Back in high school, Bruce Springsteen was the bee’s knees.
I remember seeing him in concert in 1984 at the L.A. Sports Arena during the Born in the USA tour, sitting up in the nosebleed seats. It was a quasi-religious experience. The concert lasted well over three hours, and after the last chord had been played, I still wasn’t ready for it to end. I saw him again the next year when he came back to L.A. and played the Coliseum. We were sitting so far back that the music was almost a full second or two behind the video screens, given the fact that light travels faster than sound. It didn’t matter. Bruce delivered. When I had bought the tickets, the show was supposed to be the last one on the tour, but Bruce ended up adding another show a few days later. I didn’t have tickets to that one, but I went down to the Coliseum anyway, and, along with thousands of other fans, I huddled around the walls of the stadium just to listen to what I couldn’t see.
(Those concerts, incidentally, make up the bulk of the recordings on his huge Bruce Live: 1975-1985 collection. If you listen to the crowd screaming during those bits, you’re listening to me.)
The next time I saw Bruce in concert was in the early ‘90s on his Human Touch/Lucky Town tour. No E Street Band. No Clarence Clemons. It was OK, but it was less than what I’d remembered. I wasn’t a teenager anymore, and I discovered that Bruce wasn’t a demigod. It was a harsh lesson to learn.
Even so, I still felt it was my responsibility to dutifully purchase anything that Springsteen churned out. Even after the disappointing concert, I was one of the first guys in line to purchase The Ghost of Tom Joad. That album, for those of you who haven’t heard it, is a self-indulgent, whiny piece of crap. It was only then that I realized how much of Springsteen’s music is built around the whole concept of victimhood.
For every “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road,” where scrappy rebels celebrate lives of danger and freedom as they blaze off on motorcycles into the night, Springsteen gives us didactic sludge like “Youngstown” from the Tom Joad album, where a working class guy moans and whines about how tough his life is because of dark Republican forces beyond his control. Or “The River,”where a guy knocks up his girlfriend and then can’t find work “on account of the economy.” Or even “Born in the USA,” which, despite its anthemic presentation, is actually a savage mockery of anyone who dares to believe in the American Dream.
I soured on Bruce for awhile.
Then came 2002’s reunion with the E Street Band and the album The Rising. I had heard good things about it, and I decided to give it a chance. It was everything it should have been and more. Written primarily as a response to 9/11, the album celebrates instead of whines. Bruce’s characters grieve for the loses they’ve incurred, but they’re still able to “come on up for the Rising.” The album highlights victims, yes, but it doesn’t dwell on self-pity or recrimination. Like the best of what Bruce has done, The Rising is an exercise in joy. I’ve played that CD a zillion times, and I still get a kick out of it.
Alas, for Bruce, the wallowing was to return with Devils and Dust, an anti-war screed sans E Street Band. I didn’t even bother to pick up the Seeger Sessions. Unless the E Street Band is involved, Bruce tends to wallow in lefty bilge. And there was all the John Kerry campaigning and overt political blech in the intervening years. I’ve never understood why so many entertainers go out of their way to alienate half their audience, and I think he would be disgusted to know that he actually has Republican fans like me. But that’s a story for another day.
All this leads to today. I’ve pre-ordered his new CD Magic from iTunes, and I’ve heard his new single “Radio Nowhere.” It’s pretty good. The E Street Band helps a lot. But I’ve also been warned of left-wing bile therein, including a song based on John Kerry’s comment before the Senate about being the last man to die for a mistake. Yikes. I hope there’s enough joy elsewhere on the album that I’ll still be able to enjoy it.
I’ll let you know.