Bruce Springsteen - Springsteen on Broadway (Cover Artwork)

Bruce Springsteen

Springsteen on Broadway (2018)

live show

As he approaches 70, Bruce Springsteen has cemented his legacy in the American consciousness as a larger than life entertainer with an embarrassment of indisputable classics that define our national experience. Springsteen’s influence on punk and indie rock gained momentum as we crossed into the 2000’s, influencing artists like Rage Against the Machine, Ted Leo, the Gaslight Anthem, Titus Andronicus, the Hold Steady, Against Me!, Arcade Fire, and many more acts that continue to multiply in number. As a teenager, I was aware of Bruce’s presence but prematurely dismissed him as jingoistic and the embodiment of lazy MOR heartland rock. Henry Rollins in Get in the Van expresses confusion and a dismissive attitude to the fascination with Springsteen during a tour stop in Jersey in the 80’s. He and I were totally fucking wrong. One of the same blurbs in Rolling Stone that led me to the Replacements’ Tim also prompted me to pick up a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska from the local record store. I played it on a lonely drive home into the depressing rural backdrop of upstate South Carolina, which only magnified the stark power of the album. The stripped-down arrangements laid bare Bruce’s vivid depictions of American despair in heartbreaking songs like “Highway Patrolman,” “Atlantic City,” and “Mansion on the Hill.” Despite the journey into the American heart of darkness, he ends on an optimistic note in the silver lining of “Reason to Believe,” citing that despite all evidence to the contrary we all seem to find that reason to keep on going. I was hooked from this point onward and dove deep into his discography.

I was beyond fortunate to score tickets to Bruce’s Broadway residency on the second round of tour dates and finally got my chance to bear witness to this intimate performance on Friday 4/13/2018. I was not disappointed. The performance draws heavily from Bruce’s recent autobiography Born to Run (which is tied for the best thing I’ve read this year with Trouble Boys – The Replacements biography). The show paraphrases stories found in the book accompanied by Nebraska-style renditions of songs from throughout Bruce’s catalog. Think of it as a combination of Henry Rollins’ style spoken word and Tom Waits’ surrealist story songs, tempered by Bruce’s unexpectedly self-deprecating humor and pathos. In this performance, Bruce is the Hemingway to Bob Dylan’s Melville / Dostoevsky. His lyrics are rarely verbose and speak in a straightforward language that dismisses mental gymnastics but does require close attention. He is accompanied only by guitar, harmonica, and occasionally piano. The naked performance prevents any misinterpretation or confusion about the intent of the lyrics as they are preceded by a background description of their gestation.

Bruce begins the show with exposing himself as a fraud. Despite writing a bulk of songs regarding the blue-collar experience, he has never had a real 9 to 5 job, and despite songs documenting and glorifying the freedom in racing cars, he could barely drive and did not have a driver’s license until later in life. “Growin Up” recounts a life of early rebellion, as Bruce witnesses Elvis Presley’s television debut and experiences a life-changing epiphany. The earth-quaking, ass-shaking power of rock and roll and its promise of transcendence of mundane small-town life. The promise of “fun.” He remembers his first guitar and the two weeks of lessons he had before abandoning it for being “too fucking hard,” but not before a final performance before the neighborhood kids where he strutted, posed, and slapped the guitar (“everything except playing”). Obviously, this was not the end of his love affair with music and dalliance with the guitar, the ultimate instrument of his salvation from a life of small-town stasis.

“My Hometown” ushers in the progressive narrative of Bruce’s complicated relationship with his father. Doug Springsteen held down multiple jobs throughout his life, including working in a rug factory, working at the Nescafe plant (that coated the town of Freehold with the smell of coffee grounds on damp days), working as a security guard, and various other jobs that all nevertheless planted him despondent on local barstools during the week as he would drink his frustration away despite a family waiting at home for his company. Bruce will admittedly disclose that a lot of his actions were undisguised attempts at winning his father’s admiration and approval, even as he struggled to recognize the crippling depression and later disclosed mental illness that was consuming his father. During the performance of “My Father’s House,” Bruce reveals the depth of admiration for his father’s struggle to provide for his family while maintaining a tenuous grip on his sanity. His father and mother inevitably escape Freehold and set out for California with Bruce’s younger sister Pam when he is 19. Over time, Bruce mends his relationship with his father and with the perspective of adulthood begins to understand his struggles. The Bruce-Springsteen-fashion-aesthetic is identified by the man himself as a manifestation of the work attire his father would wear to his various occupations. He recounts a dream after his father has died about seeing him in the audience as he performs dressed in this persona bringing the “thunder and lightning” to 80,000 people. In an out of body experience, he is in the audience with his father watching himself perform and kneels beside him and grabbing his forearm reveals: “See that man up there? That’s how I see you.”

Needless to say, the audience was in impenetrable silence at these intimate revelations, but Bruce is a master at shifting moods. In another self-deprecating whiplash, Bruce urges us to get out of “suicide watch” and listen to a story about his mother, the diametric opposite of his father. He reports his mother has been a source of unbridled joy, strength, and devotion for his whole life, even during her current bout with Alzheimer’s. He states she has always loved to dance and dedicates deep cut “The Wish to her indefatigable spirit.

Before playing a penetrating version of “Born in the U.S.A” that hews closer to the incarnation on Tracks, Bruce revisits his first encounter with Ron Kovic in Los Angeles shortly after he had read Born on the Fourth of July. After expressing some mutual admiration, Kovic invites Bruce to come to the veteran’s center and speak with the former soldiers about their experiences. Bruce reveals he witnessed the ravages of mental illness (PTSD), drug abuse, physical impairments, and chronic depression. The stories of the veterans were his impetus to write “Born in the U.S.A.” He also reveals it’s his most misunderstood song in that it’s not a blind patriotic celebration of America but is an attempt to give the soldiers ownership of the land they sacrificed so much for as the powers that be realized they were futilely sending them to a war that would not be won. Using a screeching glass slide, Bruce launches into a harrowing version of the song, cranking the amplification on his acoustic and bellowing the lyrics. Again, stripped of the E Street Band’s powerful orchestrations, the despair and defiance in the lyrics are laid bare.

Lest you think the show was purely a downer, Bruce sought to find joy in the memories of his departed friends. A sprightly piano performance of “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” bookended a celebration of the lives of Danny Federici and most poignantly saxophonist Clarence Clemons. I had heard rumors that due to the gravitas of the show, audience participation was discouraged. However, during this number, Bruce invites the audience to join him in the gleeful jubilee as he mythologizes the beginning of the E Street Band.

For “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise” from Tunnel of Love, Bruce invites his wife Patti Scialfa to duet with him. Their relationship, obviously going strong since their marriage in 1991, is the only aspect of his life that Bruce doesn’t dig extremely deep into during the performance. He does confess that domestic life has provided him with an anchor and has helped maintain his sanity and perspective throughout his stratospheric career. In the evening’s performance, Patti’s contributions are always in deference to the strength of the songs and her presence provides a nice counterbalance to the intensity of the rest of the show.

Looking into the present and future, the final four numbers find Springsteen commenting on the nation, his future, and religion. While performing “The Rising,” Bruce shows solidarity with the Parkland shooting survivors and admiration for their motivation and activism, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. with the sincere hope that the “arc of history will bend towards justice.” Bruce’s music has always been punctuated by a vague spirituality but was never a chest-beating or bible-thumping clamor. During “Land of Hope and Dreams” from Wrecking Ball, he divulges that he has not escaped from the lessons of his youth in Catholic school and admits that he sees the work of God all around. He allows the thought to linger, and although he doesn’t expound or evangelize on this point, he lets the audience see that there is a continuing struggle within to come to terms with his relationship and duty to the Almighty. Finally, he prefaces a fiery finale performance of “Born to Run” with the admission that the main thing he misses about his youth and the past is the potential and possibilities of the future as a “blank page,” with an infinite number of opportunities and experiences not yet encountered.

The true paradox of Bruce Springsteen’s career and music is that it’s not necessarily his story and experiences that are communicated but the life and hardships of the people around him, including most obviously his father. His uncanny ability to reflect a profound empathy is the essential ingredient that has allowed his music to cause such a visceral resonance. At the beginning of the show, Bruce admits he lives only about 10 minutes from that town he so despised growing up in and acknowledges that he sporadically visits even though no one he knows is there anymore. His father and mother successfully found that motivation to run and created a new, happier life in California before being smothered by the surrounding depression of their situation in Jersey. It is obvious that it has been much harder for Bruce to let go of his hometown, his family, and his past. Springsteen on Broadway is his reckoning with ghosts and is a performance I will never forget.

Set List:

Growin’ Up – Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey

My Hometown – Born in the U.S.A.

My Father’s House – Nebraska

The Wish – Tracks

Thunder Road – Born to Run

The Promised Land – Darkness on the Edge of Town

Born in the U.S.A. – Born in the U.S.A.

Tenth Avenue Freeze Out – Born to Run

Tougher than the Rest – Tunnel of Love

Brilliant Disguise – Tunnel of Love

Long Walk Home – Magic

The Rising – The Rising

Dancing in the Dark – Born in the U.S.A.

Land of Hope and Dreams – Wrecking Ball

Born to Run – Born to Run