Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Highway Jammed with Broken Heroes

Most of Bruce Springsteen’s peers want to be remembered. Bruce Springsteen doesn’t want to be forgotten.

I had the pleasure of seeing The Boss in action last week at Madison Square Garden during my trip to New York City. It was my first time ever visiting the Big Apple (So. Many. People.), an experience that I will always remember for a myriad of reasons. The Springsteen concert is no doubt near the top of that list, although if I’m being honest, my favorite moment was probably visiting and eating at Tom’s Restaurant, which served as the outdoor visual for Monk’s Diner on Seinfeld. I’m not ashamed of this, but I’m also not sure what it says about me.

(I also really enjoyed seeing this old, overweight gentleman nearly send himself into cardiac arrest in the middle of Times Square while selling tickets to the Broadway production of War Horse. His thick and gruffy New York accent was just icing on the cake. “It got five Tony nominations!”)

In any event, the concert – one stop on a massive tour for Springsteen’s most recent album, Wrecking Ball – highlighted something that I find to be very unique about Bruce and the arc of his career: Whereas most of those on Springsteen’s level of prowess eventually reach a point where their artistic efforts serve largely as a way for fans to remember the peaks and defining moments of their careers, Bruce is different. Despite being 62 years old and one of the most revered musicians and songwriters in the world since 1975, Springsteen has yet to reach that  stage where his music serves only as a reminder of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Rather, Bruce is constantly working to top those moments, to further cement his legacy in the world of popular music. After decades of being the voice for the blue-collar Americans (and New Jerseyans), working in the factories and trying to put their kids through school, he’s still penning songs like “Death to My Hometown,” “Rocky Ground,” “Jack of All Trades” and “We Take Care of Our Own.” After an extensive résumé that has put him on the short list of rock ‘n’ roll gods, Bruce seems far from content to just bask in the glory of all he’s accomplished. I can’t tell you exactly why he functions this way, only that it’s obvious in his work.

Paul McCartney. Bob Dylan. Eric Clapton. Led Zeppelin. The Rolling Stones. Tom Petty. The Beach Boys. Jackson Browne. James Taylor. Van Halen. U2. These are all bands and individuals that are roughly Bruce’s age and have all reached roughly the same level of pop music adoration, some a little more, some a little less. And yet when you hear about these guys today, or when you listen to their newest songs, most recent albums and latest ventures, it’s pretty obvious that they serve only as (A) some artistic form of self-expression and (B) a reminder of who they once were.

McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom, Dylan’s Together Through Life, the Beach Boys Grammy performance, Mick Jagger forming SuperHeavy, and so on and so forth – all are respectable efforts (yes, even SuperHeavy), but they are merely that. They don’t reach the levels that those groups and artists once reached. They don’t even try to or intend to. They simply represent and hark back to the glory days (no Springsteen pun intended). Old fans get a chance to continue their support. New fans have an avenue through which to introduce themselves to the old stuff. And there’s certainly no shame in this. It’s just not the way Bruce operates.

Dylan has no intention of regaining his Blonde on Blonde form. Robert Plant knows that nothing he does with Alison Krauss will ever match what he did with Jimmy Page. But Springsteen seems to believe that Wrecking Ball is just as good as anything in his discography. The crazy thing is, he might be right. No one would ever say that Chaos and Creation in the Backyard is their favorite McCartney album (unless they were trying to make a scene), because it simply wouldn’t be true. A couple minutes spent listening to the Ram record would be all the contrary evidence necessary (or, you know, anything by the freaking Beatles). But any true Springsteen fan knows that it is far from blasphemy to claim Magic as their favorite Bruce album.  Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A. are more established, but that doesn’t automatically put them above anything Bruce has done in the past decade. You’d be hard pressed to make that same argument for any one of his aforementioned peers.

Springsteen’s career isn’t without the inevitable “Kerouac” stage (highlighted by the Human Touch/Lucky Town and The Ghost of Tom Joad albums), but it wasn’t a time geared toward reflection and relevance. While most of Bruce’s contemporaries make “comebacks” to buoy the past, Bruce is always trying to top it. This was no more evident than when watching him onstage at MSG, his 62 years of existence obvious only as a date on his birth certificate. Over the course of three straight hours of non-stop Springsteen action, he and the ubiquitous E Street Band stuck chiefly to a Wrecking Ball set list.

Yeah, he played some of the old hits, like when he blasted into “Badlands” to open the show or finished things off with an encore of “Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” And yeah, he rehashed some of his oft-used stage jokes and infamous politically charged monologues (which almost always began with some iteration of, “I don’t have to tell you the hard times that people are going through,” and then were followed, of course, by five-ten minutes of elaboration on the hard times people are going through). But he also raced into the crowd, chugged a couple of beers from the audience and crowd-surfed back to the stage, driving men and women from 18 to 68 absolutely wild. It didn’t matter what he played – old stuff or new stuff – because we were going to be happy either way. And it wasn’t just good because we were all fans. Rather, we were fans because it was all good.

Bruce Springsteen is great. He’s not the best, in my opinion – despite what those from Jersey may tell you – but he’s up there. And what he’s doing today is proving that, not reminding us of it.

Most at the Springsteen lunch table are at the point where they are happy to slow it down. But tramps like him…

Thanks for reading

1 comment:

Jeff S said...

Yes, "Highway 61 Revisted", "Blonde On Blonde" and (my personal favorite) "Bringing It All Back Home" are from a very special era and impossible to top (oops, I forgot about "Blood On The Tracks"! - that is, wait, well, Blood and Bringing It are a close 1-2 for me, not sure of the order). However, I absolutely love "Love & Theft" and "Modern Times", putting "Love & Theft" in my top 4. I tried to get your Uncle Stu into "Love & Theft" but he wouldn't bite. For the Boss, as I age it has become more and more "Tunnel of Love" and "Lucky Town", although I'll always love Darkness. Are the political rants real bad? I would love to see him again......