I had the pleasure of going to a Springsteen show as he and the E Street Band are touring to support their new release, Magic. It was, I'm told -- and I believe, particularly rockin' on a tour where the band has been playing very well in general.
The last time I caught a Springsteen & E Street Band concert was back in 2000, when he and the Band played Vegas for the first time and pulled out all the stops, with Bruce coming out in a sequined cape, opening and closing the show with "Viva Las Vegas," tossing in nearly every gambling-themed song he'd ever penned, serenading us with Elvis's "Can't Help Falling in Love," and nearly exploding the MGM Grand with a "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" tour-de-force celebration of rock-n-roll that was, in a word, transcendent.
That was a different time, a different tour. On that tour, it was --- even by Vegas standards -- a rollicking good time of screaming, shouting, writhing, and unabashed joy.
This time, the hard-rockin', heart-stoppin', earth-shockin', heart-breakin', love-makin', viagra-takin', legendary E Steet Band is a little darker, and the Boss is a bit gloomier in his current lyrics on Magic. They're still weaving in some unexpected old-school tunes, representing nearly all their albums with a tune or two. I got treated to "Saint in the City" and "She's the One" among other unexpected oldies. But they're also playing nearly the entire new album.
It's not a bad mix, as Magic is a great album. It's a searing commentary on the political and social climate today, a heartfelt shudder and weep over the loss of lives in Iraq, and some personal emotions which Bruce has never shied away from. Most surprising about it is the rock-pop feel that's musically almost a bookend to his most commercially successful album, Born in the USA. At first listen, some of the tracks are undeniably catchy, and you'd be tempted to say it's a breezy and loose album based on the melodies and arrangements.
Bruce and the Band stick close to their garage-band leanings to bang the numbers out, but the juxtaposition of the lilty, ultra-hooky music in songs such as "Livin' in the Future" with the still-poetic yet heartbreaking lyrics is, well, startling. "Future" is perhaps the most contradictory of the songs on the album because it sounds so damn upbeat, reminscent of "Hungry Heart" in style. It's got Clarence in fine form showcasing his horn and Steven doing backing vocals. And I guess the dreamy chorus justifies the tone. Offset against ghoulish verses about election day gunpowder, boot heels, bloody horizons and wild dogs is the wishful refrain of "Don't worry darlin', now baby don't you fret. We're livin' in the future and none of this has happened yet."
Bruce has been called a blue-collar poet, but lyrically, this album is his most poetic. For a long time, Springsteen's stock in trade was as a storyteller. His songs breathed life into particular characters and wove a narrative around their troubles and triumphs. Now though, he's more invested in conjuring atmosphere and using startling imagery to communicate, which is what sets this album apart from its E Street predecessors. There's no mistaking the rumbling build-up in the composition of "Devil's Arcade," nor its lament for the loss of life in Iraq. It's clearly pulled from the pages of Springsteen's past and his penchant for the epic, and though it's specific to one soldier dying, the song resonates and comes to life more because of the haunting language than the character. It's a place where "heroes are needed, so heroes get made."
I'm not the least bit prescient. But a friend leaned over during the first set and asked if we should get fresh drinks and catch a smoke, expecting the set to be finishing. And I said no, and without even thinking about it answered that he'd probably be closing the set with "Badlands." I knew it just because that song somehow exactly fits his entire mood of these concerts. And, I wouldn't be telling you this nugget of personal trivia if it weren't for the fact that I was right. He's been closing nearly every first set with the song, not only because it makes everyone stand up, scream, hum along, and raise their fists, but also because the sentiment so closely matches Magic, or if not Magic exactly, the hope for what the climate will be in the days after Magic.
Bruce, he's always been a bit of a paradox, able to sing about the bleakest of circumstances and yet balance that against hard-won hope. There are exceptions of course. The stark and desolate Nebraska being a particular example. But as his career -- and his life -- has arced, it's always been this juxtapositioning and contradiction that's raised him above rock-n-roll grist, and also cast him as a bit of an outcast if not an outright pariah for some of the rock faithful.
In his early years, he wasn't the quintessential rebel without a cause. He lacked the surly disposition and wayward temperament in his music. Instead, though he was most definitely rebelling, it was against sometimes very specific things, and sometimes more existential. But his preponderance for restless seeking never tipped over into a nihilistic gloom. There was always an undercurrent -- an instinctive truth that his heart was beating wildly -- that even if dreams were crushed, that maybe there wasn't exactly the thunder of imminent release or hope, but there was at least a far-distant possibility and potential for redemption from despair.
It's that seemingly quixotic mix that gets me every time. He understands the heaviness of circumstance, and indeed, how some are utterly trapped and destroyed by it. And yet he sometimes sees escape through choice. There are fates that befall the heroes-turned-losers in Springsteen songs, but some of us, we can also suffer or thrive based on our own free-will. And it's exactly this dual understanding of our nature that makes his lyrics such an easy touchstone for so many as they mature and make the same climb -- and mistakes -- he has.
Even his face has always been a contradiction. At first glance, that too-big nose and bow-tie mouth, and what can easily be mistaken for vacant eyes. They just don't have that glint or intensity one expects, so when the thick lyrics start pouring out, it's unexpected. He just didn't look like rock royalty, he looked like a common punk from the streets. But, fittingly, that's just as he'd prefer it. Which is another reason why I think he's offhandedly shunned by some. Long before Cobain make grunge cool, Springsteen was the gamy and somewhat dirty kid on the playground when everyone else -- even the supposedly "raunchy" Stones -- were glimmering in designer clothes and hanging out at Studio 54.
After incredible, icon-making success, he fell into the personal trappings and an almost scripted "Behind the Music" couple of years. But he didn't record the expected saptastic love songs. Instead, when he eventually broke up the marriage -- and the band -- he wrote poignant-yet-gentle stories about love gone bad. Not about blame and revenge, just quiet questioning.
Now, long after the wake of The Rising, again he taps into a collective consciousness with an album that has all the earmarks of being just as easily misinterpreted as his greatest commercial success, USA, did. While the lyrics of USA were fairly straightforward and yet still wildly misconstrued (and sometimes misused), he's turned somewhat more cryptic. While the imagery is still unmistakable for those who listen, it's wrapped in such audacious E Street revelry it's almost as deceptive as the "Magic" he sings about on the title track.
It's clear in the album and from the show that the band is still heartily in love, not just with making music together, but with each other. Springsteen has said that one of the things he's proud about and grateful for is that they're all still together, and that they're all still alive.
It seems like a simple enough thing to be thankful for, but try to come up with another band as long in the tooth as these guys who haven't suffered loss. He credits, as would be expected, not just luck, but the band members themselves for their collective health, noting that it made a big difference that over the years they took care of each other.
And that's what he's still doing with his audience. It's what some people won't ever understand, why the love runs so deep for him. Oh, it is the music. It's definitely a lot about the music and that raunchy, barroom sound. And though even some of those who aren't fans often recognize his ability as a songwriter, I sometimes wonder if anyone alive out there other than fans realizes just how good a musician Bruce is. He can still blister out a solo like nobody's business.
But it's also about the man, The Boss. Time and again, he's spilled his guts onto the vinyl and for those who've been there, it didn't just speak to us, it spoke for us.
His music and his success was the incarnation of that potential and possibility of hope to drag ourselves out of the circumstances if we made the right choices. If we didn't leave it to chance or fate, but, like "Badlands" says, "believed in the hope and prayed that it could raise us" above it all, then it could happen. And for many, it did.
And once again, that's what he's out there banging on about again. It is the "Badlands" out there, but we don't need heroes. Good men are enough, and they can help raise us. And Bruce isn't just a gifted musician with a kick-ass band. He's one of those good men.