I realize now that by waiting a couple days to post this, I risk its being lost in the flood of “happy 60th birthday to Bruce” blog posts and tweets and web pages and discussion board posts and lord only knows what all. Because, yes, Mr. Springsteen is sixty years old today. (And still jumping up on pianos and racing around onstage strapped into an electric guitar, natch.)
But this post, while it’s about Sunday night’s Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band concert in Chicago, is not really about Bruce Springsteen.
It’s about something bigger. Yeah, as big a megastar as Springsteen is (and he’s a pretty big megastar), there’s something bigger. And that’s the music.
So, the big deal about the Chicago show was that Bruce and the band were going to perform the Born to Run album in its entirety, beginning to end, at this show. (Along with a couple hours of other songs, of course.) He’d done this once before, at a benefit show in Red Bank NJ, at which he also performed Darkness on the Edge of Town straight through. There have been various rumors about why he decided to do it again: request from a VIP or a friend, filming for a DVD, a last hurrah towards the end of what could end up being the last E Street Band tour. (Nobody connected with the band has said anything about it being the last tour, but they have announced a hiatus of at least a year and a half, and after the loss of organ & accordion player Danny Federici almost a year and a half ago & given various health issues for other band members, I think they are all keenly aware that there are no guarantees.)
I didn’t manage to get a general admission ticket for this show, which is my usual preference. Sometimes you end up standing behind a couple of tall broad guys and when you’re 5 foot 1 like me you end up standing on your toes craning your neck wondering if the band is really up there somewhere, and sometimes you end up smack in front looking a guitarist in the eye and sharing a grin. I’ve had both experiences, and for the chance of the latter, I’ll put up with the former sometimes. But because I had a seat and didn’t have to worry about standing in line or holding my place, I was able to nab the opportunity to help pass out flyers before the show, promoting the forthcoming memoir by iconic sax player Clarence Clemons. (No, I haven’t read it yet, but I expect it will be pretty damn entertaining.) I didn’t get to meet Clarence or anything like that, but I got to meet his manager & her assistant, and I got a t-shirt, and I got to feel like I was helping out a little bit. And quite a few people were visibly excited at the prospect of the book, so that was cool.
After passing out a few hundred flyers, it was almost time for the show to start, so I found my seat. It was in the fifth row, not very high up off the floor but pretty far back, and I resigned myself to not feeling the connection with the band that I often feel when I’m up close (a highly addictive sensation, that).
Eventually the lights went down and the crowd made that tremendous WHOOSH like a jet airliner taking off (I love that moment so much) and under cover of darkness the band took the stage. I’d heard that they intended to kick off the show with the Born to Run sequence, so it was a bit startling when the crackling, bluesy guitar riff of “Seeds” filled the arena, Nils Lofgren whirling and dancing in the spotlight. Startling… but wonderful. Turns out that’s just an awesome song to kick off the show with. After a few moments Bruce stepped up and the crowd cheered louder, and after the first few vocal lines Max Weinberg’s drum kicks in with an almighty THUMP and we’re off and running.
The first handful of songs were reeled off at a breakneck pace, the band barely stopping for a breath or to acknowledge the thunderous applause between songs. As always the occasional crescendo of shrieks reminded me so much of a roller coaster, the biggest one of all – and we shriek at these concerts for the same reason we do on roller coasters, for the sheer speed and exhilaration and joyous risk of it all, and the wind in our ears. Finally it was time for the album, which Bruce introduced briefly by explaining that when they started recording it they’d put out two albums that had tanked and this was basically their last chance. Everything was riding on this album, for him. Everything. And you could kind of tell that he felt like a lot was riding on it again tonight.
And those familiar, beloved opening chords of “Thunder Road” filled the arena, and before the first verse was over the entire audience was singing along… as always, it felt like home. Or like church.
The songs followed one on another, without any introductions or chatting in between. Not a lot of “hamming it up for the audience” either. Just… the music. The work. The songs unfolded just as they did when I first listened to that album, back in high school, back when we always listened to albums beginning to end. Movements of a symphony. Parts of a greater whole. Even “Born to Run” itself, the ultimate anthem, was rescued from its role as a bit of a “victory lap” song; the house lights only halfway up instead of fully lit, the song not wrapping up the main set or blazing out as an encore, even the biggest song of all became just one part of the larger work. Oh yes, we all sang along like we always do, we pumped our fists and waved our hands in the air and screamed. But it was different… somehow, this song I’d heard so many times live and hundreds, maybe thousands, of times on vinyl & magnetic tape & shiny silver disk & invisible bytes – this song that I know as well as I know the sound of my own blood rushing in my ears – somehow, this song regained a little bit of mystery. Amazing.
I won’t talk about every single song (though there’s not a weak song on the album and there wasn’t a weak moment in the performance of them Sunday night), but “Backstreets” deserves mention. Talk about a song that’s accrued layers of history and meaning. When I first heard it, it was just a romantic song about losing someone. But over the years it’s become so much more. In Indianapolis last year, Danny Federici rejoined the band for a few songs after having been gone for a few months while undergoing treatment for melanoma. He was a little weak, but clearly radiant with joy at being back on stage; as it turned out, that was his last public performance. I don’t know if he or the rest of the band suspected that would turn out to be the case, but I do know that “Backstreets” hit me so hard that night. “We swore we’d live forever,” Bruce wailed, “on the backstreets we’d take it together.” A few weeks later, the day after Danny’s funeral, the band played in Tampa. I wasn’t there, but I’ve heard the show described, and I’ve heard the bootleg; they opened with “Backstreets,” a single spotlight illuminating Danny’s vacant spot on stage, Roy Bittan’s piano suffused with loneliness, a hard emptiness where the organ was supposed to fill up the song, Bruce’s voice cracking with palpable grief. I’ve never heard the song quite the same since. Anyway, Sunday night’s performance of it in Chicago was exquisite, and somehow managed to roll together all the layers and all the years and all the different ways I’ve heard the song; Bruce added a small vocal bridge of “All the way to the end… just you and me… all the way to the end…” and some high, wordless moans the likes of which I’ve never heard. Stunning. Just stunning.
But the highlight of the album mini-set was, without question, “Meeting Across the River” into “Jungleland.” “Meeting,” rarely played in concert, featured Curt Ramm recreating the lonely, searching trumpet solo from the album and the wonderful Richard Davis on upright bass. It’s an atmospheric, jazz-inflected, melancholy song unlike any other in the Springsteen catalog, and thinking of it in the context of the history & significance of the album the desperation in Bruce’s voice on the recording became not just a great singer inhabiting a character, but a sign of how badly he wanted this album to be … exactly what it turned out to be. “We gotta stay cool tonight, Eddie, ‘cause man, we got ourselves out on that line. And if we blow this one, they ain’t gonna be looking for just me this time.” Like the guy in the song, Bruce knew this was his last chance. And the way he sang it Sunday, you’d think he still felt that way sometimes.
And then Soozie Tyrell's violin introduced “Jungleland” and I may not have breathed for the entire ten minutes or so of that song. I’ve always liked the song, and it’s always great to get it in concert, but this was probably the best I’ve ever heard it. Everyone in the band was completely focused, completely immersed in the music. Garry Tallent's bass playing, always exquisite, was especially solid. Little Steven Van Zandt's guitar solo was absolutely on fire. Everyone seemed completely and utterly present.
Let me tell you, there are some big personalities in the E Street Band: Bruce, Little Steven, Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, the Mighty Max Weinberg. But Sunday night, while they performed Born to Run, the personalities took a complete back seat to the music. I’ve never seen them so … in service to the music. And that sense peaked with “Jungleland.” During Clarence’s sax solo, always a breathtaking highlight when he nails it, Bruce climbed up on the piano – not to take the spotlight, but to raise his fist in the air with the beat of the solo, conducting the band, conducting the music. And I mean “conducting” in the sense that a lightning rod conducts. So it was appropriate for him to get up on that piano and become the highest point on the stage, channeling the fierce energy of the music from … wherever it comes from … and spreading it across the stage & out into the darkness of that packed arena.
The entire album was performed flawlessly, with devotion and focus and passion. Really, I thought it would be cool to see all the songs in order, but it turned into something a lot bigger than that. It was pretty fucking amazing.
The rest of the show was almost a letdown after that, I have to admit. It got a lot looser right away, and it was a fun show, well-played, lots of energy – but it was like the first bite of any food after the most exquisite chocolate mousse you’ve ever put your tongue to: just not quite the same level of incredibleness. Although I will say that “Badlands,” which closed out the main set, took on a life and a ferocious joy that I haven’t felt from it in years. Might have been the best “Badlands” I’ve seen since 1978, and I’ve seen a lot of “Badlands.” House lights up, crowd singing along at the top of its lungs, just an absolute celebration: “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive!”
I’ve said that with the E Street Band, I don’t always get the show I want, but I nearly always get the show I need. And that was so true on Sunday. I’m a very spoiled girl; I’ve been close enough to the stage to get eye contact with band members on several occasions, and that’s always special. But Sunday wasn’t about the band members, wasn’t about charisma and personality and stardom. It was about the music, plain and simple, and sitting (well, standing – who could stay seated at a show like this??) where I was, that far from the stage, I let go of wanting “connection” and just focused on the music – and that’s what I needed.
Love and thunder, baby… love and thunder.
On the way home, I didn’t listen to bootlegs as I’ve mostly been doing lately. I listened to studio albums: Born to Run (twice through), Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River. I found myself thinking about all the years and all the miles those albums have accompanied me through. When Darkness came out I had just started playing guitar. I was what, 16 years old. I honestly thought I might try to make it as a musician, though I knew it was the longest of long shots. Why did I veer from that course? I don’t know. Partly because I thought my greater talents lay elsewhere (though I’m not sure where, and if I do indeed have greater talents, I wonder if I’ve made sufficient use of them to justify walking away from something I loved as much as I loved being serious about playing that guitar). Partly because I was realistic. Partly because my courage flat-out failed me.
My dad, see, was a musician when I was a little kid, a bass player. He put himself through grad school by playing. We didn’t have tons of money, but there was always music in the house. When I was ten years old he got a job teaching college, and we moved away from his musical community. He pretty much stopped playing. I’ve always wondered whether the grief he must have felt about walking away from the musician’s life contributed to the health problems that eventually killed him. And it’s funny, isn’t it, that I myself turned away from the possibility of trying to live that life – though I never got as far as getting good enough to make money. I am my father’s daughter, I guess. And driving home from Chicago the other day I thought about all that, and I listened to Springsteen’s song “Independence Day” which is about a son leaving home and making some kind of peace with a painful father/son relationship:
So say goodbye it's Independence Day
Papa now I know the things you wanted that you could not say
But won't you just say goodbye it's Independence Day
I swear I never meant to take those things away
And that last line just hit me so hard. Because on some level my dad walked away from music in order to do something more stable, something with a regular paycheck, something that allowed him to feel like he was a good husband, a good father, a good provider. And in some small way I guess I’ve always felt a little guilty, a little responsible. And if the grief he must have felt over the choice he made was part of what killed him, then in some small way maybe I’m responsible for that.
But don’t we all kill our parents, somehow, on some level? Metaphorically speaking, of course. I think there’s a Shakespeare play or three about that one.
Anyway, I always justify the money I spend running around to these concerts by saying “it’s cheaper than therapy” – so there you go. Figuring out just what it is I need to learn to forgive myself for? That probably would have taken me thousands of dollars worth of therapy right there. “You’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above,” as Bruce sang in “Tunnel of Love.”
Anyway, I started writing poetry back then, when I was 15 and listening to “Born to Run” – as well as lots of other music. It was music that ignited that impulse in me. So maybe what I owe myself, and what I owe to that larger thing that is the music, is just to recommit myself to my writing. To give it all I’ve got. It may not be my last chance – hell, it’s poetry, there’s not much riding on it in the first place. But I need to give it that level of commitment.
Tonight I’ll be on that hill with everything I’ve got…
I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town.
Till then, tramps like us…
-AH September 22-23, 2009