As soon as he took the stage, seemingly oblivious to the calls of “Bruuuuce” from a few of the diehards within the sold-out Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway in New York City, Bruce Springsteen made it clear that this was no ordinary show.
The expression on his face as he stood at the microphone was solemn, serious and intense. With an acoustic guitar slung in front of him, he began with “DNA…” and listed the mixture of hopes, urges, dreams and influences that pushed him to learn to play the guitar, find his voice and rise out of his Catholic upbringing to eventually arrive on that stage a few nights ago.
He then stepped out in front of the mike and addressed the audience directly, as if taking us aside to give us the real scoop about what was going on. “I have never held a job in my life. I have never worked 9 to 5,” he bellowed at the 960-seat theatre. “Of what I have been singing about for the past 40 years I have absolutely zero practical experience.”
And that set the tone for the evening. It was, and is, a reassessment of Springsteen’s work and career through 15 songs. But it was no revisionist history. He’s not repudiating his songwriting, music and career but he is putting it all in context and adding some thematic muscle to the musical bone.
As he wrote in his book, Born to Run, he now feels he didn’t fairly portray his father in his music. The man himself was multi-layered, as we all are, and Springsteen often wrote of him as hard, distant and somber. Now he acknowledges that he was likely bipolar, certainly depressed and haunted and shaped by his own family tragedy.
His mother, on the other hand, found meaning in her job and family, loved music and dancing and, Springsteen said, could and would talk to anyone. She bought him his first guitar and as he sang in “The Wish,” was the one to drag him and his sister up to dance at family parties.
With Springsteen on Broadway, the singer has now shone the same light on the rest of his music and career. The opening song, “Growin’ Up” perfectly encapsulated his Catholic upbringing and his need to rebel from it (“I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd but when they said sit down, I stood up.”) He lightened the mood a bit when he sat down at the piano and began talking about Freehold, New Jersey, (the name itself seems a contradiction) his hometown and near where he finds himself today. “I’m Mr. Thunder Road. Mr. Born to Run. Mister gotta get out. Death trap. Suicide rap. Gotta run, run, run, run. And now, I live 10 minutes from my hometown.”
Moments like those got some knowing laughs from the crowd and helped to cut through some of the gloom and seriousness of the early part of the show. They also illustrated how he still is able to use his own experience to give personal voice to universal feelings.
The songs are obviously central to the show but the stories give them a new framework that allows the audience to connect or reconnect to them. His stark yet energetic acoustic version of “The Promised Land” (long one of my favourites) was boosted by his story of driving to California with his band in the early 70s, hoping to find the path for them to make it big. That trip sparked a lifelong fascination with the desert and eventually sowed the seeds of that song.
He delivered a blistering version of “Born in the USA,” prefacing it by mentioning that it was, and remains, a protest song (despite being misinterpreted by one former U.S. president and probably by the current one.)
The song was borne partly out of a yet another trip west during which he read Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July and then met Kovic, by chance, at an LA hotel. Kovic introduced Springsteen to some Vietnam vets who were struggling with life at home in a country that was ambivalent to their situation. Two of Springsteen’s friends and former bandmates died in Vietnam while he was passed over for military service when he failed his army physical after being drafted. “I do sometimes think that that meant someone had to go in my place,” he said.
The evening also had its philosophical notes. Springsteen spoke of the masks we all wear and the faces we choose to show – and choose not to show – those close to us. That was illustrated and backed up by “Brilliant Disguise,” sung with wife Patti Scialfa, who also joined him on “Tougher than the Rest,” both songs from Tunnel of Love.
“Long Walk Home” allowed Springsteen to obliquely refer to current racial and social unrest in the United States and led into an unexpectedly powerful acoustic version of “The Rising.” Stripped of its pounding drums and gospel-style chorus it retained its core message of hope amidst catastrophic loss.
“Dancing in the Dark” was the song that fully made me a Springsteen fan. It cut through the classic rock FM radio landscape of my youth and grabbed me with its catchy synth intro and steady drumbeat and then hooked me with its message of discontent that spoke directly to my 17-year-old self.
From there I went back to the beginning, to Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., and gathered everything he did until Born in the U.S.A. Then I just kept on going album after album and concert after concert (in Toronto, mostly; Hamilton Ont. once and, once also with my good friend Chris Powell, at Giants Stadium in the swamps of Jersey) winding up in New York, in a Broadway theatre, watching and listening to him perform for the 15th time. On each album I found something to connect to–whether it was a lyric like “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/Or is it something worse?” or the raw energy of the signature 1,2,3,4 count calling for the band to crank the music up another notch.
But hearing “Dancing in the Dark” during this show reminded me that it still had its hold on me, that the message remained true without the musical window dressing that accompanied it. (As Springsteen began to play and the audience, mostly respectfully quiet until this point, began to clap along, he seemed to lose the tempo and told the crowd “I’ll take it from here” with a sly grin.)
The show ended with, of course, “Born to Run.” Springsteen led into it with a rote recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, recalling it as he did as a Catholic schoolboy. His signature song lives up to his reassessment and his own “long and noisy prayer” to his audience, his family and to himself still rings true.