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in an age of technology (a particularly stupid charge, as if musicianship and songwriting could somehow become outdated).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.
The show’s opener, “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” set the tone for the night. Recorded in the early eighties but not released until recently, on the Springsteen boxed set Tracks, the song was far from an obvious choice with which to return to the stage with his E Street Band. But the straight-ahead romantic rock of “My Love” was recast here, as if Springsteen were saying to his audience, Believe in me, and I will not let you down.
Sure, it would be hard to let down an audience as devoted as this one; the night’s set moved, sometimes uncomfortably, through profoundly unrelated (one could even say themeless) territory. There was the gritty optimism of “Promised Land”; the desolate, almost unbearable grimness of “Youngstown,” a depiction of factory life from his Dylanesque album The Ghost of Tom Joad; the blue-collar, live-for-the-weekend escapism of “Out in the Street”; and the broken dreams of “The River” – with scarcely few pop moments (excluding a rousing version of “Hungry Heart” and a house-lights-on, all-guns-blazing version of “Born to Run”) to bring the audience together in an easy unity.
Much of the show’s considerable power lay in Springsteen’s ability to recontextualize songs about heartbreak and reconciliation into his relationship with the E Street Band, whom he laid off at the end of the eighties. In other words, this wasn’t a show for Springsteen-obscurity hounds or set-list geeks. “If I Should Fall Behind,” an often overlooked, beautifully written love song to wife Patti Scialfa from his 1992 solo album Lucky Town, gained new resonance as members of the E Street Band took a turn at the microphone reciting the lyric: “I’ll wait for you / If I should fall behind / Wait for me.”
Springsteen interrupted “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” to relate, preacher-style, that he had “traveled down the avenue of fear, the avenue of depression, the avenue of sexual pleasure … but I was always alone.” And then he introduced each band member, the band’s camaraderie clearly serving as a salve to Springsteen’s loneliness. Springsteen and the E Street Band’s sense of self-mockery kept this from devolving into a rock-and-roll version of a locker-room pat on the back: When Springsteen introduced Steven Van Zandt as a cast member of The Sopranos, the guitarist plucked out a twangy version of the theme from The Godfather.
It’s this sort of humor that Springsteen’s detractors – who see him as an earnest poster boy for the proletariat – always seem to miss. Even as he held magisterial power over the audience (he asked for quiet and got it) during the autobiographical “Freehold,” Springsteen offered not an oversincere paean to his hometown but an acerbically funny look at small-town life.
Springsteen’s consistent defiance of his audience’s expectations and refusal to cater to their worst instincts is, in many ways, the very definition of punk rock. That’s probably heresy to young music crits. Springsteen’s belief in the transformative power of rock and roll and the ecstasy to which music can take us makes him truly oppositional in a world where irony and sarcasm pass for insight.