"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?
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?
"In a way, they are, flesh-and-blood caricatures who remind us of a more innocent time, even as they confront what it means to be alive in the waning hours of the 20th century. On this tour, Springsteen is reclaiming something far deeper than a rock 'n' roll band. He's trying to remind himself of what matters, under the guise of a reunion show that trots out most of the hits (and plenty of obscurities, too)."
Indeed. This is no mere revue; U.S. tour stats to date report 34 concerts at an average of 22 songs per, with a total of 76 different songs trotted out. A lot of Springsteen's biggest hits (most noticeably, those from Born in the USA and Tunnel of Love) are absent from set lists. In their place has been an unexpected treasure-trove of material culled from Springsteen's deep catalogue ("Blinded by the Light," "Meeting Across the River," "Candy's Room"), rarities from last year's Tracks boxed set ("Loose Ends," "Rendezvous," "My Love Will Not Let You Down"), and even some unreleased numbers ("Red Headed Woman," "Light of Day," "Freehold"), all turning up in well-paced sets that make for a fine buzz, nostalgic or otherwise. Some material has been overhauled, such as a the moody, jazz-noir-tinged arrangement for "The River"; some songs have been fleshed out, including powerful full-band renderings of "Youngstown" and "Ghost of Tom Joad"; and still others simply pack a new, revived punch -- 1978 war-horses "Prove It All Night" and "Badlands" in particular -- not experienced since their heyday.
One pure Springsteenian moment comes during an extended rave-up during "Light of Day" wherein the singer, band riffing mightily behind him, climbs into the pulpit of the Ministry of Rock 'n' Roll and bellows in his best holy-roller voice, "Have you ever been dis-gusted? Dis-possessed? Over-analyzed? Factionalized? Fractionalized? Stigmatized? Retropsychedelicized? I wanna tell you that I cannot offer you life everlasting. But I can, however, offer you life -- right now!" Corny? Sure. But it brings the house down.
It is, perhaps, significant that Springsteen ends his '99 concerts with a three-song encore that underscores his relationship to his audience, how it feels to be reunited with the E Street Band after more than a decade, and the way everything is wrapped up together into a shared journey that, even at age 50 (he just crossed the half-century mark last month), isn't quite over just yet.
"Thunder Road" may have initially been about breaking small-town shackles and hitting the highway, and, implicitly, how rock 'n' roll is the catalyst that helps us visualize our personal dreams; but over the years, the scope of its message has expanded to include what it means when a community of dreamers -- Springsteen counting himself among that community -- learns to face together the challenges that life throws up. "So you're scared and you're thinking/That maybe we ain't that young anymore/Show a little faith, there's magic in the night. . . . Well now I'm no hero/That's understood/All the redemption I can offer, girl/Is beneath this dirty hood/With a chance to make it good somehow."
Tellingly, the tune has, over the years, also become the one guaranteed to prompt a nightly audience sing-along, an anthem in the purest sense.
Audience-performer bond attended to, Springsteen next transforms one of his most eloquent expressions of love, the ballad "If I Should Fall Behind," into a pledge of band unity. Against a gently fretted guitar melody and a heartbeat pulse, first Springsteen, then Van Zandt, Lofgren, Scialfa and Clemons each take a verse: "We swore we'd travel, darlin', side by side/We'd help each other stay in stride/But each lover's steps fall so differently. . . . Should we lose each other in the shadow of the evening trees/I'll wait for you/And should I fall behind/Wait for me." And a bond of comradeship once broken has now been cemented anew.
Finally, to the last number, a new composition titled "Land of Hope and Dreams," whose folk-rock arrangement, gospel lilt and lyrical snapshots of saints, sinners, losers and winners all embarking on a train toward the promised land are clearly aimed at invoking images of Woody Guthrie ("This Train Is Bound for Glory") and Curtis Mayfield ("People Get Ready"). Rather than going out on a wave of Dionysian tumult, Springsteen instead aims for something more spiritual, more transcendent -- and, true to his nature, the ties that, in the final estimation, bind us all.
"Well darlin' if you're weary, lay your head upon my chest/We'll take what we can carry, yeah, and we'll leave the rest/Big wheels rolling through fields where sunlight streams/Meet me in the land of hope and dreams/This train -- dreams will not be thwarted/This train -- faith will be rewarded . . ."
Springsteen steps to the microphone near the end of the song, thanks the crowd for coming out and humbly announces, "These shows have been kinda the rebirth and rededication of this band -- and of our commitment to serve you as best as we can."
This "commitment" is a rarity, and a precious one. But it's a consistent thread that has run throughout Springsteen's career, a commitment that he takes very seriously. In an interview conducted in late '98 for the BBC-TV Springsteen documentary Secret History, Springsteen acknowledged just that, revealing the essence of what connects him, as an artist, to his audience.
"Everyone has memories -- when you were 11 years old, and you were walking down a particular street on a certain day, the sound of a certain wind blowing through the trees, the sound your feet made on the stones as you came up the drive and the way the light hit the side of the house in a particular way. Everyone has memories like that, that they carry with them for no explicable reason. And whether you call them sense memories or whatever, they live within you. They are an essential part of who you are. They may not be connected; but you had some moment of experience that stayed with you on that particular day [and] revealed to you what it meant to be alive -- what it means to be alive! -- what the stakes are.
"That can be brought back. Your life can be brought back to you by the sound of your feet on the gravel at a certain moment. That's the writer's job. [As a writer] you collect and create those moments out of your own experience, and the world around you. Then you use your imagination and put all those things together. And that experience you present to your audience, who then experience their own inner vitality, their own center, their own questions about their own life, their moral life, whatever you're writing about.
"And there's a connection made. That's your job. That's what you're paid for -- somebody says, 'Hey, I'm not alone!' That alchemy or whatever you want to call it is what you're paid for. It can be onstage at night. It doesn't necessarily have to be done literally; it can be done just through an explosion of energy at a particular moment in a particular way that makes somebody want to stand up, move themselves, go home and do whatever they feel they need to do. You just try to bring forth experience and get people in touch with all of those things in their world. That's the real job. That's the job that keeps you writing. That's what keeps you wanting to write the next song. Because you can do that to people. "And because -- if I do it for you, then I'm doing it for me."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.