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!
What was the process of putting together Bruce Springsteen in Focus 1980-2012 like?
It wasn't as difficult as what other people go through with creating a book. The main reason is that through the years, I've kept a loose-leaf binder where I'd make notes. With the pictures, there's certain things that happened at shows where I knew that was the shot. One of the more famous photos I've done of Bruce was in 1985. He's wearing a baseball hat on backwards facing the camera at Giants Stadium. Nobody was in my section. Bruce ran down to the side of the stage where I was and turned and gave that smile, and I knew that was the shot. I went, "Woo-hoo!"
There were some that we couldn't fit in. At some of the book presentations, we do a slide show of some of the pictures that we couldn't include.
Have you been surprised at the reception the book has had?
I was definitely surprised and overwhelmed at the official book launch at the Stone Pony. I wondered if anyone was going to come to this, and then I thought I'll probably sell a couple of books, see some friends I haven't seen in a long time. However, it was four hours nonstop, 725 books! It makes me speechless and boggles my mind. I never thought that was going to happen. We'd planned on the book before the Wrecking Ball, but I think Bruce is as big now as he was during the Born in the U.S.A. years. I mean he's everywhere, magazines, TV.
There's been so many other books, but I think this book is different as it spans so many years, and I'm the only photographer as opposed to there being several photographers. That's pretty unique.
He's on fire at the moment; be prepared to have your socks blown off. He's always good in Florida!
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Tuesday, April 29, at BB&T Center, 1 Panther Parkway, Sunrise. Tickets cost $63 to $141.75. Visit thebbtcenter.com.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.