music friday: what i listened to in 2016
what i watched

springsteen on broadway

I had to ask myself, when choosing category tags for this post, what exactly is Springsteen on Broadway? I threw my hands in the air and tried to be inclusive (Bruce Springsteen, Film, Music, Television, and Theater, although I could have also included Books). I should specifically note that I am not referring to the actual show Bruce performed in a theater on Broadway, a show that ran for more than a year. Nor am I referring specifically to the newly-released soundtrack of the show. I'm talking about the version that turned up on Netflix a few hours after the final show in the run had concluded. I mention all of this because there is plenty to say about how well the theater show translates to Netflix, but I'm here to talk about it as a video I watched, as a Bruce fan of close to 45 years. Nonetheless, from this point, when I say "The Show" I mean all of its variants, even though I personally am talking about the Netflix edition.

Springsteen on Broadway is an interesting amalgam of things long-time Bruce fans have enjoyed for a long time. For instance, Bruce does a lot of talking in this show ... there's 16 songs, but it runs for 2 1/2 hours, which is actually kind of short for a Bruce concert but when he plays for 3+ hours, he'll usually work in 30 or so songs. The soundtrack album demonstrates how it works ... it has 30 tracks, which include the songs and their introductions. "The Promised Land (Introduction)" lasts 11:34 ... "The Promised Land" itself lasts 4:01. Still, there is a familiar feel to it all for hard-core fans, who have been listening to Bruce tell his tales in concert since forever. (There is a website, "Storyteller", that offers 1,237 stories Bruce has told on stage, from a show in Union, New Jersey in May of 1971 to a June 2018 show from the Broadway run.) The music in the show is stripped down, just Bruce and his guitar, with an occasional piano or harmonica, and Patti Scialfa for two songs. This is also something we've seen before, most notably in his tours in support of The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils and Dust. Finally, if you've read his memoir, Born to Run, you have heard many of these stories specifically, since the show is based on that book.

Thus, despite the newness of the presentation (as the title says, Springsteen ON BROADWAY), ultimately there isn't a lot new here. And that's appropriate. For while Bruce was once famously called The Future of Rock and Roll, he has always been an artist who brings together the familiar shared moments from our past into the fired-up present. A show built around the story of Bruce's life and career necessarily looks at the past, as he has always done. But it also reevaluates that past in the context of the present, which he has also always done.

Something did strike me as odd, though. When he hit the scene, Bruce Springsteen was a refreshing departure from the emerging singer-songwriter genre of "I've seen fire and I've seen rain" navel gazing. He wrote about the boardwalk, Greasy Lake, Sandy and Rosie, Thunder Road and Jungleland. He created a world out of memorable characters and settings, and sure, he grew up on the Jersey Shore and you could imagine he was talking about himself in those songs, but the songs weren't about him, they were about the world he created. Jungleland was never a real place, after all. This tendency was so marked that it took him 8 albums before he finally recorded something that felt "personal" in the ways of singer-songwriters (Tunnel of Love). However, in Springsteen on Broadway, through his narrative introductions, Bruce ties his songs to his biography in a way that was only suggested at the time those songs reached an audience. The song selection forces this upon us. The first four songs are among the ones that most obviously connect to his biography ... not myth-making classics like "Rosalita" or "Jungleland", but "Growin' Up," "My Hometown," "My Father's House," and "The Wish," his paean to his mom and the Japanese guitar she got him for Xmas. After this setup, "Thunder Road," which follows, becomes less myth-making and more biography. Bruce constructs a singer-songwriter out of his work.

Even so, he turns this construction on its head, partly by admitting all of his work is a construction. As he says in the show's opening, "I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged just a little bit with fraud. So am I." And later, talking about an early cross-country road trip where he had to admit he had never driven before: "I don't have a clue as to how to drive. By that I mean, the man who very shortly would write 'Racing in the Street' (pause ... he's got great timing) ... that's how good I am." He made it all up.

And that's magic, the kind you won't find from singer-songwriters. Somehow, he took his personal experiences and created inclusive worlds that reached beyond his own self, making room for all of us to join him on the ride.

If you've read his memoir, you'll notice what is left out of the show. There is nothing about his years of therapy and depression. But the show coheres as a whole.

I don't know that any of the song performances here are definitive. If I want to hear "Thunder Road" again, I'll look elsewhere. In some ways, the stories are the best part, and I imagine those won't have the staying power of the songs, so I don't anticipate pulling out the audio version every two weeks. (The one possible keeper is "Brilliant Disguise", a classic song about love gone wrong and the deceit we use to try to keep it alive ... written for his "divorce" album, it takes on new meaning with Patti along for harmonies.) That's not quite right, though ... the stories combined with the songs are the best part, and stories+songs is what you get for 2 1/2 hours, which is more than all right.

I was reminded of 1980, when we saw him five times in a week. Every night, "Jungleland" would come near the end of the show, and every night, I'd rush down to the front of the stage and watch Bruce bellow out those last notes. And I'd wonder how he did it, how could he care so much each and every night? Because we all know Bruce Springsteen is "authentic". But after five nights with "Jungleland", I finally realized he was acting. And that was OK, too. You'll see this in Springsteen on Broadway, where he works with a script, telling the same exact stories the same exact way for more than a year, and you don't see the seams, because you are too caught up in the performance. That's how good he is.

 

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