Springsteen - The Master Storyteller
April 26, 2012, L.A. Memorial Sports Arena.
Millions of words have been written about Bruce Springsteen. I doubt if I will bring anything new to the discussion of this amazing musician and poet but the transformative nature of his work impels and propels me to say something.
I will echo those who who have said that nothing (nothing!) compares to his live performances. As my friend Kevin said on the way to the concert at the Sports Arena in L.A. - "it's like a old-time revival." Yep.
Not one to be overly, physically expressive at concerts I was up and screaming in a matter of the first few minutes. Most stood immediately and never sat again for a nearly three hour show in which the master musician and his group of hand-picked sidemen wowed us through hits from the 1st album (back when vinyl ruled) to the newest material from his "Wrecking Ball" release. I nearly cried at how amazing the music and musicianship was and I truly, nearly lost it when a moving tribute to Bruce's friend and sideman Clarence Clemons, who passed away last year of a stroke, was triggered by the lyric in an old song "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" ("...and the big man joined the band.") Clemon's son played in the horn section and did all of Clemons' solos which was amazing in and of itself - although he still isn't The Big Man, but potential looms large.
I can't properly describe the experience - you really just have to be there to realize that you're experiencing the brain and soul of a master storyteller who either moves you with his incredibly crafted rhythms or his poetry of words - mostly combined to make whatever he's playing at the time irresistible.
In January 1973 Springsteen was already a veteran of the garage band/club musician scene when his "Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J." album dropped to good reviews but not much commercial success. Perhaps everyone should have known then that that unique voice and downbeat-influenced sense of rhythm would be the presage to decades of success and controversy. Springsteen's politics mix, at times, unevenly with his musical sensibilities when he gets overtly dramatic and preachy. There is no doubt that Bruce considers himself a protest-type singer at his core; his anthems against greed and poverty are legion. But its his messages of hope, slyly written into the heartbeat of his American-themed toe-tappers that most impact his audiences. In other words, Bruce may write about injustices but he knows what moves and sustains us is his god-given, sweat-ridden, feel-good songs about riding in a top-down convertible in the night or dancing with your best girl in the dark on the edges of whatever town you live in.
Being a former professional musician (who still bleeds music of all types) I understand how difficult it must be to make these performances look effortless. I also understand that only a visionary could make them look that way and Springsteen is always, has been always, a true visionary. Anyone interested in the arts needs to study and comprehend that Springsteen did exactly what he was supposed to be doing by chanelling his truths back in 1972 and continuing to channel them to this day.
His songs may have become a bit darker, more chiding and overtly political, but at the core is a message of hope that we can love and support each other as Americans, as people, in an increasingly complex world. That message he was singing in the early 70's is still ringing like a bell today.
Bruce has never apologized for his music or his attitudes but he has always adapted it to his world and his decade - whatever decade that currently is He mentioned last night how we were having a lot a fun but there were those who needed help desperately given the current economic climate. He played plenty of music (including his new music) supporting that sensibility and mentioned the L.A. Food Bank and other causes supported by his concert at points in his show. I could easily imagine this troubadour of rawness riding the rails into the dustbowl of the 1920's and singing on the back of a stake-bed truck like his predecessors Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie did. The dichotomy of the Springsteen who sings both "Dancing in the Dark" and the "Ghost of Tom Joad" is vast but kudos to those like him who can make those worlds work together somehow in one venue. Of course, his rabid and unrelenting fans (me included) wouldn't care much if he was singing a database of phone numbers as long as it was in that growling, indicting voice of his and featured guitar gods like Steven Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren and Tom Morello from "Rage Against The Machine" who did one of the most incredible guitar solos I've heard on "The Ghost Of Tom Joad."
When I mentioned the new CD and the fact that the single is "We Take Care of Our Own" (an anthem against the current trend of greed and self-serving attitudes prevalent in this country these days) to a friend of mine he dismissed Springsteen as a man who "takes care of himself and never had a job that didn't involve a pick." Sure. That's easy to say (and also untrue) but the reality is taking that plunge into the arts isn't a clear or easy choice. As those of us who have pursued the dream understand, it requires an outsized ego that allows you to be constantly brutalized by everyone with an opinion. It also involves hard, unrelenting sweaty and agonizing work to get noticed, stay noticed and continue to grow when most occupations allow you to simply glide along once you're established.
Many are called but few are chosen, as the saying goes, and fewer still maintain the level of excellence and musical growth that Springsteen has for over five decades. Working with a pick (the kind that breaks ground) is tough, grinding, un-rewarding and honest labor; working with a guitar pick is perhaps easier on aching muscles but it is by degrees harder than anyone can imagine and most times is not any more rewarding than digging a ditch.
I get the criticism because Springsteen's politics engender it; but I also get that at some point we all turn around, look behind and say "what was I thinking?" We grow more aware, more in tune with our times, more hungry to do something that has a lasting impact. For most of us, that means a house, family and kids. For musicians like Springsteen it meant that he stopped dancing for a time and started yelling at himself and others. He went through a dark period of serious introspection and came out angry and upset at what he saw and had previously ignored. He yelled, he ranted and then he realized exactly what I did last night...
For three hours at the Sports Arena I forgot my age, my socio-economic status, schedule and everything else connected to my life and I lived in a world that Bruce created for me personally - I know this because as he sang his truths, he sang mine. He sang the joy, the pain, the guilt and regrets of my life. He sang my hopes, my fears, my anger. And as I looked around every single person in that audience felt exactly the same way.
Bruce brings a special blessing to this world through music that transforms us for however short a period of time we are engaged with him. And thank God he's out there because there is a darkness at the edge of town and we sometimes need a flashlight of truth, like this master musician, to banish it.
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted
Well the dogs on Main Street howl 'cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister I ain't a boy, no I'm a man
And I believe in a promised land
And I believe in a promised land
And I believe in a promised land
~Promised Land, Bruce Springsteen