14 May 2017, Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA
I am here as a cautionary tale. I am the world's greatest advisor, not because I'm smart, but because I have screwed up every kind of way possible. (applause) Thank you. When I suggest something, I can speak with real authority, because I most likely did the opposite with a not very good result.
After a late but promising start, I found myself in 1990 unable to work. I had been in one of the most successful bands in the world, achieved a significant level of celebrity, but I couldn't work. I was informally, unofficially blackballed by my industry for my political activity. I calmly accepted my fate, and my mind went into a lengthy meditation. I had just been in the Sahara Desert researching the Saharawi, the people of the Western Sahara who are fighting a war with Morocco. That's what I did in those days, I'd identify an area of conflict where our government was involved, often on the wrong side, and I would go and check it out and I would write about it. That would be my last research trip for a while because when I got home, I learned that I had lost my record deal and nobody else was interested. And thus, began my New York version of Wandering the Wasteland.
My mind went back to the Sahara Desert and I did nothing but walk my dog for the next seven years. Gives you time to think, to reflect. How did I get there? I decided if I ever worked again, I would never stop. As I analysed my life and I began to separate back that which had become inseparable, the politics from the work.
I realised how lucky I had been to grow up when I did. It was a true renaissance period, where my standards would forever be set very high. It was only after years of analysing myself at that time, I realised what truly motivated me, what inspired me, what attracted my attention was something called 'greatness'. It was all around me growing up, but I hadn't felt it lately. And that's what separates the vitality of life from the mundane.
Somewhere over the course of about seven years, as I walked my dog, I decided greatness would be my business. It would be my obsession. If I ever worked again. And I've been tasting greatness ever since. Seeking it out, supporting it when I find it, creating it when I can. I decided life was just too short to tolerate and endorse the mediocrity that most of the world was drowning in back then, and it's worse now. The whining, the complaining, the endless excuses that get made for all the reasons why things can't happen. I knew I'd be running in quicksand when at least I'd be fighting to preserve the life force that is driven by reaching for greatness. How I got there, wandering seven years in that desert, that's the cautionary part. My generation and I had a great start. We were the super rich leaders of the free world after World War II. You should've seen us. Masters of the universe. We invented the suburbs. We constructed the entire highway system. Everybody had a car. We were mobile. Free. We invented rock and roll, and then we invented teenagers to dance to it. That's right, there was no such thing as teenagers before the 50s. You were an adolescent, had a few awkward years in between and then you were an adult. That was it.
Suddenly there was a new species of human being called the 'teenager', and a whole new marketplace was born to serve them. Starting with the music. This rock and roll thing was interesting. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, it's an ancient primitive art form you can probably still find on YouTube, or ask your grandparents about it. Actually, you had another rocker here last year giving his speech, as I recall. Yeah, he was a rock and roll guy. Anyway, rock was unique by being the only rock form ever half created by Blacks, half created by whites. Europe meets Africa. With healthy contributions by Latinos, and women, it was for the most part, white kids trying to imitate Black singers and failing gloriously, creating a new hybrid of music. It was represented quite accurately by Elvis Presley's first single. ‘Single’ being a piece of vinyl with a song on each side. It doesn't matter.
On the one side was blues, on the other side, hillbilly country. There it was. From the earliest records, rock would play a role in the future of American politics. The mix of Black and White that would eventually help define our country. As I said, combined with the contributions of Latinos and plenty of women contributing, the melting pot would melt in the arts long before it would melt in society. In fact, we're still working on that melt in society and your generation is gonna have to finish that job.
Because of the tax structure at the time, 90% at the top, we had a huge middle class, very few rich people, very few poor people. And are ready for this? At one point, the dollar had so much value, it was seriously talking about a four-day work week. And that was with one parent working in most households. Oh yeah, we started strong, baby. My generation were gonna save the world. We literally thought rock and roll was gonna change everything. We came into our teenage years at the peak of a music renaissance, as I mentioned, with the greatest music being made was also the most commercial. It was actually a resurrection because just before that, the early 60s, rock and roll had been declared dead. The pioneers of the 1950s that created it, were suddenly all gone. Little Richard thought the Russians launching Sputnik was a sign from God and joined the Ministry. Chuck Berry was in jail for transporting a minor across state lines. Elvis Presley was in the army. Buddy Holly and Richie Valens had died in a plane crash. Jerry Lee Lewis had married his 13-year old cousin and wondered why nobody was returning his phone calls. Everybody thought rock and roll was a temporary teenage fad that had come and gone. There were good records being made but things were slow.
February 9th, 1964, everything changes. I refer to it as the 'Big Bang'. A band called The Beatles came from England and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Variety Show that 70 million people viewed and tuned in for. And suddenly rock and roll was here to stay. The Beatles made being in a band, not only fun, but essential. The next day everybody had one. A band, I mean. And here's where we enter the picture. Only a handful of bands actually got out of the garage where they rehearsed, and mine was one of them. For a few years, that's all we thought about. Learning that craft. Then suddenly high school was over and everybody started disappearing. Everybody who had an option took it. College, military, a legit job, they moved away, whatever. And when the dust cleared, there were only two guys left standing in New Jersey: me and Bruce Springsteen.
I'd like to tell you an inspiring-type commencement story about how dedicated and persistent we were following our dream against all the odds. But the truth is we were freaks, misfits and outcasts incapable of doing anything else. We hung in there because we had no choice. We strengthened each other by truly believing in it, and rock and roll had literally become my religion by then and still is. We believed in the redemptive salvation of music. Bands were all about friendship, family, the posse, the gang. As I said in that clip, bands communicated community. To this day, the friendship we communicated from the stage is real. Because of our long friendship, as long as I'm standing next to Bruce Springsteen, it's a real band.
We would have the longest apprenticeship in the history of craft. It would be fifteen years from the first gigs we played as kids, to the time we actually had a hit. Fifteen years. The Beatles did it in five, the Rolling Stones did it in three. We were a little slow. But, what we had was tunnel vision. When you're learning a craft, you need that. Any craft. Focus. Everything else has to wait. Not only that - and this is where coming from New Jersey really helped - you need time to develop. Greatness isn't born. It's developed. Greatness is a decision you make. You make that decision every single day with everything you do, no matter how small. It's a habit, like anything else. Are you being casual? Are you distracted? Or are you doing it right? 100%. Whatever it is.
As if you are in the learning process, while you are in the learning process and you think you're being somehow inadequate, not up to the task, then you are not measuring correctly. You cannot be inadequate while you are developing. Give yourself a chance. Nobody is born great. But you look around today and how are you supposed to aspire for greatness when you have no access to it? Once you go out to the real world, you'll see what I mean. You have the greatness here, and your professors in the work. Out there in society, there aint no place for it. There's no expectation of greatness anymore. It's very scarce. And by the way, I'm not talking about the kind of great you put on a baseball cap. I'm talking about the real thing.
Our contemporary society has forgotten what greatness is because it has no time for it. Nobody expects to experience greatness. We may not even recognise it if we saw it. Reason why greatness is scarce is because development is scarce. Development takes time. Don't let the desperate panic of mediocrity that is all around you, uncomfortably hurry your development process. Anybody who needs an answer right now, you say 'no'. You'll make your own opportunities, you'll have the choice to choose the path to greatness, in spite of our contemporary society's low expectations. It'll be up to you.
Attention deficit disorder is no longer a disorder. It's nothing less than a paradigm shift. Your brains are faster than ours were. The next generation will be faster. You will have to find a way to separate that which is most useful when functioning quickly, like a math problem, and that which is useful to best enjoy slowly, like art. What? You thought I was gonna say sex? Another speech, another time.
The arts hold a special place in the human psyche. It is the common ground, spiritual centre of all humanity. We are able to communicate through art, regardless of our language differences. Please take every opportunity to seek it out and soak it up. The great poet W.B. Yeats said, "The world is full of magic things patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper". Let me say it again, "The world is full of magic things patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper." It is the highest, most sacred part of us, the divine transcendent part of us, and the more conversant you are with it, the younger one starts the better. The more you'll understand it, and the more it helps you understand life.
Art illuminates life. It can inspire, it can motivate, sometimes it exaggerates and helps us understand it's the gift that keeps on giving because it will tell you different things at different ages. A book, a painting, a song, a movie will have an entirely different meaning to you at different times of your lives. And this relationship takes development. It takes familiarity. Ultimately, the better we understand the divinity within that art illuminates, the more inspiration and motivation to achieve greatness in your everyday lives. In your everyday work. Let part of your brain relax and understand certain things are best understood and enjoyed slowly. That's what Yeats was talking about. That's how your senses get sharper, by slowing down. And that's how, once again, we will become a society that aspires to and surrounds ourselves with honours and recognises and achieves greatness... by slowing down.
We are the only country in the world where art is considered a luxury. You are going to have to change that. You might have to change administrations, but your generation will put art back in the classrooms and back as an essential part of our quality of life for all of society. Meanwhile, growing up in New Jersey in the 60s, the last thing in the world we thought about was art. We were just trying to survive. And we were lucky because we had less pressure simply by not being New York or Philadelphia. We also had low expectations. More importantly, the world had low expectations of us because we were from Jersey. We were the underdogs that somehow overcame the odds. Nobody saw us coming. That's something to take note of. Stay under the radar until you're ready. Then bam, blow minds. If you'll allow me this one quick digression, I believe you have an expression here, "Jersey roots, global reach". Is that right? Let me show you how that is applied and that it's not just a clever expression.
A few years ago, I took a crazy job starring on a Norwegian TV show called 'Lillehammer'. It was Netflix's first original show, and it was all going to be done in Norway, with subtitles. Everybody thought I was crazy. "Now, let me get this straight", my agent says, "you're gonna do some cockamamie local show in Norway, after being a principal actor in one of the biggest shows of all time, The Sopranos, right?" I said, "Right". So here's the thing, I became one of the writers, along with the husband and wife that created the show. And they say, "Listen, Norway has never sold a show to any other country. We want this to be the first". I say, "I would like it to be the first, also". So he asked me, "How can we make the show go universal?". And I thought for a minute, and I said, "You know what? I know exactly how to do this. We're gonna do precisely what I watched Bruce Springsteen do, and 20 years later, what Soprano's creator David Chase did."
The way to succeed universally is to be as local and as authentic as possible. The more authentic detail we can get in, the more the world is gonna be interested. Every Norwegian eccentricity, custom, tradition, embarrassment you can think of, I want in this show. Authenticity worked for Bruce, it worked for David Chase in Sopranos, and it worked for Lillehammer, which by the way ended up being sold to 130 countries and won Best Comedy of the World, two years in a row. Just saying.
But can you imagine the record company's faces when Bruce went in to discuss the cover of his first album, and he handed them a postcard that said "Greetings from Asbury Park". Now there had been stars from New Jersey before. Frank Sinatra, Count Basie. But their origins weren't exactly bragged about. From the 1950s comedy team Abbott and Costello, it was a laugh line. "Where are you from Lou?" "Patterson, New Jersey". Big laughs, big laughs. 'Jersey roots, global reach', Bruce Springsteen, Sopranos, Lillehammer, it works. Embrace your Jersey roots and authenticity. Jersey strong. It doesn't matter where you're from. You're in the Jersey family now.
Alright, back to 1980. I co-arrange and co-produce an album called 'The River' and the E Street Band finally breaks through... and just in time, we're already getting old. We achieved the impossible dream and suddenly the tunnel vision I told you about that you need when you're learning your craft, starts to fade. And I start wondering what I missed in those 15 years struggling to make it. Keep in mind, back then there's no news channels. There's no CNN, there's no computers, there's no cellphones. The news was something your parents watched at six o'clock. We don't know what's going on in the world, and we couldn't care less. So, okay. While we're focusing on learning our craft, we kind of missed a few things that our generation was busy doing. Civil rights, Vietnam, Summer of Love, Woodstock. Anyway, we're holding our first successful arena tour in Europe. A kid comes up to me and he says, "Why are you putting missiles in my country?". And I was like, "What are you, tripping?" You know, there's nothing but a fiddle in that case.
But days later, I couldn't shake it. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Once you leave America, you're not a guitar player, you're not a taxi driver, you're not a Democrat, you're not a Republican. You're an American. Well that was big news to me. "Wow. I'm American". Well what does that mean? I guess it means I'm responsible for what my government does. Like putting cruise missiles in Germany at the time. I didn't know any history, I didn't know anything. So I started reading books which was a new experience for me. I read everything I could about our foreign policies since World War II and I was shocked at what I was finding out. We weren't the heroes of democracy worldwide that I thought we were. In fact, we were very often, on the wrong side of conflicts, and I started getting emotionally engaged about it. I wondered why isn't anybody talking about all these dictators we're supporting all over the place? Why aren't we living up to the American ideal our Founding Fathers intended?
So I decided, since nobody else was doing it, this must be my job, my destiny. So I co-produced the next E Street Band album called 'Born in the USA', and after 15 years of work and finally having a little success, I leave the band to dedicate myself to international liberation and politics. A decision for the history books that will never be written and a featured spot in the 'Museum of Stupid.' First advice: never leave your power base, if you are lucky enough to have one. 'Born in the USA' comes out and sells a gazillion copies. And while the rest of the band is getting rich and buying their mansions, I'm hiding under a blanket in the back seat sneaking past a military blockade in Soweto while I research what's going on in South Africa. What a schmuck.
Much to my surprise, I find out I've got a part of my brain that I never knew existed. It was the opposite of the autistic side, which is always trying to find order and truth out of chaos, which I believe is the root of all artistic compulsion. But I happened upon this other part of my brain that functions with effortless logic. Every complex political problem suddenly had obvious solutions to me. I outlined 44 conflicts around the world that America was involved in. I started looking at them more closely. Latin America was full of despicable dictators on our payroll, and I would write about that. I researched our atrocities and ongoing injustices towards our own Native Americans. I wrote about that, including the unjustly imprisoned Leonard Pell Tier who's still in jail. But there was one place on my list I couldn't find much about, and that was South Africa. I heard they were going through major reforms in their apartheid government, which didn't allow Black people to vote. And I heard they kept the Black population contained in ghettos, strikingly similar to what we had only done in America, and that they were invulnerable. South Africa was super strong and that was it.
So I go down there twice hoping to see these reforms, and instead I find modern-day slavery only slightly disguised. And I cannot believe our government is supporting this. What I see is so totally intolerable, I decide the South African government has got to go. Okay, how do we do this? Wasn't much of an issue in America at the time. You'd see an occasional demonstration, but the public apathy was pathetic. It was simply not on the public radar. There was much more consciousness about it worldwide. United Nations had declared sanctions at one of the very first duties after being created. Arthur Ashe, a great African-American tennis player, had strengthened the sports boycott. And I knew the economic boycott would be the end game, so our job was to look up what was already going on and strengthen the cultural boycott, as the bridge between sports and economic boycott.
On the title track of my second album, I asked "Where is the voice of America?". Well, we're about to find out. We formed artists united against Apartheid and produced Sun City with 50 artists on it to make the issue undeniable and unavoidable in America. We made a point to include early hip-hop artists called rappers back then, against everybody's advice. "The rap thing is gonna be gone in a year", I was told. I disagreed. For the first time in history, Black artists were expressing themselves. Marvin Gaye had a fight over what's going on. Stevie Wonder also had a fight with his record company to express himself. White artists were expected to express themselves, ever since Bob Dylan introduced the idea. But that was not the case for Black artists, until rappers.
So me and Danny Schechter and Arthur Baker put Run DMC and the other rappers right next to Bob Dylan, Jackson Brown, Bruce Springsteen and Miles Davis. We were simultaneously making a statement to America about our own apartheid. In the end, it was all about getting the economic boycott done, supporting Ronald Dellums anti-Apartheid legislation. We needed a large groundswell to overcome the Ronald Reagan veto which we knew was coming. And we pulled it off. Suddenly, college campuses just like this came alive in protest. Senators and congressman's children were seeing our video on MTV and BET, and were demanding their fathers do something about it. It was the first time Ronald Reagan's veto overturned, and the rest fell like dominoes just like we wrote it up on paper. The banks cut off South Africa and they had to release Nelson Mandela. It was a stunning defeat for Reagan at the time. He was like god back then, but they never saw us coming until it was too late.
There's an equation for revolution if you wanna jot it down. "Have righteous cause, do the research, organise, strategize, execute". We did it once, so it can be done again. Granted, it was a rare and complete victory in a world of international liberation politics where success is measured one inch at a time. I wasn't a big enough celebrity to really pull it off. It was done by the celebrity of my friends and sheer, righteous, irrational will-power. In addition to whatever issue I was engaged in at the time, my intention was to politicise all my important friends, and make political engagement a normal part of our business, and that's what happened. But back then, it wasn't cool.
You could have social concerns. You could feed the hungry, like the amazing Bob Geldof and the wonderful work of Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson, but crossing that line into politics, naming names, pointing your finger at people and corporations as the source of problems, this was not cool. This was dangerous. "Oh my god, a bunch of crazy artists just run down the government." Record companies started getting concerned. "Are we next?" So, I walked my dog for seven years until the heat died down, and the industry eventually adjusted to artists being more outspoken and politically active as a normal part of our business. Mission accomplished.
At the same time, college campuses had become more politically conscious as well, and that energy exchange between music and students gets things done. At the end of my exile, the phone rings, "Hello, this is David Chase. You wanna be in my new TV show?" "Hey, I'll take a shot. I got nothing else to do". And a whole new adventure opened up that I didn't plan. All I had to do was take the highest standards I had in music, and make them my highest standards in the acting ring. Off I went, once again doing what I do best. Chasing greatness.
Summing up, what did I learn in this crazy life? Two things might come in handy. When your ship comes in, you'll probably be at the airport. You can make all the plans you want, but keep your eyes open for the unexpected opportunities because that's where most of life comes from. Keep your standards high, no matter what. Don't compare yourself to your contemporaries. Compare yourself to the best. Do your homework before you open your mouth. Find a way to do what you love because you're going to be doing it a long time. Hang out as often as you can with people smarter and better than you. Finish what you started. Don't listen to excuses and negativity about why something can't be done. Don't tolerate incompetence and mediocrity. Have pride in whatever you do. If you're gonna do something, do it right. When it comes to art, slow down. It's not a math problem. Let the senses soak it in. And give a little back on a regular basis, doesn't matter how small. You don't have to bring down a bad government everyday. Just do something nice for somebody. You'll feel better.
My generation was gonna change the world. We started some things, but you gotta finish them. We got civil rights and voting rights passed, now gerrymandering and voter suppression is taking it away. We started women's rights and LGBTQ rights, you gotta finish it. We've got separation of Church and State behind you, but be aware the biggest threat to this country is religious extremists. Some foreign, mostly domestic. We established environmental protection, and now the environment is under attack like never before. You know the future is green, I know the future is green. You're gonna finish the job. And don't be confused by all these scientific phrases like global warming, climate change. Just remember this. It's pollution. It's poison, okay? There's no acceptable level of poison in our air, food, ground or water. None, zero, zip, nada.
I leave you with this. My father was a proud ex-marine Goldwater Republican. He wouldn't recognise the party now. I paraphrase Barry Goldwater as a tribute to my late father. "Extremism in defense of the environment is no vice, and moderation in a pursuit of stopping pollution is no virtue. Lead us into a green future, reach for greatness, nothing less and make sure you have some fun along the way. Life should never be boring. Congratulations, go get them.