Thousands of music industry professionals — and hopefuls — filled the Austin Convention Center’s largest ballroom Thursday afternoon to hear this year’s South by Southwest keynote speech by The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen.
“Why are we up so fucking early? How important can this speech be if we’re giving it at noon?” Springsteen cracked after walking out to a standing applause and bellowing cheers of “Bruce!” “Every decent musician is still asleep, or they will be by the time I’m done with this speech.”
That was, however, not the case and Springsteen instead spoke with the sort of powerful words and intensity you’d hope to hear from one of music’s finest poets and performers. Running through his own life and experiences with music of all genres, from Elvis Presley to soul to punk and country music, he said, “Whatever the genre, it’s all about how you’re putting what you do together. There is no right way, no pure way of doing it, there’s just doing it.”
Paraphrasing famed rock critic Lester Bang‘s Presley obituary, “Where Were You When Elvis Died?”, Springsteen said, “Elvis was probably the last thing we were all going to agree on… We would never see eye to eye again.” Any band since, he said, one might love and another might think “sucks,” adding, “[But] bands believe they have the power to turn Lester’s prophecy inside out.”
To the audience’s excitement, throughout his speech Springsteen would occasionally pick up a guitar and play through examples of the varying styles of music he was referencing. He sang doo-wop harmony lines, the first verse of The Animals‘ “We’ve Got to Get Out of This Place” and the main riff of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and tying his speech into SXSW’s celebration of folk icon Woody Guthrie‘s 100th birthday led the ballroom through the first verse of “This Land is Your Land”.
Springsteen continued then to speak of playing that Guthrie song at President Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration with Pete Seeger, saying, “On that day when we sang that song, Americans young and old, black and white, of all religions and beliefs, for a brief moment were united by Woody’s poetry.
“So perhaps Lester Bangs wasn’t completely right. For here we are all together,” he said, looking around, “celebrating a sense of freedom that was Woody’s legacy.”
“Rumble young musicians rumble,” he continued. “Open your ears and open your hearts. Don’t take yourself too seriously and take yourself as seriously as death its self. Don’t worry but worry your ass off. Have iron clad confidence but worry, it keeps you awake. Believe you’re the baddest ass in town and remember you suck… It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two entirely contradictory ideas alive and well in your heart at all times. If it doesn’t drive you crazy it will keep you strong. And when you walk onstage tonight to bring the noise. Treat it like it’s all we have and then remember, it’s only rock and roll.”