Five years ago today, I posted about an interview Ann Powers did with Bruce Springsteen about his then-new album, High Hopes.
I mentioned on Twitter that I had a favorite part of the interview, but that I wasn’t sure why. It comes when Bruce is describing what it was like making records when he was in his 20s: “It was terrible, you know. In truth, it was awful, an awful way to make records but it was the only way we knew how. Everybody simply suffered through it and the endless, endless, endless hours I can't begin to explain.”
Ann’s response was the part I loved most: “We thank you for those hours.”
I’ve had a couple of days to think about it, and I think I know now why this resonated so deeply with me. When I first heard she was going to interview Bruce, I thought she was a perfect choice, that people like myself would be well-represented. That one sentence is what I meant, when she stepped back momentarily from her professional role and briefly spoke as a fan. I am not the only Bruce fan to spend too much time wondering what I would say if I met him. Part of me thinks I’d just ask him to play “Back in Your Arms” the next time he comes to the Bay Area. That’s part of why people bring signs requesting this or that favorite song … it’s a way to talk to the man on the stage.
But the truth is (and from talking to friends over the years, I know I’m not alone in this), if I had a chance to meet Bruce Springsteen, the one and only thing I’d want to say is, “Thank you”.
So consider this blog post my way of thanking Ann for thanking Bruce on our behalf.
I included a video that is one of my favorites. Here it is again. As always, I tell people, look at the faces ... if you've never been to a Bruce concert and want to know what it's like, look at those faces. As wonderful as Springsteen on Broadway is, it is missing one thing: those faces.
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.
Spiritualized, "Hey Jane". Another really long track.
Santigold, "Disparate Youth". Is it catchy? It's been used on the soundtrack for commercials for insurance companies and Honda automobiles.
Wild Flag, "See No Evil + Ask the Angels". This is a bit of a cheat. Their one and only album was released in 2011. But I saw them three times, the last at the Fillmore in 2012, so here they are, covering Television and Patti Smith.
Spotify playlist (Wild Flag never recorded these songs, so I've added the originals):
I keep thinking I'm going to get to a year where I have nothing to say about any of the chosen songs. But there is at least one here that was so massive even I, at 56 years old, knew it. I also keep waiting for the year when I haven't seen any of the artists in concert. I guess as long as Bruce Springsteen keeps showing up, that won't happen, but there is one other act here that I have actually seen twice.
Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, "Empire State of Mind". How big was this one? Let's ask Wikipedia: "A critical success, 'Empire State of Mind' was included in multiple critics' top 10 list of the best songs of 2009; including Rolling Stone magazine and The New York Times. It was also nominated for three Grammy Awards, winning Best Rap Song and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. The song achieved commercial success worldwide. It peaked within the top 10 in many countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, France, Italy and Sweden. In the US, the song topped the Billboard Hot 100 for five consecutive weeks, becoming Jay-Z's first number-one single on the chart as a lead artist. It appeared in 2009 year-end charts in Italy, Australia and the US, where it was also the last number one hit of the 2000s. As of June 2014, the single has sold over 5.5 million copies in the United States."
Animal Collective, "My Girls". One of the dozen (at least) tracks sampled for Beyoncé's Lemonade.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Zero". Almost as ubiquitous as "Empire", but it didn't make it into my own sheltered existence. Featured in everything from Ugly Betty and Gossip Girl to a Tony Hawk video game.
Fuck Buttons, "Surf Solar". Hard to argue with their name, if nothing else.
Florence + the Machine, "Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)". Here's a band where I know they are important (this track comes from their successful debut album) but I couldn't tell you a thing about them.
Sonic Youth, "What We Know". This is the band I've seen twice, the second being in 2009.
The Roots, "How I Got Over". 2009 marks the first year The Roots worked as Jimmy Fallon's house band, first on Late Night and later on The Tonight Show, immediately becoming arguably the coolest house band in late-night history.
Bruce Springsteen, "Wrecking Ball". The album of the same name contained some of Bruce's angriest lyrics, but this title track was written as a tribute to a football stadium. Not to be confused with the Miley Cyrus song.
Spotify playlist, with a substitute for "Empire State of Mind" since Jay-Z doesn't do Spotify.
Bonus: an inspired version of Miley's "Wrecking Ball":
For some reason, we've seen Bruce Springsteen a lot of times in October. I've seen him 36 times, which by the averages means we should have seen him 3 times in October. But the first two times we saw him were in October, and there was the road trip in October of 1980 where we saw him five times in a week. In total, we have seen him 16 times in October.
Since it's October 25, I'll play the Throwback Thursday game and look at the three times we saw him on October 25.
First was 1980 in Portland, the first day of our 1980 Road Trip. It was our 6th Bruce concert, and the only time we've seen him outside of California. That was the year Mount St. Helens erupted, and while the most damage was done in May, in mid-October there were more eruptions. In honor of this event, Bruce played "On Top of Old Smokey" for the first and only time in his career. Here is the audio from the entire show ... "On Top of Old Smokey" comes at 1:28:35:
Our second Bruce/October 25 show came 19 years later, in 1999. This was the Reunion Tour ... we saw three shows in Oakland, the first of which came on the 25th. Not much is easily found from that show, so here is "Light of Day" from the second night, including a touch of Moby Grape's "Omaha":
Our third, and thus far last, Bruce on October 25 show came in 2007.10-25-07. I saw "Our", but in fact, Robin didn't go to this one, the first time I was there without her ... she went with me the next night. One advantage was that I was in the pit for the show on the 25th ... Robin doesn't do pit. Here is a photo of me and my friend Tom at that show:
This was the only one of these three shows that came after I started this blog, so:
It's time to end the pretense that I know much about these songs. I turned 55 in 2008, and the only ones of the following ten songs that had an impression on me were the Bruce song and "That's Not My Name". So I present these without comment, which will mostly be the default the rest of the year, as I use Music Friday to catch up on music I missed.
The National, "Fake Empire". By this point, there will always be at least one song about which I have nothing to say.
Bruce Springsteen, "Livin' in the Future".Magic wasn't his best album, and this isn't the best song from that album. But I've always been intrigued by the line, "We're livin' in the future, and none of this has happened yet."
Sleater-Kinney, "Sympathy". Corin Tucker's finest moment, and another ultimate 9/11 song.
Norah Jones, "Come Away with Me". The album earned Jones her first Grammy, at the age of 23. Also her second, third, fourth, and fifth Grammy. It was her debut album.
Pink, "Don't Let Me Get Me". I obsess over this video. I used it in the classroom. I've written about both the song and the video before. After seeing her live for the first time, in 2002, I wrote:
The show had many highlights ... the oddest one for me came with the final song of the night, "Don't Let Me Get Me." This was the anthem all the girls had been waiting for, and seeing and hearing them sing along to this complex song was bizarre. What does it mean when a bunch of kids happily shout out "I wanna be somebody else"? The closest thing I can think of is when the audience would sing along with Johnny Rotten's "No Future!" ... as if in the act of proclaiming our nihilism, we were expressing our love of life. Except I don't ever remember wanting to be Johnny Rotten, while I think a lot of people in that audience would have been happy if the "somebody else" they got to be was in fact the woman who introduced those words to us in the first place: Pink.