Soul Crusaders

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's reunion tour proves that there's still magic in the night

"My idea," said Bruce Springsteen in 1996, responding to a reporter's query about the songwriter's intent, "wasn't to get the next 10 songs and put out an album and get out on the road. I wrote with purpose in mind, so I edited very intensely the music I was writing. So when I felt there was a collection of songs that had a point of view, that was when I released a record . . . when I thought I had something that would be valuable to my fans, something enjoyable, something entertaining, something that wouldn't waste their time."

Most observers find the relationship between audience and performing artist to be pretty straightforward: The former get their kicks for a couple of hours, and the latter gets his, too, along with a nice paycheck. Springsteen, however, brings perplexing levels of complexity to that relationship that can't be explained in terms of a mere transaction. Sometimes this has been the result of circumstance, such as the 1975 convergence of Time and Newsweek covers that helped kick-start the musician's ascent to superstardom, and sometimes it's just been because he works harder than 99 percent of all the other performers out there (cue up memories of three-and-a-half-hour marathons during the '78 to '81 period), ensuring a fan-base loyalty that's virtually unprecedented in its scope and energy.

The cumulative effect has been to irrevocably link Springsteen's career trajectory to the collective life experience of his fans, many of whom have been earning their stripes since the early '70s and still pledge allegiance to The Boss in the '90s (see sidebar) because at one point a connection was made that has yet to be broken on either side of the formula. There have been others, of course, from Sinatra to Elvis to Dylan to the Beatles, to inspire rabid, lifelong loyalty among fans; but when was the last time you heard a popular artist fret publicly about not wanting to waste his fans' time?

Blood brothers: Jersey devils Springsteen and Miami Steve Van Zandt.
Neal Preston
Blood brothers: Jersey devils Springsteen and Miami Steve Van Zandt.

Sure, it could all be a variation on the old "populist/everyman" persona that cynics sometime accused Springsteen of adopting during the blue-collar drama days of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Plausible -- except that Springsteen, an intensely private individual, always seemed to have more at stake than other performers when it came to the things he did in the public eye. There were those concert marathons, of which he's said he didn't have any choice in the matter, he simply had to run until he dropped, dragging the audience along until it dropped, too. His personal consciousness-raising was accompanied by a drive to give the audience the same opportunities as he, be it to learn more about regional food banks, Vietnam vets, Amnesty International or the Christic Institute. Even areas far subtler, such as his notorious penchant for painstaking songwriting and recording detail, are indicative of someone who spends a lot of time thinking about who he is and whether he's getting his message across.

Consider the following comment Springsteen made in last year's photo/lyrics book Songs, in which he wrote about what was at stake with 1978's Darkness: "I had to infuse the music with my own hopes and fears. If you don't do that, your characters ring hollow, and you're left with rhetoric, words without meaning. Most of my writing is emotionally autobiographical. You've got to pull up the things that mean something to you in order for them to mean anything to your audience. That's how they know you're not kidding."

And this self-identification as a storyteller who, out of necessity, can only exist if there is someone -- an audience -- to listen to his stories, runs even deeper, toward the literal, for Springsteen. Speaking to journalist Robert Hilburn in 1985, he wrestled with the issue of the source of his drive, finally offering meekly, "That question -- how long can I do this -- is something I used to ask myself, and then I woke up one day and I said, 'Oh, wait a minute, I know who I am . . . I'm the guy who does this.'"

Well, Phoenix gets to see "the guy who does this" at America West Arena this Friday, October 15. It's the first stop on the second U.S. leg of his reunion tour with the E Street Band, which began in Europe last April in Spain, picked up for a 15-night stand in New Jersey in July, then wound its way to Boston, D.C., Detroit, Philly and Chicago during August and September. (From Phoenix the tour hits Los Angeles on October 17 and 18, followed by dates in Oakland, then back toward the East Coast, breaking for December and presumably commencing again after Christmas.)

Press coverage of the tour to date has been near uniform in the praise department, with the occasional whine along the lines of, "Is Springsteen really relevant in the era of hip-hop and alternative music?" generally shouted down by those who assert, "Yes, because he makes the connection again, and rocks his ass off in the process."

Wrote Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot of the September 27 concert, "Springsteen and the E Street Band played not with just verve and passion, but with a joy that couldn't be feigned, and a kinship that went beyond professional obligation. It was like the improbable script for a Neil Simon play about a co-ed, biracial rock 'n' roll band that rises from the East Coast boardwalks into the hearts and minds of millions: the Boss and the Big Man (Clarence Clemons), the Professor (Roy Bittan) and Miami Steve (Van Zandt), Mighty Max (Weinberg) and his silent bass-playing sidekick (Garry Tallent), accordion-playing Danny Federici, willowy Patti Scialfa, diminutive Nils Lofgren. Who are these people? Cartoon characters?

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