Sample Chapter: Bruce Springsteen
Reason To Believe
How Much Faith Is Left?
Los Angeles Review of Books, June 9, 2023
WE THINK ABOUT Bruce Springsteen differently now from how we did in the 1970s when he first appeared, or the 1980s when he went mainstream, and it’s only in part because of his current tour’s Ticketmaster mess. When he played Red Rocks in June 1978, near Denver, I was a week out of high school, smack in the strike zone. We had listened to Darkness on the Edge of Town, his newest album, intently for a couple of weeks, and had read future biographer Dave Marsh’s rave review in Rolling Stone. Suspicious of the hype, we took pleasure when Springsteen’s PA system played Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True(1977) for the early crowd—it sounded generous, like he cared about the same music that we did.
When he took the stage with “Badlands,” Springsteen lit up the audience with energies both fierce and fearsome, only suggested by the lead track on Darkness. The sound busted open with triumph and ambition and a swaggering, indomitable confidence; it also had foreboding and dread. Springsteen’s charisma gave its breakout drama a blinding force, and the E Street Band players kept diving into grooves that felt too big for a single group, chasing their Big Idea Frontman, who kept racing out ahead. Nearly four hours later, the band fell apart laughing in the middle of covering the Bobby Fuller version of “I Fought the Law,” and everybody left feeling like a tornado had just picked them up and dropped them back down to earth.
At age 28, Springsteen wasn’t just great—he was freakishly great. The rock press had covered his legal fight with his first manager, Mike Appel, and the years it stole from his early career just as he should have been cashing in on the critical euphoria over 1975’s Born to Run. (The album hit number three on Billboard’s US LPs chart, but the booming title single stalled at number 23, even after Springsteen appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweeksimultaneously.) That 1978 summer tour clawed back pent-up demand. Few other rock stars had anywhere near the same kind of integrity, fighting a court case instead of touring. Later that summer, we listened to the live FM broadcast from Los Angeles’s Roxy Club, where he opened by crushing Buddy Holly’s rendition of “Rave On.”
A defining tension grew between Springsteen’s recordings and his live shows, in ways that the Grateful Dead had pioneered: the tour, not the album, became the act. But the arc of Springsteen’s career carried its own quirks. He didn’t make weak records, but his live performances exceeded anything he managed to capture on tape. Even the shimmering immediacy of his three-CD Live 1975–1985 set, famously sweetened with overdubs, only approximates the way his shows created new meanings from familiar numbers.
Looking back, hindsight credits Springsteen’s great early streak, from the maximal adolescent on The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle (1973) to the anxious newlywed on Tunnel of Love (1988), while forgiving a few inconsistent swerves. He gave heavy-handed nods to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, oversinging on The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995), Devils and Dust (2005), and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006). He made subpar stadium rockers, like Working on a Dream (2009), Wrecking Ball (2012), High Hopes (2014), Western Stars (2019), and the COVID-era Letter to You (2020), which paralleled his solo Broadway run (2017–18, again in 2021).
Last year, Springsteen released Only the Strong Survive, a two-man hat trick, and it disappoints most where it aims highest. He oversings again, and his producer, Ron Aniello, backs him up with a bunch of synthesized gadgets for a set of well-chosen but weakly rendered R & B numbers—including a cover of the Supremes’ version of “Someday We’ll Be Together” and Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do).” Jon Landau claims an executive producer credit, just to spread the infamy around. (Landau once proclaimed, in Boston’s Real Paper in 1974, that he “saw rock and roll[’s] future and its name is Bruce Springsteen,” and he has since served as both producer and manager.) It’s an embarrassing karaoke set that mixes great material with Tonka-toy instrumentals for a mismatch of frame to subject. It cheapens Springsteen’s authority. Imagine a ’57 Chevy running on Cheez Whiz.
Even so, the prospect of a Springsteen tour stirred anticipation among longtime fans, and few deserve rock-elder-statesman status more. Even when he stoops to preening celebrity side hustles, like chatting with Barack Obama in their 2021 book Renegades: Born in the USA, Springsteen trades on oceans of good faith. Last summer, when Paul McCartney invited him onstage to duet “Glory Days,” these two rock septuagenarians looked back fondly on their naive 40-year-old selves. This counted as a more meaningful exchange. They harmonized as youthful symbols embracing rock old age, beyond what anybody might have imagined as teenagers embracing teen music, beyond even rock’s grandiose early promise.
Throughout the spring tour, Springsteen clips peppered social media. He’s 73, and when he returns from Europe in July, he’ll play more US dates, then head to Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter. The current lineup includes a full horn section, backup singers, and too many guitarists. The overstuffed stage only underlines how little support Springsteen needs.
But many of the Springsteen faithful, including me, have opted out of this season’s tour. I caught the 2016 revival run of his The River Tour (1980–81), only to have low expectations overwhelmed again. So, I’m sure the shows prove worthwhile: no matter what you pay for your ticket, Springsteen over-delivers. I simply don’t want to participate in Ticketmaster’s price-gouging.
Even if you considered yourself the most loyal fan, just logging in to Ticketmaster’s interface last summer proved challenging, and required repeated, determined effort, hours of clicking, reloading, and hoping you chose the right browser. Once you made it in, more competition ensued with other buyers. Many who persisted came up empty, and others found outrageous “service fees” (of up to 150 percent) attached to median prices of around $200. On top of this, a “dynamic pricing” feature kicked in for certain seats that capped out at $5,000, meaning you had to get lucky andsell your dead grandma’s pearls.
As social media erupted with complaints, Springsteen and crew dug the hole deeper. Several days went by in embarrassed silence. Then Landau spoke to The New York Times, saying, “I believe that in today’s environment, that is a fair price to see someone universally regarded as among the very greatest artists of his generation.” In other words, rum luck. Springsteen told Rolling Stone that he typically had his handlers align ticket prices with what “everybody else is doing,” and then added, “I’m going, ‘Hey, why shouldn’t that money go to the guys that are going to be up there sweating three hours a night for it?’” He had once routinely held back tickets for late buyers, and bypassed scalpers in other ways, like sending roamers out into the nosebleed rafters with front-row upgrades.
Backstreets, the 43-year-old Springsteen fanzine, folded to express its disgust. Via Rolling Stone, Springsteen told his fans, “[I]f there’s any complaints on the way out, you can have your money back,” which defines bad faith from its least likely source. While building his devoted audience, Springsteen had cemented their loyalty by twining rock star privilege with mensch largesse.
He honored Vietnam veterans with numbers like “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Shut Out the Light,” hosted homeless drives next to T-shirt concessions, and volunteered anonymously at food bank fundraisers. In 1985, he drove a rental car to the limo-lined “We Are the World” session. In 2016, he boycotted a North Carolina gig after that state banned trans people from public bathrooms. If you get tickets, the shows deliver. But Springsteen used to deliver in and around the concerts too, and that’s part of his music’s larger context.
During this same period, the Cure’s leader, Robert Smith, made headlines by having Ticketmaster issue refunds for “service charges.” When Smith laps you as the workingman’s Quaalude, you’re looking at serious brand damage. You could say Springsteen works to earn this all back onstage. But after fumbling at the gate, Springsteen should have found an elegant solution; almost any gesture at this point would improve on nothing. It’s hard to imagine the younger Boss going quiet at something like this.
Into this muddle drops Warren Zanes’s new book Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, the story of the singer’s leanest music, and loneliest writing, showcased on his 1982 album. In Zanes’s framing, a steadfast rock star forces his record label to swallow a bleak acoustic downer before committing to the big time. Returning home from The River’s epic 1980 tour of the United States and Europe behind his first number-one album, a fearsome and ambitious double LP, Springsteen landed back in New Jersey, newly single, deeply ambivalent about the brass-ring fame now dangled in front of him. He holed up in a rented ranch house in Colts Neck, Central Jersey, and requested a bedroom unit to make song demos. His roadie, Mike Batlan, set up a TEAC model 144 four-track tape recorder, then let Springsteen record by himself. That sound of the singer-songwriter alone with his material fed the record’s worried mood, creating a stark, uneasy atmosphere that transcended skill.
Landau’s first reaction to these demos concerned Springsteen’s mental health. This stuff was not just dark; it reeked of what we now call PTSD, calling up ghosts of a childhood spent in desperation and reproach. This ultimately led Springsteen to start talk therapy and, later on, as he candidly described in his 2016 memoir Born to Run, mood medication, and he continued with cognitive behavior modification. It’s a measure of our cultural progress that we now hear this as material from a suffering patient, and not just a voice trapped by fate.
Zanes, a former guitarist for the Del Fuegos with a PhD in visual and cultural studies, makes you feel Springsteen’s implacable determination. Nebraska’s claustrophobic origin story includes an unlikely brush with punk that became an important subtext. Zanes describes listening sessions during The River with his Power Station studio neighbors, Alan Vega and Martin Rev of Suicide, where Springsteen fell in love with their song “Dream Baby Dream.” (He later covered this harsh poem way too literally, for a curio that makes less and less sense the more you listen.) “I’ve liked Suicide for a long time,” Springsteen tells Zanes. “If Elvis came back from the dead, I think he would sound like Alan Vega.” He may have even named one of his characters—Frankie in “Highway Patrolman”—for the Suicide track “Frankie Teardrop.” Instead of building on his rejuvenating touring persona, Nebraska opens with a killing spree and then slowly fades to black.
Nebraska can sound like a bad-seed cousin to the Darkness character who sings “Factory” or “Racing in the Street.” The River had numbers like “Stolen Car” and “Wreck on the Highway,” cold, forbidding stories that aim at Nebraska’s more dour tales, like “Used Cars” and “Reason to Believe.” Nebraska pared things down to character, situation, and pitiless jackpots. The title song opens with the Charles Starkweather figure asking for his “baby” to sit on his lap during his execution, concluding, “Sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” Joe Roberts, the cop who narrates “Highway Patrolman,” lets his degenerate brother Frankie drive out of state after committing a murder. In the refrains, Joe’s wife, Maria, dances with the brothers, and a brooding love triangle festers just beneath the song’s surface. Zanes quotes singer-songwriter Patty Griffin’s observation: “About half of Nebraska’s songs are about people reacting to this thing that’s destroying them by trying to destroy something else.”
A big part of Nebraska’s appeal stems from how Springsteen confounds the Bob Dylan mold. Captured alone with guitar and harmonica, he explodes the “new Dylan” label by proving how confessional, Catholic, and remorselessly obsessive his interior life sounds; he’s the Reverse Dylan of pop’s dreams. A lot of critics have pointed out the cinematic sweep of this material even though, like Dylan’s John Wesley Harding (1967), only the final track breaks four minutes, and the word “minimal” feels overwrought. Several songs sound unfinished, without bridges, and they work despite themselves. Some lines even overlap, in ways that many would clean up and fix (variations of “debts no honest man could pay” appear in both “Atlantic City” and “Johnny 99,” and “deliver me from nowhere” rings out from “State Trooper” and “Open All Night”). They stand out here as barbed imperfections, material that would suffer from greater editorial finesse. The dead dog on the side of the road in “Reason to Believe” braces hard against cheap redemption.
Arranging these songs in band rehearsals only led to more ambivalence: they didn’t seem to work as set pieces, and everybody kept returning to the demos as a source of intrigue. After months of struggle, Springsteen decided to release the demos as the album, his official follow-up to The River. Or, as Zanes puts it, “If you could make a list of the things a record company does not want to hear …”
Nebraska’s quietude created technical challenges just to make it vinyl. Zanes portrays its engineering team, including Dennis King and Chuck Plotkin, as invisible heroes. These professional ears “still had to adjust the depth and distance between grooves on a disc by hand, the old way,” Zanes writes. “But when [King] did, finally something worked. The old gear seemed to be able to talk to the cheap gear.” And big shocker: Top 40 radio programmers hated the hitless Nebraska.
It says volumes about the difference between today’s market and 1982 that Springsteen’s record label, Columbia, put Nebraska out according to the artist’s specifications: no snazzy video, no cover photo, and no production credit. He rewarded executives by selling 10 million units of Born in the U.S.A. two years later, but only after laying down an aesthetic marker that screamed through its whispers, as if to say, “Fame feels like a curse, and I have to confront this stuff first.” “If I don’t prepare well,” Nebraska implied, “it just might crush me.” Landau puts it like this to Zanes: “It’s like he had his Star Wars and his art movie in his hand at the same moment. And he went to Nebraska first. It’s just where he had to go.” “Years later,” Zanes adds, “it would seem Nebraska was the pulling back of the bow, and Born in the U.S.A. was the arrow’s release.”
Zanes’s Nebraska narrative portrays an artist driven by a remorseless muse beyond any monetary payoff, and plays uncomfortably off the Ticketmaster calamity. The album pushed against every free-market force, and Springsteen knew that its quiet terror wouldn’t work in large arenas. When he sings “Johnny 99” on this tour, it’s more a public wail than a covert monologue, and even so, it turns a private scar into a gaping open wound.
Not until the release of his book Born to Run did Nebraska come into focus as a fictive memoir. That epic, sprawling 2016 autobiography, discursive and under-edited, should have started as a one-man Broadway show and gotten more seasoned instead of the other way around. A couple more drafts might have turned it into a literary marvel on par with Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (2015) by Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, or I Am Brian Wilson(2016) by the eponymous frontman of the Beach Boys.
Back in 1978, nobody thought we would get to see Springsteen at 73, storming stages with the thrill of a teenager, singing beyond what many younger vocalists might attempt, while leading audiences through a catalog surplus that traces his music’s curves over 50 years. But why throw all of that history and power behind Ticketmaster when you could use it to lead your audience into a more equitable system? Even worse, critic Brian Hiatt described the elitism he saw at Madison Square Garden that many paid big bucks for, like a Mad magazine parody of HBO’s Succession:
Just look at the dude captured on camera standing right next to the stage, texting relentlessly without a glance at the band during a tour premiere of “Jungleland,” or the group of middle-aged finance-y bros in a lower side section who engaged in a bellowing conversation about their kids’ SAT scores during Springsteen’s hushed version of “Last Man Standing,” dedicated to his late Castiles bandmate George Theiss.
Nebraska gave us the sounds of a reality that Bruce Springsteen described in grim detail in order to escape. Now that he’s back on tour, waving off Ticketmaster obscenities like a fait accompli, you can argue about how much good faith is left in his tank.