Bruce Hornsby: “Laughing or turning 20 is a fun and healthy way to live”


He was a young pianist from Britain and a young pianist from Tulsa, Oklahoma. I heard Amoreena by Elton John of Tumbleweed Login record in summer between 10th and 11th grade. My older brother played it for me. I simply loved it. And Leon Russell. Very precisely, these two musicians completely immersed me in it. I didn’t play the piano but it made me think I wanted to do this.

Try to stay optimistic in the face of massive amounts of rejection. Think of it as a process of constant learning and growth. I was banging my head against the music business wall for a good seven years after I graduated from college. I’ve probably been turned down by labels 70 to 80 times. “Yes, almost, but not quite, my son,” was the response. So try to stay optimistic.

That said, be a harsh self-critic. But not so hard that you become depressed and therefore creatively inert. When record stores existed, you went there and there were the self-proclaimed young experts and arbiters of taste, sitting around talking about how terrible Sting’s new record is, or Peter Gabriel’s new record. You always wanted to say to them: well, let me hear what you are doing. You criticize these titans of the music world. Let’s hear what you have. Be as hard on yourself as you are on others.

Don’t let anyone make you feel like striving to be “elite” is something to be dismissed. The pursuit of higher-level abilities and knowledge is an extremely worthwhile endeavour, creating much satisfaction and fulfillment in the one lifetime you have to live.

My younger self should be patient. I only signed when I was 30. My first record came out when I was 31. And of course you start getting to 27, 28, 29, you think, well, I guess that’s not going to happen. It is difficult for an artist to find his own voice. Of course, the biggest success is It’s like that. It’s a song about racism with two improvised solos, one in the middle and one at the end, which is never heard on pop radio. Still not the formula for pop success. My musician friends couldn’t believe it. But I felt like I had finally found who I was.

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I had seen a lot of my friends get record deals, make an album that wouldn’t go anywhere and then they were scrapped. So I learned a lot about what not to do. I also learned on a business level – the value of publishing in the world of songwriters. It’s something I wouldn’t have known if I had made my first record at 20 rather than 30.

Out of the blue in 1997, I received a tape from the Shakur Foundation. It was about a year after Tupac was murdered in Vegas. They had gone through the voluminous files and recordings he had made. They were gonna release a lot and everyone thought the featured song was Changes that he made using It’s like that. The song continued to be sampled. Just a few years ago, the great young rapper from Chicago, Polo G, recorded a magnificent record called wish a hero. And it’s not bad for the paperback either.

Don’t panic when you hear amazing musicians and songwriters, don’t be intimidated and nurture the feeling of wanting to quit, which is very natural. Choose to be inspired. It can be difficult to recognize what “good” looks like. These people are there in your life to show you the way and clearly illustrate the special euphoria that can come from a deep commitment to your work.

I would say to my younger self: don’t worry about the ladies and your sad lack of success with them. I became much more beautiful when I joined a popular group. That said, I was a pretty bad pop star. One of the reasons was, again, that we didn’t take it very seriously. Our first videos were a pretext to put our friends on TV. We made some of the worst videos of the MTV era. They were cures for insomnia.

Don’t be afraid of collaboration. It can be emotionally difficult, especially when you don’t think your new partner is offering anything special. Your new partner may feel the same way about you. The rewards of a successful collaboration can be when what is created reaches a higher level than that achieved by either partner. A fusion of minds that makes something completely original, better than each of you.

I didn’t want to be late for this session [in 1991, Hornsby played on Bob Dylan’s album Under the Red Sky]. I was very excited to be part of the record. Dylan walks in and introduces himself to everyone. Then he walks over and takes out a bunch of papers from different pockets – from his jacket, from his pants – puts all these pieces of paper with various pieces of lyrics on a table. He then came up to me and said, “Hey, Bruce, come over here. Let me teach you a song”. He taught it to me and I taught it to the rest of the band. Then we took a short break. Great drummer Kenny Aronoff walked into the room, started drumming. Then the rest of us, Robben Ford, Randy Jackson and I came in and started jamming. And then Bob comes in. He stands there, nodding his head as he listens to us. Then he walks over to the table, looks around at the pieces of paper, chooses one, walks over to the microphone and begins to sing. Absolute spontaneity and it became, TV Talkin’ Song.

You go to a Bob Dylan concert and it’s always like that. People who want to hear a gig where you hear nothing but replicas of old records are going to be appalled because he’s trying to be creative in the moment. He certainly takes great liberties with the songs, playing them in different tempos, different keys, different grooves. It’s who he is. And that’s how I am in my concerts. I’m probably not as extreme as Bob in that way, but I’m one to inflict modern classic, astringent, twelve-tone chromatic pain on my poor unsuspecting audience.

Bruce Hornsby and Grammy in 1994
1994: Win a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. Photo: Sonia Moskowitz/Globe Photos/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

It was a Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963. The classroom had an intercom where they called the buses. They put the microphone on the TV where we heard someone, possibly Walter Cronkite, say that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Almost all the children in the class clapped. I was shocked because they yelled, “Hooray, now Nixon can take over!” Our teacher, Miss Nimmo, excoriated the class. And I think Miss Nimmo was a reasonably conservative woman, but she also had great empathy. It gives you an idea of ​​how my home town of Williamsburg looks.

Virginie lives in the past. The light bulb joke is – how many Virginians does it take to screw it? Three. One to screw it up and two to talk about the quality of the old one. But I grew up as the son of liberal Lois Hornsby. My father, Robert Hornsby, grew up around these attitudes. It was beautiful for him that he married his beautiful wife, my mother, who was from the northeast. We were influenced by her and it helped me to be, in my opinion, more enlightened than the average person in our town.

In Virginia, our policy has really changed. It has gradually changed from a seemingly eternally red state to now where it is called either a purple state or a practically blue state. So that’s a plus. Most polls explain this by saying it’s just northerners coming to the Upper South for better weather. And it is very possible. But hey, whatever works. We are no longer a red state.

I would like to relive two moments. One, when I cracked a high note on Saturday Night Live. Embarrassment in front of millions. It was late January 1987. I was RCA Records’ new cash cow and they were cheating on me. I had been on the road for months. I usually had that high note. But I was so fried. I went there, I just giggled and had a moment to forget. I would like to do it again.

Bruce Hornsby on stage
2021: On stage in Fort Lauderdale. Credit: Mpi04/Media Punch/Alamy Live News

Then he performed with the Grateful Dead at Madison Square Garden in 1990. A bit of context. The 60s for me started when JFK was assassinated and lasted until about 74-75, maybe when Nixon resigned. My older brother was a huge Grateful Dead fan. He started a cover band called Bobby Hi-Test and the Octane Kids. The spring of 1974 was a real hippy era and I was Brucey Hornsby playing the Fender Rhodes piano. Fast forward to the spring of 1987, we get a call from the Grateful Dead asking if we would open for them. Then the following year, we played two more concerts with them. I started to sit with them. It culminated, in fact very sadly, with the death of Brent Mydland. [of a drug overdose aged 37 in 1990] and them asking me to join them. So imagine all those people in 1974 following the Octane Kids. Now, 16 years later, they’re coming to see little Brucey out of rehearsal with the Grateful Dead at Madison Square Garden. It was a truly amazing transcendent moment, so I would go back and experience it.

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If I could have one more conversation with anyone, it would be Jerry Garcia. In 1995 they sent me to play with the Grateful Dead. He lacked energy and was really struggling physically. I called to see him in late June or early July and they had just convinced him to go to Betty Ford [rehab clinic]. We talked, I said, “Good luck, blah, blah.” And he went on his way.

I arrived about two and a half weeks later. I called the house just to get a report, see how he was. Well, he answers. He had left early because he thought he had kicked. He thought he was good. He regaled me with stories of his two or three weeks at Betty Ford, everyone he had met – a man who had known Django Reinhardt in 1920s France.

We were talking about plans for what we wanted to do next fall. And then four days later he was gone [Garcia died of a heart attack aged 53 on August 9, 1995]. So I would like to talk to him again. I miss him a lot.

Bruce Hornsby’s ‘Flicted’ album released

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