Gary James' Interview With Bruce Springsteen's photographer
Frank Stefanko calls Bruce Springsteen his friend. Frank's photographs appear on the cover of Springsteen's albums "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" and "The River", as well as in the packages of "Springsteen's Greatest Hits Live 1975-1985". Frank is the author of the book Days Of Hope And Dreams, An Intimate Portrait of Bruce Springsteen. Frank talked with us about his book and friendship with Bruce Springsteen.
Q - Frank, I found the title of your book to be rather interesting and revealing. I'll explain. You title the book "Days Of Hope And Dreams". By 1978, when you started photographing Bruce, he was already an established recording and touring musician, which is probably what his hope and dream was. Would you agree?
A - Yes.
Q - So, he achieved his dream. Would the title then be more descriptive of how you felt about the time? And what your hopes and dreams were?
A - Yeah, well, it was not just me. As I said in the book, it was both of us. At the time, several years ago when the book was released, we were looking for a title. There was a wonderful Bruce Springsteen song called "Land Of Hope And Dreams", which is kind of one of the better, more contemporary songs that Bruce has done since the early days, in which he says in the song, "This train carries saints and sinners." In other words, this train will take anybody that wants to come along and wants to go ahead. You don't have to worry about the past. You just have to come on this train and the future will be there for you. So, it's kind of a redemption song. I just happened to like that song a lot. I asked Bruce for permission, if I could use a version of that song title for the title of my book, because the way I felt about it in 1978 when we were doing the book, although Bruce had had some success, it was post Time and Newsweek. It was post litigation with his former manager. He was just pretty much hooking up with Jon Landau at that point. He hadn't recorded anything in quite awhile. The "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" album that we worked on back in 1978, and did that album cover, was kind of like his re-emergence. He had been kind of out of the loop for a few years and was coming back and coming back with a vengeance. But, he was a little concerned on how he was going to be received after all these years and so forth. At the time, we were both a lot younger. The shoots were meaningful. The pictures were images he was looking for to portray the characters in "Darkness On The Edge Of Town". For me, it was a great opportunity to work with someone who was my musical idol and somebody I looked up to. So, where would Bruce go? Did we have any idea back then at the magnitude of success that he's had, how prolific he's been and how much of an American icon he's become? I had a great opportunity to do pictures of this guy and other people...Patti Smith. When I look back in retrospect when we were putting these images from 1978 through 1982 together, I said my God, these were the Days Of Hope And Dreams for both of us. That's why I asked Bruce if I could use that for the title, even though I was borrowing from his great song "Land Of Hope And Dreams". Opportunities are there. If you can just make it happen. Just do it, then the opportunities can take care of themselves.
Q - What do people say when they see these photos?
A - Well, ironically there were two gallery shows, September of 2003 and March, 2004. The first show was at Govinda Gallery in Washington, D.C. in Georgetown. And the second gallery show from these photographs, which we call "The Days Of Hope And Dreams Show" was at the Earl McGrath Gallery on West 57th St. in Manhattan. They were received very well. We did very, very well in the galleries. Some of the photos were also included in the traveling museum show called "Bruce Springsteen: Troubadour Of The Highway" that originated quite a few years ago at the Fredrick Wiseman Museum in Minneapolis and then went to the Cranbrook Museum outside of Detroit and then went to the Experience Music Project in Seattle, and then last summer it had a very successful run at the Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey, which is very close to Springsteen country. It was a very, very popular show. As a matter of fact, they told me the attendance was up, like 300 percent at the museum while that show was in place. (laughs) So, that's amazing. Where were at right now is, those photos are gonna be shown again along with some Patti Smith photos in a brand new show that's gonna open up May 26th, 2005 at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in Soho, on Prince Street in New York City. Then it will re-open June 18th, 2005 at the Morrison Hotel Gallery on Prospect Street in LaJolla, California. So, we're very excited about that 'cause we're taking a good bit of the photographs from the original "Hope And Dreams" show that opened in Washington at Govinda, and we're adding 15 vintage Patti Smith photographs to the show and one or two Southside Johnny photographs that I did during the Southside Johnny "Hearts Of Stone" album cover that I did. We're just adding a few out-takes from that shoot. It's gonna be kind of a Swamps of Jersey show of New Jersey artists, but it'll be keying on Bruce and Patti Smith.
Q - The Hard Rock Cafe brought a traveling Rock 'n Roll Museum to the New York State Fair a few years ago. Would you ever consider doing something like that? Have you been approached?
A - No, I haven't been approached. I am considering contacting the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. I've been told recently that the curator there does purchase for permanent collection, rock 'n roll vintage photographs. I have a lot of stuff besides Bruce that I've done over the years. The bulk of that work was done in the 60s, 70s and 80s. I did a new shoot with Bruce just in November of last year (2004). But that was for a project we're not talking about right now.
Q - When is the last time you spoke with Bruce?
A - I spoke with Bruce in January, 2005. And I saw him the Monday before Thanksgiving (2004). We worked together for the better part of the day.
Q - Has he seen this book of yours and what does he think of it?
A - Yes, he has seen the book. There's a deluxe edition of the book which he also owns, which I gave to him. He is very happy with the group. He told me that I should be proud of it, that it's a wonderful book. He's very, very happy with it. Of course, you know he wrote an introduction for me in the book, himself.
Q - You write "When I started working with Bruce in 1978, I knew I was in the presence of something great."
A - Yeah, even prior to that. In the book I mentioned what had happened prior to working with Bruce in 1978, probably closer to 1972 or 1973... I'm not even sure. Originally, prior to Bruce releasing "Greetings From Asbury Park", Bruce did a lot of radio broadcasts from the Main Point Cabaret in Bryn Mawr, Pa. The late Ed Sciaky, who was a local Philadelphia disc jockey, was actually hosting that concert. I heard it on the radio. I think it was on WMMR, a local FM radio station. I heard this band and the music was just unbelievable. Then he was telling these stories. These far-fetched stories, these wild stories about life in New Jersey and leaning out his window at Duckie Slattery's gas station and watching the guys working on their cars in the summer nights. I just related. I said, my God, nobody's ever done this stuff before. This is Jersey. This is rock 'n roll. The band was fabulous with the saxophone and the tightness of it. I hear a lot of music, but I never quite heard anything like that. He kind of nailed it all down for me. I think at the same time I was telling my friend Patti Smith, and we went to college together, you know this guy Springsteen is gonna be somebody. He's got what it takes. He's gonna be a star. That was way back then. Then when I was working with him, I just felt that he had all the components...the drive, the ambition, a tremendous grasp of what he wanted to do, a great work ethic, all the charisma, he was very brilliant in terms of how he paints pictures with words. He creates this character and these different situations. I'm a fan besides being one of his photographers.
Q - Where does that talent of Bruce's come from? He didn't study music in college. Is it a God given gift?
A - It's definitely from within. I think it started out with his family. We had talked a lot about family. We both have Italian mothers and non-Italian fathers. Bruce's father has since passed on. But, there was a lot of emotion, a lot of passion in these kind of families. We had siblings that we could interface with. But, there's something inside. There's a burning desire to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish. He started playing in these pick-up bands, in garage bands. There was a whole evolution and no money and yet he kept at it. The desire was there. The passion was there. He wrote these unbelievably complicated songs in the beginning with all these different references to the city scenes and Spanish Johnny, the barefoot girl on the hood of a Dodge drinking warm beer in the soft summer sun...soft summer rain I mean. These images were just unbelievable. You just don't come along and read a book and say OK, I'm gonna write this stuff. You gotta feel it. You gotta live it. You gotta be walking through those streets of New York City. You gotta be out there in the heartland and feel the feelings that people have. Just the people. The people of the land. You can't be removed from it and know so much about it. You've got to be able to feel it. In order to relate that, to evolve in such a wonderful way, culminating right up to "The Rising" and how powerful and emotional that album was...it takes somebody special to put that kind of music out. I've heard other people refer to 9-11, but I've never heard it put in such a personal and soulful manner as he did in "The Rising".
Q - As relaxed as Bruce looked in those photos, he worked very hard to get that look, didn't he?
A - Well, there's two Bruces, you know. (laughs) There's Bruce off-stage and there's Bruce on-stage. What I've found is, a lot of the times off-stage, he is in a relaxed state. His mind is always working. He's always thinking. He looks around. He'll see something and store that away in his mind and it'll be used somewhere in a song. He's a sponge in terms of absorbing life around him. Yet in a relaxed way, he keeps things in perspective and keeps pace. But once he hits that stage, he's just a dynamo. He's the burning sun. He's all over that place. He's just energy. Pure energy. So, in that sense, there's two Bruces.
Q - You write "Bruce lives through every part of what he produces, whether it's his own lyrics and music or the graphics and text designed for his album or CD." Is Bruce a control freak? It sort of sounds like it.
A - (sighs) A control freak is a funny word. Is it important to him to make sure that everything is done properly, the way he sees it? Yes. If indeed that's your definition of a control freak. But, he also has the ability to co-operate and to get ideas. If something makes sense, he'll adopt those ideas as well. He's not a total dictator. But, he does have a very strong sense of how he sees the package to be, from the music on how it's laid down, on how it's arranged, on how it sounds to the graphic, to what the package looks like and to the concert, on how it's choreographed and how it's going to affect his audience. That's not being a control freak. You know what that is? That's being an artist. An artist wants things to be laid down the way he or she sees it.
Q - Bruce liked Elvis. He told you stories about going down to Graceland and trying to get in to see Elvis. You mean Elvis wouldn't see Bruce Springsteen?
A - At the time that this happened, Elvis was famous and Bruce was not yet famous. From what I understand, he actually tried to sneak onto the property and see if he could get to meet Elvis, but he was not successful at doing that.
Q - What year would that have been?
A - He told me that story in 1978. It happened probably five or six years prior to that I would think.*
Q - On page 104 of your book, Bruce talks about how lucky you are to have a front porch. Where was Bruce living at the time?
A - In 1978 he was living in a suite of rooms at the Navarro Hotel in Central Park South, while he was working on "Darkness On The Edge Of Town", in New York City. He did not have a home at that time.
Q - So, the front porch meant a lot.
A - Yeah. Yes it did. He's got a front porch now. (laughs)
Q - A big front porch. Now, you got to sing "Lodi" (Creedence Clearwater Revival) with Bruce. I take it Bruce is a Creedence fan?
A - Well, let's just say at that time in 1982, when we were riding through the Jersey pine barrens, singing "Lodi", that was one of Creedence Clearwater's songs on an album he was listening to at that time. Then, he's also done in concert "Who'll Stop The Rain". He's also done some things with John Fogerty, including the Vote For Change tour.
Q - You said, "I have often said it's not what you take with you in this life, it's what you leave behind." That's a pretty profound statement isn't it?
A - Yeah, I think it's kind of profound. You know...what's it all about? Think about it. Do we want to collect a lot of material things and put 'em in a closet and you leave the earth and they're in that closet? It's not the old adage; "you size up the boys by the size of their toys." It's not that. It's "what have you accomplished? What is substantial? What have left behind in this life?" Not what you take with you. That's meaningless. What you leave behind is very important. With Bruce, he's leaving behind wonderful, wonderful music...great, great stage shows. A lot of memories for a lot of people who have gone to those shows. A lot of information about being aware of yourself in the modern world. Doing a lot of charity, which you don't hear too much about. He's done a lot in his life. With me, I'm able to leave behind a book and some photographs of Bruce and some other artists. Patti Smith, Southside Johnny, Janis Joplin, Bette Midler...the people I photographed over the years. What I'm saying is, it's something to leave behind for people to enjoy and study and maybe get some insights into some things of their own.