With apologies to Backstreets, I’ve copied their highlights of Springsteen’s SxSW keynote in its entirety. I cannot find a written transcript of the speech, so this is the next best thing, and it includes the closing of the keynote, which may be the best closing paragraph of any keynote I’ve ever heard. You can watch his keynote here; Here are the written highlights, courtesy of Backstreets:
THE BADDEST ASS IN TOWN: BRUCE’S SXSW KEYNOTE
By GARY GRAFF / AUSTIN, TX
There was an audible — and mass — gasp of disappointment on Thursday afternoon in Austin when SXSW managing director Roland Swenson announced that Bruce Springsteen’s keynote speech would be done in an interview format. It wasn’t lack of respect for Dave Marsh, the eminent Springsteen authority, who’s more than up to the task. It was just that everyone was expecting… well, a speech. So there was relief when, with E Street Band members including Little Steven Van Zandt, Garry Tallent and Roy Bittan looking on, Springsteen strode onstage, in a blue shirt and dark jeans, with a sheaf of papers and a wide smile, asking why we were “up so fucking early? Every important musician in this town is asleep — or they will be by the time I finish this thing.” Hardly. Springsteen enraptured the packed ballroom at the Austin Convention Center with nearly 50 minutes of advice, anecdotes, reflections, and analysis, a fascinating and carefully constructed oral memoir that considered his career in the context of an event with some 13,000 registered attendees and 2,000 bands playing around town. Springsteen — who made a guest appearance at Wednesday’s Austin Music Awards and will be performing his own show Thursday night at ACL Live at the Moody Theater — also grabbed the acoustic during parts of the speech, connecting his doo-wop roots to “Backstreets” and The Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” to “Badlands” (“It’s the same fucking riff!”). It was a speech full of genuine gems, but here are ten of our favorite moments from the keynote.
* No one really hardly agrees on anything in pop anymore. There is no keynote. There is no unified theory of everything. You can ask Einstein. You can pick any band — say, Kiss. You can go, “Early theater rock proponents expressing the true raging hormones of youth,” or, “They suck!” You can go, “Phish, inheritors of the Grateful Dead’s mantle, brilliant center of the true alternative community,” or, “They suck!” You go, “Bruce Springsteen, natural-born poetic genius off the streets of Monmouth County, hardest-working New Jerseyan in show business, voice of the common man, future of rock ‘n’ roll,” or… “He sucks! Get the fuck outta here!”
* So as the records that my music was initially released on give way to a cloud of ones and zeroes, and as I can carry my entire record collection since I was 13 in my breast pocket… the one thing that’s been constant over the years (is) the genesis and power of creativity, the power of the songwriter or the composer or, let’s say, the creator. So whether you’re making dance music, Americana, rap music, electronica, it’s all about how you’re putting what you do together. The elements you’re using don’t matter. Purity of human expression and experience is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntables, to microchips. There is no right way, no pure way of doing it. There’s just doing it.
* Remember, it wasn’t just the way Elvis looked. It was the way Elvis moved that made people crazy, pissed off, driven to screaming ecstasy and profane revulsion… When they made an attempt to censor him from the waist down, it was because of what you could see happening in his pants. Elvis was the first modern, 20th century man, he was a precursor of the sexual revolution, of the civil rights revolution, drawn from the same Memphis as Martin Luther King, creating fundamental outsider art that would be embraced by a mainstream popular culture. Television and Elvis gave us full access to a new language, a new form of communication, a new way of being, a new way of thinking about sex, about race, about identity, about life. A new way of being an American, a human being and a new way of hearing music…. Once he was heard and seen in action, you could not put the genie back in the bottle… there was yesterday, there was today, and there was a red-hot hot rockabilly forging of a new tomorrow before your eyes.
* Even before there was Elvis, my world had begun to be shaped by the little radio with the six-inch mono speaker on top of our refrigerator…. Between 8 and 8:30 every morning as I snowed sugar onto my Sugar Pops, the sounds of early pop and doo-wop whispered into my young and impressionable ears. Doo-wop, the most sensual music ever made, the sound of raw sex, of silk stockings rustling on backseat upholstery. The sound of the snaps of bras popping across the USA. Of wonderful lies being whispered into taboo perfumed ears. The sound of smeared lipsticks, untucked shirts, running mascara, tears on your pillow, secrets whispered into the still of the night, the high school bleachers and the dark of the YMCA canteen. The sound of your incredibly wonderful, limp your ass, blue-balled walk back home after the dance.
* Roy Orbison was the true master of the romantic apocalypse. He knew what was coming after the first night you whispered “I love you” to your new girlfriend. You were going down…. But he also sang that he’d be risen to the heights of near unexpressable bliss by these same very things that tortured him. Oh, cruel irony.
* The other thing that was great about the Animals was there were no good-looking members. There were none. They were considered one of the ugliest groups in rock ‘n’ roll… That was good for me, ’cause I considered myself hideous at the time… And they weren’t even nice. They didn’t curry favor. They were like aggression personified: “It’s my life and I’ll do what I want.” They were cruel, which was so freeing.
* Darkness was also informed by the punk explosion at the time. I went out and got the early punk records, “Anarchy…” and “God Save the Queen.” The Sex Pistols were so frightening. Literally, they shook the earth, which is different from shocking. A lot of groups manage shocking, but… there were very few rock groups that managed frightening. They were brave and they challenged you and they made you brave, and that energy seeped its way into the subtext of Darkness. Darkness was written in 1977, and all of that music was out there and if you had ears you could not ignore it. I had peers that did, and they were mistaken. You could not ignore that challenge.
* Woody [Guthrie]’s world was a world where fatalism was tempered by a practical idealism. It was a world where speaking truth to power wasn’t futile, whatever its outcome. Why do we continue to talk about Woody so many years on? He never had a hit, never went platinum, never played in an arena… But he’s a big ghost in the machine. I believe it’s because Woody’s songs… tried to answer Hank Williams’ question [about] why your bucket has a hole in it. That’s a question that’s eaten at me for a long time.”
* So rumble, young musicians, rumble. Open your ears and open your hearts. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don’t worry. Worry your ass off. Have unclad confidence, but doubt. It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town — and you suck! It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideals alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn’t drive you crazy, it will make you strong. And stay hard, stay hungry and stay alive. And when you walk on stage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it’s all we have — and then remember it’s only rock ‘n’ roll.”