A somber Springsteen tells the story of his life

Those of us who were with Bruce Springsteen from the beginning (or, in my case, almost from the beginning) have certain expectations for how he should behave. One of those expectations is that he should not charge $850 so that well-heeled fans can see him on Broadway. That said, I was looking forward to watching “Springsteen on Broadway” on Netflix, which I finally had a chance to do Sunday night.

It’s very good, and moving in parts. Springsteen is a master storyteller, and he expertly wove the story of his life around his music. The flashes of ego won’t be surprising to anyone who’s read or listened to his excellent autobiography, “Born to Run.” And, after all, he can back it up.

Since I had already heard him read his autobiography for many, many hours, “Springsteen on Broadway” was somewhat superfluous. Most of the rearrangements of his songs were second-rate, although “My Hometown” (on solo piano) and “Land of Hope and Dreams” (on acoustic guitar) were far better than the originals.

My only quibble is that he struck the same somber, elegiac tone for two and a half hours, with no variation in the pacing — not even when his wife, Patti Scailfa, joined him on stage. (And how weird is it that they sang “Brilliant Disguise,” which is about his troubled first marriage?) About two hours in, I was more than ready for the E Street Band to come out and launch into the Detroit Medley.

I’d give “Springsteen on Broadway” four out of five stars, of interest mainly to Springsteen obsessives.

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Forty years burning down the road

c71b14f7d4853d150ed52e41e9dd889df4c007efI don’t want to let the day end without taking note of the 40th anniversary of “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen’s third and best album.

I was a 19-year-old Northeastern student in 1975, riding the bus from my hometown of Middleborough to Boston, where I was on co-op working in public relations at the United Way. I’d just about worn out my copy of “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” his second album, and had seen an incredible show of his at the Music Hall in November 1974. I’d been bugging my local record store for months about “Born to Run,” and I bought it the day it finally came out.

And what an album it was. On one level, I was disappointed. I loved the ensemble playing and long jams on “The E Street Shuffle,” and I thought something had been lost with the single-minded focus on Springsteen that defines “Born to Run.” But more had been gained: a mythic quality that he hadn’t even hinted at previously. Some of it was a mirage. The Spectorish shimmer of “Backstreets” gets me every time, but the lyrics are a muddle. Still, it all works together, and “Thunder Road” may be the best song he ever wrote. (It’s also pretty devastating if you think of it as the prelude to “Racing in the Street,” from “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” From boisterous hope to resignation in three short years.)

Springsteen has maintained his integrity, and he’s still a great live performer. On Aug. 25, 1975, he was magic.

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.

Sparks fly on E Street for Clarence Clemons

Clarence Clemons

Clarence Clemons spent most of his career in the awkward position of having been the key to a musical idea that Bruce Springsteen lost interest in early on.

Clemons, who died on Saturday at the age of 69 after having suffered a stroke last week, was the heart of the great horn section that played on 1973’s “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.” It was unlike any album Springsteen made before or after — an amalgam of rock, folk, soul and Latin music played by a first-rate band with lots of room for stretching out and soloing.

This early version of the E Street Band featured two black musicians — Clemons and keyboard player David Sancious — and a drummer, Vini Lopez, who was fired after a fight with the brother of Springsteen’s manager, but who on “The E Street Shuffle” plays with a wonderfully loose, propulsive feel that is the opposite of Max Weinberg’s hard-rock pounding. It may or may not have been Springsteen’s best album. I do think it’s the greatest summer album ever.

But Springsteen decided to go the rock-god route, although he continued to grow as a songwriter and, especially, as a lyricist. His next album, the elaborate, rococo “Born to Run” (1975), carved out large spaces for Clemons, especially on “Jungleland.” But “Darkness on the Edge of Town” (1978) is a traditional hard-rock album, with scarcely any room for Clemons at all. For the most part, Springsteen has stuck with a spare, stripped-down approach ever since.

What to do? Clemons and Springsteen were friends, and Clemons was the biggest draw at the live shows other than Springsteen himself. The solution was to keep him, let him play percussion and sing back-up, and of course play sax on the old songs — as well as on the occasional newer songs Springsteen would write to give Clemons something to do other than bang a cowbell.

It was a workable and honorable solution. But I always thought it was too bad that Springsteen abandoned his original (in more ways than one) idea of having an integrated band play integrated music in favor of becoming just another white rocker — albeit the best in the world for a time — with a black foil/sidekick on stage.

Tuesday is the first day of summer. Sparks fly on E Street, and I know what I’ll be playing in my car that day. God bless you, Clarence Clemons.

Photo (cc) by Martin Olbrich and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Bruce on the box

I’m hoping Bruce Springsteen’s half-time show pops up on Hulu at some point; meanwhile, I was able to piece it together with a YouTube search. I don’t hold out much hope for his new album, but he and the band were terrific last night. Bruce still has the moves, even if it seemed like he needed to borrow James Harrison’s oxygen mask toward the end.

The president and the Boss

A radio station needn’t obtain advance permission before playing a particular song by a particular musician. Same with a nightclub. Under copyright law, you’re free to play copyrighted music as long as you pay a fee.

That goes for politicians, too. In today’s Washington Post, Christopher Sprigman and Siva Vaidhyanathan explain why musicians such as Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, the Foo Fighters and others have no legal basis in objecting to the McCain campaign’s use of their songs. The campaign, they note, has paid its licensing fees, and that should be the end of it. (Via Altercation.)

It’s a free-speech issue, and, as such, we should be just as vigilant against Jackson Browne’s attempt to censor the Republicans as we are about, say, Sarah Palin’s redefinition of freedom of the press as a “privilege.”

The man who wrote the book on how to respond to an unwanted political embrace was Bruce Springsteen. In 1984, Ronald Reagan, running for re-election, gave a shoutout to Springsteen, whose “Born in the U.S.A.” had set off a boomlet of patriotic fervor. Though in actuality it was a bitter antiwar anthem, the upbeat music had confused more than a few conservatives into thinking Bruce had cast his lot with the “Morning in America” crowd.

Shortly thereafter, Springsteen, at a concert in Pittsburgh, introduced his song “Johnny 99” — about an unemployed auto worker-turned-murderer — with this:

The president was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don’t think it was the ‘Nebraska’ album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.

And that was the end of that. (Wikipedia reference verified by my steel-trap memory.)

Update: Looks like some news organizations are pushing an overly restrictive interpretation of copyright law, too — even going so far as to demand that YouTube delete some McCain ads that use news clips.

Photo (cc) by Music Master and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved. And in case you were wondering, yes, that’s a wax figure, not the real Bruce.

Welcome back, Bruce

A couple of months ago I wrote an exceedingly unkind commentary for the Guardian about Bruce Springsteen’s then-forthcoming album, “Magic.” I thought the single released in advance of the album, “Radio Nowhere,” sounded generic enough to have been recorded by a Springsteen imitator. Given that his last two albums of original material were the loathsome “The Rising” (2003) and the instantly forgettable “Devils & Dust” (2005), I didn’t hold out much hope for “Magic.”

Well, now. I’ve been listening to “Magic” for a month, and I’m both chagrined at my earlier haste and pleasantly surprised. I still don’t like “Radio Nowhere,” but it’s not so bad when it kicks off his best album in many years. I realize I’m late to the party here, but I have to buy my CDs like everyone else. I figured I’d at least have my say before Springsteen hits Boston later this week.

What gives “Magic” its strength is that Springsteen has abandoned the strained attempts at profundity that marred “The Rising” and “Devils.” I’m hardly the first to say this (Springsteen himself says it here), but “Magic” is a pop album — the closest he’s come to such an achievement since “Tunnel of Love” (1987). “Tunnel,” in turn, might be his last completely satisfying album, depending on how you feel about “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (1995). I like “Tom Joad,” but I realize that a lot of people don’t.

Smack dab in the middle of “Magic” is “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” perhaps the most perfect little pop song Springsteen has ever written. The underlying melancholy in the chorus — “The girls in their summer clothes, pass me by” — befits someone in his late 50s.

It’s not all confection by any means. There’s a current of antiwar sentiment here, stated most explicitly on “Last to Die.” The album is full of highlights, but right now I’m loving “You’ll Be Coming Down” and “Your Own Worst Enemy,” two relaxed, mid-tempo rockers. Bruce’s confidence in his material shines through in his singing, too — he’s dropped some the annoying tics that had crept in over the years, such as swallowing the ends of his lines.

A word, though, about Brendan O’Brien’s production: terrible. I don’t understand what Springsteen sees in this guy. I understand that Springsteen wants to update his sound, and some of O’Brien’s little flourishes, like the strings that open “Girls,” are nice. But the sound is muddy and distorted throughout. “Magic” is almost OK on my iPod, but it’s nearly unlistenable in my car. It’s as if I’m listening to a radio station that’s not quite tuned in.

Maybe recording last year’s fine album of old folk songs, “We Shall Overcome,” re-energized Springsteen’s writing. Other than “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” I don’t know if we’ll be humming any of these 10 years from now. But this is a genuine comeback.

“Magic” is coming; magic is gone

In my latest for The Guardian, I explain why I’m not looking forward to “Magic,” the forthcoming album by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Update: You can’t take on Bruce without having to fend off his hordes of fans. I have more to say here, complete with ratings for every one of his albums.