, he picked up his guitar again and led the South By Southwest audience in a few choruses of "This Land is Your Land" before leaving the stage.

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