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True Believer

Rock and roll may be out of fashion, but Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band prove that emotional and artistic daring outlasts pop.

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It would be hard to imagine anyone in pop music less of-the-moment -- or a more fervent believer in rock -- than Bruce Springsteen.

This became clear when some of my painfully hip D.J.-culture friends heard I had scored a pair of tickets to the opening night of Springsteen's sold-out three-week engagement at Continental Airlines Arena. One sniffed: "You must be joking."

The charges against Springsteen are these: He's the embodiment of Reagan-era jingoism (never mind that "Born in the U.S.A." told of a Vietnam vet's disillusionment with his country or that Nebraska offered a withering critique of Reaganomics); he's a working-class poseur, a millionaire rock-and-roller who dons blue jeans as an affectation (sure, Springsteen is rich, but as U2's Bono pointed out in his speech at Springsteen's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, he has never embarrassed us with celebrity excesses); his Luddite adherence to rock and roll is by definition regressive in an age of technology (a particularly stupid charge, as if musicianship and songwriting could somehow become outdated).

Such misinterpretations of Springsteen's career are reminiscent of the perception that Elvis was a racist. Despite his profound love of the blues and gospel music (and the fact that Sun Records' Sam Phillips probably never said the infamous line, "If I could just find a white guy who sang like a . . ."), Elvis still carries this rep as a bigot.

The news that Springsteen would be embarking on a reunion tour with the E Street Band after more than a decade did smack of a kind of Elvis-at-Vegas pomposity. But even if you are a loyal Springsteen fan, the tour might bring to mind a historic event along the lines of Elvis's triumphant return to form in his 1968 NBC special. That comparison seems wrongheaded: Elvis's astonishing performance in '68 came after a long period of artistic stagnation. What's more, as Peter Guralnick points out in Careless Love, the second installment of his masterly Elvis biography, the '68 special did not herald a new era of reinvigoration for Presley but rather one shining moment in the decline of a once-towering artist.

What was Springsteen, who had never looked back or rested on nostalgia, doing launching a reunion tour among the uncritical masses in New Jersey, anyway? Re-examining his artistry, that's what. Instead of offering a greatest-hits version of his career, reprising the ecstatic, anthem-choked four-hour workouts that made him famous, or simply indulging in an endless self-serving jam session with his old bandmates, Springsteen went against the grain. He offered a kind of introspective of his work, a show that drew its most powerful moments from his most solemn material. The cries of "Bruuuce" that resounded through the arena and the fawning press coverage heralding the native son's return seemed desperately out of touch with the challenging performance.


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