In retrospect, my retreat from Bruce Springsteen fandom seems like a necessary break in our relationship. We got too serious too soon, and I needed some space before I could commit to loving the Boss for the rest of my life.
We got back together last night, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul—my hometown. Though my friend Kristen and I drew the 1,190th and 1,191st worst out of 1,200 numbers in the lottery for the general admission “advance barricade area” (in other words, stageside), we ended up just a couple of people back from a catwalk Springsteen used on multiple occasions to come out into the crowd, so I did get to see him up close and personal.
Bruce Springsteen looks good, and not just because of the cosmetic work that The New Yorker‘s David Remnick speculates he’s had done. Everyone looks good when they’re happy with themselves and their jobs, and Bruce Springsteen would not be Bruce Springsteen if he didn’t really, truly love being Bruce Springsteen.
He’s a singular live artist, because there’s no one with his level of talent who’s worked so hard for so long to give his fans a lifetime of great musical memories. Other major artists have messianic streaks like Springsteen’s, but if U2 represent the God who inspires cathedrals and the Rolling Stones represent the God you pray to during an ill-advised hookup, Springsteen represents the God who sanctifies your union at your neighborhood church before a sweaty reception dance at the VFW—the God who doesn’t mind if you actually enjoy your earthly existence. One of Remnick’s insights is that Springsteen, at 63, is still closely in touch with the artist he was at the beginning of his career: he’s never stopped wanting to prove it all night.
Springsteen understands that getting older presents both new challenges—not only is he not in the Top 40 any more, the Top 40 is dominated by a genre (hip-hop) that didn’t even have a name when Born to Run was released—and new opportunities. His audience is so safely assured that he could half-ass it for the rest of his life, which makes it all the more impressive that he doesn’t. He visibly draws energy from a crowd, which almost makes you believe that as long as you keep cheering, he’ll never die.
One of Springsteen’s most underrated gifts is simple good taste, which allows him to take risks without looking ridiculous. “Rocky Ground,” a song on Springsteen’s new album Wrecking Ball, features the first rap interlude in Springsteen’s catalog; as performed by Michelle Moore, the verse sounds natural and appropriate. Onstage last night, an offhand Gangnam Style hop seemed fun, not forced. Most delicately, Springsteen’s current tour pays tribute to late saxophonist Clarence Clemons in a manner that feels sincere and moving, and when the Boss makes his patented crotch-first slide towards a saxophonist who’s now Clarence’s nephew Jake, the moment feels not sad but transcendent, a triumph for the spirits of all three men.
Perhaps the most eerily resonant moment in last night’s show, though, was when Springsteen let the crowd lift a very young girl onstage to sing a chorus with him. The girl was wearing a bright yellow t-shirt bearing the insignia of the band Nirvana, who helped to define a post-Springsteen era with Top 40 nihilism, frontman Kurt Cobain ending his own life in sad desperation at the height of his career. There, last night, was a girl born after Cobain’s suicide, into a world where Springsteen had already been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. She was younger than all of Springsteen’s own children, a member of whatever generation follows Y, standing onstage with the Boss. And there he was, too: still one of the biggest rock stars in the world, still releasing new records with the E Street Band and playing some of the longest shows of his career to sold-out stadiums. The young Nirvana fan grinned widely as she sang along to the song—that’s right—”Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.” Point, set, Springsteen.
In typically contrarian fashion, I was just becoming a Springsteen fan in the 90s when Nirvana were all the rage. Springsteen’s records were the first music I developed an adult relationship with: instead of liking it because it was on the radio or my dad owned the CD or it was in a sci-fi movie, I connected with Springsteen’s musical project as an independent person trying to find his way in life and looking for reflection, looking for inspiration, looking for challenge.
I’d purchased a used vinyl copy of Springsteen’s Live 1975-85 set out of curiosity, feeling like the guy I remembered from my 80s childhood as an MTV hero might have something more to say to me. I turned out the lights (I remember this detail) and dropped the needle on disc one, side one, track one: “Thunder Road,” quiet and acoustic. At the time I didn’t even know the original full-band version, but that would have been much more in line with what I expected than this searingly emotional, direct solo performance. This was a song about boys and girls and motorcycles, but it was hurt and vulnerable—yet also resolute and hopeful. When the iconic final line, “It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win,” bled into the full-throated hell-raising of “Adam Raised a Cain,” I was sold.
Springsteen helped get me through a lot of confusion and doubt that year, and every subsequent year for a long time. Eventually, though, there came a time when his hopeful anthems—never more prominent in his repertoire then now, with Wrecking Ball‘s “We Take Care of Our Own” as the patriotic singalong everybody thought “Born in the U.S.A.” was—started to sound hollow. The bleak songs are still there to keep Springsteen from sounding glib or formulaic (on the new album, there’s the sharply ironic “Jack of All Trades”), but I’d always had Dylan when I needed bleak. Springsteen had been there to lift me up, and like anyone, over time I’d encountered more and more sad situations that couldn’t be fixed by hope or dreams or faith. When I was a teenager, “The Promised Land” sounded like it was a song about adulthood. When I grew up and realized I wasn’t actually in the promised land, I couldn’t help feeling a little betrayed.
But then, I’d never had a real Springsteen concert experience. I saw a fine acoustic show on the Devils and Dust tour, and then I saw him at the Xcel a few years ago—but my seats were far back, and from that vantage the show felt a little by-the-numbers. When Kristen asked if I wanted to try to get into the pit with her for last night’s show, I thought about it and decided that I was ready to give the Boss another try—and this time, to give him a fair shot from a teeming mass of fellow fanatics.
I came away from the show feeling like I understood something new about Springsteen, and about myself. The crowd-surfing and the piano-jumping and the spontaneous decision to grant a crowd request for an obscurity Springsteen wrote for Clemons’s first album (“Savin’ Up”) were all great, but for me the linchpin of the set was a song from Nebraska (1982), the chilling solo masterpiece that’s prevented even the most dubious critics from dismissing Springsteen’s artistry.
“Atlantic City” is, like many Springsteen songs, about running towards a promising future. In this case, though, before the characters even get dressed to go out the door, they already suspect that they’ve been had. The narrator, at the end of his rope, agrees to do “a little favor” for a guy in Atlantic City—the kind of favor you wouldn’t do if you had any other options. Telling his girl forebodingly to “put your best dress on and do your hair up pretty,” he fears that he can only hope for a promised land in the hereafter. “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact—but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”
Hearing that song last night threw into relief all the other evidence Springsteen’s given throughout his career that he knows damn well a hope is just a hope. “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true,” asks the narrator of The River‘s title track, “or is it something worse?”
Springsteen’s age also seemed, suddenly, significant. His band members are dying, and girls who threw underwear at him when he was already too old for them are now post-menopausal. He’s going to die, and eventually so will I and so will you. In the end, we’re all going to face those Atlantic City odds. But Springsteen’s still up there, still singing about searching for the faith that can save him.
Maybe, I realized last night, that’s Springsteen’s secret. You never reach the promised land, and you never lose the urge to run. Thunder Road, with all its desperate dreams and its impulsive, breathlessly hopeful promises of eternal love, isn’t the journey—it’s the destination.