Behind the mask
Stadium rocker, author, guardian of America’s soul… for his next trick, The Boss took on Broadway. This one will run and run.
Bruce Springsteen ★★★★
Springsteen On Broadway
IN HIS most famous song, the one so emblematic of his public self that he took its title for his 2016 autobiography, Bruce Springsteen demands: “I want to know if love is real”. During every performance of Born To Run, that lyric in particular seems to cut to the heart of the matter. Prove love to be nothing but an imaginative construct, and everything else crumbles. Springsteen’s moral stature as an artist has been founded on his sincerity – to such an extent that, when allied to his faith in the power of dreams, it has made him the most durably heroic rock’n’roll figure of his time. In the era of fake news, if people can’t believe in Bruce Springsteen, then what the hell is left? Dreams and reality: these notions were central to Springsteen On Broadway, the show that began in October 2017 at the Walter Kerr Theatre on New York’s West 48th Street and finally closed on December 15, 2018. This was very definitely theatre, as opposed to rock’n’roll. Apart from two songs where Springsteen was joined by his wife, Patti Scialfa, he performed entirely alone, with either piano or acoustic guitar. Give or take a couple of early tweaks, he delivered the same material for 236 shows, besides a few occasions when Scialfa was absent and the duets were replaced. The repetitive format seemed to challenge a key tenet of Springsteen lore: the itinerant rock’n’roller, inspired by the moment and directed by the muse to take his audience on a new journey each night, seeking to spontaneously conjure magic. But Bruce Springsteen knows better than anyone else in his business – the business of show – that there’s nothing spontaneous about magic. “I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged with just a bit of fraud,” he declared shortly after emerging on-stage. “So am I…” With a running time of around two and a quarter hours, S.O.B was essentially a potted musical version of Springsteen’s autobiography, with songs deployed as release valves between a broadly chronological series of often lengthy anecdotes, some taken verbatim from the book, presenting a version of his life story. This album is its soundtrack, or more accurately, the soundtrack of a Netflix film, shot over two nights in July 2018. Like all recordings of theatrical events, it’s compromised by the absence of visuals, but Springsteen’s gift for storytelling – evident since the breathless rambles of the early ’80s and since honed by therapy and rigorous self-analysis – combines with an actor’s ability to make the rehearsed appear impromptu, all in the service of sending himself up. The almighty New Jersey shore scene? “I invented that!” The autoromanticist who wrote Racing In The Street? “At 21 I couldn’t drive a fucking block!” The sweat-stained jackhammer-swinging hero of the production line? “I’ve never held an honest job in my entire life! I’ve never done any hard labour. I’ve never worked five days a week until right now – I don’t like it!” He’s very funny. Who knew? “I made it all up! That’s how good I am.” Before the end of the show, Springsteen promises he’ll deliver the “magic trick” upon which his entire act is based: “I am here tonight to provide proof of life to that ever-elusive, never-completely-believable… us.” That ‘us’ was a relative concept in the context of the Walter Kerr Theatre. A 975-capacity venue is small even by the standards of previous solo Bruce productions, while tickets for the best seats cost 850 dollars. So his album, and the Netflix film, will be most Bruce Springsteen fans’ only means to witness this unusually intimate performance. Given the concept’s exclusivity, those same fans might wonder whether it represents value for money, because the tracklist to Springsteen On Broadway looks like a pretty regulation Bruce greatest hits, with bonus talking. (With 16 songs in 135 minutes, a lot of talking.) The songs fit the narrative sweep well enough: childhood (Growin’ Up) and roots (My Hometown); the author’s contrasting relationships with his parents (My Father’s House; The Wish); the aspiring musician’s journey (Thunder Road; The Promised Land); the spiritual power of his band (Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out); the challenges and rewards of finding a life partner (Tougher Than The Rest; Brilliant Disguise); the ugly truths behind the American dream (Born In The USA; The Ghost Of Tom Joad); and on to that inevitable amen (Born To Run). Only the Tunnel Of Love-era outtake The Wish diverts from the beaten path. And in truth, the thematic coherence of the concept wobbles in the final third, when The Rising is dispensed without a conceptual set-up and then Dancing In The Dark is somewhat tortuously appended to a lecture-cum-sermon about wanting his “magic trick… to be something you could call on when things were good, and when things were not so good…” Yet there are so many luminous performances, deft reinventions and some very moving anecdotes, not least how Springsteen was eventually reconciled with his father Doug (“If I had a wish, I wish he could have seen this”). Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out on piano feels unexpectedly apt for a song that in its original guise represents the essence of full-on E Street Band power; the Scialfa-Springsteen vocal chemistry on Brilliant Disguise is electric (though it would have been nice if Patti had a speaking part in the show). While the “GI blues” version of Born In The USA isn’t new, this indictment of the Vietnam War kicks harder than ever thanks to Springsteen’s tale of how he and bandmates ‘Mad Dog’ Lopez and Little Vinnie Roslin avoided the draft in 1969. “I do sometimes wonder who went in my place – because somebody did.” With an airy yet intimate mix from longtime engineer Bob Clearmountain, this 2-CD/4-LP package carries the requisite audio heft to compensate those who couldn’t see Springsteen On Broadway in its natural habitat. It remains to be seen whether this is the final chapter in the story, or merely the end of a phase and thus the prelude to the next instalment (a new solo album has reportedly been in the works for years). What’s beyond doubt is how Bruce Springsteen’s latest magic trick not only proved the tangibility of “us”, but offered reasons to keep believing for as long as he goes on. Whenever the spotlight shines, this method man will be making dreams come alive. That’s how good he is.
“He knows better than anyone else in his business there’s nothing spontaneous about magic.”