Dispatch from SXSW : Bruce Springsteen’s Keynote

Post from Stephen Becker reporting from AUSTIN – “How important can this speech be if we’re giving it at noon? Every decent musician in town is still asleep!”

That’s how Bruce Springsteen began the 2012 Key Note speech at SXSW. What followed was part comedy, part life lesson and part call to action.

Before some brief opening remarks, he talked about his own musical journey, which began with seeing Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. He learned from this white man playing black music that, “you could call upon your powers of imagination and could create your own transformative self.” Six-year-old Bruce got his hands on a guitar a week later and has been playing ever since.

After Elvis, he soaked up inspiration from a diverse collection of genres and performers. He loved doo wop (“Don’t it make you want to kiss somebody?”) and Roy Orbison (“He seemed to take joy in digging his deep knife into the belly of our teenage insecurities.”) before moving on to Phil Spector albums and The Beatles.

But he’s got a special place in his heart for The Animals. At the podium, he picked up a guitar and sang part of “We Got to Get Out of This Place.”

“We gotta get out of this place
If it’s the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
Girl, there’s a better life for me and you, ooh yeah”

“That’s every song I’ve ever written,” he admitted, to big applause.

From there it was onto Bob Dylan and Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Springsteen, John Prine and Loudon Wainwright III all were signed in the early ’70s to be the next Dylan. “The old Dylan was only 30 years old!”

Next, he circled back to the ideas he put forth at the beginning of his speech about the many, many forms of music that exist today and how all of them are on display this week in Austin. And even though he’s a guy who was raised on the classics, he made it clear that every musician should find his or her own path.

“There is no right way, pure way of doing it,” he said. “There’s just doing it.”

Tonight, The Boss plays at the new ACL Live theater. Tickets were distributed through a lottery system, which was a-OK by me – I was willing to roll the dice on getting in in exchange for not having to go lineup at the venue hours before.

But as luck would have it, my ping pong ball popped up.

There’s only about 1,200 seats in the theater, so I’m feeling pretty lucky that I’ve go this lined up for my first time seeing him. The truth is, I’ve never really gotten Springsteen. I can appreciate his accomplishments, and anyone with that many die-hard fans must be doing something right. But the Bruce I grew up with was corny bandannaed Bruce of “Born in the USA” and “Dancin’ in the Dark.” Those never grabbed me during my formative years, and I suppose I’ve been too lazy to spend much time seeking out Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town.

But I have every hope that he’ll grab me by the collar tonight and not let go, just as he’s done millions of others during his legendary live shows. If he’s half as compelling playing onstage as he is just talking behind a podium, there’s reason for optimism.