Bruce Springsteen and the ghosts we live with

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Spain earlier this year.

The emotional heart of Bruce Springsteen’s three-and-a-half-hour show at Fenway Park last night came about an hour in. As the E Street Band played the opening chords to “My City of Ruins,” Springsteen told the crowd that he’d written it about his “adopted hometown” (Asbury Park, N.J.), but that it had evolved into a song about “living with ghosts.”

At that point, he asked that a light be shone on the right-field foul pole. No one had to be told what that was about, and we all responded with warm, sustained applause.

Trying to describe what happened next cannot possibly do justice to the moment. “My City of Ruins” is a pure gospel song. It’s by far the best Springsteen has written in the latter part of his career, and one of the very few that would hold up to his classic work of the 1970s and early ’80s. In the middle, he took a long break in order to recognize his bandmates. Then he called out — repeatedly — “Are we missing anybody?” The moment carried all the more power because Springsteen did not mention Clarence Clemons or Danny Federici (or Johnny Pesky, for that matter) by name. And he acknowledged that everyone in Fenway Park was missing someone. (David Remnick describes a similar moment in his recent New Yorker profile of Springsteen.)

It was chilling, moving, spiritual, inspirational — possibly the single most intense moment I’ve ever experienced at a concert. And I write that as someone who has a track record with Springsteen.

I’d brought my 21-year-old son and a lot of baggage with me to Fenway Park. I consider myself close to an original Springsteen fan, having been turned on to his second album, “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” by Jon Landau’s famous review in the Real Paper. I’d seen him in 1974, ’75, ’78, ’80, ’84 and ’92, but not since. And I’ve thought his albums in recent years were hit-or-miss — mostly miss, marred by simplistic lyrics and hack production.

In truth, I also didn’t like the fact that Springsteen concerts had become places to be seen by swells who vaguely remember liking “Born in the U.S.A.,” though that’s hardly Springsteen’s fault. (This, though, is definitely David Brooks’ fault.)

Despite all that, our night ended up ranking with those earlier concerts. Springsteen skillfully mixed songs from his new album, “Wrecking Ball,” with a generous helping of his classics. Even the new stuff sounded a lot better than it does on the album, partly because the cheesy production was blown away, partly because Springsteen’s obvious enthusiasm for the new material overcame the weak spots. Besides, “We Take Care of Our Own” is pretty good.

Another high point was a masterful performance of “Thunder Road,” maybe the best song Springsteen has ever written. He seemed to be choked up at the end; I know I was. It’s hard to describe what that song meant to me when I was 19, waiting to escape from my own “town full of losers.” It means something totally different now, as most of those in the crowd were old enough and wise enough to know that there is no escape.

Finally, I have to mention “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” which used to end with an embrace and a kiss with Clarence Clemons. I was a little uneasy with all the attention and cheering focused on Clemons’ nephew Jake Clemons, who’s taken over the sax parts. And I was worried that Bruce would overdo it with Jake — maybe not kiss him, but bring him out for a star turn. I shouldn’t have. At “the Big Man joined the band,” everything stopped, and a slideshow of scenes from Clarence Clemons’ life was projected on the video screens. Then the song concluded. Perfect.

There was so much else that to keep writing would be to devolve into list-making. “The E Street Shuffle,” an old favorite. A phenomenal cover of the old John Lee Hooker song “Boom Boom.” Rave-up, full-band versions of “Atlantic City” and “Johnny 99,” a couple of truly dangerous songs from his album “Nebraska.” Closing with “Dirty Water” and “Twist & Shout” (and fireworks!), complete with a James Brown-style collapse and revival on the stage. (Here’s the full set list.)

My only complaint was the venue. This was my first Fenway Park show, and it was less than an ideal place to see a concert. We were in the grandstands behind home plate. The net was never lifted. The band members, in center field, were barely specks. The video and sound were adequate, but no more than that.

Still, the show itself was nearly as thrilling as the first time I saw Springsteen in the old Music Hall, the night that Muhammad Ali would shock the world by beating George Foreman — announced on stage after midnight, just after Springsteen had finished his final encore. Back then, Springsteen was a skinny, bearded 25-year-old who came out and opened, audaciously, by singing “Incident on 57th Street” almost a cappella, accompanied only by a young woman on a violin. “Born to Run” was still in front of him. So were the covers of Time and Newsweek and all the fame and hype that have marked and occasionally marred his long career.

Last night he was 62, with the energy and stamina of a much younger man, still singing and playing and performing like his life, and ours, depended on it. Maybe it did.

Photo (cc) by Juan Ramon Rodriguez Sosa and reproduced here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

16 thoughts on “Bruce Springsteen and the ghosts we live with

  1. Laurence Glavin

    It was interesting that you included a link to the set list. I then clicked on a few of the selections (some were prohibited by Vevo, I guess they’re the rights holders or something) but several were available. I remember a TV discussion on an anniversary of “9/11” during which they ran a video of “The Rising”. I was amazed how boring it was and put it out of my mind, but I looked at it again, and sure enough, it consists of a few minutes of moaning and groaning in a monotone. To me it’s amazing how many rock, pop and C&W recordings consist of restricted note-spans (not even keys; a key is a specific scale of notes all the way up from the Bass clef, to an odd clef violists play, through the treble clef and beyond, the famous high ‘C’). A British newspaper that never employed Dan Kennedy said it best: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/9430338/Modern-music-really-does-sound-the-same.html The set list indicated that there were 29 pieces and it seems they averaged about four minutes or so (remembering that many were denied by Vevo, so there was a total performance time of 120 minutes or two hours, allowing for breaks between the numbers (I don’t know if there was a formal intermission). Two hours of selections of about the same loudness, limited note clusters, with some variations in tempo and style. Jeez, no wonder people who go to shows like this get high beforehand. If a judge sentenced nme to go to this show, I would have appealed on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment.

  2. LeRoy Vincent

    First Saw bruce in Toronto when he kicked off Born in the USA tour….many concerts and years since but to this day his name or music echo’s through our home. 3 teenage age kids and debts no honest man can pay out days are salvaged by the lyrics if Stolen Car and Reason to Believe. The man has helped us as I’m sure many others….my wife and I hope to see him in Moncton, NB later this month. Bruce….you’re the Man!!!

  3. Laurence:

    I’m no Springsteen fan; never have been. But please allow me to say one thing on his behalf: blow it out your ass.

    Music, at its best, is an emotional experience. All forms, when right, elicit a response from the gut. It is entirely possible to dissect it, and many otherwise sane people have made a living doing so, but it results in the same as dissection of a joke – death. Unless trying to replicate it, it never makes sense to tear it apart.

    One man’s hilarity is another man’s drudgery. One man’s transcendent musical experience is another man’s boredom. And just because someone knows the difference between Mixolydian and Phrygian, or has perfect pitch, it doesn’t make he or she able to say that one form of music should be shunned in favor of another. It is ENTIRELY SUBJECTIVE, same as when someone prefers a greasy cheeseburger to a Kobe filet mignon. Both can be delightful.

  4. Laurence Glavin

    I was mainly observing that the “3-hour” performance consisted of nearly 30 numbers about 4-minutes or so in length, and they had a certain sameness to them. It’s as if you went to the MFA and observed that the portrait of the daughters of Edward Darly Boit was about 87 inches high and about 87 inches wide. Then later, you could say whether you liked it or not, or if you like paintings at all.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Laurence: How would you know how long the songs were unless you were there? “My City of Ruins” was at least 20 minutes long. Same with “Twist and Shout.”

  5. George Field

    Thanks, Dan, for the evocative and enjoyable report. One part of me was desperate to be there, but like you, I view Fenway Park as an imperfectly tricked-out venue with inadequate sound. Long live the Big Man, long live in memory the Music Hall and (Old) Boston Garden shows, and may this 62-year-old rocker long continue to put it all out there in live shows, where he does his best!

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @George: Believe it or not, the best sound I ever heard for a Springsteen concert was at the Boston Garden in 1980. I don’t know what they did, but it was very sharp that night — aside from the band’s being sharp, too.

  6. Laurence Glavin

    As I mentioned, I clicked on several numbers and many were not available because the were blocked by Vevo. So I sampled half a dozen, and they ranged from just over 3 minutes to over 5. You say two were longer; that leaves 27. BTW, Springsteen shows ALWAYS get purely positive reviews no matter what in the local papers unless they’re writing about some problems with the venue. I wonder if the Phoenix will print just one discouraging word.

  7. Mike Rice

    Bruce Springsteen is proof that people should keep working as it keeps the juices of life flowing. I thought about retiring but I have no desire to turn my living room into God’s waiting room.

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  9. Maria Stephanos

    A beautiful read Dan. So much so, I read it again, this morning to my husband at the breakfast table. Thanks for bringing us there and for giving us pause with that last line. Got us ready for Saturday’s show. Thanks

  10. Dan: I am thinking it’s a combination of your pure passion and knowledge and the fact that I have been a Spriongsteen fan for at least as long as you have . . . this was one of the best concert reviews I have ever read.

    Thanks, man.

  11. I attended the August 14th show with my sister who is 8 years younger. The ticket was my gift to her for her 50th birthday. Though both of us have loved Springsteen neither of us had ever attended a live Springsteen concert.

    To say the night was magic clearly misses the essence of what happened there. I found myself, a disaffected Catholic, feeling a self-conscious sense of spiritual connection which I once felt at a progressive Catholic Church of which I was a member.
    self-conscious in that I kept thinking, “why is this touching me at such a deep level?”. Then I would look up and see Bruce’s smile, his passion, and his ability to give and take with the crowd, a kind of transcendence that is hard to quantify. His ability to tap into the human lived experience is what separates him from all others.

  12. Marlee Brean

    Thanks for the great read, Dan. I really enjoyed it. I just seen The Boss Sunday night in Moncton New Brunswick. The E Street Band rocked the Magnetic Hill open air venue, hypnotic at times, by the time he got to the end of “The River” although I was among 30 thousand people it was just me and the Boss.

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