I want to talk about Bruce Springsteen, but I’m not sure where to start. It’s so cliche – the girl from suburban New Jersey in love with The Boss, so in love she’s contemplating a Springsteen tattoo, so in love she goes to concerts and cries for the first hour, or maybe on and off for the whole thing. But cliches don’t come from nowhere, and the feelings clogging my chest during Springsteen shows are some of the truest I know.
I grew up on Springsteen, but as with so much of the music my parents liked when they were young, it had been filtered into Greatest Hits collections by the time I came along. We had Springsteen’s Greatest Hits, and sometime when I was a teenager we got Born to Run and Born in the USA on CD – Born to Run turned me inside out just as bad thirty years after it came out as it did to folks in 1975 – but the deep dives were my own.
It really started in 2008. (That’s 33 years after his debut album, for those of you keeping score at home.) I don’t remember why, but I decided to take my dad to see him that summer. We saw him from the nosebleeds at Giants Stadium touring in support of Magic, and I was done. I’d never seen anything like it – never seen anyone play so long, love the crowd so hard. I remember going back to my desk job at the University of Chicago Press and watching live video after live video, reaching for that magic. I remember sitting in my apartment listening to Magic again and again, astounded at how good he still was, how his 2007 work was still fresh and vital without abandoning his sound. I saw him again in 2009 on the Working on a Dream tour, also at Giants Stadium, and got to hear him play Born to Run top to bottom, right in the middle of his set list. That tour was the last time he was going to play that version of Giants Stadium – they demolished it in 2010 – and he opened with an acoustic version of “Wrecking Ball” (which would later appear on his 2012 album Wrecking Ball), saying goodbye to the stadium where he’d so many times loved on Jersey and been loved back.
My love quieted down after that. I still loved him, but the near-obsession that had burned through me for a year cooled, and he became more a part of my life’s fabric, less a star. When he released local tour dates for 2016 – his first since 2012, though I didn’t realize it at the time – I took one look at the prices and opted against going. The idea of digging into his catalog deeper than the trifecta of Born to Run/Darkness on the Edge of Town/Born in the USA was always in my mind, but listening to music thoughtfully is something that demands a lot from me, and I kept not getting around to it. But last spring, I decided to make the time. I decided to listen to him from the beginning to the end, spend as much time as it took to get intimate with each album, and make some sense of this forty-plus year career that still meant so much to me.
I listened to Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ (January ’73). I listened to The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (September ’73). I did this over and over and over, until I felt I was beginning to understand them. Then I listened to Born to Run (’75) and Darkness (’78), both of which I already knew, with a more critical ear than I ever had. I was thinking a lot about Bruce, formulating some insights and figuring shit out, and having quite a time of it.
And then a funny thing happened – Prince died. I’ve never known much of Prince’s work (though I like what I know), so I wasn’t personally affected, but the depth of mourning I witnessed was staggering. Bruce was playing Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn that weekend, and he opened his first show with “Purple Rain.” And I thought about the fact that someday Bruce was going to die, and I knew that was going to knock me to my knees in the way celebrity deaths never do, and I bought a ticket for the second Barclay’s show two days in advance. It was $144. I didn’t pay it off for months.
My seat was more or less in the next county, but it was directly opposite the stage and there was no one sitting to my left. The tour was in support of the 35th anniversary reissue of The River. He played that album top to bottom. I’d never heard most of it before, and I’d been apprehensive about so much new-to-me music, but I was floored. I danced and I sang and I cried. I cried when he sang, “Let there be sunshine, let there be rain, let the brokenhearted love again.” I cried when he sang, “At night on them banks I’d lie awake and hold her close just to feel each breath she’d take.” I cried at any number of other completely senseless times, at meaningless lyrics, when it all just got to be too much to keep inside.
Springsteen shows are theater as much as they are musical performance. There are things that always happen: there’s an audience singalong for the first verse of “Hungry Heart.” There’s a particular riff the audience sings on “Badlands.” Bruce crowd-surfs (most of the time). The band takes requests made by fans in the know, and in the pit, on huge oaktag signs. Bruce selects these personally. During this particular show, he brought a 10-year-old girl on stage to sing “Blinded by the Light.” This was after the band had played The River in its entirety, which by itself would constitute nearly a full live show for any other musician, but for Bruce was just about half. He played for three hours and forty-five minutes that night. When he released dates for a tour extension, I dropped $150 without batting an eye to see him in August. Bruce is worth the debt, and I wanted to be on the floor.
The thing about Bruce’s music – everyone knows the rockers, the crowd-pleasers, the ones he plays at the end of his live shows with all the house lights up. “Born to Run.” “Thunder Road.” “Born in the USA.” “Prove It All Night.” “Rosalita.” “Jungleland.”And it’s not that these songs aren’t great, because they are. They light you up on the inside and make you want more from your life, make you want to grab hold of your future with both hands. But that’s only one side of Bruce, and the greatest joy of my ongoing deep dive has been learning how diverse his music is, what a truly great musician and bandleader he is, that his music isn’t just fun but good, creative and interesting and complex. Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent, which I listened to all spring, bear only the faintest overt hints of the incredible rock and roll to come, and I fell for their weirdness as much as anything else. I fell particularly in love with the crazy wordplay in “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?,” the neon-and-spray-paint vision of New York it depicts that may not have ever really exists, and with the innocence/experience of Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane in “Incident on 57th St” exploding into the youthful house party invincibility of “Rosalita.” He doesn’t play the stuff on those first two albums nearly as much, and anyway, the first two times I saw him I didn’t know any of it, but the fact is I had never heard any of the deep tracks off those two albums played live. But this time – last week, August 30th, the weather about as perfect as ever gets – he told the crowd that this was the third of three shows he was playing at MetLife Stadium (the new Giants Stadium), and he was going to try to play stuff he hadn’t gotten to on the first two nights. And so for the first two hours of a four hour show, he didn’t play a single number from after 1973. He played “Incident” and slammed straight into “Rosalita,” and he played “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” I cried when he sang, “Man, the dope says there’s still hope.” At the end of the day, you can distill at least 2/3 of Bruce down into that lyric. There’s still hope.
Bruce himself is an interesting guy. He’s incredibly smart and ever-increasingly political, and he has a career whose richness puts that of his musical peers to shame. This is a great New Yorker profile of him from 2012. He’s acutely conscious of his role as a bard for the working classes, for young people from small towns who need someone to show them the way out. But he also wrote a song about police murder of black men in 2000, after Amadou Diallo was murdered, that is just as wrenching today as it was 16 years ago. He has three kids he raised in New Jersey, one of whom has grown up to be I shit you not a fucking fireman. By all appearances – which can, of course, be deceiving – his marriage is enviable. His wife, Patti Scialfa, tours with the E Street Band, and he’s still singing love songs to her on stage and talking about her “long, sexy legs.” I say all this because I want you to know, and I don’t know where else to put it.
It’s a cliche, the girl from Jersey in love with Springsteen, but cliches don’t come from nowhere.