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  • Rich Kassirer

Teleprompters for musicians: cheating or helping?

Phil Lesh.
Phil Lesh. Photo credit: The Chronicle 2010.

A recent story in the Washington Post brought to light that Bruce Springsteen was using a teleprompter on stage during his recent tour as well as his last one (read it HERE.) While the article didn’t flat-out deride him for using it, it did lament that an artist of Springsteen’s stature, who comes across as engaged and prepared onstage, would need the help in remembering the words … to, say, “Born to Run.”

In fairness to the Post reporter, he wasn’t so much passing judgment, as reporting on what he saw and asking why. But the news, which apparently was a surprise to many and blasphemy to some, spread widely across the country by other newspapers, blogs and social media, with their own, sometimes more sensational spin.

Springsteen, it turns out, is not alone. In fact, many of the biggest names in rock – from Paul McCartney to Dave Matthews to Phil Lesh and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead – are using them. Other artists, such as Lucinda Williams and Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies keep a lyric book close at hand to help them out.

It’s easy to understand why: Pick any of the above musicians. They have hundreds of songs in their catalog, some going back more than 40 years. Some fans go to multiple shows during a tour, and nobody wants to hear the same songs every night. Heck, the musicians don’t want to play the same songs every night. Is it a realistic expectation for them to know every lyric to all their songs?

For the most part, musicians claim the helper is only there for emergencies. “I have an electronic cheat sheet,” said Matthews, when asked about the onstage teleprompter. “But I rarely look at it. The other thing I do is make up words. Or mumble.”

Nils Lofgren, of Springsteen’s E Street Band, wrote a published response to the Washington Post article articulating the band’s use of the devise: “Last E Street tour, we played 192 different songs on that tour alone. Dozens of those songs were from audience-request. … Many songs were covers we had never performed live. With our collective musical memory, hand signals and teleprompter, it allows for those ambitious, ad lib moments and an inspired, musical recklessness I believe is unique to our shows.”

I don’t think the monitors or books bother audience members if they are well-placed and are discreetly used. Viewing photographs of recent Springsteen shows, I could not even tell there was a prompter on stage. Check out photos of Lesh or Weir and their bands (who like to dig deep into the Dead catalog as well as play covers ranging from Traffic to the Allman Brothers and more), each band member has one in front of them. It just looks like another piece of equipment on stage.

However when I saw Lucinda Williams, she overtly flipped the pages of her book between songs and even eyed it while she was singing. It was a bit distracting to me, but maybe not for others.

I believe most fans don’t mind a goofed lyric in a song. A musician who muffs a line is not new to anyone who goes to shows. It can even be an endearing moment when there’s a gaff and it’s acknowledged on stage with a chuckle or a look of “Oh, no,” from an artist. No one is perfect. But if it becomes a recurring problem in the course of a night, well, the mood can start to change. It may come off as an act not being prepared or focused.

In the end, most musicians just don’t want the crutch. Whether they feel it’s cheating or distracting or just against the rules, it’s just not an option.

Josh Ritter is an artist one might think would benefit from some help onstage – not because he forgets lyrics often, but because his ever-growing catalog is filled with songs that are multi-versed, literate and packed with imagery and wordplay. So what does he think about using a teleprompter? “I can easily understand the use of teleprompters in music,“ he replied in an email. “You get a lot of songs, you have a catalog you regularly plumb the depths of, you have a revolving cast of band members not as familiar with the songs as you are yourself; all these could be made a little easier with a teleprompter. I can’t imagine myself using them, but I readily understand their usefulness.”

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