Springsteen Photographer Chronicles 32 Years of the Boss
The anticipation surrounding Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's show at the BB&T is brewing like a swollen sky before a thunderstorm. The Boss plays the venue for the first time in more than four years on Tuesday, April 29, as the tour supporting latest release High Hopes bounds on.
The E Street Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by none other than Bruce himself, who gleefully introduced them as a "heart-stopping, pants-dropping, love-making, earth-quaking, Viagra-taking" group. This should be quite a show.
In preparation for his arrival, disciples of the Bard of the Rust Belt should indulge in Debra Rothenberg's stellar photo book Bruce Springsteen in Focus 1980-2012 (Turn the Page Publishing). Rothenberg is an award-winning photographer who shot everything from sports stars to politicians and currently works for the New York Daily News. However, it is in her fellow New Jersey native, Springsteen, that the photographer's passion for her subject separates her from the rest of the photo pit.
Tour after tour is lovingly documented; from his pathology of the broken American Dream in The River and Nebraska, through the first-pumping stadium rock of Born in the U.S.A. to Springsteen's commercial renaissance of the past ten years or so. The evolution of the artist is evident and the euphoria of the Springsteen live event constant.
Rothenberg took time out from touring her book to talk with us here at New Times.
New Times: You have photographed a variety of subjects over your career, though photographing musicians seems to be a favorite. Why is this?
Well, if there's anything else I would have wanted to have done, it would be to be a guitar player in a rock band, but I can't play guitar, and I definitely can't sing! So I thought the next best thing was actually being there. I love music, and I love the energy of the performers also; like a sporting event, you never know what you're going to get, you always have to be really on your toes, you don't know what a musician is going to do, if they're going to leap in the air, run around the stage... I love music; I want to be a part of it.
Have you always been a fan of Springsteen?
No. When I was 15 in New Jersey, I got sick and was out of school for three months. In order to graduate with my class, I had to go to summer school. The options were math, science, or a printing class -- it sounded creative, so I took that. The teacher was very young, 23. The first day, he was playing Bruce on a stereo as we entered class, and I hated it!
My music tastes in those days didn't stray past Barry Manilow. The teacher said to me, "Rothenberg, by the end of the summer, you are going to love this music, you are going to have all his albums, and you are going to want to go to one of his shows. He's from the Jersey Shore." I remember thinking, "This is never gonna happen. Am I supposed to like him because he's from the same state as me?"
The second week of class, the teacher is playing somebody else, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. I asked him if he could you put Bruce back on. The teacher was a photographer himself, and he showed me some photos of Bruce he'd taken from some of his shows. I was hooked.
When did you first see Bruce live?
First time I saw him in concert was December 2, 1980, in Rochester, New York. I went to college there. Seeing him for the first time was so amazing, I had the worst seats in the house, but it didn't matter; you could really feel the energy from the stage. I took a picture with my camera; I thought it was the best picture I was ever going to take of him... Wow, I was pretty wrong!
Over the years, I've seen thousands of rock shows, but Bruce's shows are always so real. There's nothing fake, there's no lip-syncing or pyrotechnics; everything is genuine, and you know that it's from the heart. This is a guy and a band who absolutely love what they do, up on stage, performing for their fans. I've met so many people at his shows, and it's so wonderful to hear so many stories. I ask them, "What is it about Bruce that you like?" and they say, "He has a song that I feel that he wrote for me."
His music speaks to people over the world; it's universal. Aside from the Beatles, there's not many artists where you go can anywhere in the world and find people who really understand the songs.
What's your favorite Springsteen album?
My all-time favorite is Darkness on the Edge of Town. If I could go back in time and shoot a tour, it would be that. I did have a ticket, but my parents said I was too young. I've since seen a bootleg, but it would've been great to go. Of all albums, that album is still my favorite one.
You've been shooting Bruce for over two decades. What changes have you seen over the years?
Honestly, not that much of a change. The energy is still there. I look at him at 64 and think back to the first time I saw him when he was 31 -- he has the same amount of energy as he did back then, maybe more as today he doesn't take an intermission in a three- to four-hour show. The stage is bigger, and he's sliding around. I stand photographing a concert, and I can't walk afterwards. He's swinging the guitar around his neck and holding it up; he's never out of breath. It's amazing! I look at him and I think "Who are you?" Where's this energy from? If he could bottle that, I'd buy it!
Has Bruce ever recognized you shooting his shows?
At the Stone Pony in 1989, I was doing a test -- can I shoot and sing and dance along? It's something over the years I've realized I can't do! Anyway, I was taking a bunch of pictures, and he looked at me and looked at the camera, and he threw his arms out and goes "Debbie!" and he nods and laughs. All the people around me are jumping and grabbing me going, "Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" Well, I'm always there when he's at the Pony, and it's nice to know that someone reads the photo credits!