There are people who love Bruce Springsteen every minute of every day, and there are people whose love for him fades in and out, like a murmuring
radio signal between two towns on the highway. I put myself in the latter
category: I lose sight of Springsteen now and then, not because I don't
adore some of his music, but because there seemed to be a time, around the release of his twin LPs "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town," when he seemed to be straining to be relevant. Springsteen channeling the spirit of Woody Guthrie, Otis Redding, Elvis -- any of those patchwork selves Springsteen created for himself, I could buy. But the Springsteen of "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town" seemed pleasantly content in his role as husband and father, appropriately concerned about the state of the world around him and vaguely (if not overtly) boring. I drifted away.
But seeing Springsteen with the reunited E Street Band, on the opening
night of his American tour, July 15 at the Continental Airlines Arena in the Meadowlands complex in New Jersey, I realized I'm not as tough as all that. I'd never been to Springsteen's home state before, but there I was, packed in tight with a sold-out audience, and he had his work cut out for him: he was going to have to unite all of us -- the frat boys, the guy down in front waving an American flag, and me -- into some kind of, at least temporary, meaningful whole.
The wonderful thing was that he did.
For anyone who's been listening to rock 'n' roll for more than, oh, 10
years, there may be no greater pleasure than to be reeled back in -- a
wriggling trout on the hook, a prodigal son or daughter reborn in the
revival tent -- by someone who seemed to have lost you. In the case of
Springsteen and the E Street Band, it took just one number -- the opener,
"My Love Will Not Let You Down," a 1982 song that recently came to light on the 4-CD set "Tracks" -- and I'm still not really sure how he managed it. Anyone who's seen Springsteen live knows that he clearly feels completely at home in front of an audience: there's never a trace of awkwardness, no first-date getting-to-know-you period, no shaky warm-up numbers. But with the E Street Band -- with whom he hasn't performed in a decade -- Springsteen seems even more at home than usual, both utterly relaxed and supercharged. There was no sense of straining to recapture lost magic: it simply appeared, as if at his bidding.
It's tempting to assume that an E-Street reunion would have to work. It's almost sacrilegious to suggest that you could put that many terrific (and simpatico) players on stage -- Nils Lofgren, Max Weinberg, Roy Bittan, Danny Federici, Garry Tallent, Steve Van Zandt, and the beloved-by-all Clarence Clemons, as well as Patti Scialfa (who doesn't count as an official E-Streeter but whose remarkable poise is like a grounding wire) -- with less-than-amazing results.
But the sad truth of rock 'n' roll is that when old guys get together to
play again, the results are so often just ... sad. Reunion tours always carry
a musty whiff of nostalgia about them, although that's not always solely
the performers' fault: they may be huddled together onstage trying to
re-create a corner of their lost youth, but the audience itself is
sometimes complicit, hoping to hear the old songs the same way they sounded in the dorm room some 20 or 30 years ago. The whole enterprise can be a hopeless scrambling down dead-end rabbit warrens, with everyone ending up in a personalized but closed-off pocket, feeling dissatisfied and disconnected.
On the other hand, Springsteen and his band -- although they've known one
another for years and have played these songs so many times --
are about as far from a nostalgia trip as you can get. I confess that
there's something almost comforting about hearing Roy Bittan's supple,
rippling keyboards on songs like "Backstreets" and "Hungry Heart" --
they're so exquisitely placed, and so perfectly executed, that they leave
you with an overwhelming sense that all is as it should be in the world.
Clarence Clemons (one of the few rock saxophonists I've ever been able to
stand, save a small handful that includes King Curtis) spins out phrases
that are beefy and well-rounded but gin-dry. Nils Lofgren, agile and elfin,
teases beguiling melodies out of his guitar solos, and some of his high,
sweet vocal harmonies could tear you apart.
None of those players, and certainly not Springsteen himself, was rummaging around in the same old bag of tricks. They made for a bit of a crowd even on the huge stage, but you never got the sense (even with Van Zandt and Lofgren, a double whammy that could seem like overkill) they were treading on one another's territory. It seemed only as if they were damn glad to be doing the only kind of work they love.
And watching and listening to Springsteen, I tried to unlock for myself the
secret of how, closing in quickly on 50, he can still be so astonishingly
vital. The secret may be that although rock 'n' roll is supposedly at its
best when it's riffing on the pleasures and heartaches of youth,
Springsteen edged away from that very early in his career. Even at a time
when he could still qualify as a youth himself -- could still justify those
universally affecting songs about longing for the unattainable girl or
turning somersaults when she agrees to a date -- Springsteen didn't shy
away from writing about sunken hopes and dead-end jobs and marriages,
about how the exuberance of youth can close in on you, collapse on you,
before you even know it.
There's a theme that threads through his whole career: he sings numerous variations on the idea of "the price you've gotta pay." He didn't make up the sentiment, of course. It's there in the Appalachian ballads, cautionary tales that crept across an ocean to feed our collective imagination and, more important, to soothe our own hearts. Springsteen isn't a complete downer all the time -- there are songs whose sense of freedom seem like a parachute ("Out in the Street," particularly the blissful ensemble version the band performed live the other night), just as there are ballads that make you want to hang your head (almost anything off the bleak and beautiful "Nebraska"). But even more often, Springsteen works all kinds of contradictions into a single song. In "Thunder Road," the line "Show a little faith, there's magic in the night" is the throwaway one; the one that follows it -- "You ain't a beauty, but hey you're alright" -- is the one that carries all its magnificent, rueful weight.
That Springsteen is able to convey any kind of subtlety to an
arena-size crowd is a wonder, and it must be the source of his inexplicable magic. I know of no other performer capable of shrinking a huge arena -- the most impersonal space imaginable -- down to nothing. "Two hearts can get the job done," goes the line from one of his songs, sung to the audience like a reassurance. To see a metaphor for an intensely private kind of intimacy played out so beautifully and so effortlessly between one great singer and several thousand people is nothing short of miraculous. It's just a matter of collapsing the space in between two hearts: his and mine, or his and yours. Springsteen has never forgotten how.
And perhaps most important of all, his voice is still a force to be
reckoned with: he showed no signs of tiring after three solid hours of
singing, playing, and jumping around (once even flopping down on top of
Bittan's grand piano). He sang the line "Badlands, you gotta live it every
day," as if he actually had lived it -- making you realize that the line,
written by a young man, means something else again coming from a
near-50-year-old, one whose voice seems to have become richer with age. He closed his reading of "The River" with a sound that
struck me as nothing short of unearthly: a soft but high-pitched kind of
keening, like the echo of a dusty nighttime wind, just loud enough to
resonate through the arena but low enough so that you had to strain to
listen close, just to make sure you weren't imagining it.
No matter where you stand on his skill as a singer or songwriter, there's
just no denying that Springsteen is one of the great entertainers of our
age. He broke up "Light of Day" with some rambling traveling-preacher
patter: "I'm here to let you know, if your soul has bad credit, it's good
here tonight." (He also said, "I'm here to liberate ya, to resexualate ya"
-- the kind of snake oil I for one would gladly line up to buy.)
For any number of people between the ages of 35 and 45 (and plenty of
others in the surrounding margins, too), "Born to Run" is an anthem of
sorts. The title alone is all about freedom, and even today, it's the kind
of thing you almost don't mind hearing as it blasts from a passing
convertible. But even though it's a song about freedom, it isn't one
that's totally free. The singer seems caught in a tangle of metaphors ("At
night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines"); it's the way
he works himself out, like Houdini scrambling out of his shackles, that
gives the song its momentum as well as its ominous ring.
But to hear the song played by that band, no longer broken up into
scattered, antic clusters around the stage but lined up in a solid row like
the Wild Bunch riding into town, was like no other moment I can recall, at
any live show, ever. The lights had been turned up bright: there was no
looking away from them, and also no escaping from the sight of fellow
audience members. That band had us in their clutches, with nowhere to run, and I'm convinced my legs wouldn't have moved if I'd commanded them to. Springsteen and the E-Streeters were asserting their majesty in the same way that a young band flaunts its youth. And they won me back, this time, I think, forever.