Sunday, May 17, 2009
Tell Me Friend, Can You Ask For Anything More?
I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen in concert more than a dozen times, 14 times to be exact. That’s not very many shows if you happen to be a big Springsteen fan, which I am. But because it’s a manageable number, each performance marks an event, a sort of ritual that hasn’t lost the power to delight and surprise and even, I dare say, replenish the soul. Since my first concert in 1984 I have averaged just over one Springsteen show every two years. It has been like growing up with a trusted friend and there are standout moments from each show that hold a special place in my memory.
There were several such moments last Monday night at Nassau Coliseum. One was the encore performance of “Jungleland”, surely the most majestic nine-minute rock-n-roll fable ever recorded. There was no reason to expect it. It’s a song he’ll play on occasion, but not every night. But then the lights went down and it happened. The opening notes on the piano and violin accompaniment sent chills down my spine. The realization that this sensation is still possible, even when you’re tired, when you’ve had a bad day, when you’re sure you’ve heard it all, when you’re forced to park on the grass embankment abutting Hempstead Turnpike because the idiot parking lot attendants let in too many cars...this sensation is one of the wonders of live performance, and the joys of being a fan.
The crowd was transfixed from the start, but they were not so stupefied that they didn’t remember who they were. Or where they were. A humorous moment came when the opening line “The Rangers had a homecoming…” was met with a chorus of boos. (No, they were not cries of “Bruuuuce.” They really were boos). This shitty concrete slab of an arena is still sacred hockey ground. You are in Islander country. Rangers are not welcome.
But there was something different in this version of “Jungleland", something more forceful and pronounced in Bruce’s vocal delivery and the way the band was locked in, some quality of purpose that cut through the distance and the pot smoke all the way to the last rows of Section 315 where we sat in the nose-bleeds. “From the Churches to the jails…” And the organ soars. Two lines later: “Down in Jun…gull…laaaand” and the entire audience sings along full-throated with him. The drums kick in and the energy shifts into the next gear. Little Steven, ever scowling, plays a killer guitar solo. After the bridge, the tempo downshifts and Clarence's long soothing saxophone notes over a slow steady beat are an incantation - a prayer washing over the audience.
The concert was sort of homecoming for me too. I rarely get back to Long Island, except to see my family. Before the concert, I drove to TGIF’s on Merrick Avenue to meet up with my old High School friend, his wife and my brother. These are “Springsteen friends” with whom I’ve attended several shows. They speak a language that non-fans don't truly understand. Driving along Old Country Road and Merrick Avenue and seeing familiar retail landmarks and then the Islander jerseys in the parking lot, brought me back to my teens and early 20s. In those years I lived with an uneasy sense that the place where I grew up wasn’t really my home. The last time I had seen Bruce in Nassau Coliseum was in November of 1992. Bruce had released “Human Touch” and “Lucky Town” and was touring without the E-Street Band, choices that disappointed many Springsteen fans. The dumping of the band (with the exception of the essential Roy Bittan) seemed especially unforgiving. But as much as I loved the signature sound of the E-Street Band, I didn’t really mind. For one thing, I was at a place in my life where I understood that growth means change. Out with the old? Why not? Who was I to question? I was going through some changes myself at the time. I was a college graduate with a professional degree, but had no job. I had no girlfriend. I lived at home with parents and Long Island, this place where I grew up felt static and stultifying. I wanted out. Springsteen’s earliest songs are about romance and escape. His more recent work was about going home and finding fulfillment in family and community. Both themes pulled at me.
But that show delivered. Some fans dismiss the 1992-93 tour as an aberration. His albums were probably the weakest of his career and the whole period is regarded by some as some sort of musical mid-life crisis. But even without the E-Street Band, there was amazing energy and no shortage of treats. An acoustic “Thunder Road,” a rollicking “Light of Day” and a guest appearance by Billy Joel, who was introduced by Bruce as “a local hero.” Joel was warmly received but he didn’t do very much. He mostly danced with Roy Bittan at the back of stage during “Glory Days” occasionally vamping on a keyboard. It was fun but I sort of felt bad for him, especially given the song they were playing. Even then, it seemed that the best of his musical output was squarely behind him. And it’s just a cruel fact of life that a guitar gives you rock and roll street cred in a way that a piano never can (unless you’re Jerry Lee Lewis). Still, there’s always been a connection in my mind between Springsteen and Billy Joel. They are the same age. They were signed by Columbia Records at about the same time. Both were assumed to be Jewish (partially true in the case of Billy Joel). Both married uptown girls, models, ending in divorce. Bruce is New Jersey and Billy is Long Island, both places defined by the highway, the Turnpike and the L.I.E. Both artists claim the voice of the underdog and wear their bridge-and-tunnel outsider status as a badge.
Springsteen is keenly aware of a cultural bond between New Jersey and Long Island. At Monday night’s show, he quipped about the land mass that connected these places millions of years ago and he gave a shout out to his “long lost brothers” from Long Island. This connection may explain why Nassau Coliseum has been home to so many great Springsteen shows. None are more famous than the legendary show he played New Year’s Eve in 1980. Bruce and the band played 38 songs that night, possibly the longest set he’s ever played. That was slightly before my time but these earlier concerts loom large in my imagination and, judging by quality of some of the bootleg recordings, for good reason. Part of being a fan is lamenting the great shows that you’ve missed. You envy those older fans who say “Yeah, I was at the Agora in ’78.” And every time you go to another Springsteen show, you secretly hope to experience something that no other fan has experienced before.
Another memorable moment came when Springsteen took requests from the crowd. This ritual originated during the last tour. Banners and signs with written song requests are produced by the crowd and passed up to the stage where Bruce makes a campy show of sifting through them, deliberating which ones to play. He typically selects three songs – one cover song, one older gem and one of his more obscure tracks For his cover, he played a fantastic version of the Philly soul classic “Expressway to Your Heart” (a tribute to Long Island’s most enduring feature - the L.I.E.) followed by a passionate “For You” and a punchy “Rendezvous.” For good measure he played “Night” putting us back on the highway with some hope of escape. There’s always a catch though. You’re just a prisoner of your dreams.
Springsteen is a political artist. Ever since 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” he’s revealed a social consciousness in songs about the plight of the working man and more generally, the American Dream. Monday night was no exception. He kicked off the show with the “Badlands” the opening track on “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” The song is a fan favorite, a sing-along, fist-pumping anthem. It belongs in any Springsteen concert but he didn't let anyone forget the struggle at its core. About 20 minutes into the show, he played “Working on a Dream” the title track of his most recent album followed by three songs that grimly explore what happens when that dream goes south and the highway goes nowhere. In “Seeds” “Johnny 99” and “Ghost of Tom Joad” there is poverty, despair and darkness but no resignation, certainly not in the music. “Johnny 99” pulsed, almost joyfully in a full rockabilly arrangement. The ordinarily spare “Tom Joad” was also given the full band treatment highlighted by Nils Lofgren’s blazing guitar solo that seared with desperation and release.
The encores included a multi-part harmony version of “Hard Times” a Stephen Foster folk song about, well, you know. When it comes to politics and social justice, Springsteen is not above getting on the soap box and saying his piece. But other than delivering a short plug for a worthwhile charity, the Harry Chapin Food Bank, he let the music do the talking. I was glad for that. It’s not that Springsteen isn’t thoughtful on matters of politics, but like most serious artists, he’s at his best when he lets the songs tell the story. A few years back, on the “Devils and Dust” tour, he criticized the Bush administration and spoke to the audience about the need for a humane immigration policy. It felt out of place, not because I didn’t agree, but because it felt clumsy and forced. What can he possibly tell us about immigration that isn’t more powerfully expressed in “Matamoros Banks?” I’m quibbling now, but quibbling is also what fans like to do. Even as we get older and more jaded, we get impossibly demanding. This makes it all the more remarkable that Springsteen the performer so rarely disappoints.
One highlight for me was his performance of the “The Wrestler.” Not exactly a rocker – it’s one of his quieter and sadder songs, but it’s on just those songs, when the crowd isn’t shouting along, that Springsteen is at his most expressive. The same gift of empathy that permits him to sing credibly about factory workers and outlaws on the run, has allowed him to successfully pen songs for movies. Most notable of these is “Streets of Philadelphia,” which poignantly captures the plight of a man with AIDS, as well as the overall feel of the movie. For my money “The Wrestler” is even better. Hearing Springsteen sing it live, the song took on a different meaning. Suddenly, the song is no longer about a bloated Mickey Rourke playing a washed-up wrestler. Now it is about Springsteen himself, a prisoner of his trade - the lonely gladiator who leaves it all on the stage.
The ultimate pleasure of fan is this: Just when you think the performer has given everything, he gives you a little bit more. Springsteen closed the show with a raucous “Rosalita” just as he did the first time I saw him in concert, 25 years ago. My first glimpse of a Springsteen live performance was a video of “Rosalita” airing on MTV in 1984. (Back then, before YouTube and before the Internet, MTV was only three years old and it actually showed music videos). I had just turned 16 and though I was an enthusiastic listener of rock radio (1st choice, WNEW, 2nd choice, WBAB), I had never seen or heard anything quite like it – the sheer energy, the playful yet powerful expression of desire and the joyful abandon of the live performance. The video offered a window into a rock & roll experience that I never knew existed. And when I saw my first Springsteen concert a few months later, my fate was sealed.
In some ways, growing up is harder when you become a fan, when you realize that music, art and live performance can reach you and move you in ways that even the reality of your life does not. There are moments of doubt when you feel you are clinging to something self-indulgent, unreal or childish because stuff that isn’t supposed to matter really does matter just as much now as it did when you were 16. But try as you may, you can’t fake it. You really are a prisoner of your dreams. But you also realize – especially after seeing a show like the one I saw – that you wouldn’t have it any other way. The music you love isn’t some alternative to reality. It’s part of reality and part of you. This is what I was thinking about when my brother and I left the arena after the show. I felt lucky. We walked through puddles in the parking lot and found the car on the grass embankment. Then I merged into the chaos of traffic, each car jockeying for position, trying to escape the Coliseum parking lot and drive off into the night.