Sample Chapter: Bruce Springsteen
Will Not Let You Down
Live In New York City, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
Public Arts Find Grind column, April 2001
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN’S PERSONA has skidded around for the past ten years as he adjusted to a second marriage, fatherhood, producer-hood, and Oscar respectability. These have been his major themes since 1988’s Tunnel of Love, arguably his best work. After the Tunnel tour, and his stint with Amnesty International, Springsteen retired his E Street Band and hired a relatively heartless troupe of L.A. stud-muffins to support Human Touch and Lucky Town in 1992, and a weirdly out-of-sync MTV Plugged session. Then in 1995, he reunited the E Streeters for new songs on his Greatest Hits disc, and they performed together at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame gala. Later that year, he launched an acoustic jaunt behind The Ghost of Tom Joad, a well-meaning but softcore social studies effort which begged comparison to 1982’s Nebraska, and didn’t hold up nearly as well. Finally, he put his E Streeters back on the road and embarked on dates throughout Europe and America in 1999–2000, the closing nights of which comprise this film.
The band’s sound has broadened and the arrangements are spry, but it’s the emotional richness and broad humor that will win over holdouts. With Springsteen’s bottomless chest of material, and an ensemble that improves each time they play together, this summer’s DVD edition will be an instant keeper. But perhaps more impressively, Springsteen has steered his persona toward a safe landing. At age 50 when these shows were filmed, his stamina still wows, his spirit soars. The opening trio of songs (“My Love Will Not Let You Down,” “Prove It All Night,” and “Two Hearts,” with guitarist Little Steven) were volcanic rock fanfares that lived up to their grandiosity. “Love” set the film’s overarching metaphors in motion: faith in rock’n’roll can be its own reward.
Then came several completely retooled numbers: Nebraska’s “Atlantic City,” a band staple since 1984, stripped casino grandeur down to one gambler’s curse; “Mansion On the Hill” became a stately country duet with wife Patti Scialfa and Nils Lofgren on sublime lap steel; and “The River” has grown so fraught it sounded like the shotgun marriage from the 1980 album had suffered another twenty years of misgivings (“Now I just act like I don’t remember/Mary acts like she don’t care…”). The CD companion to this show includes a brutal acoustic “Born in the USA,” an ironic boast that only gets scarier with time.
He’s back in the studio fueled by E Street’s concert smarts, and you’d have to be an idiot to prefer the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan as rock’s elder statesmen.
This new Springsteen—bemused by his own self-confidence, the crowd’s ardor, and the telling glances between band members—is the man who recorded “Glory Days” almost twenty years ago. He still kicks out any hint of nostalgia with hard-earned good humor; in the middle of “Out In the Street” he kissed a fan as if he were kissing the whole world. As much as this footage makes you wish for a big-screen concert film from 1978, or 1980, or at least 1984, Springsteen’s reluctance may have been a good thing: it only strengthened his bond with his concert audience. Is there another major rock star, or any star at all, who commands the world’s attention with such a Spartan stage set?
Springsteen was always more comfortable onstage than anywhere else. Ironically, now that he’s figured out how to be comfortable at home, it’s only made him a better performer. If his writing has plateaued (these shows featured nothing from Tunnel of Love, and emphasized tunes written before 1984), his aim remains steady: “American Skin (41 Shots),” the film’s closing number, takes an easy target (NYPD racist brutality) and creates a searing hook out of incendiary material. It’s a far better song than the finale, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which simply restates everything he proclaims in the scripture of “10th Avenue Freeze-Out.” For a writer who excels at understatement, it’s a high-pitched anthem with zero subtext. (“My City of Ruins,” as yet unreleased, is the new song worth hunting down.)
But if Springsteen fell behind ten years back, all we had to do was wait. He’s back in the studio fueled by E Street’s concert smarts, and you’d have to be an idiot to prefer the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan as rock’s elder statesmen. Springsteen realizes that the larger tour, this grand rock myth he’s been chasing his whole life, is about much more than him, his band, his songs, or even his cumbersome American icon of a persona. It’s about all of us.