I know exactly when I attended my first Bruce Springsteen concert: Oct. 30, 1974, the night of the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Springsteen was playing in the old Music Hall in Boston, later renovated and renamed the Wang Center, and I was up somewhere in the balcony. Dr. John opened. And at 9 p.m., Springsteen and an early version of the E Street Band took the stage.
Bruce began with “Incident on 57th Street,” accompanied only by a young woman playing an electric violin – a spine-tingling performance that presaged the piano-and-glock version of “Thunder Road.” I was already hooked on the strength of his 1973 album, “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” which still might be his best. (Certainly it’s the greatest summer album ever.) The band did three and a half hours without much material, stretching “Kitty’s Back,” for instance, to a half-hour workout. At 12:30 a.m., after a series of encores, he finally left the stage for good. The last thing I remember was the promoter walking out to announce that Ali, against all odds, had defeated the mighty Foreman. Pandemonium.
What calls this to mind is a snide piece in today’s Boston Globe by James Parker on the matter of Springsteen-worshippers in academe. Parker has fun lampooning these earnest Bruce fans; and though he acknowledges Springsteen’s undeniable talent, he also disdains him as the most mainstream and conventional of musicians.
To which I say: neither Parker nor the academics get it. The problem stems from the misunderstood arc of Springsteen’s career. His image is that of a rock-and-roller who never really lost whatever it was he had, and who has managed to age gracefully with ever-more-mature songs and performances. The reality is that he was King of the Universe from 1973 to ’82, but has been pretty much sucking wind ever since.
Before there was punk rock, Springsteen was sometimes called a punk. It was a label he deserved: his music was a raucous, street-wise antidote to the bloated, pretentious synth-garbage being put out in the ’70s by the likes of Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer. “Born to Run” (1975) and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” (1978) established him as the coolest guy in rock, “The River” (1980) as its most literate and ambitious, the acoustic howl of “Nebraska” (1982) as its most daring and original.
Now here he is, 23 years later, still recording, still rocking. But the truth is that those early albums were just … about … it. “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984) instantly became the huge hit he had earned, but it was also an artistic comedown. Since then, he’s produced one good album (“Tunnel of Love,” 1987), one very good album (“The Ghost of Tom Joad,” 1995) and some real dreck. His 9/11 album, “The Rising” (2002), is such an embarrassment that it makes my skin crawl when I listen to it. (The one decent song, “My City of Ruins,” was written before 9/11.) His new album, “Devils & Dust,” is notable mainly for the title song, which is about the Iraq war, and the sweet “Jesus Was an Only Son.” (But what happened to James? Jesus’ brother, that is, not Parker.)
It’s hardly surprising that a man who was a celebrated rock star in his 20s and 30s would see the quality of his output diminish considerably in his 40s and 50s. Certainly “Devils & Dust” is a damn sight better than anything a whole raft of ’60s and ’70s stars have managed to produce since their golden days. Thus it’s not so much Springsteen I’m objecting to as it is the notion advanced by his most ardent fans that he hasn’t lost a thing, and that he’s as vital as he ever was. Well, yes he has, and no he isn’t.
As for Parker, he correctly observes that Springsteen doesn’t matter nearly as much as these folks believe, but he makes the mistake of extrapolating backwards to assert that he never did. Sorry, James. Bruce Springsteen saved rock and roll. For a decade, he mattered like few pop stars have ever mattered, just a few steps behind Bob Dylan, John Lennon and a tiny handful of others.
That Dylan himself has turned out to be more interesting in his 60s than Springsteen is in his 50s is just one of those unfortunate facts of life. But don’t try to take away from what Bruce did when he was damn close to being the only musician who mattered.