30 years ago: Bruce Springsteen stays plugged in on MTV
Many artists have participated in MTV's Unplugged series over the years. The show's premise is made clear in its title: Artists perform some of their best songs in an acoustic setting. But Bruce Springsteen flipped that concept on its head when he appeared on the program in the fall of 1992 using electric instruments.
Springsteen recorded the show on Sept. 22 at Warner Hollywood Studios in Los Angeles, shortly before he embarked on a tour promoting his two most recent albums: Human Touch and Lucky Town. The episode aired on MTV on Nov. 11, 1992; a live album titled In Concert/MTV Plugged followed on April 12, 1993.
Springsteen did, to be fair, open his set with an acoustic performance, playing the unreleased song "Red Headed Woman," a tribute to his new wife, the redheaded Patti Scialfa, who also happened to be part of his band. Springsteen's divorce from his first wife, Julianne Phillips, was finalized three years earlier; he and Scialfa married in 1991.
Even so, the late '80s and early '90s weren't an especially happy time for Springsteen. Despite the dual releases of Human Touch and Lucky Town on the same day in March 1992, he struggled with the fallout from his divorce as well as the 1989 dissolution of the E Street Band. "I was real good at music," he told Rolling Stone in August 1992. "And real bad at everything else."
Watch Bruce Springsteen Perform 'Red Headed Woman' on MTV in 1992
Springsteen was very clear when he called up the members of the E Street band one by one: The breakup of the band wasn't a permanent split, just a temporary break while he explored other avenues. They were free to do the same.
"I just had to cut it loose a little bit so I could have something new to bring to the table. I wanted to get rid of some of the old expectations," he explained. "People were coming to my shows expecting to hear 'Born to Run' or stuff that I wrote 15 or 20 years ago. And I wanted to get to a spot where if people came to the show, there'd be a feeling of like, well, it's not going to be this, it’s going to be something else."
He didn't perform "Born to Run" during his MTV appearance. Instead, the set mostly included songs from his two new albums, plus Darkness on the Edge of Town's title track, a bluegrass-style version of "Atlantic City" and a sparsely arranged rendition of "Thunder Road."
Springsteen's decision to continue without his longtime backing group was unpopular with fans. "There was a big banner in Spain that said 'Where Is the E Street Band?'" Springsteen told Vox in 1992. "So you have to salute the kids, and say, Hey, that's a good question! But I believe that the press has been very good so far in other countries, and people have been very flexible with the whole thing."
It also created an opportunity for Springsteen to be closer to the members of the band, as he explained to Rolling Stone. "I mean, I wasn't the guy writing the check every month. Suddenly, I was just Bruce, and some of the friendships started coming forward a little bit," he said. "And it was interesting because we hadn't had that kind of relationship. We had all been working together for so long that we didn't really have a relationship outside of the work environment."
Watch Bruce Springsteen Perform 'Thunder Road' on MTV in 1992
Springsteen's new marriage, which included the birth of his first child and a move to Los Angeles, helped him navigate the next era of his career. "My relationship with Patti and the children brought an enormous amount of faith and hope," he told Vox. "There's little babies! You can't afford despair, you gotta find faith someplace." He also went into therapy, where he "crashed" into himself and "questioned everything" he'd ever done — "and it was good," Springsteen said.
This allowed Springsteen to analyze why he never did much TV before his Unplugged appearance. In May 1992, he performed on television for the first time on Saturday Night Live. "I must not have been on TV for all this time for some reason, but now that I've done it, it's like, 'Gee, why didn't I do this before?'" he said. "There must have been some reason. And I certainly think that I'm going to begin using television more in some fashion. I think it's in the cards for me at this point, to find a way to reach people who might be interested in what I'm saying, what I'm singing about."