“Baby We Were Born (again) to Run…”
Finally saw Bruce.
A couple decades late because a prime regret of my time in New Jersey in the early 90s was never seeing him live. Another week late because Maundy Thursday would have been even better.
He is not only a master storyteller, but a preacher; fearless in the face of the dark. His anthems starkly conjure, then defy, life’s hardships with astonishingly gritty playing and singing. He took us down poignantly detailed roads peculiarly blue-collar but also somehow universal; the congregation finally joining in choruses that moved beyond lyrics to simple sung affirmations. He was all I had been told: one of the greatest showmen ever.
They played 3 1/2 hours straight. Drummer Max Weinberg has to be the hardest working 66 year-old anywhere. Just awe inspiring focus, energy and tight cohesion for any band of any age.
For me the concert descended into The True about 20 minutes in, with the song “Independence Day.” Bruce’s mournful harmonica and lower voice, his simple guitar and acknowledgement of broken relationships, let us know this was a Real Human reaching out to us. A spell was suddenly cast in the Pepsi Arena. He understands what few stars seem to: that he is not the Hero. It is only the descent into authentic human struggle that can sometimes become heroic.
This is “The River” tour; a double record they played right through. These 40 year-old songs now and then reveal a 20-something naivete. But Bruce delivered some surprising re-arrangements and the E Street Band played them like their lives depended on it.
During an intro to a partying song about young lust Bruce acknowledged, chuckling, that he now knew more about the world, and commitment, and truly loving somebody…but that this song was “a pretty good place to start.” He has let himself mature with his aging back catalog. His self-deprecating humor and humility, especially in light of the adulation we were delivering – his frank acceptance of his own growth in the struggle – made me admire the man.
At 66 he is old enough to be a grandpa. He looks younger, has a reputation for extraordinary discipline in diet, working out, and caring for his voice, and it all shows. He carries the concert with an energy that is absolutely incredible.
He brought a pretty woman on stage to join in the obligatory made-for-MTV moment closing out “Dancing in the Dark.” We all cheered but I was anxious; with his wife playing sedate acoustic off to the side of the stage and the age differential between Bruce and the stranger the word “creepy” unwillingly came to mind.
But then he pulled a softer contemporary on stage to join as well. Then a 10 year-old girl too, and the four of them danced, sang, laughed, played and delivered the 17,000 of us into a transcendent moment. Maybe all any of us are doing is Dancing in the Dark. I involuntarily said “bravo, Bruce.” He had turned the sexual charisma of a young guitar stud into the informed virility of a 66 year-old who can still rock out.
I told Julie: “Damn, I want to be in that good a shape in 10 more years.”
At the end of the opening 2 hour set he thanked us for coming on the The River’s journey with him, before reminding us we all had stories to tell about real life and admonishing us to “find a way to do some good.” Amen.
Besides his anthems of hope “Thunder Road,” “Badlands” and “The Rising” the second set had his infectious rockers “10th Avenue Freeze Out” and of course “Rosalita.” The energy in the place was something to behold. He knows how to keep the spirit high in the sanctuary.
Here’s part of the encore when all the lights suddenly came back up to draw us all to our feet; a minute into this clip after he appeals to Denver, the 4 count and “The highway’s jammed with broken heroes…” is what one music critic called “the most exciting 20 seconds in rock and roll.”
There were plenty of us middle-aged folk cheering and singing along and I wondered at our solidarity. These tales were not the real story of the multi-millionaire before us who has for 40 years reigned in the privileged top tier of the Entertainment Pantheon. But we also know better than to buy into the phony bravado and superficial positivism infecting so much contemporary music.
Bruce spoke of not getting what you want and how life surprises you by taking you places you didn’t want to go. “What feels like disappointment in your 20s and 30s only later can be seen as somehow also a blessing.” Those are words of an adult in a perennially adolescent business.
The Boss sings a near virtuosic story of struggle and last Thursday Ma(u)ndated a faithful response. You have to protest, to proclaim, to fight your way to Hope. The details; the girl’s names, the car brands, the town locales are different, but we soft around the middle -agers crowding the arena with our fists in the air in fact know these stories all too well. The failures and loss, the compromised dreams and broken relationships, these are different only in thin veneer from from all the shit we have had to go through ourselves.
We weren’t there to be impressed, we were there to be liberated. And it happened somehow. I was standing and singing about Wendy and fast cars, about New Jersey, the factories and just having to get out tonight…but somehow we were singing about my life.
And here’s the thing: I try not to ask of art that it mean something specific, that it carry a philosophical raison d’ etre when mere entertainment seems for many to be enough. But watching this man sing and play I wanted to be a better preacher and a better husband, a more insightful friend and to make better use of whatever years I have given to me. I really do want to “find a way to do good.”
Along with the multitude of adults around I was grateful for an anthem to sing along to. We each have our own baggage and wounds, our story to tell of loss and struggle, our ax to grind (or in Bruce’s case play the hell out of).
What we need to do is sing loud enough together: this sad story is going to have, one way or another, a better ending.
Badlands, you gotta live it everyday
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay
Keep pushin’ till it’s understood
These Badlands start treating us good.
(for Marty 4/8/2016)