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.)