Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features keyboardist and guitarist David Sancious.
If the entire musical career of David Sancious had been confined to 1972 to 1974, he still would be a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Not only is the original E Street Band pianist a crucial part of Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, not to mention a little song called “Born to Run,” but he was also the only one to actually live on E Street, giving the band its name.
But Sancious was just getting started when he left the E Street Band in September 1974 to launch the jazz fusion band Tone. Since that time, he’s become one of the most in-demand keyboard players in the world of classic rock, touring with everyone from Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck to Peter Gabriel, Sting, Jack Bruce, and Jon Anderson of Yes.
Sancious called us from the beach near his new home on the Hawaiian island of Kauai to talk about his amazing career and new solo LP Eyes Wide Open.
I thought you were a Woodstock guy. When did you move to Kauai?
My wife and I moved here permanently in January.
That was good time to flee the mainland. COVID was just starting to hit.
[Laughs] It was unbelievably good timing, I’m telling you. My wife and I sold our house in Woodstock back in October. We moved and got here the last day in January.
I’ve heard the virus is starting to spread in Hawaii. How are things where you are?
We’ve had a pretty low death rate for the state. All of the small islands are considered counties. This is actually the county of Kauai. On the Big Island, they’ve had quite a few cases. But we aren’t under a total lockdown here. Restaurants are beginning to open up with social-distancing guidelines. There’s nowhere near as many tourists as there would be. It’s mainly just local folks.
What’s interesting here is that we don’t have mainland states’ rights things where people are walking around going, “I have a right not to wear a mask” or “It’s all a hoax and phony.” People are abiding by what’s being recommended to them. When you go into a shop, you put your mask on. When you’re at the beach, they leave you alone. I’m at the beach right now in my car talking to you.
I want to go back and talk some key moments in your life. How old were you when you first got interested in playing music?
God, I was six. The summer of my sixth year we moved from Asbury Park to Belmar. Included in the sale of this house my parents bought, there was this upright piano. The people that owned it previously didn’t want it, so they left it there. My mom was a really good pianist. She played classical piano. I was fascinated watching her play. That’s how it all got started.
Who were your musical heroes in rock as a teenager?
Jim Hendrix would be number one. I also dug a lot of British music and the folk scene, like Richie Havens; Dylan I listened to a lot. He’s incredible. And Cream was one of my favorite bands back in the day, and Zeppelin. At an early age, when I was a preteen and early teen, I just soaked up everything. It’s almost easier to say what I didn’t like rather than what I liked. Everything had a big influence.
There wasn’t a lot of piano in bands like Cream and Zeppelin.
That’s right. And so when I was about nine, I got interested in playing guitar. What I loved about the guitar was the fact that it was so portable. You could take it with you, walk around the street somewhere, sit down and play guitar. You can’t do that with a piano. The thing goes out of tune and you have to call a professional to fix it. It’s a whole big deal.
I’m sure you’ve told this story a lot, but tell me your first memory of ever seeing Bruce Springsteen.
That was the summertime when I was about 15. There was this club in Asbury Park called the Upstage. I used to walk there or I’d hitchhike since it was about eight miles away from where I lived. I always wanted to check out what was happening there musically. One night, I make it there and I’m walking up the stairs. It was on the top of a three-story little building. Bruce and [future E Street Band bassist] Garry Talent were standing at the top of the stairs and they were organizing a jam session. I had met Garry a month or two before. We wound up playing on someone’s recording session somehow.
I walked up to the top of the stairs, saw Garry and he introduced me to Bruce. He was already famous locally. I knew who he was, but I hadn’t met him. He asked me if I wanted to sit in on the next jam session they were planning. That was it. I think I sat in for about three hours, almost nonstop.
What impressed you about Bruce back then?
Oh, man. Again, Bruce was famous before Bruce was Bruce. Locally, he had this reputation of being one of the best guitar players in the area. He was playing all kinds of stuff, like blues and kind of heavy-metal guitar as well. And also, early on, he just started refusing to do covers of other people’s music. He was always songwriting. Unless it was something that was real important to him musically, he refused to do any covers. He was only playing original songs at bars. That was extremely rare back then. Almost nobody was doing that back then.
You were onstage with Bruce at the Student Prince that famous night in September 1971 when Bruce met Clarence Clemons. What is your memory of that night?
[Laughs] It’s funny. It’s almost like a movie or a little song. It was a rainy summer night, already dark. This cat walked in the room. The thing about Clarence is that he was a large human being. He was literally a big man. His nickname Big Man didn’t come from nothing. He was so striking as a presence. Then he got onstage and he started playing sax and, again, nobody else locally could play like that. He was playing like King Curtis and all the great R&B sax players. It was quite a night.
He came out of nowhere. I was not familiar with him as a musician at all. I heard he played with this band called Norman Seldin, a local thing. But I hadn’t heard him or seen him live. It was quite a night to go from not knowing him at all to suddenly …
I’ve heard various versions of the story. In your memory, did the door blow off its hinges and down the boardwalk?
[Laughs] I don’t know about all that. Maybe I was inside looking away. I don’t know.
In Clarence’s book, he wrote that they’d pick you up last before gigs because you were always late and they’d wind up sitting in your driveway on E Street for a long time. It’s even been said that’s why it’s called the E Street Band. Is that true?
I don’t know how true it is. I don’t know. I think one time they did pick me up around dinnertime and my folks wouldn’t let leave until I finished dinner, so they had to sit in the car and wait. I don’t know about the rest.
I love the interplay between you and Danny Federici. That’s clearly the sound that Bruce wanted, that mixture of piano and organ.
Exactly. You could get to a lot of nice textures and things using both instruments carefully, absolutely.
What’s your strongest memory of recording Greetings From Asbury Park? What can you see in your head the most clearly?
Oh, gosh. Wow. That’s a tough one. Let me think. Clearest memory of that record … I have more clear memories of The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. I remember we had to break for a whole lot of college shows. What I remember about the Wild, Innocent session is that everyone was a little sick and we had to go nonstop. We had the studio booked pretty much 24/7. We would only sleep and then get back in the studio as fast as we could. Clarence had tonsillitis. I had some kind of cold. I just remember that if we weren’t working, if we weren’t doing an overdub, if we weren’t cutting tracks together, somebody would be off in some room trying to sleep.
Tell me how you created the piano into for “New York City Serenade.” Where did that come from?
That just came from an improvisation. Bruce just let me play whatever I wanted as an intro to the song. There was a signal that this was kind of a descending piano arpeggio that happens. That was a cue that I was done with the intro and he’d launch into the song. It just came from the fact that he just gave me that much freedom to create. It was great.
Was there a sense of disappointment in the group when the first two albums didn’t really do anything?
Not really. I think we were too busy trying to work to be disappointed about it. We were happy that we were having the gigs that we had, especially once there was a record contract and we were recording and touring around. I’m sure people had their frustrations about different things at different times, but basically I just remember the work. I remember a lot of shows.
It’s been so mythologized, but I’m sure at the time it was a grind to travel from show to show, often in pretty sub-optimal conditions for little pay.
Absolutely. It was difficult. But that’s the kind of thing that makes you a better musician. It builds character. It sort of gives you a stronger foundation to carry on.
Do you remember the conversation you had with Bruce when you told him you were leaving the band?
Yeah. What happened is we had done a run of six shows [in July 1974] at the Bottom Line in New York City, which no longer exists, sadly. Somewhere around the third or fourth night, an A&R man for Columbia Records came that heard a demo tape that I had done in Virginia a couple of years earlier. He came backstage and he introduced himself and he asked if I was still writing music. He said he heard this particular demo tape and he wanted to offer me some studio time to make another demo and he offered me a deal.
I said, “Sure.” They gave me the studio time and I made a demo. I think it was maybe another month or two from when I actually did it that they said they wanted to offer me a contract. When all that happened, I was at Bruce’s house. He used to live in Long Branch right across the street from the ocean. We got together and I told him. “This is happening. I feel like I need to do it now. I need to put the same kind of energy into it that you’re putting into your records.”
He was a sweetheart. He understood. Not only did he understand, but he’s been one of my biggest supporters to this day. He’s one of my biggest supporters of whatever I’m doing musically.
You had just recorded the song “Born to Run.” Did you have a feeling that song was special when you made it?
What was special about that song was the length of it, actually, and the kind of changes he went through. He used to write these kind of epic songs like “Kitty’s Back” with big stories. But compositionally, he was just coming up with chords and doing things that were a little bit different. It was quite something to put it all together and get it to flow. He really worked at having the whole thing flow from beginning to end. I think he rewrote the lyrics about four or five times to end up with what he ended up with.
How did you feel in the months after you left when Born to Run exploded and you saw him on the cover of Time and Newsweek? Any regrets?
No. I knew way before that. I probably knew before this, but when I knew for sure that Bruce was going to be huge and it was only a matter of time, whether I was there or not, was this one time we played in Texas. He used to send the set with “For You.” He’d do a solo piano version of it, not the band. That used to be the last thing.
This one particular night at this placed called Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas, the crowd was going nuts all night. We played every song we knew and they still didn’t want to leave. They had turned the house lights up and everything, but they were freaking out. And so Bruce came out and did this acoustic version of “For You.” It went from his raucous place to where you could hear a pin drop. He had total control of the audience and the song was so engaging to people. I knew then that he was going to be as big as he is, as he became.
But I didn’t personally regret leaving the band. I had my focus what I was doing. It wasn’t like I was sitting at home watching his big success.
I love all the Tone records, but True Stories is probably my favorite.
I had a three-record deal for Arista. What happened is that I had done a record called Dance of the Age of Enlightenment. It was a long-form ballet that was going to be choreographed and everything. I turned it in and at first they were like, “”This is really something!” Two weeks before the release date, they decided they didn’t want me to make that record. They wanted me to make something else more “commercial” that could get played on the radio.
I was really, really upset at the time. The music they didn’t want was, at that time, really representative of a real achievement for me musically. So I went home for a while and thought about it and I sat down and wrote all the songs that wound up on True Stories.
To flash forward a bit, how did you wind up on Jack Bruce’s 1980 album I’ve Always Wanted to Do This.
I got a phone call from John Scher, who was a concert promoter on the Jersey Shore. John told me that Jack was looking to put a band together and go into the studio. He had asked [drummer] Billy Cobham and [guitarist] Clem Clempson, who I didn’t know at the time, but we became very good friends later. It was just a call. “Are you interested in doing this recording session and putting this band together?” We did this one album and a tour of the States and a tour of Europe. That was that.
As a Cream fan from your youth, that had to be quite a thrill.
Yeah. Jack was one of my heroes and Cream was one of my favorite bands. I digested that Cream music so much, man. There was a point where I could play it note for note.
On that tour, were you doing a bunch of Cream songs?
We did “Politician.” I used to request that when Jack was putting the set together. I used to play guitar on a few songs, like that one. “I’m So Glad,” too. After that band with Billy Cobham broke up, Jack asked me to do a tour of Europe with him. He asked Bruce Gary to come, who was the drummer for the Knack. I think there’s live stuff recorded from it. Someone sent me some [footage] from a German live television show we did. We put this thing together and flew over to Germany. I played more guitar in that trio with Jack than I did with Billy Cobham and Clem.
Another song I loved to do was “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” Jack said to me, “You sound very much like Eric, your phrasing.” I said, “Yeah, that’s how I know the song.”
Let’s move on to the Jon Anderson album and tour of 1982. It must have been fun to reinterpret all of those Yes songs.
Yeah. Yes were not what I would consider “rock & roll heroes” to me. They were a little further down the line, but that whole fusion music era where bands like Genesis, Yes, Gentle Giant, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, that whole type of music … I really was a huge Yes fan. I listened to that music a lot.
I got a call, I think, through Clem Clempson. Jon had left Yes, one of the three or four times he had left the band. He was going to do this solo album, which wound up being Animation. I think Clem might have suggested me as the keyboard player. The session was interesting. Jon didn’t really have fully fleshed-out pieces of music put together. He was really relying on the rest of the musicians to sort of pull it together, which we did. It was fun playing the Yes music live. I think we just did one tour of America. That was it.
How did you connect with Peter Gabriel for the So tour?
I got a call back when [my 1975 album] Forest of Feelings had just come out, maybe a couple of months. I got a call from the record company in New York City saying that they had gotten a telegram from Peter Gabriel. He had heard my record and was really impressed and wanted to know if I’d be available to play on his next record. He was getting ready to leave Genesis and do a solo project. He was coming to New York and he sent me this telegram. … I’m cracking up thinking about it, because how far away are we from telegrams?
Anyway, I got in touch with him. He said he was coming to New York. He flew in and came down to Long Branch, New Jersey, which is where I was living at the time. He got together and came to my house. Peter used to carry a lot of stuff in bags, not luggage. He had these paper bags filled with cassettes and notes. I had a little piano at my house he could play. He played me these little versions of what wound up as songs on his first solo album [in 1977]. We hit it off right away. He’s a lovely guy.
We didn’t end up doing the project because my touring schedule with Tone didn’t allow us to do the recording session in Canada at the time that his producer [Bob Ezrin] wanted it to happen. We didn’t wind up doing that, but we stayed friends over the years. Every time that Peter would come to America, he’d get in touch and invite me to the show. That went on for a while.
Around the time that So came out [in 1986], I got a call saying that Peter was going to change the band. He wanted to change keyboard players and the drummer. That’s when I got the call to do rehearsals for the tour. The album was already out.
That was a really special tour because that album was just exploding.
The tour was fantastic, man. That tour was one of the best times I ever had on the road. It was so great. We all got along so well as a band. I had not been familiar with Manu Katché as a musician, but he was, at that time, the hottest young drummer in Paris. It was a great bunch of people to play music with and to be on airplanes and cars with every day, moving around the world. It was great.
I love Peter’s approach to a live show. He always takes the production to a different level than anyone else. And on that tour, he finally had the budget to do it right.
It was really exciting. I don’t think I’d been in a project that put that kind of theatrical precision on something like the lighting and the staging and what you’re wearing and all that. It was really fun to be a part of, every educational.
Then you guys did the Amnesty International tour in 1988 with Bruce and Sting.
That was crazy. I think we went around the world twice in something like six weeks.
What’s your fondest memory of that whole experience?
A lot of fond memories. I remember that they took a 747 and they outfitted it so all the seats were the same. That meant that all the bands and the stage crew traveled together. One fond thing I remember is that the flight used to end in a pillow fight as the plane was landing. The pilot would announce, “Fasten your seatbelts for landing” and a pillow fight would erupt through the whole airplane. That happened on every flight. It was hysterical.
I’m sure it was fun to be back with Bruce, Clarence, Garry, and Danny. The last time you toured with them before that, it was vans and motels. This is a 747 and five-star hotels.
I sat in a couple of shows with Bruce on that tour. And it was great to be around everyone every day. You’re traveling together, you’re having lunch together. You’re watching each other’s shows. When we weren’t onstage, we were checking out the other bands. It was like music camp in a way.
You even played Africa. Most big rock tours never get there.
That was another major moment. It wasn’t my first time in Africa since I’d already gone with Peter. But it was special to be in Africa and to be with those people there. Clarence and I hung out big time in Africa during our days off when we had spare time. We did a lot of shopping and checking out markets. We went to some nature park once and spent the whole day. That was great.
How did you wind up part of Sting’s band after that?
That goes back to when I was playing with Jack Bruce. I met Sting when I was playing in Jack Bruce and Friends. We did a German television show called Rockpalast. On the bill was Jack Bruce and Friends, the Police, and Graham Parker and the Rumour. We get to the studio and we do our soundcheck, we’re looking over and all three of the Police are checking us out during the whole soundcheck and rehearsal. We finish and come offstage and they introduce themselves.
Jack Bruce was a big influence on Sting as a bassist. Jack composed a lot of that music and he also played bass. That same goes with Sting. He introduced himself and we got along great. It was the same kind of thing. Whenever the Police were in America and playing on the East Coast, I’d get a call from John Scher and he invited me to the Police shows. I remember they did Synchronicity at the Meadowlands in New Jersey and I went to that show and hung out with him for a while backstage.
That went on for a while. And I think it had to be 1990. I get a call from Sting’s bass tech, Danny Quatrochi. He goes, “Sting wants to know if you’re available to come to Italy and do some recording.” Kenny Kirkland was in the band, but he’d gone missing and Sting really wanted to finish his record. He asked me if I could get on a plane real quick and come to Italy and finish off any recordings.
I was very excited about that. I said, “Yeah, right away.” I went to Italy and finished about three or four songs for what became The Soul Cages. The session was great. And then I was in London doing another session with [guitarist] Dominic Miller and Pino Palladino on bass and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums. I got a call from Sting’s manager saying that Sting wanted to know if I was available to have dinner with him that night. I said, “Yeah.”
They came by the studio and picked me up. He was doing a video shoot for “All This Time.” They take me to some cool restaurant in London and they say to me, “We’re going to go on tour as soon as this video and stuff are done. Would you want to come on tour with us?” I said, “How long?” They said, “About a year.” I said, “Yeah.” That was the start of about four years of touring with him.
Tell me about the Sting/Grateful Dead tour of 1993.
That was a hoot, man. That was a hoot. That was another time where everyone got along famously. I remember the road crews were very liberal with the psychedelics. If anyone was into smoking or ingesting anything, the Grateful Dead crew had it. They were quite generous with it if one was interested in that. That was the kind of thing going on behind the scenes.
Musically, I just remember that whole period where it was a quartet of Sting, Dominic Miller, Vinnie Colaiuta, and myself, that was such a strong unit. We played so many shows. It was so tight. We could turn on a dime. We used to have multiple arrangements for any individual song. I think for the tune “The Soul Cages,” we had four possible arrangements. It would be like a football play. We’d do a huddle before we went on the stage and he’d just call out, “We’re going to do this arrangement.” I remember those shows were just fantastic. We just loved it.
I’ve seen a picture of you playing with Jerry Garcia on that tour. How did that happen?
He used to sit in. We invited him a couple of nights in or something on “Tea in the Sahara.” He used to stand on my side of the stage next to me and get through the song. You can tell from the photographs how much fun he was having. His face was lit up to be playing.
How did you wind up back in the studio with Bruce to play on Human Touch?
That was a phone call. I was in Los Angeles doing another session for someone else. I got a call in the studio and it was Bruce’s producer. He asked me how long I was in town for. They were at A&M Studios and they wanted me to come over. They wanted me to come across town and play on a couple of tracks. I said, “Absolutely, yeah.” I actually stayed in L.A. a couple of days after just to be there and relax. It was fun. I think all that happened in one or two days. I remember playing on “Soul Driver” and “Real Man.”
Were these overdubs?
Yeah. It was in the studio with just Bruce, the producer, and Jon Landau.
Moving ahead a bit, tell me how you wound up on the Eric Clapton tour.
I was working for about three years with Seal, which was an amazing little period in my life. During that time, we were in Los Angeles. We had finished Seal’s record [Human Being] and we were rehearsing. We were scheduled to do a world tour. It was in 1999 or so. The band was myself, Seal, Tony Levin on bass, Brian Blade on drums. We had two great backing singers. It was a great band.
I get a call from Sting. He went, “Hey, what are you doing?” They had just released that film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels where Trudie Styler was involved in the production of it somehow. They were having this red-carpet premiere thing and he invited me. I went with my wife and we watched the film. I’m a big fan of director Guy Ritchie and we had a good time.
There was this classic Hollywood after-party afterwards and it was fantastic. Somewhere during this party, Sting pulls me aside and was like, “We’re about to go on the road for a long run. Are you done with Seal? Can you come?” I said, “Aw, man, I’m already booked to do a year with him.”
He snaps his fingers and goes, “Damn, I knew that was going to happen.” He really wanted me to be back in it. But what happened is, a few months down the line, as we began our tour with Seal, the record company bailed on it. They felt they didn’t have another “Kiss From a Rose.” They bailed on it in terms of publicity and radio support. The word got around to all the different concert promoters and, one by one, they wanted to renegotiate the guarantees for the artist or to cancel guarantees altogether.
We were about three or four shows in. We did West Coast shows, California, Vegas. We got to the East Coast and did one show in New Jersey before a break of a couple of days. We all got phone calls saying that the whole thing was canceled, they were very sorry, blah, blah, blah.
Then I felt bad that I didn’t … What I’m trying to say is that it’s not an honorable thing to do, even in the music industry, if I say, “Oh, great. Sorry, Seal. I was just offered a long Sting tour. I’m out of it.” It’s not right. I wasn’t raised that way and it’s not right in business. You get a bad reputation for doing something like that.
Suddenly I had no work and now I’m home. And I remember around that time, I got a call from Eric Clapton’s office offering me a tour. He was going to do a tour with an orchestra and they asked me if I wanted to do it. Again, I couldn’t do it because I’d already committed to Seal’s thing. The Sting thing didn’t happen. The Seal thing didn’t happen. Now I’m at home trying to find some fuckin’ work. I start making phone calls to everybody I know. I remember calling Eric’s office and I said, “I don’t know what you guys are up to now, but I had a project that collapsed. I’m available if anything is going on.”
I spoke to a secretary and she said she’d pass on the message. Maybe three days later, I get a phone call from Eric himself. He’s saying, “I just got your message …” It turns out the person that he’d used on the previous tour didn’t want to leave town, didn’t want to do it. He had a TV show, or something. He said, “We’d love to have you if you want to do it.” I said, “Yeah.” That was that. It was starting in about four months.
How was that tour? Playing that “Layla” piano coda at every show must have been really cool.
It was just awesome. I remember during rehearsals one day I was playing that very part. Eric turned to me and said, “You know, David, that’s the best anyone has played that part in about 15 years. Everyone tries to overplay it. You just play it and it’s beautiful enough as music.” Oh, God. That was a great tour.
There was a live double album from that tour called One More Ride, One More Rider. I’m glad that show got recorded. And talk about playing with a hero, Billy Preston was also a huge influence and an idol and an inspiration to do the kind of work I’m doing. Part of that tour, Billy was in the band. He was meant to do the whole tour, but he had a tax problem and they wouldn’t let him leave the country. He couldn’t do the European part. I was on keyboard myself for that part of the tour, but when we got to America, Billy joined in. Then he couldn’t leave to do the South American and Asian tour, so we got Greg Phillinganes.
The band got along great on that tour. We had a fantastic time. Eric had his own dressing room, but he always wound up coming into our dressing room because he wanted to hang out with us. It was the greatest pre-show ritual. He had this traveling audio unit with a big TV. Before going on, about half an hour before onstage time, we’d be chilling out.
We’d watch things like this British comedy Father Ted. Eric and [guitarist] Andy Fairweather Low used to sit around and watch Father Ted. Eventually, we’d all sit around and watch Father Ted. It’s a British comedy about these two clergy guys in the north of England. We’d all be laughing. Also around that time, the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? came out. We watched that film so much we knew it by heart. We knew every line.
How did that tour compare to the Jeff Beck experience a few years later?
That tour was fantastic. He was also a big influence. When I started playing guitar, the three guitar players that were the most influential to me were Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck. Everybody else to me was secondary to them. There were a lot of interesting players, but those were the big three for me. Again, I used to play Jeff Beck records back in the day where you had to drop the needle. I’d only be able to get the first four bars and then back up and try to get the next four bars. It would be hours and gradually, bit by bit, you learn what he’s doing on the guitar and you try to copy it and play along.
What happened was I was on tour in Italy with an Italian artist named Zucchero. That tour was a bit rough. I wasn’t particularly happy, but it was going to end soon anyway. I was advised to just go along with it and tough it out. Sure enough, I get a call from Zucchero’s tour manager. He says, “Are you going to be in your room for a little while? Jeff Beck is trying to reach out.” I said, “Yeah, I’ll be right here.” It was around breakfast time. He calls up and said he was going to go on tour, but Jason Rebello, his normal keyboard player at the time, wasn’t able to do the project. He said, “Will you do this tour of Australia and Japan with us?”
I played it real cool on the phone and was like, “What time? Great. Great to hear from you.” As soon as I got off the phone, I got on the bed and I jumped up and down with joy like a little kid. I was so happy.
What was the tour like?
That was a great time with Jeff. The thing I remember most is that it was like, “OK, you’re playing with one of your heroes, like Jack Bruce. You’re with Jeff Beck.” The rehearsals were challenging. But he said to us, “Once we get through the first show …” And every succeeding show on the tour was better and better. It kept going higher and higher every night. And then we got to hang out together. His room was next to ours and he’d come over and crack some champagne and hang out. And then a couple of times, especially in Japan, we just hung out after the show. We went to this club at 2 a.m. where they were playing old Motown all night. We had drinks and just chatted. It was so cool and he’s a fantastic person, a lovely, lovely guy.
I’ve talked to him a few times and I’m always surprised at how funny he is. He cracks me up every time.
He’s hysterical. He does the best impersonation of Jackie Mason. He’ll have you in tears doing Jackie Mason. He goes it perfectly. It’s hysterical. He’s brilliant like that.
Then you were back with Peter Gabriel on the Back to Front tour. That had to be a real time warp playing those same songs with the same band.
It was. It really was a trip. There’s a lot of love in that ensemble. Again, the rehearsals for that were challenging. Technology being different, it wasn’t like you snap your fingers and put that show together again. It took a minute to put together that particular show because we tried other songs and things. But once we got going, it was fantastic.
How was the experience of the E Street Band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction for you?
It was super special, though I really missed Clarence. That was heavy. It was double duty. It was ironic because not only did I get to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the E Street Band, and I got to perform with the E Street Band again, which was too much fun; I got to perform with Peter Gabriel because he got inducted on the same night. I had to do two rehearsals. I rehearsed with the E Street Band and then went into another room, changed, and rehearsed with Peter Gabriel. We did two songs. What a privilege that was. It was great.
Do you think the E Street Band maybe spoke a little too long?
All of us or anyone individually?
I guess all of you …
[Laughs] I don’t know, man. Do you know who we thought took forever? We were talking about it backstage: Cat Stevens. It was like, “Sorry, dude …” But maybe they did. I only listened back to mine once since I did it. My brother sent me a thing. I don’t think I went on too long. I actually forgot to thank someone I really wanted to thank, my attorney, so I’m hoping I get some other award again before I die. Maybe I’ll get a Grammy or something and I can thank him then.
It was so much fun to watch you play “Kitty’s Back” that night. It must have been emotional to play that song again.
It was. It was emotionally very good. Bruce kept looking at me. I was doing a solo and was like, “I can wrap it up now …” But he kept turning to me and giving me signals to keep playing and keep going. He did that two times.
It must have been the first time you’d done that song in forever.
It had to be. Absolutely. It had to be the first time since before Born to Run came out.
The Sting/Peter Gabriel tour was right after that. Talk about a tour custom-made for you.
Yeah. That was crazy. Again, what was most fun about that was getting to be with everybody and traveling around like that. It was fun.
How hard was it to mash the two bands up into one band?
It was challenging, but the rehearsals were set up for that. The bands rehearsed separately and then we had individual rehearsals. We sent people files of how we were doing. For instance, in Sting’s band we came up with this killer arrangement of “Shock the Monkey.” We just had to fold them into it. Peter sang it. People made up their own, other parts. It was fun. It was structured nice. At the end of the day, we got it all done. We revised it a few times. It didn’t stay statically the same show, the same running order, all the time. We kept tweaking it as it went along.
That tour was relatively short. I was surprised to see that it didn’t go to Europe or Australia or anything.
It was meant to go to Europe. What happened is that Peter’s wife took ill and had to deal with some very serious issues. He didn’t want to travel at all while she was dealing with that.
She’s all better now, but Peter hasn’t done any sort of tour in the past four years. I’d love to see him back out there.
Me too. I’d love to be in it when he goes back out. When can we go back out, though?
I’m thinking maybe 2022, or possibly 2023.
It’s looking like that, my friend. It’s looking that way.
I think that 2021 is totally out of the question for major tours.
Absolutely. Forget about anything the rest of this year. Next year is not going to happen.
We’re getting close to the present here, but tell me how you wound up on Western Stars. Once again, you’re back with Bruce.
Again, a phone call. It was summertime. I was at home. The producer [Ron Aniello] called and said, “Can you come down to Bruce’s house for a few days? He’s working on this project, not an E Street Band project, and can you come down and play on a few tracks?” Where I lived in Woodstock, New York, and where he lives in New Jersey is only about an hour and a half away by car. I went down, stayed for a couple of days. It was easy. It wasn’t a working-all-day session. It was from 3 to 6 p.m., three-hour periods. It was fun.
A couple of my things were overdubs, but we did some tracks too with drums, guitar, and piano, like “Drive Fast (The Stuntman).” That was cut live.
It’s a shame there was no tour behind that album.
I said to him, “I don’t know what your plans are when you finish this, but if you plan to take this music out on the road, I’d love to do it with you.” He said, “Yeah, absolutely.” And here we are.
Being back with him must really nice. I imagine you fall right back into it since you’ve known him since you were teenagers.
That’s exactly what it is. There’s only a few people that I have that with. Bruce is one. [Former E Street Band drummer] Ernest [“Boom”] Carter is another. He’s like a brother. You don’t spend a lot of time together, but when you are together it’s instantly what it was. There’s no lapse there. I love doing anything musical with Bruce. I love to have dinner with him. We had a fantastic catch-up a couple of years ago. I was playing with Sting in Rome [in 2016]. We were at this stadium. Bruce was in town playing at some other stadium and they had a couple of nights off. Bruce comes to our show, sits on the side of the stage, checks out the whole show and then invites us to his hotel a couple of blocks away.
There was this huge banquet with, like, 25 people at this one table. Everybody was there. Barbara Carr, Stevie [Van Zandt], Bruce, Garry. Everyone from the band was there. Sting came. We had the best time. Bruce and I ended up sitting there on the corner of the table just talking about old days staying in hotels and what it was like. It was so much fun.
In an alternate life, if you stayed in the E Street Band all these years, you wouldn’t have had all these experiences. You wouldn’t have toured with Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, Sting, Peter Gabriel … You would have been tied to one thing.
That’s exactly right. That’s why I can never feel any regret about it, even in the times where you may not have had as much work or as much money as you wanted. But things happen. Things develop.
Let’s go to your new solo record Eyes Wide Open. What were you goals going into that?
I had finished working with Sting. The last thing I did with him was in Vegas in January of 2017. When the election happened, I used to jokingly say to Sting and Dominic on the plane, “Donald Trump isn’t fit to be president of the Rotary Club, let alone the United States of America.” They used to chuckle at that. Sure enough, when the worst thing happened, and he won the election, I got home and really got serious about finishing the album that ended up being Eyes Wide Open. I had a bit of it recorded, but I did some brand new songs.
I wanted to make a statement about the insane state of where this country is, and the world was well. There’s some major problems happening and they effect all of us. No one is exempt from what’s going on here. The music, over time, just wrote me. I just got focused. I didn’t have any work coming up and I really wanted to take advantage of the time to finish it off. I really had a lot of fun working on that record. I learned a lot. I had a fantastic time.
The cover of the record a really strong statement. It really speaks to the state of the world right now.
Yeah. That was on purpose. I wanted image of conflict across the world. That first scene with the Guy Fawkes mask … the audio on the crowd when the title track starts, you hear all these voices in the background, that’s audio from a democracy protest in Hong Kong. Now look what’s going on today in Hong Kong. It’s very serious. This is beyond draconian. You open your mouth against the Chinese Communist government and you can be taken away and never seen again. That’s insane. It can’t be allowed to go on. We as a nation can’t let that stand.
Do you miss touring? Do you miss playing live?
I miss it like I cannot even say. I have to really control myself and not think too far in one direction because it can get dark. I can get to thinking, “Maybe I’ll never tour again.” I don’t want to think that. But to honestly answer your question, I miss it terribly. I miss the camaraderie. I miss the sensation of being in the presence of other musicians and looking in their eyes and having that physical contact with them. I miss rehearsing. I miss soundcheck. I miss it all.
I’m feeling hopeful about 2022.
I’m going to hang onto that with you. Everything we have going on politically and socially is challenging enough. We have an insane person in charge. We have our version of Mad King George in the White House. But biologically, we have estimates that there’s only 30 years left for this society because we are messing up the air and the water so badly. They are saying that in 30 years, if we don’t get it together, that’s going to be the end of it.
There’s all of these social things happening at the same time. If it has to be like this, if we’re going to go out as a race, we should go out swinging. We should try our best to do everything we can to be better as people and stop all this madness. The animosity against immigrants, the racism that gets someone killed on their way home. It’s insane. I think the business will come back, but we need to make as much progress as a society as we can. That’s the challenge for all of us.
During our conversation here, I got a news alert that Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running mate.
Oh! Fantastic, man! That gave me some good news, right here. Thank you! He put his foot in his mouth big time the other day when he said that black people were monolithic. I was like, “Dude, no! Don’t say that!” So good. If he would have picked Kamala Harris or Susan Rice, I’m happy with either one of them. Don’t do a big switcheroo and pick someone else and break my heart. Don’t do that! It’s awesome that he picked Kamala.
I’ll close this out with a totally random thought. I was listening recently to a 1974 E Street Band bootleg with you and Boom in the lineup. When he’s on drums, it’s a different band. I really dig it.
I’ll tell you, man, the one regret I have about the E Street Band is there wasn’t more recordings with Ernest on the drums. That lineup with me, Ernest, Danny, Garry, and Bruce, that was such a tight band. I know the recordings you are talking about. That was big-band tight. It’s unbelievably tight and it swings and it rocks real hard. I totally agree with you. I wish there was more.